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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Rewriting history?

 Jonathan Eig, a prolific nonfiction writer on many topics, has written a huge new biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.  This New York Times review indicates that it is a very well-researched and well-written book with plenty of new material, and I am looking forward to going through it--it will take some time for a library copy to reach me.  (For reasons of space, I very rarely buy books nowadays.)  My subject today, however, is one aspect of the book that the Times did not mention, but which Eig played up in an interview Gillian Brockell of the Washington Post.  That attempts to revise our view of how King viewed Malcolm X, based upon what Eig found in the papers of Alex Haley, who did a long Playboy interview with King while he was in the midst of ghostwriting Malcolm's autobiography in late 1964.  Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham picked up the ball and ran with it in a column last Sunday, and I wrote her an email about the controversy.

The controversial exchange from the interview went like this:

“Dr. King, would you care to comment upon the articulate former Black Muslim, Malcolm X?” [Malcolm's break with Elijah Muhammad had become public earlier in 1964.]

 “I have met Malcolm X, but circumstances didn’t enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views, as I understand them. He is very articulate, as you say. I don’t want to seem to sound as if I feel so self-righteous, or absolutist, that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. But I know that I have so often felt that I wished that he would talk less of violence, because I don’t think that violence can solve our problem. And in his litany of expressing the despair of the Negro, without offering a positive, creative approach, I think that he falls into a rut sometimes.”

“Fiery, demagogic oratory in the Black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.”

In the original transcript in Haley's papers King responded as follows:

“I have met Malcolm X, but circumstances didn’t enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views, as I understand them. He is very articulate, as you say.

“I don’t want to seem to sound as if I feel so self-righteous, or absolutist, that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. But I know that I have so often felt that I wished that he would talk less of violence, because I don’t think that violence can solve our problem. And in his litany of expressing the despair of the Negro, without offering a positive, creative approach, I think that he falls into a rut sometimes."

That, however, is not all. Earlier in the original transcript, Haley asked King, “Dr. King, what is your opinion of Negro extremists who advocate armed violence and sabotage?” King's lengthy response  begins: “Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettoes urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence can achieve nothing but negative results.”  As  we shall see, no one in 1964 could read those words without thinking of Malcolm X, whose "fiery, demagogic oratory" had been mainstream media news for several years.  We don't know whether Haley cleared the final published version with King or if they had any further conversations, perhaps on the phone, that don't appear in the transcript.  Yet to me, the difference between the published and unpublished versions is one of tone,. not of point of view.  The only phrase that appeared in the published version alone is that rhetoric like Malcolm's "can reap nothing but grief."

Eig, and some other scholars he quotes, take a different view. "Eig has shared his discovery with a number of King scholars, and the changes 'jumped out' to them as 'a real fraud,' he said. 'They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been teaching that to my students for years,’ and now they have to rethink it,'Eig said."

My readers may judge for themselves whether Haley's published version seriously distorted what King said in the unpublished version.  I do not think that it did.  One cannot, however, discuss the relationshp between King and Malcolm based merely on this one interview.  Doing a few hours of research early this week, I found that they had been publicly sparring for years.  

 In  July 1962, a chartered Air France plane full of prominent white Atlanteans crashed during its takeoff in Paris and killed everyone aboard. Speaking in Los Angeles, Malcolm X declared: "I would like to announce a very beautiful thing that happened. I got a wire from God which I--well, somebody came and told me that he had really answered our prayers over in France and dropped an airplane out of the sky with over 120 white people on it. . .We call on our God--He gets rid of 120 of them at one whop.""  Asked to comment, Martin Luther King dissented from this view.  He had known many of those white people, he said, and "Many of them believed in progress. . .if the Muslim leader said that , I would certainly disagree with him."  

          A year later, in June of 1963, Dr. Kenneth Clark interviewed both Malcolm and King for public television (you can find it on youtube.)  " "King is the best weapon that the white man, who wants to brutalize Negroes, has ever gotten in this country," Malcolm said, "because he is setting up a situation where, when the white man wants to attack Negroes, they can't defend themselves because King has put this foolish philosophy--you're not supposed to fight or you're not supposed to defend yourself."  Indeed, Malcolm attacked King's philosophy of non-violence whenever he was asked about him.

