“It is better to fight”: On Martin and Malcolm

The effi­gy of a black man, a son of South­ern soil and descen­dant of slaves, now stands over the nation’s Mall among its found­ing fathers, noto­ri­ous slave own­er in front and the so-called Great Eman­ci­pa­tor to his back. Look­ing out over the placid Tidal Bas­in with a steely-eyed reserve and chis­eled deter­mi­na­tion, the Mar­t­in Luther King, Jr. Nation­al Memo­ri­al, the first mon­u­ment on the Mall ded­i­cat­ed to a man of col­or, has whipped up yet anoth­er tem­pest of protest. Besides the same types who did not and still do not com­mem­o­rate the life of this influ­en­tial Civil Rights lead­er on the third Mon­day of every Jan­u­ary, oth­er dis­senters have not­ed that the veined, con­fronta­tion­al depic­tion of the Broth­er Preacher by the Chi­ne­se sculp­tor Lei Yix­in does not evoke the round docil­i­ty asso­ci­at­ed with the open-armed love of non­vi­o­lence. For them, the image goes again­st what they see as King’s true lega­cy, while oth­ers see the statute as an appro­pri­ate stance of well-ground­ed, stony defi­ance and pride.

Per­haps the best way to under­stand Mar­t­in is through his foil, the oth­er Broth­er Min­is­ter, Mal­colm X. As the chron­i­cler of the black expe­ri­ence Man­ning Marable wrote in last year’s author­i­ta­tive biog­ra­phy of Mal­colm, “the lead­er most close­ly linked to Mal­colm in life and death was, of course, King.” How­ev­er, the­se two men were linked more by their per­ceived dif­fer­ences than they were known for their sim­i­lar­i­ties. Mal­colm was “wide­ly admired as a man of uncom­pro­mis­ing action, the polar oppo­site of the non­vi­o­lent, mid­dle-class-ori­ent­ed Negro lead­er­ship that had dom­i­nat­ed the civil rights move­ment before him.” But if Mal­colm was known for his action, Mar­t­in has been remem­bered for his results.

Despite their per­ceived diver­gence, Mal­colm and Martin’s con­ver­gence is the essen­tial con­di­tion for under­stand­ing the Black Free­dom Move­ment and socio-polit­i­cal strug­gle in gen­er­al, just as it was in the tur­bu­lent times when the­se two lead­ers were slain.

Though their con­stituen­cies were dif­fer­ent – Martin’s South­ern, large­ly rural base stand­ing in con­trast to Malcolm’s North­ern and West­ern urban indus­tri­al com­mu­ni­ty – their desire to devel­op black dig­ni­ty insured an ongo­ing dia­logue, even if Mar­t­in used a lan­guage of Chris­tian inte­gra­tion-based cit­i­zen rights and Mal­colm cham­pi­oned an Islam-inflect­ed black cul­tur­al nation­al­ism. In 1954, at the time that Mar­t­in was fin­ish­ing his PhD at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, Mal­colm was preach­ing for the Nation of Islam, and accord­ing to Marable they walked the streets of the same neigh­bor­hood. Yet they would not meet in per­son until March 26, 1964, walk­ing the Sen­ate Gallery after a con­fer­ence King had with Sen­a­tor Hubert Humphrey and Jacob Jav­its. That the­se two fig­ures, who embod­ied two dif­fer­ent cur­rents of the Black Free­dom move­ment, met only once is remark­able. In the ten years between the­se dates much had changed with both men. But their streams of black con­scious­ness and polit­i­cal action con­tin­ued to both diverge and con­verge.

