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Malcolm vs Martin

Episode Summary

“The white man pays…subsidizes Reverend Martin Luther King so that he can teach negroes to be defenseless. That’s what you mean by ‘non-violent,’ to be defenseless, to be defenseless against one of the cruelest beasts that have ever taken people into captivity. That’s the American white man.”

In the fifth episode of Make it Plain, Phillip and Taelor discuss how Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King were pitted against one another. While the quote above may make it seem like Malcolm X was at odds with Dr. King, Phillip and Taelor point out that it is not Dr. King that Malcolm is speaking against. Once again, it is the white man, or white culture, that Malcolm takes issue with, in particular how white culture will misuse Dr. King’s non-violent tactics as a way to keep Black Americans defenseless. Malcolm is not attacking Dr. King so much as he is critiquing how white culture uses Dr. King.

It should be said, however, that Dr. King was non-violent. Phillip and Taelor play the interview recording of Dr. King, saying, “Violence creates more social problems than it solves.” King believed that the “negro has neither the instruments nor techniques for violence.” This was because of the vast lack of resources Black Americans had, both in terms of social capital and actual capital. King taught and acted in a way that showed that non-violence was the morally excellent way. 

Phillip and Taelor then move on to discuss Malcolm’s actual views on violence. Here, Phillip points out that Malcolm sounds like a modern-day conservative in his views on violence. Malcolm’s specific quote is: “We’re non-violent with people who are non-violent with us. But we are not non-violent with anyone violent with us.” Malcolm was, to an extent, a non-violent person. He did not advocate for using violence to get his way; however, he was not against using violence to respond to violence done against him. In this way, Malcolm X was merely advocating for Black Americans to have an equal right to the use of violence.

In this sense, Phillip and Taelor argue that it is fair to criticize that King was an instrument of the power structure. Even though Malcolm X is right that King was used this way does not mean that Dr. King was complicit. Martin Luther King and white leaders were not working together to achieve a goal. The white man co-opted King’s message and misused it to benefit white culture at the expense of Black Americans. Malcolm’s ultimate critique ends up being not about Dr. King or non-violence but against a system that turns Dr. King into a saint to further an anti-Black agenda.

Phillip and Taelor also point out that it is essential to keep the context of both men’s lives in view when thinking critically about Malcolm X and Dr. King. It is unfair how the two men have been pitted against one another as if they were not involved in the same fight for equality. While the two men had different ideas and tactics, they were more similar than they were different. Malcolm X was arguing for a Northern solution to Northern problems, and King was seeking a Southern solution to Southern issues, even though King’s work in Memphis toward the end of his life mirrored Malcolm’s work. King was concerned with segregation in the South, while Malcolm X spoke out against how Black Americans were being discriminated against in the North, where racism was not as blatant as in the South.

In the end, it is essential to remember that Malcolm X was not pro-violence as much as he was pro-defense. And defense does not necessarily equal violence. Phillip and Taelor point out that Malcolm’s pro-defense stance is because he saw the problem more clearly than anyone else. But it is also Malcolm’s pro-defense stance that causes him to be demonized, while Dr. King and his non-violence stance are canonized. Both views of each man are reductive because they do not paint the complete picture of who these men were or what they thought. Even though Dr. King and Malcolm X never met in this life, it cannot be denied that they challenged one another as they fought different battles to achieve equality for Black men, women, and children in America.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what way is Malcolm X’s quote about Dr. King correct and incorrect?
  2. Why were Malcolm X’s pro-defense views easy to demonize?
  3. How is demonizing Malcolm X and canonizing Dr. King a reductive view of each man?
  4. What does this discussion of Malcolm X and Dr. King teach us about how the church can learn from those who do not share our convictions or methods?


Phillip Holmes: Welcome to Make it Plain, where we offer Christian reflections on the words and life of Malcolm X. I’m Phillip Holmes.

Taelor Gray: And I’m Taelor Gray. We are your hosts. 

So, Phil, this episode we wanted to talk about something that I believe a lot of our listeners have been waiting for us to talk about. And that’s this juxtaposition between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King. And this juxtaposition is something that often may be a source of debate or polarization. But we want to approach this charitably, and I like to think about it in the vein of a recent example that we have of how to appreciate two people—or two entities—and what they bring to the table, no matter how differently they may present themselves, or the content that we all enjoy. 

