American history as it’s usually taught likes to focus on rivalries, and there are many involving big personalities and major historical stakes. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. These figures are set up to represent the “both sides” we expect of every political question. While the issues are oversimplified (there are always more than two sides and politics isn’t a sport) the figures in question genuinely represented very different perspectives on power and progress.
When it comes to the history of the Civil Rights movement, we are given another such rivalry, between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Their ideas and influence are pitted against each other as though they had shared a debate stage. In fact, the two leaders met only once, during Senate debates on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “King was stepping out of a news conference,” writes DeNeen L. Brown at The Washington Post, when Malcolm X, dressed in an elegant black overcoat and wearing his signature horn-rimmed glasses, greeted him.”
“Well, Malcolm, good to see you,” King said.
“Good to see you,” Malcolm X replied.
Cameras clicked as the two men walked down the Senate hall together.
“I’m throwing myself into the heart of the civil rights struggle,” Malcolm X told King.
Later, King would express his disagreement with Malcolm’s “political and philosophical views—at least insofar as I understand where he now stands.” The comment allowed for an evolution in X’s thought that would, in fact, occur that year, while later events would push King in a far more radical direction. As Brown writes:
Although the two men held what appeared to be diametrically opposing views on the struggle for equal rights, scholars say by the end of their lives their ideologies were evolving. King was becoming more militant in his views of economic justice for black people and more vocal in his criticism of the Vietnam War. Malcolm X, who had broken with the Nation of Islam, had dramatically changed his views on race during his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca.
“Much of America did not know the radical King—and too few know today,” writes Cornell West in his introduction to The Radical King, a collection of lesser-known speeches and writings. But “the FBI and US government did. They called him ‘the most dangerous man in America.’” Malcolm X’s extremely harsh criticism of King as “a 20th-century or modern Uncle Tom” is even more unfair and unwarranted against this background, especially given the title of King’s final, undelivered, sermon: “Why America May Go to Hell.”
In the years after X’s death, King fought for labor rights and advocated for “a better distribution of wealth,” writing in 1966, “America must move toward democratic socialism.” His anti-imperialist, anti-colonial stance alienated many former supporters and enraged the government, but “he refused to silence his voice in his quest for unarmed truth and unconditional love,” West writes. Maybe Malcolm’s unrelenting criticisms played a part in King’s radicalization.
The video “debate” above—actually a 9‑minute edit of their interview discussions of each other—begins with one of Malcolm X’s withering statements about King’s nonviolent resistance, which he characterizes as “defenselessness.” One can see, given the ad hominem attacks, why King refused requests for a debate. Had it happened, however, it might have gone something like this, with questions focused solely on violence vs. nonviolence as effective and/or morally justifiable tactics for the Civil Rights struggle.
The nuances and sickening historical ironies of the question get lost when disagreement is staged as a zero-sum prizefight, as the Rocky theme in the intro not-so-subtly suggests it is. King, X, and virtually every other civil rights leader throughout history, understood the practical importance of self-defense in a violently racist state. “Even the pacifist King was a firm advocate of black gun ownership,” writes John Merfield at Wisconsin Public Radio,” although he, like others, drew a sharp distinction between self-defense, which he saw as legitimate, and political violence, which he called folly.”
King also staunchly refused to address the question of violence outside the larger question of justice, without which, he said, there could be no peace. Movement leaders like Angela Davis who carried forward the radical, anti-imperialist analysis of both the later King and X would continue to push against the simplistic question of whether violence is justified as a response to brutal oppression. In a famous interview clip above, she demonstrates the absurdity of the idea that people subjected to racial terrorism by the authorities and groups protected by them should have to answer charges of committing political violence.
The history of racist killings is a long “unbroken line,” said Davis more recently during the Ferguson uprising. While Civil Rights leaders of the 20th century may have disagreed about the right response, all of them agreed it had to end immediately if the country is to survive and the promise of true freedom to be realized.