Having just finished James Cone’s Martin and Malcolm and America, having just watched Selma, and having been listening these last months as continued racial tension is expressed, aggravated, and not resolved in our context, I’m thinking today not just about the past – about how far we’ve come and how much has been overcome – but about the present and how far there is to go.
As I learned of the civil rights movement, I always saw a stark and strict contrast made between Dr. King and Malcolm X.
One was non-violent, one was violent.
One was Christian, one was Muslim.
One was seeking integrated peace, one was seeking separation.
One incited hope, one incited hate.
Cone’s book and the film Selma both demonstrate that, to some degree, while Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X traveled different roads, as their work progressed, their paths were converging. In Selma, this is shown subtly by a meeting between Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X. Cone teases this out further, suggesting the two grew in admiration and recognition of other despite their public distance and even that they were each a necessary corrective and companion to the other.
Martin and Malcolm are important because they symbolize two necessary ingredients in the African-American struggle for justice in the United States. We should never pit them against each other. Anyone, therefore, who claims to be for one and not the other does not understand their significance for the black community, for America, or for the world. We need both of them and we need them together. Malcolm keeps Martin from being turned into a harmless American hero. Martin keeps Malcolm from being an ostracized black hero. (315-316)
So as we mark the birthday of Dr. King, I’m continuing to listen to his words along with the words of Malcolm X. To do otherwise seems to miss a necessary way forward in the midst of our continued struggles with race, class, inequality, segregation and a pursuit of justice in America.