So I know during the pandemic—we’re just coming out of the intensity of the pandemic–and we all had a lot of difficult things to navigate, but one of the bright spots of the pandemic was this creative outlet to enjoy music together as a community, while we’re all in the house separate from each other. That was under this platform that some of you may be aware of called Verzuz. So this is Swizz Beatz and Timbaland decided to come together and say hey, you bring your top twenty songs that you produced, and I’ll bring my top twenty songs. And from that initial platform setting, Timbaland would play a bunch of records he produced and Swizz Beatz would play a bunch of records he produced, and the idea, supposedly, was to come out with a winner at the end. But what ended up happening was more of a celebration of all the music that people enjoyed. So, as time went on, other artists jumped into the fray, and you got anything from Babyface and Teddy Riley to DMX and Snoop Dogg. And you’re playing all these records back to back, and the people aren’t sitting back tallying up the score to say who wins and who loses. They just appreciate what both artists bring to the table. 

I hope that’s what we can do today, is do a good job at humanizing both men and appreciating their perspectives–their strong stances. Like we said in an earlier episode, Malcolm has strong convictions. But at the end of the day, we seek to be charitable. Let me start us off with this quote. This quote from Malcolm X says this: 

“The white man pays, or subsidizes, Reverend Martin Luther King so that he can teach the Negroes to be defenseless. That’s what you mean by nonviolent. To be defenseless. To be defenseless against one of the most cruel beasts that has ever taken people into captivity. That’s the American white man.” 

Phil, if I can be fair and just ask–how does this quote strike you or rub you immediately?

Holmes: This particular quote, I think, is understandable from Malcolm’s point of view. I understand where Malcolm is coming from. I do wonder what he means by “subsidizes,” because it sounds as if King was on the white man’s payroll, if you will. So, I wonder–he could just mean–“subsidizes” could just mean that they platformed King. Because, again, he talks about the media. He talks about the power of the media. He calls it the white man’s media, or the white man’s press, or something like that is what Malcolm refers to it as. And we talked about that in a previous episode. That is one way, if you will, of subsidizing a person, is by platforming them. But he says “so that he can teach the Negroes to be defenseless.” 

It is possible because it is interesting–if you read this carefully and think through it charitably, it’s less of an attack upon King directly. It’s definitely an indirect attack. I can read it as the white man is sort of, in Malcolm’s mind, the villain, and he is using King to teach the Negroes to be defenseless. Not necessarily that those are the intentions of King. 

Gray: Right.

Holmes: Right? King was–and I think to some extent, that is possible. Right? That King–you know, there’s this interview on NBC. I had listened to clips of it, but I had never listened to the entire thing until you sent it to me recently. One of the things that the interviewer asked King is: 

(Recording) Sander Vanocur: Sir, in addition to your commitment to the idea of nonviolence, wasn’t it also the only thing you could do—the white community having the monopoly on violence—that if you had tried violence, they would have met it with violence? It was the only device open to you, wasn’t it?

(Recording) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Well, I’ll put it another way—that morally, I was led to nonviolence because I felt that it was the best moral way to deal with the problem. We were seeking to establish a just society. And it was my feeling then and it is my feeling now that violence is certainly much more socially destructive, and it creates many more social problems than it solves. So I was led to nonviolence for deep moral reasons. 

Now there is no doubt about the fact that in our struggle in Montgomery, and all over the United States for that matter, nonviolence is also practically sound. It would just be impractical for the Negro to turn to violence. He has neither the instruments nor the techniques of violence. We’re about ten or eleven percent of the total population of the nation, and I would say we’re about one-tenths of one percent of the firepower. So it would just be totally impractical, and unwise, and unrealistic for the Negro to think of violence. Well, I saw this in the beginning in Montgomery, but this wasn’t the basic reason that I turned to nonviolence, and that I believed in it as a philosophy. I turned to it because I felt that it was the morally excellent way to deal with the problem of racial injustice in our country.

Holmes: Now, this is King months before he was assassinated. So this isn’t King early on in the movement. This is King post Civil Rights Act, and he’s having this interview, and he still held to this nonviolent philosophy. Which I’ve mentioned in previous episodes–I think King was brilliant for that. I think that in a lot of ways, that’s the biblical approach. Now, if you want to essentially criticize Malcolm for criticizing the nonviolent approach, Malcolm isn’t saying anything that a conservative today wouldn’t say. Malcolm sounds like a conservative in America.

Gray: Okay, we gotta break that down (laughs).

Holmes: You want my gun? You can take it out of my cold, dead hands, right? Conservatives are all about using violence to defend themselves. Because Malcolm isn’t talking about going out and waging war. He said this multiple times.

Malcolm X: We’re nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us. But we are not nonviolent with anyone who is violent with us.

Holmes: Violence is a response to violence in Malcolm’s worldview. He’s never encouraged people to be an initiator of violence. Those are my initial thoughts.

Gray: I think that’s good because we’re undoing some perceived conclusions about what’s being said. It’s kind of like you’re trying to anticipate the worst conclusions someone could draw from the statement. And trying to unfold it a little bit more, with some context and some nuance, and I think that’s good. 

