Judging America: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King
African American History Breakthrough Series
The month of May marks the birthday of Malcolm X, one of the most influential voices and leaders of the twentieth-century. The African American History Breakthrough Series is proud to celebrate the life and achievements of Malcolm X.
Malcolm X’s legacy is expansive and profoundly insightful and instructive. To ignore his body of work would be to leave us intellectually impoverished, socially stagnated, and politically immature. We celebrate the birthday of Malcolm X and in celebrating him, we “celebrate the best in ourselves.”
The Dialectical Unity of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King general are discussed as polar opposites and rarely paired together. Undoubtedly, they had stark differences- one moderate, the other radical; one Christian, the other Muslim; and one an advocate of nonviolence, the other a believer in violence in the context of self-defense. Yet, there are substantive points of agreement between the two them.
Thus, accounting for their differences, Malcolm and Martin were both critical of America and shared a similar critique of the American system and government. King during the last year of his life, King adopted a more radical view, putting him, along with Malcolm, crosshairs of the FBI Cointelpro. On many issues, the two were moving toward common ground. Malcolm X made attempts to reach out to King which inspired Coretta Scott King, to see the hope of a transforming convergence between Malcolm and her husband.
Therefore, viewed in this light, there is fertile ground for pairing Malcolm X and Martin Luther together in judging America. Surprisingly, King became increasing pessimistic regarding America becoming the nation he outlined in his I Have A Dream speech. King acknowledged that not long after talking about the dream in Washington, “I started seeing it turn into a nightmare.” Malcolm X had been critical of King’s speech saying, “While King was having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare.”
Hence, by 1964, King and Malcolm saw America in full retreat from its of repairing the harm of slavery and the attendant racism, as put forth in the Great Society and the vision of the Civil Rights Movement. That same year, Malcolm had warned white America that this was a critical year for action, that it would be “The Ballot or The Bullet.” And, by 1968, King raised the question of whether blacks would able to celebrate the Bicentennial, because It [the Declaration of Independence] has never had any real meaning in terms of implementation in our lives.”
Next, both Malcolm and Martin vehemently voiced disapproval of America’s war abroad. In January 1965, the month before he was assassinated, Malcolm X denounced the Vietnam War, placing Africans and African Americans on the same side as “those little rice farmers” who had defeated French colonialism, and predicted a similar defeat for “Sam.” Similarly, King voiced even a more biting criticism of America’s war effort in Vietnam.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.”
Moreover, Malcolm X and King indicted America for its use of violence. Malcolm in more racial tones asserted that the white man’s collective history of violence and destruction merited branding him as the devil. In responding to his reason for calling whites the devil, he said:
Because that’s what he is. What do you want me to call him, a saint? Anybody who rapes, and plunders, and enslaves, and steals, and drops hell bombs on people… anybody who does these things is nothing but a devil. Look…history rewards all research. And history fails to record one single instance in which the white man –as a people–did good. They have always been devils; they always will be devils, and they are about to be destroyed. The final proof that they are devils lies in the fact that they are about to destroy themselves. Only a devil–and a stupid devil at that–would destroy himself!
King too railed against American violence, believing that it undermined her ideals and possibilities. In his celebrated speech, Beyond Vietnam, he stated, “The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.” And, in a stunting admission he proclaimed, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world : My own Government, I can not be silent.”
God Judgment of America
Owing to the enslavement of blacks and their continued oppression, as well as the unrepentant disposition of America toward blacks, Malcolm and King believe that God would judge America harshly. Accordingly, God would punish her severely. Malcolm X cautioned:
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that as it was divine will in the case of the destruction of the slave empires of the ancient and modern past, America’s judgment and destruction will also be brought about by divine will and divine power. Just as ancient nations paid for their sins against humanity, White America must now pay for her sins against twenty-two million “Negroes.” White America’s worst crimes her hypocrisy and her deceit. White America pretends to ask herself: “What do these Negroes want?” White America knows that four hundred years of cruel bondage has made these twenty-two million ex-slaves too (mentally) blind to see what they really want.
White America should be asking herself: “What does God want for these twenty-two million ex-slaves?” Who will make White America know what God wants? Who will present God’s plan to White America? What is God’s solution to the problem caused by the presence of twenty-two million unwanted slaves here in America? And who will present God’s solution?
King too believed that America would be judge and punished by God. As Cornel West points out, “King’s dream of a more democratic America had become, in his words, “a nightmare,” owing to the persistence of “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism.” Because of this, King called America a “sick society.” On the Sunday after his assassination, in 1968, he was to have preached a sermon titled “Why America May Go to Hell.” West stress that “King did not think that America ought to go to hell, but rather that it might go to hell owing to its economic injustice, cultural decay and political paralysis.”
The Prophetic Judgment of Malcolm and Martin
Today, we are living out the prophetic of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Since the Vietnam War, America has been on a permanent war footing to the detriment of its status and standing in the world and the general welfare of its citizens. Malcolm warned America that “All the prophets of the past listed America as number one among the guilty nations that would be too proud and to blind to repent and atone when God’s last messenger raised in her midst to warn her.”
We are now witnessing perpetual war. The United States has been engaged in what the great historian Charles A. Beard called “perpetual war for perpetual peace.” The Federation of American Scientists has cataloged nearly 200 military incursions since 1945 in which the United States has been the aggressor.
Like Malcolm, , King admonished and warned America of the madness of [the war in] Vietnam. King believed that “the war in Vietnam [was] but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” Further, he counseled: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
And, finally both believed that the cure for America’s sickness laid in a revolution that would reset America’s vision and values. Though Malcolm believed that revolutions were bloody and violent, he also believed that “America [was] the only country in history in a position to bring about a revolution without violence and bloodshed,” if it became morally capable. And, mirroring Malcolm, King called for a revolution of values:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. … A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.