          And on February 4, 1965 just a couple of weeks before he died, Malcolm X went to Selma in the midst of King's voting rights campaign there and spoke to SNCC volunteers at a church. It was a famous speech about "house Negroes" and "field Negroes."  He said: "Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent. That’s Tom making you nonviolent."  King, obviously, was a pastor the leader of the nonviolent movement at that point.  The Birmingham campaign had already led to the introduction and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Selma campaign led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act--but Malcolm chose this moment to reiterate his attack on King as an uncle Tom.  Later he said in the same speech: "There’s nothing in our book, the Quran, as you call it, Koran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful. Be courteous. Obey the law. Respect everyone. But if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery! That’s a good religion. In fact, that’s that old-time religion. That’s the one that ma and pa used to talk about. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a head for a head and a life for a life. That’s a good religion. And doesn’t anybody, no one resist that kind of religion being taught but a wolf who intends to make you his meal. This is the way it is with the white man in America. He’s a wolf and you’re his sheep. Anytime a shepherd, a pastor, teach you and me not to run from the white man, and at the same time teach us don’t fight the white man, he’s a traitor, to you and me."  [emphasis added.]  He wasn't in Selma to support King.

King and Malcolm differed fundamentally on several points.  King, to begin with, felt that black Americans could, and, really had no choice but to depend on the good will of white Americans and the strength of fundamental American values to secure justice and legal equality.  Malcolm's Selma speech tells me that even on the eve of his death--after his pilgrimage to Mecca and break with Elijah Muhammad had changed his view of white people as devils--he did not yet trust white Americans and believed that black people had to arm themselves to fight against them.  Secondly, King's Christian beliefs led him to reject violence completely--a view not shared by all Christians, evidently--while Malcolm saw no contradiction between Islam and preparing to fight for self-defense.  In the Washington Post interview, Eig says, "[King and Malcolm] always had a lot in common. They always believed that you had to take radical steps to change America, to end racism, to create a country that lived up to the words of its promises.” That is an extraordinary statement.  For most of his life Malcolm X totally rejected the words of America's promises and wanted to destroy the United States as it existed and create a separate black state within its borders.  Even in the last year of his life it is not clear to me that he had settled on a new vision of an integrated United States.  Renée Graham went even further, writing that the two men "had a manufactured feud" and "were not adversaries."  The Selma speech clearly shows that they remained rivals, contending for the allegiance of black America based on very different principles, right up until the end of Malcolm's life.  Ms. Graham by the way has not replied to my email--I and others have found that she never replies to critical emails, and she disabled comments on her columns some time ago.

Proquest historical newspapers also led me to a text of which I was unaware--and I will be very interested to see if Eig refers to it in his book.  It turns out that on March 13, 1965, the Harlem paper New Amsterdam News published an obituary of Malcolm X under Dr. King's name.  My dear friend the sociologist Jonathan Rieder, who has written two books on King's rhetoric, does not believe that King actually drafted this obit--it does not, he says, sound like him.  I suspect it might have been written by Clarence Jones, an attorney who handled King's legal affairs in New York and who had been quoted just weeks earlier as hoping that King and Malcolm might indeed form some kind of alliance--but without suggesting that anything like that had taken place.  In any case, King must have approved it, and I am going to reproduce it in full here.

New Amsterdam News, March 13, 1965, p. 10. The Nightmare Of Violence By DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING. JR. (President, Southern Christian Leadership Conference)

                The present ghastly nightmare of violence and counter-violence is one of the most tragic blots to occur on the pages of the Negroes' history in this country. In many ways, however it is typical of the misplacement of aggressions which have occurred throughout the frustrated circumstances of our existence.

 How often have the frustrations of second class citizenship and humiliating status led us into blind outrage against each other and the real cause and source of our dilemma ignored? It is sadly ironic that those who so clearly pointed to the white world as the seed of evil should now spend their energies in their own destruction.   

Malcolm X came to the fore as a public figure partially as a result of a TV documentary entitled, “The Hate that Hate Produced". That title points to the nature of Malcolm's life and death

Malcolm X was clearly a product of the hate and violence invested in the Negro's blighted existence in this nation.

