Editor’s note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history. He is the author of “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN) — The relationship between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, long a contentious backdrop to the history of civil rights and anti-racist activism in America, is under new scrutiny after the bombshell news that a quote denigrating Malcolm X, published in Playboy and attributed to King, is apparently fraudulent.
In addition to forcing the world to confront its understanding of these defining leaders, this news, first reported by The Washington Post, also calls into question the credulity within which scholars and journalists have examined archival materials and other sources that make up the historical record.
This new information adds to the ongoing rethinking of the relationship between King and Malcolm X. Changing the way we consider their relationship helps us to reconsider the era that shaped both men as well as our own.
For if King and Malcolm X were not on opposite sides of the political fence as is popularly remembered, what new insights and possibilities does that offer for contemporary America to navigate a path away from racial division toward truth, justice and reconciliation?
The quote in question comes from a 1965 article in Playboy, an interview with King conducted by journalist and author Alex Haley, best known for “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Roots.”
In the Playboy interview, after asking King for his thoughts about Malcolm X, the following quote appeared: “And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice.” King purportedly continued. “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.”
The revelation that this quotation — which was interpreted at the time and for years to come as evidence of a fissure between the two men and their approaches to civil rights — was fabricated by Haley comes from Jonathan Eig, author of “King: A Life,” the first major biography of King in a generation (a book for which I offered advance praise). Eig’s work makes great use of newly surfaced archival materials, dozens of interviews and a close reading of sources to offer a more nuanced portrait of King and the historical and material context that shaped him.
Eig, through investigating what appeared to be an unedited 84-page transcript of the interview in the archives, found a different quote: “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.” Eig also noted that Malcolm X had on multiple occasions criticized King and his commitment to nonviolence (even going so far as to call him a “modern Uncle Tom”) but said that his words often had “strategic purposes.”
As Eig told the Post, nowhere in the transcript does King dismiss Malcolm X as “fiery” or “demagogic” — these words were apparently Haley’s, and their publication appears to be an extreme case of what Eig described as “journalistic malpractice” and a violation of ethics. This should not come as a complete shock. Haley had been accused of plagiarism after the publication of “Roots” — and his biographer later found that Haley’s chronic search for financial stability as a freelance journalist affected his ethical compass.
The image of two Black men in opposition that the “Playboy” interview projected fit conveniently into a larger, deeply consequential historical narrative of the 1960s that pitted King and Malcolm X as combatants in an epochal struggle to be considered the true representative of the Black freedom struggle.
In this version of the story, King is America’s apostle of nonviolence, a moral exemplar whose “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington helped usher in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, climactic legislative achievements of the nation’s Second Reconstruction.
Standing in opposition was Malcolm X, Harlem’s hero and prophet of Black rage, who vowed to fight racist terror with anti-racist self-defense that journalists (apparently including his own biographer Haley) twisted into a full-throated embrace of violent revolution.
This narrative made good copy, as Haley (who died in 1992) surely knew: page-turning gossip and great television. Except for the fact that it wasn’t true. Haley helped to tell the world the story it wanted to read, at King and Malcolm X’s expense. It wasn’t the truth the world needed to hear. As Eig put it to the Post, “King was much more open-minded about Malcolm than we’ve tended to portray him.”
The fact that Haley, a moderate Black Republican during the civil rights era, seems to have misrepresented King’s words, also forces us to question aspects of the authenticity of Malcolm X’s “Autobiography,” something that the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Manning Marable did already in his important biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.”
Marable’s discovery that Haley had taken out three chapters that Malcolm X insisted on — which better explained his vision of Black nationalism, Pan-Africanism and political self-determination — helped to better contextualize the mainstream success of Haley’s book. Of course, this is not to suggest that we stop teaching “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” since all memoir and autobiography is an act of literary creation.
Eig’s biography makes several crucial interventions in our understanding of King, in particular giving Coretta Scott King her due as a serious intellectual, thinker, strategist and political partner with her husband.
In refusing to make King’s many rough parts smooth, the new biography enables us to better appreciate his strength to love, moral courage, strategic use of nonviolence as a muscular, powerful and coercive force for good. We get the local, regional, national and global King — a figure shaped much more by the movement than previously considered. The complexity of his relationship to Malcolm X is handled judiciously.
My own recent dual biography of King and Malcolm X argued that much of the contemporary depiction of these two activists as diametrically opposed to one another missed the larger convergences, symmetries and influence upon one another.
Eig’s archival discovery offers further proof of the evolution of the relationship these men shared. This scholarship is rooted in the important work of thinkers and writers such as James Cone, Michael Eric Dyson, Farah Jasmine Griffin and Ula Taylor.
The distorted narrative of King and Malcolm X extended even after their own deaths; Malcolm was assassinated in New York City in 1965 and King struck down in Memphis, Tennessee, three years later.
The stereotypes fed by Haley’s false quote set in motion a legacy for both men that continues to this day — King as depicted by the annual (sanitized) celebrations that imagine him as many White Americans wish him to be, Malcolm X as the embodiment of Black radical violence, to be feared and stymied by the same White Americans who might quote King every year.
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The reality of these two men is, as Eig is the latest to reveal, far richer, more complex and necessary to understand. Revising our understanding of this past changes the way we comprehend the present, from the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement to the ongoing legacies of a more creatively disruptive Martin Luther King Jr. and a surprisingly vulnerable and humane Malcolm X. Balancing the bitter and beautiful parts of the relationship between King and Malcolm X helps us come to terms with past and contemporary historical traumas.
Malcolm X is the most important Black working-class activist the US has ever produced; despite efforts by some to portray him as such, he was never a conventional racial separatist or anti-White activist. He embraced Black dignity as a universal struggle, told through the story of Black folk. He loved us unconditionally.
Over time, King embodied a quest for radical Black citizenship — one that went beyond civil and voting rights to include economic equality, decent housing, guaranteed income and a living wage. He came to recognize that dignity and citizenship were dual sides of the same revolutionary coin, just as these two activists were.
The historical Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, while never the best of friends, found common ground through a mutual embrace of radical Black dignity and citizenship based on an unapologetic love for the global Black community. In this sense, theirs was a shared vision that ultimately transcended petty disagreement, personal egos and efforts to cast them as political combatants.