Black Power Scholar Illustrates How MLK And Malcolm X Influenced Each Other Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are frequently seen as opposing forces in the struggle for civil rights but Peniel Joseph, author of The Sword and the Shield, says the truth is more nuanced.

Black Power Scholar Illustrates How MLK And Malcolm X Influenced Each Other

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There is no way to understand the history, struggle and debate over race and democracy in contemporary America without understanding Malcolm X and Martin Luther King's relationship to each other, their own era and, most critically, to our time. That's what my guest, Peniel Joseph, writes. He's the author of the recently published book "The Sword And The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives Of Malcolm X And Martin Luther King Jr." Joseph says that the mythology surrounding their legacies typically portrays King as the nonviolent insider while Malcolm is characterized as a by-any-means-necessary political renegade. It's King's "I Have A Dream" versus Malcolm's "The Ballot Or The Bullet."

Joseph's book braids their lives together, looking at how the paths they took in their fights against white supremacy and for racial justice diverged and converged. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965; King was assassinated three years later. Peniel Joseph is the founding director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas, Austin. Before that, he founded the Tufts University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

His previous books include "Stokely," a biography of Stokely Carmichael, who became Kwame Ture and popularized the term Black Power and was a leader of that movement, and the book "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power To Barack Obama."

Peniel Joseph, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to braid together the lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I've always been fascinated by Malcolm X and Dr. King, and the more I did research into the Black Power movement and I wrote several books about Black Power and civil rights, the more I was both interested in them and dissatisfied in how they're usually portrayed both in books and in popular culture.

GROSS: They both fought for racial equality, but did they have different visions of the world they wanted to see?

JOSEPH: Well, I think they have convergent visions, but they have different strategies on how to get there. So Malcolm X is really scarred by racial trauma at a very early age. King, in contrast, has a very gilded childhood, and he's the son of upper-middle-class African American family, prosperous family, that runs one of the most important churches in Black Atlanta, Ebenezer Baptist Church.

So Malcolm and Martin are shaped by both the historical circumstances that are presented to them but also by their own personal histories. So they both want these goals of human rights and human freedom and human dignity, but they're going to have different strategies and tactics, especially initially, on how to achieve that goal.

GROSS: Compare their initial tactics.

JOSEPH: Well, when you think about Malcolm X, Malcolm X is the most important Black working-class hero and leader and activist of the 20th century, and by that, I mean that Malcolm is coming from the lower frequencies of the Black community. He's born in Omaha, Neb., in 1925. His mother and father are political activists, followers of Marcus Garvey, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. They're Black nationalists and Pan-Africanists who believe in radical political self-determination, and Malcolm's father is going to be killed by white supremacists in 1931 in Lansing, Mich. His mother is going to be placed in a psychiatric facility for most of his adult life.

He's a foster child for several years, and then he lives with his older sister starting at the age of 15 in Roxbury, Mass. And really, over the next five, six years, he's going to be engaged in both working menial jobs and participating in the underground economy, which means extralegal or criminal activity. And in prison - he's sentenced to 11 years in prison - he's going to serve 76 months between 1946 and 1952 - he has an epiphany. He comes to believe in the Muslim religion as articulated by the Nation of Islam, which is really a religious/Black nationalist group that's coming out of the Garvey tradition of the 19-teens and 1920s. And he comes to believe that Elijah Muhammad, who is the former Elijah Poole from Georgia, is actually the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who's the messenger of Allah himself.

So Malcolm is going to transform himself in prison by 1948, '49, '50 and really become somebody who imbibes Black history. He imbibes religious history, but he comes to have his own critique of both structural racism but white supremacy. And he's going to argue that what Black people need is political liberation that they craft themselves.

So he comes to believe that the reason why Black people are marginalized in the United States is because they have imbibed Western traditions, Christianity, and they refuse to look for - the last place that they would ever look for their own liberation is within, that Black people don't understand their identity, they think of themselves as Negro and not as Black, they don't have a love or appreciation of African history. And so what Malcolm is going to do is become really this political leader who critiques white supremacy and also argues that Black people should pursue dignity in their own history, their own culture, their own values.

GROSS: And that leads to a pretty separatist vision.

JOSEPH: Yeah. And, you know, it's interesting - this idea of separatism is really interesting. The deeper I investigated Malcolm X, the more I understood what he meant and what the Nation of Islam meant by racial separatism. It wasn't segregation. It wasn't segregation. It was separatism. They argued - and Malcolm does this in a series of debates against Bayard Rustin, against Jim Farmer, against James Baldwin, Louis Lomax - he says that racial separatism is required because white people do not want Black people to be citizens and have dignity. And if they did, you wouldn't have to protest and experience police violence and police brutality - small children trying to integrate Little Rock high school, young people trying to integrate lunch counters and they're arrested and brutalized. Sometimes, people were killed, of course.

So what's interesting about this idea separatism - Malcolm argues separatism is Black people having enough self-love and enough confidence in themselves to organize and build parallel institutions because America was so infected with the disease of racism they could never racially integrate into American democracy.