Though Mal­colm often decried the Uncle Tom Negro lead­er­ship of which Mar­t­in was con­ceiv­ably a mem­ber, he would rarely call Mar­t­in out direct­ly, spar­ing the young ener­get­ic lead­er his typ­i­cal­ly point­ed barbs. He spoke high­ly of the Mont­gomery bus boy­cotts and the courage of peo­ple like Rosa Parks. King, on the oth­er hand, often used Mal­colm to make his ide­o­log­i­cal plat­form and polit­i­cal prac­tice more palat­able for whites. In respon­se to a June 1962 com­ment Mal­colm made about God answer­ing his prayers to kill 121 whites in a Paris-Atlanta flight, King assured the white press “that the hatred expressed toward whites by Mal­colm X [was not] shared by the vast major­i­ty of Negroes in the Unit­ed States. While there is a great deal of legit­i­mate dis­con­tent and right­eous indig­na­tion in the Negro com­mu­ni­ty, it has nev­er devel­oped into large-scale hatred of whites.”

In spite of Martin’s attempts at dis­tanc­ing, it is no sim­ple task to place the­se men as oppos­ing forces. Both were what we might call insti­tu­tion­al men. Grant­ed, the natures of the insti­tu­tions were very dif­fer­ent. King came up in the black church, Atlanta’s black bour­geoisie, defined by the Black intel­lec­tu­al net­work of the Atlanta Uni­ver­si­ty Cen­ter and orga­ni­za­tions such as the NAACP, ulti­mate­ly arriv­ing at the elite insti­tu­tions of Croz­er The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary and Boston Uni­ver­si­ty. Mal­colm, on the oth­er hand, came up again­st the back­drop of Mar­cus Garvey’s Uni­ver­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion, fos­ter homes, the assem­bly line, and pris­on. Martin’s class posi­tion and Chris­tian ide­ol­o­gy posi­tioned him in a con­cil­ia­to­ry stance, where­as Mal­colm, who shift­ed con­stant­ly between the work­ing class and the lumpen­pro­le­tari­at, was pre­pared to sep­a­rate from the entire sys­tem.  Any dis­cus­sion of the­se two men must start from this basic under­stand­ing. Mar­t­in had the mate­ri­al means and the social sup­port to devel­op an entire intel­lec­tu­al pro­gram that he could start to exe­cute at the age of 26, dur­ing the Mont­gomery Bus Boy­cotts. To be sure, King’s lead­er­ship and the­o­ry con­tin­ued to devel­op through his career, but he remained a tra­di­tion­al intel­lec­tu­al, built into the struc­ture of the cler­gy. Mal­colm was an organ­ic intel­lec­tu­al. He had to forge an inde­pen­dent phi­los­o­phy from a patch­work of street smarts, pris­on libraries, and undy­ing curios­i­ty. His the­o­ry was forged by the fires of prac­tice.

Even with their dif­fer­ing points of depar­ture, observers have often not­ed that the two lead­ers seemed to con­verge near the ends of their short lives. The post-Nation of Islam Mal­colm made a path from sep­a­ratism towards inter­na­tion­al­ism. Marable argues that the 1964 meet­ing “marked a tran­si­tion for Mal­colm, crys­tal­liz­ing as it did a move­ment away from the rev­o­lu­tion­ary rhetoric that defined ‘Mes­sage to the Grass­roots’ toward some­thing akin to what King had worked his entire adult life to achieve.”  Short­ly after the meet­ing, Malcolm’s “Bal­lot or the Bul­let” speech stressed vot­ing rights and black polit­i­cal sol­i­dar­i­ty, implic­it­ly dimin­ish­ing the poten­tial role of vio­lence.

Martin’s mil­i­tant oppo­si­tion to the triple evils of racism, mil­i­tarism, and exploita­tion, as man­i­fest­ed in the Viet­nam War, recalled Malcolm’s anti-colo­nial sol­i­dar­i­ty with Asia and Africa, a rejec­tion of the West­ern par­a­digm:

I’m con­vinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world rev­o­lu­tion, we as a nation must under­go a rad­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion of val­ues. We must rapid­ly begin the shift from a thing-ori­ent­ed soci­ety to a per­son-ori­ent­ed soci­ety. When machi­nes and com­put­ers, prof­it motives and prop­er­ty rights are con­sid­ered more impor­tant than peo­ple, the giant triplets of racism, mil­i­tarism and eco­nom­ic exploita­tion are inca­pable of being con­quered.