Even your point about something that an American conservative would say today, as it relates to their own personal interests, does sound very similar to what Malcolm is conveying right now. It’s, you know, whatever the notion of pandering is–because–you know, let’s be real. There are sentiments that Malcolm’s conveying–those kinds of sentiments are present now. Someone–a black person, or a leader of a particular–a leader in a black social movement capacity–views another black figure, who is publicly gaining more notoriety and speaking on a variety of social issues as it relates to the black community–this lesser-known figure looks at that person and says Oh yeah, they’re putting that person out there for us to see, to essentially stifle the movement. To prevent real change from happening. 

I think this is a quote that we can definitely interrogate from the perspective of: here is Malcolm in context. This is where Malcolm is thinking. This is where his current opinion stands based on maybe his devotion to the Nation of Islam, and the height of his emotional response to the condition of black people in this country. He’s looking at Dr. King and saying, oh this dude’s an Uncle Tom. Oh, this dude is essentially trying to tell black people to chill so they can’t really actually facilitate change. 

But to your point, he’s not advocating for violence. And that’s where, when you get to the Dr. King clip, where there may be a little bit of tricky waters in how he’s articulating the opposite view of nonviolence. I don’t think that’s what Malcolm is advocating for, either. He’s not saying, hey, let’s get a group of black people together to start an insurrection and let’s arm ourselves and storm the American government. He’s not saying that. But he is drawing a line in the sand in terms of defense. In terms of being able to defend yourself against an attack. 

And so, here we are at this place where if we’re not careful–if we don’t contextualize or if we don’t take a hard look at what perception can teach us about why these men are communicating what they communicate—we could very quickly travel into, in this corner we have this person, and in this corner, we have the other. You’re actually engaging with these clips, or engaging with these quotes. You’re not just listening to them in a way where you hope it sinks into some deep corner of your subconscious. But, no, actually engage what Malcolm has actually said. He literally says: we’re not advocating to be violent and to cause chaos and disruption in the streets. But here in this quote, he’s directing his criticism to King. 

To your point, Phil, I think it’s a broader criticism of the system that he feels enables King, or he uses the word “subsidizes.” Like you said, that might not necessarily mean that they’re literally paying him a paycheck, but they’re putting him on a platform, making him the most visible. And I think, at the end of the day if we think about how history played out, I would say that the white American power structure does look more favorably on Dr. King than on Malcolm X. So, is it fair for Malcolm to criticize Dr. King for being an instrument of the white American power structure? 

Holmes: It’s fair. 

Gray: Okay.

Holmes: Because I think in a lot of ways, Malcolm was correct in his assessment of what was taking place. I just think that just because Malcolm was correct does not necessarily–does not mean at all–I don’t have to say “necessarily” in this case–does not mean that Martin was complicit. Right?

Gray: That’s good. Say that again. Say it again. Because he was correct…

Holmes: Just because Malcolm was correct does not mean—and it shouldn’t be taken as—Martin being complicit as an instrument. Because the two are different. If you say that he’s complicit, it can sound as if Martin and these white leaders were in cahoots, and that wasn’t the case. 

I think that they were taking a philosophy, and they were using it to their own ends. While they’re looking at it as: yeah, we want these people to not riot. We want these people to remain quote-unquote “defenseless.” We don’t want them to take up arms. Martin’s our guy. That Malcolm guy is dangerous. 

Here’s the reality. One of the things that’s in–you alluded to this: that Martin is viewed as more of an effective civil rights hero. This is what Alex Haley wrote in Malcolm’s autobiography. He says this, he says: 

“He was clearly irked when a New York Times poll among New York City Negroes reflected that three-fourths had named Dr. Martin Luther King as “doing the best work for Negroes,” and another one-fifth had voted for the N.A.A.C.P.’s Roy Wilkins, while only six percent had voted for Malcolm X. ‘Brother,’ he said to me, ‘do you realize that some of history’s greatest leaders never were recognized until they were safely in the ground!’”

Gray: There it is. There we are. Back at, I think, some of that cutting, sharp, prophetic perspective that Malcolm had. I’m sure there’s a little bit of ego in there as well.

Holmes: But–

Gray: He’s human.

Holmes: I wouldn’t say–the only reason I wouldn’t say there was ego there is because this is New York City black folks. This is Malcolm’s stomping grounds.

Gray: Sure.

Holmes: These are the people in the north. We talked about this regional dynamic. I understand how it would be just as–I would imagine King would have had a similar response if people in Birmingham, or Atlanta, Georgia, said Malcolm X was doing significantly more for black folks than King was. It’s one thing–I can’t help but think about–and this is unrelated but related–when Kobe is in Philly, and he receives the award in Philly, and he gets booed by the home crowd in Philly. The reporter asked him, how does it feel to get booed by your hometown? And he said, man, it hurts. It really does. It did hurt my feelings. Right? This was essentially–

Gray: Yeah, and Kobe never said that (laughs).