GROSS: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X initially disagreed on the role of violence and nonviolence. King, of course, was, you know, America's leading advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience. How would you describe Malcolm X's vision when he says by any means necessary?

JOSEPH: Well, Malcolm is making the argument that, one, Black people have the right to self-defense and to defend themselves against police brutality. It's really striking, when you follow Malcolm X in the 1950s and '60s, the number of court appearances he's making, whether it's in Buffalo, N.Y., or Los Angeles or Rochester, N.Y., where members of the Nation of Islam have been brutalized, at times killed, by police violence. So Malcolm's arguing that, one, Black people have a right to defend themselves.

Second part of Malcolm's argument - because he travels to the Middle East by 1959, travels for 25 weeks overseas in 1964 - is that because there's anticolonial revolutions raging across Africa and the Third World in the context of the 1950s and '60s, he makes the argument that the Black revolution in the United States is only going to be a true revolution once Black people start utilizing self-defense to end the racial terror they're experiencing both in the 1950s and '60s but historically. And one of the reasons Malcolm makes that argument, obviously, is because his father and his family had experienced that racial terror. But one thing that's important to know is that when we think about nonviolence versus self-defense, it's very, very complex because even though Martin Luther King Jr. is America's apostle and a follower of Gandhi and believes in nonviolence, there are always people around King who are trying to protect him in demonstrations who actually are armed. They're not armed in the same way that, say, the Black Panthers would arm themselves later. But they're armed to actually protect and defend peaceful civil rights activists from racial terror.

And, of course, King famously had had armed guards around him in Montgomery, Ala., after his home was firebombed during the bus boycott of 1955 to '56. And it's Bayard Rustin who famously told him he couldn't have those armed guards if he wanted to live out the practice of nonviolence. So King usually does not have his own people being armed. But when he's in the Deep South, there are civil rights activists who actually are armed and at times protecting him. They're not necessarily connected to his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But the movement always had people who were trying to protect peaceful demonstrators against racial terror.

GROSS: We need to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peniel Joseph, author of the book "The Sword And The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives Of Malcolm X And Martin Luther King Jr." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Peniel Joseph, author of the new book "The Sword And The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives Of Malcolm X And Martin Luther King Jr." Joseph is the founding director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas, Austin.

So what was King's response to Malcolm X's argument against nonviolent civil disobedience?

JOSEPH: Well, King has several responses. I mean, one is that nonviolence is both a moral and political strategy. So the morality and the religious argument is that Black people could not succumb to enemy politics and this idea that when we think about white racism, we would become as bad as the people who are oppressing us. So he pushes back against that. Politically, he says, well, there aren't enough Black people, even if they arm themselves, to win some kind of armed conflict and struggle. And then finally, he says - and there's a great speech in 1963 in Los Angeles where he's really - he doesn't mention Malcolm X, but he's speaking out against Malcolm X in terms of what's happening in Birmingham and Malcolm has called him an Uncle Tom and all kinds of names. He says that nonviolence is the weapon of strength. It's the weapon of people who are powerful and courageous and brave and heroic and disciplined. It's not the weapon of the weak because we're going to use this nonviolent strategy to actually transform the United States of America against its own will.

So this is where I, in the book, I say Malcolm is Black America's prosecuting attorney. He's prosecuting white America for a series of crimes against Black humanity that date back to racial slavery. Dr. King is Black America's defense attorney. But he's very interesting. He defends both sides of the color line. He defends Black people to white people and tells white people that Black people don't want Black supremacy. They don't want reverse racism. They don't want revenge for racial slavery and Jim Crow segregation. They just want to be included in the body politic and have citizenship.

But he also defends white people to Black people. He's constantly telling, especially as the movement gets further radicalized, Black people that white people are good people, that white people - we can redeem the souls of the nation, and we have white allies who have fought and struggled and died with us to achieve Black citizenship. So it's very interesting the roles they both play. But over time, after Malcolm's assassination, one of the biggest ironies and transformations is that King becomes Black America's prosecuting attorney.

GROSS: Do you think that King's tactics and Malcolm X's tactics complemented each other? And so it was, like, you can change because of civil disobedience or you can change because of a more violent set of protests, you know, organized by Malcolm X. So change is inevitable, you know, choose which one you want to respond to.

JOSEPH: Absolutely, I think that they serve as each other's alter ego over time. I think by the time Malcolm X becomes a national figure in 1959 after the documentary series "The Hate That Hate Produced," we see them going back-and-forth in terms of their notoriety increases. Their political power and organizing and mobilizing capacity increases. But Malcolm injects a political radicalism on the national scene that absolutely makes Dr. King and his movement much more palatable to mainstream Americans. And especially, you know, when we think about the White House, the Kennedy administration is very, very - and then Johnson administrations - are aware of Malcolm X. They're aware of the racial unrest that we usually think begins in Harlem but really begins in Birmingham with the Mother's Day political rebellion in Birmingham. And then forces are sent in to try to quell that rebellion.

