Imagining the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Debate That Never Happened

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Mal­colm X Debate at Oxford, Quot­ing Lines from Shakespeare’s Ham­let (1964)

Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Explains the Impor­tance of Jazz: Hear the Speech He Gave at the First Berlin Jazz Fes­ti­val (1964)

Ava DuVernay’s Sel­ma Is Now Free to Stream Online: Watch the Award-Win­ning Director’s Film About Mar­tin Luther King’s 1965 Vot­ing-Rights March

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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