What’s more, Mar­t­in, just as Mal­colm, expe­ri­enced exten­sive gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance. Doc­u­ment­ed in his FBI file, this sur­veil­lance reminds us that no mat­ter how much the man is cel­e­brat­ed today, he was treat­ed as a dan­ger­ous threat to nation­al secu­ri­ty dur­ing his life.

The obvi­ous dis­tinc­tion between Mar­t­in and Mal­colm almost does not need to be made. How­ev­er, the nonviolence/violence dichoto­my does not accu­rate­ly depict the actu­al schools of thought in the strug­gle to achieve black sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, nor does it allow for the type of evo­lu­tion that we have already seen among the two thinker-activists. First, non­vi­o­lence does not imply that demon­stra­tors are non-con­fronta­tion­al, or even the absence of vio­lence. On the con­trary, non­vi­o­lence is an aggres­sive pas­siv­i­ty intend­ed to incite a dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly vio­lent respon­se, expos­ing the moral­ly bank­rupt struc­ture. This tac­tic – and many, includ­ing Mar­t­in, referred to it as a tac­tic – required an aggres­sive, coura­geous resis­tance. This method did not exclude the pos­si­bil­i­ty of vio­lence. As King him­self wrote in 1958, “non­vi­o­lent resis­tance is not a method for cow­ards; it does resist…This is why Gand­hi often said that if cow­ardice is the only alter­na­tive to vio­lence, it is bet­ter to fight.”

More­over, King’s ear­ly inter­ven­tions did not exclude the pro­tec­tion of armed self-defense. In his recent Col­ored Cos­mopoli­tian­ism, Nico Slate nar­rates a vis­it by a vet­er­an civil rights activist: “when Bayard Rustin vis­it­ed King’s home dur­ing the ear­ly days of the Mont­gomery boy­cott, he found armed guards on the porch and weapons scat­tered through­out the house.” It was not until much lat­er in his career that non­vi­o­lence become an all-embrac­ing phi­los­o­phy for King. Even then, he admit­ted that for most black peo­ple, non­vi­o­lence would remain a tac­tic, at most.

Mean­while, through­out the south, armed self-defense became a promis­ing approach to com­bat ruth­less and mur­der­ous racists, the kind that left Medger Evers assas­si­nat­ed and four lit­tle girls dead. Few fig­ures were as influ­en­tial as Robert F. Williams in advo­cat­ing armed self-defense to achieve safe­ty and dig­ni­ty for Blacks in Amer­i­ca. Hav­ing labored in North­ern indus­try and served in the Army dur­ing World War II, Williams returned to his North Car­oli­na home – trained, dis­ci­plined, and rad­i­cal­ized. He rose to a lead­er­ship role with the Union Coun­ty chap­ter of the NAACP, a posi­tion from which start­ed to insist on the need “to meet vio­lence with vio­lence.” In 1957, Williams start­ed the Black Armed Guard, with a char­ter from the Nation­al Rifle Asso­ci­a­tion. The group prob­a­bly saved many lives when on Octo­ber 5, James “Cat­fish” Cole led a Klan ral­ly that end­ed with a raid on the black part of town. The war vet­er­ans fought off the motor­cade from for­ti­fied posi­tions in trench­es and fox­holes with small arms. The next day, Klan motor­cades, which had some­times been escort­ed by police, were banned by the City of Mon­roe. The 1961 Free­dom Rid­ers for­ay into Mon­roe was intend­ed to show the advan­tage of non­vi­o­lence. But when thou­sands of riot­ing Klans­men showed no respect for phi­los­o­phy, Williams and his Black Armed Guard were called on to pro­tect the demon­stra­tors. Here non­vi­o­lence and armed self-defense worked togeth­er in a dynam­ic dialec­tic. At his funer­al, Rosa Parks said that she and oth­ers who marched with Mar­t­in in Mont­gomery admired Williams’ con­tri­bu­tion to the strug­gle. As Slate puts it, “the abil­i­ty of non­vi­o­lent activists to mobi­lize Black com­mu­ni­ties depend­ed large­ly on the capac­i­ty of local Blacks to phys­i­cal­ly defend activists…Nonviolent tac­tics and armed self-defense worked togeth­er to chan­nel white vio­lence into less dead­ly and more polit­i­cal­ly use­ful sit­u­a­tions.” Williams’ book Negroes with Guns would come to be influ­en­tial for younger black polit­i­cal actors, such as Black Pan­ther lead­er Huey P. New­ton.

