Justice  /  Book Review

What Dignity Demands

A new book persuasively places Malcolm X and Martin Luther King at the center of each other’s most dramatic transformations.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met only once, at the US Capitol during the Senate debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That chance encounter was immortalized in a photograph that shows the two men shaking hands and smiling but reveals little trace of the public feud that has linked them in our historical imagination. Their conflict has cast arguably the longest shadow over African-American politics and the struggle for racial justice of any contretemps since the one between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington at the turn of the twentieth century.

Just a few years after King came to international renown as the spokesman for the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, Malcolm delivered a star turn in The Hate That Hate Produced, a 1959 television documentary hosted by Mike Wallace, who introduced Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (NOI) sect, to which Malcolm then belonged, as a living “indictment of America.” While Malcolm was most notorious for the prosecutorial zeal with which he cross-examined the propaganda of white supremacy, he also made attacks on King a recurring element of his rhetoric and transgressive allure. Malcolm charged King with being “cowardly” and “a traitor to his own people,” insulting him as an “Uncle Tom,” “handkerchief head,” and, most spitefully, “house Negro.” He suggested that King’s great betrayal was his promotion of a self-defeating philosophy of racial integration and nonviolence, which would ensure that its adherents suffered racial domination peacefully and without resistance.

Newspapers and magazines could not resist such a rivalry, nor could intellectuals obliged to adjudicate the dispute. Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) treated Malcolm and King as emblems of the enduring struggle between “integrationism” and “nationalism,” which Cruse characterized as the central fault line of Black political life. Battles over such ideas, Cruse rightly noted, could be traced back to Frederick Douglass’s campaign against emigrationists like Martin Delany, who argued at times that mass flight from America was the best solution to the plight of black America, an oppressed “nation within a nation.” Recovering this past, Cruse and other historians placed Malcolm’s brazen, implausible defense of “Mr. Muhammad’s solution” of a separate Black nation-state in a sweeping historical context.

But for all of Cruse’s intellectual acumen and the more measured statements scattered throughout his book, his decision to foreground this grand narrative exacted severe damage on the popular understanding of Black intellectual and political life. Debates among Black thinkers on questions of gender, religion, democracy, internationalism, and, above all, political economy were reduced to an overarching struggle between two traditions.