Holmes: Kobe never admitted–when he was like…When I first saw the interview,  I was like–Kobe was like, man, I don’t really care. That’s what I thought he was going to say. And I was like, man, this…Kobe is being extremely vulnerable in this moment. And I think that this is essentially Malcolm getting booed by a place where he spent a significant amount of his time and his life and his investment.

Gray: You’re right. Of course, there’s this whole–I’m a pastor, man–the whole only in his hometown is a prophet without honor type of thing. That’s kind of this reflection of, it’s a shame that even amongst the people that know me the best, have seen probably the most of my life, there’s no appreciation. 

The reason I enter ego into the whole thing is because essentially this is a popularity poll. This isn’t a true measurement of effectiveness. This is just an opinion poll for a newspaper that’s being used by the white man’s media. For Malcolm–listen, we’re human. I’m not trying to be disparaging in talking about Malcolm’s response.

Holmes: Yeah, but–

Gray: Dr. King has an ego as well.

Holmes: Right.

Gray: It’s just–we’re human. We want to hear that people are with us.

Holmes: Right. And also, again, one of the things you said–people that know me the best. This also shows that Malcolm, for most of his time, was handcuffed. He was handcuffed by the Nation of Islam in even speaking to, or thinking about working with civil rights leaders. It was interesting. The Nation of Islam was more interested in working with the KKK because of this sort of separatist philosophy, and Malcolm was never okay with that. But he respected Elijah Muhammad at the time, so he kind of allowed for it, if you will. 

But this is a situation where you have a guy who was handcuffed in, and then basically, towards the end of his life, he didn’t really have an opportunity…by the time he left the Nation of Islam, I think he may have lived a year, year and a half. I think one could actually say it was barely a year. When he was in Miami, that was in February, and he was still technically in the Nation of Islam, though he was on suspension. And then by the time he…technically a year later, he was dead. He was killed the following February.

Gray: The thing about it, too, is what we’re observing here–I think what we’re speaking into–is this whole notion of how perception, and what it looks like to live into a caricature of a person, versus the actual truth of who they are. In some ways I feel like Malcolm–if I’m asked, is this fair? In some ways, I would say it’s a little unfair because I think he’s viewing Martin as a caricature. In some ways, that is beneficial for his cause, and the ways that he communicates strategy for the black community. In other ways, it damages Dr. King’s credibility in ways that…he probably should be given more of a chance by folks in the black community who are looking for change as well. 

So it’s interesting, because…this quote we’re using from Malcolm X is one of many. He has been critical directly of Dr. King’s…particularly his methodology and his strategy–nonviolence. He’s not leveling personal attacks against his character, necessarily. Although, some people could argue that. He’s criticizing his methodology and the strategy that he feels puts black people at a disadvantage in this country. 

We could parallel that today with whatever we view about the racial reconciliation movement of our time. In the church, where–I don’t care if it was Promise Keepers back decades ago, or whatever. It’s this public picture of quote-unquote “nonviolence”–not being a threat, capitulating to other environments that are white-centered. Letting a white person was your feet, or get up there and talk about–a black person get up there and talk about–they don’t see color. It seems to put black people at a disadvantage from far away and say, you are a person who is harming the movement more than you’re helping. 

I think that’s where Malcolm’s coming from, and part of me resonates with that because I can levy those criticisms–but here’s the key thing–I can levy those criticisms at a distance. What we always have to contend with when we look at Malcolm and Martin is that they were often viewing one another from a distance.

Holmes: That’s one of the unfortunate things about their relationship. You talked about, earlier, how Malcolm had attempted to reach out to King to have some of these conversations, and King was essentially, as far as you know–and as far as I know, because my information is from you–unwilling to meet with him.

Gray: He just didn’t respond. 

Holmes: Yeah. He just didn’t respond. Yes. Exactly. So it wasn’t direct. It was more indirect. I would imagine, too, that there are plenty of reasons why that was the case. It wasn’t just that King wasn’t curious, or King didn’t want to talk to Malcolm. I’m sure that King had people in his ear, and King himself was strategically thinking, especially early on, if I align myself with this brother or publicly meet with him, that’s going to hurt the cause. This is one of the ways that people can divide us when we have different philosophies. I think that this is one of the effects of white gaze. 

We haven’t talked as much about white gaze on here, but white gaze affects black people in so many different ways. Because when we begin to obsess with what is this going to look like–we’re not really concerned about what this is going to look like to other black people. Because black people have always been a lot more ecumenical–and aligning or working alongside others who may potentially have different views from us. 

One of the historic examples I can give to this, even before Malcolm and Martin, is Francis Grimké, who was a reformed Presbyterian African-American pastor–clergyman–who also helped found the NAACP and worked alongside W.E.B. Du Bois and the Niagara Movement. But he’s an example in a positive manner. He wasn’t worrying about white gaze. 