Robert and Mabel Williams tar­get prac­tic­ing in Cuba.

A few months after their only meet­ing, Mal­colm sent a telegram to Mar­t­in, extend­ing an offer to help pro­tect the non­vi­o­lent pro­test­ers in Saint Augustine, Flori­da who had been attacked. “We have been wit­ness­ing with great con­cern the vicious attacks of the white races again­st our poor defense­less peo­ple there in St. Augustine,” Mal­colm wrote. “If the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment will not send troops to your aid, just say the word and we will imme­di­ate­ly dis­patch some of our broth­ers there to orga­nize self defense units among our peo­ple and the Ku Klux Klan will then receive a taste of its own med­i­cine. The day of turn­ing the oth­er cheek to those brute beasts is over.”

Defen­sive vio­lence, how­ev­er, was not the only type of vio­lence that mil­i­tants in the Black Free­dom Move­ment con­sid­ered. Con­tem­po­rary devel­op­ments in Chi­na, Cuba, and Alge­ria seemed to make a con­vinc­ing argu­ment for an offen­sive armed rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gle. Even after his dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the Com­mu­nist Par­ty, Harold Cruse was forced to con­tem­plate “the rel­e­vance of force and vio­lence to suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tions” after vis­it­ing Cuba in June of 1960. “The ide­ol­o­gy of a new rev­o­lu­tion­ary wave in the world at large,” he recalled, “had lift­ed us out of anonymi­ty of lone­ly strug­gle in the Unit­ed States to the glo­ri­fied rank of vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries.” Cruse asked, “what did it all mean and how did it relate to the Negro in Amer­i­ca?” Marable’s biog­ra­phy of Mal­colm shows that near the end of his life, with his con­nec­tion to peo­ple like Max Stan­ford and the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Action Move­ment, he antic­i­pat­ed the devel­op­ment of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary under­ground that would emerge lat­er in the decade and in the 1970s.

If Mar­t­in and Malcolm’s diver­gence can be explored through their evolv­ing stances on the use of vio­lence, their con­ver­gence may be best assessed by stances along the axis of trans­gres­sion. The Ital­ian work­erist Fer­ruc­cio Gam­bi­no’s 1993 essay, which recasts Malcolm’s life and lega­cy as a trans­gres­sion of the log­ic of the state, cap­tures this rela­tion­ship:

Mal­colm X – the labor­er, the con­vict, and the min­is­ter of the Nation of Islam – had seen too many and too well the least-lit cor­ri­dors of the state to avoid a col­li­sion with it. In this respect, his path was sim­i­lar to Mar­t­in Luther King, Jr.’s. The young deseg­re­ga­tion­ist min­is­ter of the South­ern Chris­tian Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence had seen so many black peo­ple suf­fer indig­ni­ties dur­ing his ear­ly cam­paign in the South that he could only relate the­se to the cheap­ness of liv­ing labor there. Indeed, as ear­ly as 1957 he had said, “I real­ize that the law can­not make an employ­er love me or have com­pas­sion for me.” As King too began to walk away from the role the state had expect­ed of him, he head­ed toward assas­si­na­tion while sup­port­ing a strike by black labor­ers in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee.

The trans­gres­sions of the entire Black Free­dom Move­ment, though they have since been val­i­dat­ed and sub­sumed into the nar­ra­tive of lib­er­al democracy’s abil­i­ty to accom­mo­date, encom­pass non­vi­o­lent con­formist activ­i­ties just as much as mil­i­tant direct action, each equal­ly crim­i­nal. The most potent trans­gres­sion is the rejec­tion of the state’s “gods,” its sym­bol­ic embod­i­ments of pow­er. Islam forced Mal­colm “to occu­py the dou­ble polit­i­cal space of ‘the immi­grant,’” as Gam­bi­no argues, a “self-loca­tion”  which “vio­lat­ed the writ­ten and unwrit­ten codes of legit­i­mate polit­i­cal behav­ior.”

