Peniel Joseph Discusses Dual Biography on Malcolm X and MLK
The metaphorical meaning behind the title of Peniel Joseph’s new book “The Sword and the Shield” (Basic Books, 2020) may seem obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of the civil rights movement: The shield represents Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent quest for radical citizenship, and the sword represents Malcolm X’s bold pursuit for Black dignity by any means necessary.
Yet a deeper look into the personal and political journeys of these civil rights icons shows us a different side of the story. We caught up with Joseph, the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, during his book tour to learn more about the contrasting and, at times, overlapping political ideologies of Malcolm X and King—and how they both brought the sword and the shield to the fight for Black freedom and equality.
Why is it so important to look back at this history to understand what we’re seeing out in the streets?
It’s vitally important because Malcolm X and Dr. King were active in America’s second reconstruction. Now I think we’re entering the third reconstruction, and we need to have an understanding of how we got to this point. The title of this book is a metaphor for Malcolm X being the political sword and Dr. King being the political shield. But really, they’re both; they want to defend lives, and they’re willing to courageously speak truth to power no matter the consequences. Looking back at this point in history helps us reimagine democracy today to push for racial justice.
Did you come across anything new or surprising in your research?
I didn’t know the extent of Malcolm X’s support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act until I further looked into his visit to the U.S. Senate, when he and Dr. King had their first and only meeting during a filibuster. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Penn Warren later interviewed Malcolm X for his book “Who Speaks for the Negro?” and asked him what he thought of Dr. King. Malcolm told him they shared the same goals; they had different methods, but they both wanted human dignity.
I also didn’t know, until doing this research, that Malcolm X actually sat in on a speech that Dr. King gave in Harlem on Dec. 17, 1964, and later praised that speech to his own group. A couple months later, he tried to visit Dr. King in jail during the voting rights protests in Selma. He wasn’t allowed to visit, but he did speak with Coretta Scott King after delivering a speech to let her know that he wanted to help the voting rights act succeed. So there really was much more convergence with them in terms of dignity and human rights.
How, in your opinion, can Black Lives Matter advocates see themselves in both Malcolm X and King?
Malcolm X and Dr. King both faced police brutality and wanted a transformation of the criminal justice system. Malcolm X was in talks with the New York Police Department to stop racially profiling and to stop the no-knock and stop-and-frisk policies. Dr. King fought for this, too, in Harlem and Los Angeles. They didn’t succeed, so you have this whole other generation over 50 years later saying they don’t want to live like this. They don’t want to have this kind of punishment and criminalization at the expense of tens of millions of people.
Dr. King said in his final speech, “The greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” That makes us the country that we are—freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the idea that when there’s a grand mistake, we can correct it collectively.
What would you like your readers to take away from this book?
I want people to better explain the movement and to help others realize we’ve been here before. We’ve had opportunities in the past and movements of real progress, but then we get fatigued. There have been movements of urban rebellions, civil disturbances and race riots, but instead of finding the root origins of these problems, we went in the other direction of mass incarceration and demonization. We chose law and order over the good of the beloved community.
That path that we took brought us here—52 years after Dr. King’s death—where we are racially segregated, impoverished and massively divided. I’d like for people to understand that we were here before, we’ve made the wrong choice, and we have the opportunity now to make the right choice. We have to transform policy, and we have to transform hearts and minds and understand that antiracism and racial justice is a constant lifetime of work.
Dr. King used to say that the civil rights movement was about redeeming the nation’s soul, and I think he was absolutely right. At the core, we are absolutely good, but if we aren’t vigilant, we can do terrible things to each other.