He, like so many of our number, was a victim of the despair inevitably deriving from the conditions of oppression, poverty, and injustice which engulf the masses of our race. In his youth, there was no hope, no preaching, teaching or movements of non-violence. He was too young for the Garvey Movement, too poor to be a Communist- for the Communists geared their work to Negro intellectuals and labor without realizing that the masses of Negroes were unrelated to either--and yet he possessed a native intelligence and drive which demanded an outlet and means of expression.

He turned first to the underworld, but this did not fulfill the quest for meaning which grips young minds.

It is a testimony to Malcolm's personal depth and integrity that he could not become an underworld Czar, but turned again and again to religion for meaning and destiny. Malcolm was still turning and growing at the time of his brutal and meaningless assassination. Spoke to Mrs. King

In his recent visit to Selma, he spoke at length to my wife Coretta about his personal struggles and expressed an interest in working more closely with the nonviolent movement, but he was not yet able to renounce violence and overcome the bitterness which life had invested in him.

 There were also indications of an interest in politics as a way of dealing with the problems of the Negro. All of these were signs of a man of passion and zeal seeking for a program through which he could channel his talents. But history would not have it so.

A man who lived under the torment of knowledge of the rape of his grandmother and murder of his father under the conditions of the present social order, does not readily accept that social order or seek to integrate into it.

And so Malcolm was forced to live and die as an outsider, a victim of the violence that spawned him, and with which he courted through his brief but promising life.

The American Negro cannot afford to destroy its leadership any more than the Congo can. Men of talent are too scarce to be destroyed by envy, greed and tribal rivalry before they reach their full maturity.

Like the murder of Lumumba, the murder of Malcolm X deprives the world of a potentially great leader. I could not agree with either of these men, but I could see in them a capacity for leadership which I could respect, and which was only beginning to mature in judgment and statesmanship.

Surely the young men of Harlem and Negro communities throughout the nation ought to be ready to seek another way. Let us learn from this tragic nightmare that violence and hate, only breed violence and hate ·and that Jesus' word still goes out to every potential Peter, "Put up thy sword".

 Certainly we will continue to disagree, but we must disagree without becoming violently disagreeable.

We will still suffer the temptation to bitterness, but we must learn that hate is too great a burden for a people moving on toward their date with destiny.

The obituary looks sympathetically at Malcolm X's life and the origins of his views, but refuses to endorse them.  It calls him a "potentially great leader," but that greatness remained unrealized when he was killed by black Muslims loyal to Elijah Muhammad. (We now know that two of the three Muslims convicted of the crime were innocent, but the real culprits--also Black Muslims--have also been identified.)  And I am not at all sure that Malcolm would have moved closer to King had he lived longer.  In the eighteen months after his death younger activists such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown emerged as new rivals to King who also insisted that black people had to depend completely on themselves and rejected the absolute value of nonviolence.  Malcolm might just as easily have joined them, and the Black Panthers who followed in their wake.  Their organizations all collapsed within a few years.  Ms. Graham and others like her want to deny that a choice existed between the philosophies and tactics of King and Malcolm X, but it did--and that choice is still there today.

1 comment:

Energyflow said...

I recall my father in his later years having read a Malcolm X biography and being fascinated and he was a simple laborer who read little. However X, born in 1925, MLK, jr. born in 1929 and my father born in 1923 must have seen a similar world growing up. These people and their values have largely disappeared. Some few exist still in nursing homes. We can try to read books about that world where radios were new and cars owned by the rich but it is hard to relate. MLK must have come from a solid middle class background. This would explain his views. X would have been, like my father, a child of poverty and ghettoes. My father and his brothers got lucky becoming soldiers and experiencing the postwar boom, as whites to boot. The blacks must have seen the boom, leave it to Beaver happy life in the burbs and felt purposely redlined in a bombed out inner city remains destitute of opportunity. They had fled the south to work in industry, escape jim crow, but the northern whites proved themselves no better than their southern brethren in their attitudes. In the south they say one can get close but not get higher socially while in the north one might become equal but is shut out socially. This may have changed in the younger set but in NYC, Chicago, etc black neighbourhoods are 80% black or more, unlike in the West, South where intermarriage rates are much higher, a key to integration of all immigrants historically. France has a similar problem whereas in Germany mixture of population is better, regarding mainly muslims, blacks. So this is not a USA problem and violence of France ghettoes is similar to NYC, Chicago as opposed to peaceful Germany, Texas, where people live more side by side without ideology.