Malcolm’s Islam was a sym­bol­ic and spir­i­tu­al ori­en­ta­tion to an Afro-Asi­at­ic anti-colo­nial inter­na­tion­al­ism that struck a claim on pol­i­tics out­side the state’s monopoly of legit­i­mate pow­er. His trans­gres­sions, men­tal, crim­i­nal, and spir­i­tu­al, are wide­ly under­stood. But again­st Martin’s easy incor­po­ra­tion, we should remem­ber that he, too, trans­gressed. It is true that the famil­iar and domes­tic lan­guage of Chris­tian­i­ty of Mar­t­in made him accept­able to many Amer­i­cans. How­ev­er, couched in that lan­guage was the ver­nac­u­lar of a long tra­di­tion man­i­fest­ed in black lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy that sig­ni­fied on the master’s reli­gion, devel­op­ing a some­times dor­mant, some­times active oppo­si­tion to white pow­er. It is a lin­eage emerg­ing from peo­ple like Richard Allen, who start­ed the African Methodist Epis­co­palian Church in 1816 to cre­ate auton­o­my for black con­gre­ga­tions. There are the likes of Hen­ry McNeal Turn­er, an ear­ly “back to Africa” advo­cate and mis­sion­ary who once said that “Hell is an improve­ment upon the Unit­ed States where the Negro is con­cerned.” Turner’s own the­ol­o­gy under­stood the sym­bol­ic pow­er of the state’s gods:

Every race of peo­ple who have attempt­ed to describe their God by words, or by paint­ings, or by carv­ings, or any oth­er form or fig­ure, have con­veyed the idea that the God who made them and shaped their des­tinies was sym­bol­ized in them­selves, and why should not the Negro believe that he resem­bles God as much as oth­er peo­ple?

More direct influ­ences on King can be found in the likes of Howard Thur­man and Ben­jam­in Mays. The two had vis­it­ed Gand­hi in India and worked towards estab­lish­ing func­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ties with South Asians dur­ing their strug­gle again­st the British Empire in the 1930s. Impor­tant­ly, Thur­man and Mays con­tribut­ed to a the­ol­o­gy that sought to iso­late the reli­gion of Jesus from its impe­ri­al uses.

Thur­man, a class­mate of Martin’s father and a men­tor while Mar­t­in was at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, and Mays, Martin’s men­tor at More­house Col­lege, helped Mar­t­in to devel­op a trans­gres­sive phi­los­o­phy. As Nico Slate writes,  Mar­t­in was almost imme­di­ate­ly hailed as the Mont­gomery Mahat­ma after begin­ning the boy­cott: “King’s con­nec­tion to Gand­hi strength­ened his appeal to both blacks and whites. Gand­hi rep­re­sent­ed courage, civil dis­obe­di­ence, and the ris­ing col­ored world to many blacks while sym­bol­iz­ing non-threat­en­ing non­vi­o­lence to whites.” Slate argues that this dou­ble space of mean­ing did not pre­vent Mar­t­in from iden­ti­fy­ing race as only one vari­able in the equa­tion of oppres­sion. As King wrote of his vis­it “to the land of Gand­hi” in Ebony mag­a­zine, “the bour­geoisie – white, black or brown – behaves about the same the world over.”

Today the lega­cies of both Mar­t­in and Mal­colm ben­e­fit from an offi­cial acknowl­edge­ment of their con­tri­bu­tions to the Black Free­dom move­ment. This is large­ly because, as Gam­bi­no writes, “the atti­tudes of eth­nic lead­er­ship towards the state are shaped over a long peri­od of time, often being the result of con­tin­u­ous read­just­ments over many gen­er­a­tions.” That there is such a grand offi­cial salute to Mar­t­in reflects that the state “often believes it can redress past wrongs with reforms that are sup­posed to have the effect of ‘cool­ing off’ both eth­nic lead­er­ship and the peo­ple as a whole,” and that “the state’s late dis­cov­ery of a col­lec­tive sym­bol­ic real­i­ty one shade removed from its offi­cial gods has often end­ed in a rede­f­i­n­i­tion of the state and its pan­theon, or in the demise of both.” That Martin’s lega­cy today appears to tow­er over so many oth­ers indi­cates just how well he occu­pied the dou­ble space of mean­ing while act­ing for dig­ni­ty and free­dom. Now our task is to refuse the state’s gods and reach into our past, to recov­er the pos­si­bil­i­ties for future trans­gres­sion.