But once the media–and in our context, social media, and all that stuff–gets involved, I’ve noticed that people are very, very hesitant with who they work with, in a sort of cliquish way. It’s either the gaze of white liberals or the gaze of white conservatives that they’re afraid of. How is this going to affect my brand? What are they going to think if they see me talking to this person, or engaging with this person, or retweeting this person? Because now a retweet means a full endorsement of that person’s entire platform.

Gray: It’s real.

Holmes: So, it’s not just that the leaders lack the ability to be ecumenical, but the leaders have also not discipled their people well enough to be able to think critically for themselves. So, if I like this guy, or if I like something that this guy says, I’m afraid that it’s going to be seen as a full endorsement. Therefore, if my people get exposed to this person, they’re not going to be able to critically engage, and critically think, about where this person is right, and where this person is wrong. So, this is a problem within, I think, American evangelicalism in general. 

Because people will say, well, this person was platformed by this ministry, and this person was platformed by that ministry, and it was like, yeah. They platformed a particular message, but this wasn’t a full endorsement. And so, it shows that there is a significant issue with parishioners being able to think critically for themselves and come to conclusions, which is fascinating. Because we’re one of the most educated societies on Earth, and we have an inability to think critically, which is why the whole anti-CRT movement has gained so much traction is because people can’t think. 

Gray: I think, again, we’re looking at two men who were evolving in their perspectives, and maybe by way of circumstance–the shared, collective circumstance of black people in this country–they were becoming more proximate to each other, while they were having their own personal revelations about what is and what isn’t. What is truth, and what’s the way forward? They were having these personal, introspection moments over time, but then the circumstances themselves–King finds himself in the north later in his life, and Malcolm finds himself at odds with his own religious system. 

Whatever we think in terms of idealistic pursuits of bringing us together as a church community, ethnically and culturally–I think I would look closer towards a figure in the black community that strives for this. I think that, at the end of the day, Dr. King was trying to do that. He was trying to bridge these different elements of passion and frustration within the entire civil rights cause. And whatever civil rights was for some person in one particular arena, maybe it was different for another person in another arena. 

Today, for me, a modern example of that is someone like Killer Mike, who comes up through the ranks of hip-hop as far as visibility is concerned, but has a very deep, personal history that’s entrenched in the deep south, black culture, whether it has to do with education, whether it has to do with work ethic, whether it has to do with activism, you know, in its purest form. He travels this vein of nuance that forces us to interact with American society, but at the same time, protests the power systems that exist. Some days he’s cheered for, and some days he’s booed off the stage. 

I’ll never forget watching–and you guys should watch this in your own time–there was a forum–a Revolt TV forum–where all of these black leaders were gathered together in this room to talk about what could be considered the black agenda. I don’t think all of it was good, but there were particular portions that were really helpful. It was interesting to see an exchange between Killer Mike and Candace Owens. 

The thing about black folk that I love so much is that all things are equal at the dinner table. We get together with us, and we start talking for real amongst us, and we can really start to understand each other better. We could incorporate humor. We could incorporate a shared experience that makes you look and say, I completely forgot, you’re going through the same thing I’m going through. 

In that way, I love the potential that this exchange, or this–even confrontation between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King gives us. Because we have to look at other factors. You’ve touched on this earlier in our episodes, but region and context has to play a role in what’s communicated here. For Malcolm to even enter subsidizing a brand–says the white man subsidizes a brand that’s favorable to them–that’s a regional reflection, in my opinion. Because Dr. King is like, listen, bro. I ain’t gotta prove nothing. I’ve been in jail. I’ve been beat up. You know what I’m saying? You’ve said this before, like, bro, do you understand the cost that I’ve already paid, right now? Which is why I kind of like, man, is it fair for Malcolm X to say that to Dr. King as if he hasn’t actually worked through some difficult times? I guess, from your perspective, do you even see that at play here? That this is a regional perspective that Malcolm has?

Holmes: Yeah. For sure. I definitely think that it’s a factor. I think that…in the NBC interview that King did–that interview is so important to really understanding King in the final phases of his life. He talks about the black people in the north:

(Recording) Dr. King: The frustrations at points are much deeper. The bitterness is deeper, and I think that’s because in the south we can see pockets of progress here and there. We’ve really made some strides that are very visible, and every southern Negro knows that he can do things today that he couldn’t do four or five years ago, wherein the north, the Negro sees only retrogress, and he doesn’t find it as easy to get his vision centered on his target—the target of opposition—as he does in the south.

Consequently, this has made for despair, and at many points cynicism—a feeling that you can’t win—and it simply means that we’ve got to develop in the north a massive job of organization and mobilizing forces and resources to deal with the problem in the urban ghettos of the north, just as we’ve done it in the south.