Author of the article

is a graduate student at Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies. He has written for Reuters, The Root, AllAfrica.com, and The Harvard Journal of African American Policy.

16 Responses

  1. Pearl Stewart
    Pearl Stewart at |

    Well done, Wen­dell. Tren­chant points and good analy­sis! You make Black Col­lege Wire very proud.

  2. Building the Red Army: The Death and Forbidden Rebirth of the Oakland Commune « Viewpoint Magazine

    […] bar­ri­cade. The crowd swarmed into a park con­tain­ing the Remem­ber Them stat­ue, with depic­tions of Mar­t­in Luther King and Mal­colm X, among […]

  3. Alan Clarke
    Alan Clarke at |

    Nice­ly Done

  4. “It Is Better To Fight: On Martin and Malcolm” « Dr. Steve Best

    […] Wen­dell Has­san Marsh […]

  5. Jesus del Rio
    Jesus del Rio at |

    Excel­lent way to tell part of the sto­ry of black lib­er­a­tion in Amer­i­ca. The “com­pare and con­trast” works well here. Mal­colm and Mar­t­in are the two mod­ern polit­i­cal giants who will forever shine the light on the strug­gles of the past and if the present is also of strug­gle then we are sure to make the future ours.

    Thanks for post.

  6. The Death & Forbidden Rebirth of the Oakland Commune « Kasama

    […] bar­ri­cade. The crowd swarmed into a park con­tain­ing the Remem­ber Them stat­ue, with depic­tions of Mar­t­in Luther King and Mal­colm X, among […]

  7. The Death & Forbidden Rebirth of the Oakland Commune | Revolt Lab

    […] bar­ri­cade. The crowd swarmed into a park con­tain­ing the Remem­ber Them stat­ue, with depic­tions of Mar­t­in Luther King and Mal­colm X, among […]

  8. I'm glad Barak Obama won - Page 7 - Christian Forums

    […] […]

  9. Digitalization project turns a page in African History |

    […] in Africa, the Mid­dle East and their dias­po­ras. He has writ­ten for Reuters, AllAfrica.com, View­point, and The Har­vard Jour­nal of African Amer­i­can Pol­i­cy. Fol­low him on […]

  10. Crossing the Border: Afrabia and Alternative Cosmopolitanisms |

    […] in Africa, the Mid­dle East and their dias­po­ras. He has writ­ten for Reuters, AllAfrica.com, View­point, and The Har­vard Jour­nal of African Amer­i­can Pol­i­cy. Fol­low him on […]

  11. Resolving Differences in the Desert |
    Resolving Differences in the Desert | at |

    […] in Africa, the Mid­dle East and their dias­po­ras. He has writ­ten for Reuters, AllAfrica.com, View­point, and The Har­vard Jour­nal of African Amer­i­can Pol­i­cy. Fol­low him on […]

  12. Conflict Heats Up Across the Sahara |
    Conflict Heats Up Across the Sahara | at |

    […] in Africa, the Mid­dle East and their dias­po­ras. He has writ­ten for Reuters, AllAfrica.com, View­point, and The Har­vard Jour­nal of African Amer­i­can Pol­i­cy. Fol­low him on […]

  13. Is the Most Influential African Intellectual in MESAAS? |

    […] in Africa, the Mid­dle East and their dias­po­ras. He has writ­ten for Reuters, AllAfrica.com, View­point, and The Har­vard Jour­nal of African Amer­i­can Pol­i­cy. Fol­low him on […]

Comments are closed.