Holmes: These are things that I had already alluded to in previous episodes, where in some ways, Malcolm is living at a time that’s probably more similar to 2021 than what King, and Medgar Evers, and all these other brothers and sisters were experiencing in the south. So, we’re essentially looking at someone who is saying–I think Malcolm is trying to get people to see, in some ways that King’s mindset is shortsighted. And I think Malcolm–where I would disagree with Malcolm, is in King’s solution was shortsighted. I actually think King’s solution for the south was spot-on.

Gray: Yeah, it’s…I just wish these brothers would have just sat down and talked (laughs).  I listen to this, and I’m like, man, the south and the north thing is so fascinating to me, because even though there may not have been these open displays of violence that you could observe and respond to visually, there was still kind of a palpable fear in the north, that if you crossed certain lines, you know you’re in trouble. Or you know you’re going to get beat down, or you might not be found again. It’s more psychological. 

Martin actually spoke to this later in his life, when he started protesting against the unequal housing opportunities for black people. Where in Chicago, all of these people came out–he was just doing a regular march–and bro, he got mobbed up there by a bunch of white residents in the Chicago area. He actually got hit, I think, with a bottle or something while he was marching up there. Martin’s words were like, man, I have never seen it like this. And he’s from the south.

Holmes: Yeah, he thought that in some ways it was worse in the north than it was in the south.

Gray: Right.

Holmes: He also talked about how in the late 1960s, the people in the south were a lot more hopeful and a lot more optimistic, versus the people in the north having a sort of angst. Because the people in the south could look back five, six, or seven years ago and see that life had significantly and dramatically improved for them.

Gray: Yes. They got wins.

Holmes: Whereas the people in the north–the Civil Rights Act wasn’t really a win for them, because it didn’t really change anything. 

Gray: This is why I just wish these guys could have talked because it was perspective that obviously had to be gained over time. And I remember the scene in the movie Selma where the meeting of Malcolm X and Coretta Scott King was depicted in the movie. And Coretta comes later to tell Martin, who was in jail at the time, that she met with Malcolm X. And the way they depicted Martin’s reaction was, I can’t believe you met with this dude. Just the scandal of Martin Luther King’s wife meeting with one of his biggest opponents, in a moment that seemed like an olive branch–it did not inspire optimism from King. That just shows that these folks–these guys are walking through different scenarios and circumstance, but they’re still focused on a common goal. They just needed to reason with one another. 

Holmes: And I also think that it’s, in retrospect, completely unfair how society has pit these two against each other as if they were a one-to-one correlation. 

Gray: Right.

Holmes: These weren’t two dudes who were both in the south, fighting for and fighting against the same thing. It speaks to, also, how black people are often viewed as all being the same. Black people in the north and black people in the south had two very different fights on their hands. Again, I wonder if the media regularly distinguished between the two. It’s not the same. They are working for two separate causes.

Gray: There’s so much that we can learn from their distant exchange that could inform the way that we engage one another now. Because, in so many ways, a lot of the passionate disagreements that we’re having across the Christian community can learn something from this. There is a broader cause that it seems like everyone is in one accord about. I think some of the ecumenical expression that we see is branding. 

But I think that for the most part, there are people that I talk to–they’re generally pretty charitable people. Rarely do I meet somebody who’s just totally morally bankrupt, and they have their own agenda, and I know we can be tempted in that arena, but in general, I think we would be best served if we tried to reduce the distance between one another. We have these sharp, public disagreements where something is said, and maybe a person’s name is even mentioned. I mean, I come from the hip-hop culture arena, where that can happen. Like this record happens. Sharp disagreements happen. But then over time, you see people reconcile and meet somewhere, and there’s love between them. What do you think we leave on the table in terms of how we handle public disagreement as Christians?

Holmes: That’s a really good question. I don’t think that necessarily we should glean as much–or prescribe what Malcolm and Martin–how they engaged one another, rather than learn from it. Because there’s a few things that I think you have here. You have, potentially, Malcolm’s words isolating for longer periods of time. They are two men who unfortunately did not have long to live. Especially Malcolm. So for every public disagreement, there was often a–I would imagine that extended the time in which they would actually meet. 

Now, I would say that Malcolm’s desire to meet with King is commendable, and that is definitely something that should be prescribed. I would say King’s hesitancy to meet with Malcolm, while to some extent, understandable (given the comments that Malcolm had, I’m assuming, made up to these various points) is unfortunate. But I think what we should learn from that is that it’s not necessarily always the best because I wonder after Malcolm had passed, how much King wished he had a chance to spend more time with him and talk to him, and him learn from him, and the other…

Because I would imagine, too, that perhaps Malcolm could have been persuaded by King’s nonviolent approach. Even though, again, I don’t think there’s a one-to-one correlation in their ability to apply it, in sort of this new, non-segregated society that they were living in. But, at the end of the day, that conversation, that dynamic, that evolution was then interesting and fascinating to watch. I think what we can learn from this is that you have to actually talk to one another, communicate with one another, and make sure you understand the other person. We talked about Malcolm’s intellectual integrity, and while I don’t necessarily know that he always represented King accurately, but his desire to meet with King does show that there was a genuine search for the truth. Another takeaway point from that conversation would be that if your desire is to represent them accurately, then it expedites the actual gathering to have these conversations.

Gray: Sure. And I agree. I think that’s the takeaway–at least that I have–from Malcolm, is the intentionality of trying to meet. Saying, listen. I said what I said, but I’m still interested in having a conversation. And it’s not just that I want to be buddy-buddy–to be friends with you. It’s because I care about the broader cause. I care about this notion of black liberation that it seems like we’re both working towards. But I don’t agree with some of your methodology. 

To be honest, and this may sound controversial to some degree, I believe that if Martin would have lived a full life, I believe that he would have abandoned his nonviolent strategy. I believe–at least the way he communicated it. Because the part that I believe caused Martin a ton of conflict and pushback from leaders in the civil rights movement, or leaders in the black community at large, was the terminology of nonviolence being seen as a term that pacified the white power structure. They believed that him using that was an overcorrection of the perception of black people. Now we’ll accept you because you’re nonviolent. Because you’re coming out saying that. Malcolm was more saying that, we never said we were violent. So now you’re forcing me to respond to a straw-man. 

Holmes: Yeah, exactly. When you said that definitely struck a—that was a lightbulb that hit. Because, again, “nonviolent” juxtaposes it against something that doesn’t actually exist. What you have Malcolm proposing is not a pro-violence. It’s a pro-defense. We talked about this, but I don’t know if it clicked what King’s message was communicating about the leaders who did not like the language of nonviolence. Because you can be nonviolent if you are not an agitator. Nobody would say that conservatives–or conservatives wouldn’t say that conservatives are–I don’t know what progressives would say. But Malcolm says, we are a nonviolent people with people who are nonviolent with us. That’s nonviolent. Violence isn’t usually conceived as people who are defending themselves.

Gray: Right. Again, I think Martin over time—I mean, there are people who were close to him like SNCC was starting to become more of a force, and that Stokely Carmichael and leaders associated with his rise. He was young at the time, but he actively disagreed with Dr. King’s terminology of nonviolence. 

Holmes: Yeah, I think what you said was key. It’s not that he would have abandoned it. I think that he would have seen strategically the un-helpfulness of how it was being communicated.

Gray: We’re starting this conversation around perception—what is perceived in what Malcolm is saying, and ultimately, how is Martin being perceived that would cause Malcolm to respond this way? Again, if we got these brothers in a room together to talk about the nuances of where they’re coming from…Because King is talking about Gandhi. He’s talking about a higher moral approach to oppression that extends outside of the immediate American context. He was moved by an example that was far away from our country. And he’s trying to take it to this country, and it was effective. 

I think it was one of those things that was effective in its time, or there was a time of its maximum effectiveness–that time would have moved forward in such a way to say, all right. We don’t know if coming out with this nonviolent terminology, or push for, or social strategy, especially as you move further north–we don’t know if that’s applicable. I think that King would have had the foresight and the wisdom to say, you know what? I think that’s still my personal contribution to the movement in some ways, but I can back off of the terminology. I understand that we need to emphasize other things right now. Again, that’s just me seeing them together in a room. 

To your point earlier, there are people playing political games with their branding. They won’t engage people who sharply disagree with them, because they’re afraid of getting exposed. Or they’re afraid of losing their following. That’s where Malcolm’s term of “subsidizing” gains credibility. Because if you had nothing to lose, and this was all about the struggle and the whole thing that we’re trying to do together, then you would take the time to meet with–especially with black people who disagree with you (laughs). This is an internal family discussion. We should at least gain an understanding between one another so we can be more broadly effective.

Holmes: And if black people, how much more other Christians? Right?

Gray: Christians, bro! Man!

Holmes: Because that’s an even deeper family discussion.

Gray: That’s it!

Holmes: It transcends race, social and economic class, and all that. 

Another thing, too—I think that–I don’t know–when it comes to approaches, I don’t know what approach would have been most effective. Because Malcolm’s solution wasn’t violence. I don’t know if Malcolm actually got around to the point where he was actually able to comprehensively develop a solution because he was so busy responding to the caricatures that King had, I think, unintentionally put in his direction. That he felt like he had to respond…. 

But Malcolm’s keen insight allowed him to see the problem more clearly and more deeply than anyone before his time. And I think we have to acknowledge King again, in that same NBC interview. So in Malcolm’s book–Malcolm’s autobiography–he says this about the March on Washington. He says, 

“Yes, I was there. I observed that circus. Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing “We Shall Overcome…Suum Day…” while tripping and swaying arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against? Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily-pad park pools, with gospels and guitars and “I Have a Dream” speeches? And the black masses in America were–and still are–having nightmares.” 

Now, you would say–so Malcolm is essentially saying that you’re talking about how you have a dream, but essentially what we have on our hands post-Civil Rights Act, is a nightmare. But guess who actually admitted the same thing?

(Recording) Vanocur: When you stood in the Lincoln Memorial that day in August ’63, and you said “I have a dream,” did that dream envision…you could see a war in Asia preventing the Federal Government doing for the Negroes, preventing the society doing for the Negroes, that which you think had to be done?

 (Recording) Dr. King: No, I didn’t envision that then. I must confess that that period was a great period of hope for me, and I’m sure for many others all across the nation. Many of the Negroes who had about lost hope saw a solid decade of progress in the south. And in 1954, which was—I mean ’64. 1963, nine years after the Supreme Court’s decision, to be in the March on Washington—it meant a great deal. It was a high moment—a great watershed moment. 

But I must confess that that dream that I had that day has at many points turned into a nightmare. Now I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyze many things over the last few years, and I would say over the last few months. I’ve gone through a lot of soul-searching and agonizing moments, and I’ve come to see that we have many more difficult days ahead, and some of the old optimism was a little superficial, and now it must be tempered with a solid realism. And I think the realistic fact is that we still have a long, long way to go and that we are involved in a war on Asian soil, which if not checked and stopped can poison the very soul of our nation.

Holmes: So, again, but this is–this is the King that we’ve been told. We’re always presented–we’re not presented the NBC-months-before-his-assassination King. When people talk about how King has been sanitized, this is exactly what they’re talking about. They do the same thing with Malcolm. Neither one of these men are actually humanized. They’re either sanitized, or they’re demonized. Malcolm was demonized because they took a particular point in his life, and they highlighted that as if that was all he ever was. And then they took a particular point in King’s life, and they’ve highlighted that historically as all he ever was. But when you look at this interview, you can tell that both of these men evolved. When you look at the interview with King–when you look at–an evolution has taken place. 

And rarely do we learn from the wise older men, right? The ones who are always put on display are the ones who are either overly optimistic or overly pessimistic. And Martin understood, and he articulated this in the interview, the effects of the trauma and the abuse that they’ve experienced–how that can make them sort of pathological. He used that word exactly. He said, we’re all prone to become pathological. He’s like, I’ve had to fight against becoming pathological. I think this is the world that we live in today. Because not a whole lot has changed post-Civil Rights Act.

Gray: I think there’s a lot of platforming and posturing on both sides as it relates to this, but I believe the world is actually looking for a witness. The Malcolms of the world are looking for a witness from the church that actually stands behind what we say we believe, and is actually consistent with what Christ really taught. Not in that you become in some way shielded from conflict–there’s kind of this Pleasantville faith where everybody doesn’t see color, and we get along nicely and smile at each other, and endure the social conditions that are before us. No. If there are things that need to change, they need to change, and it may take some confrontation, but that doesn’t mean that love is not present. 

I don’t ever want to be a person that says we just never disagree. No, man, I live in that world. We have to disagree at certain times. But in all you’re getting, get understanding. We should understand each other.

Holmes: Taelor, that is so good and so helpful.

I think that the only way that you can have those types of meetings, and you can show that type of unity and respect for your ideological opponents, is if there is a desire to understand one another and a desire to seek what is true, and what is helpful for those who are being fought for. 

I’m very concerned when guys try to highlight the fact that they were the ones to say it first because you’re wanting credit and recognition when you should be celebrating that finally, other people are seeing what you’ve been seeing. And it doesn’t really matter who says it first as long as it’s being said, and as long as it’s being communicated accurately, and truthfully, and holistically, and it’s not being sanitized. I think that this is helpful. I think this sort of Malcolm and Martin conversation is going to be helpful to the church. I think it’s going to bring some clarity about these two individuals. I think it may even teach them things that they didn’t realize were actually the case and were actually true about King and about Malcolm. So I think this is a good conversation, bro.

Gray: Yep. I got one final thing to say: Stop pitting Malcolm X against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Stop it.

Holmes: You pastors out there–you know who you are.

Gray: You know who you are. All right, bro. Thankful for you.

Holmes: All right. Likewise, man.

Phillip Holmes

Phillip Holmes is a marketing executive and owner of Highest Good Media. He and his family are members of Redeemer Church.

Taelor Gray

Taelor Gray currently serves as pastor at Linden Fellowship while doubling as a hip-hop artist. He and his wife have two children.