So they absolutely serve as each other's alter ego. And one of the biggest examples and exemplars of this is that in 1963, which is really a revolutionary year, even though there's no political legislation passed in '63, '63 is why we get the Civil Rights Act of '64 and the Voting Rights Act of '65. There are hundreds of racial protests, demonstrations happening all around the United States in '63 from Philadelphia to Greenwood, Miss., to Los Angeles, Calif., to Washington, D.C., and the March on Washington. And Malcolm X is in Washington, D.C., at the same time that Dr. King is in Birmingham. And Birmingham is going to radicalize both Malcolm and Martin in different ways. Malcolm comes to see because of Birmingham that he wants to be even more actively involved in the civil rights movement. It's both because one of his friends was killed by the police in '62 by the LAPD, Ronald Stokes, a member of the Nation of Islam. And it's also because of what he sees in Birmingham.

He says that Black people have the right to defend themselves against two-legged and four-legged dogs that are attacking them in Birmingham. And that's a very famous Malcolm quip. Malcolm has all these famous quips. And the four-legged dogs are the German shepherds that the law enforcement has unleashed on peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala. They unleashed fire hoses that are powerful enough to strip the bark off of trees in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham. And what's so interesting about Birmingham is we have international news coverage. We have French papers describing law enforcement in Birmingham as savages. And this is incredible.

So Dr. King is radicalized by Birmingham. And famously, his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," what we see with King, even before the March on Washington speech, in that "Letter From Birmingham Jail," King denounces white liberals who he says are more interested in preserving an unjust peace than a disruptive movement that's trying to save the soul of America. And so that's really extraordinary the way in which 1963 catapults both of them into a more radical political future.

GROSS: Let's talk about civil rights legislation. I mean, one of Martin Luther King's goals was to get a Civil Rights Act, to pass the Voting Rights Act. Whereas, is it fair to say that Malcolm X didn't believe that legislation would be very effective?

JOSEPH: Yeah, it's fair to say that Malcolm doesn't believe legislation's going to be effective. But over time, he's going to evolve. I would say that Malcolm's big impact is transforming folks who are called Negros during this time period into Black people and people who were interested and had a love and really intellectual curiosity about Africa and themselves. Malcolm - we're going to see some of Malcolm's shift in terms of policy in the speech "The Ballot Or The Bullet" in 1964 because that's going to be a speech where he says that Black people need ballots or bullets. And by ballots, he says he means freedom, but he also means voting rights and publicly is going to be supportive of Black people organizing for the right to vote. And he says that Black people should actually strategically utilize their vote to leverage the best party that's going to actually be for some kind of Black agenda policy wise.

So Malcolm over time comes to believe in Black citizenship alongside of Black dignity. The two concepts that I think that both of them come to see the Black freedom needs together is this idea of radical Black dignity and radical Black citizenship. So Malcolm had this notion of radical Black dignity. And by that he meant ending systemic racism, defeating white supremacy but having Black people through political self-determination, both in the United States and in Africa, decide how their political futures would look. That's what he meant by Black dignity. So it's an end to police brutality. It is an end to poverty. It's an end to segregation that is not decided by Black people. Black people want to build their own separate institutions, that's fine. But Malcolm had no problem with Black people who wanted to be part of integrated communities as long as they weren't going to be mistreated, they weren't going to be killed, there wasn't going to be violence.

King, on the other hand, is talking about radical Black citizenship. And what he means by that is not just the end of Jim Crow. And he means more than voting rights. King comes to see that radical citizenship means decent housing, a guaranteed or universal basic income and the eradication of racial segregation in both public schools and neighborhoods. So what's interesting about both of them is that over time, they come to see that Black people needed both dignity and citizenship in service of human rights, a larger human rights movement.

GROSS: Let's take another break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest this Peniel Joseph, author of the book "The Sword And The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives Of Malcolm X And Martin Luther King Jr." He's the founding director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas, Austin. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to my interview with Peniel Joseph, author of the book "The Sword And The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives Of Malcolm X And Martin Luther King Jr." The book braids their lives together, looking at how the paths they took in their fights against white supremacy and for racial justice diverged and converged. Joseph is the founding director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas, Austin. Before that, he founded the Tufts University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

Reverend Martin Luther King was part of the church, and the church - the Black church had a history of activism, whereas Malcolm X, in the early part of his life as an activist, was a member of the Nation of Islam. And the leader of that group, Elijah Muhammad, basically banned his members from participating in politics. So how did Malcolm get around that?

JOSEPH: He didn't listen.


JOSEPH: I think one of the great aspects of Malcolm X and how bold he was as a person - I think "The Sword And The Shield" really recounts this - is that Malcolm constantly is at loggerheads with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. So Malcolm's a person who's extraordinarily charismatic, a brilliant intellectual, but he's strategic. So he's constantly praising the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and he's constantly not listening to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, which is why he is kicked out of the group in 1963.

So when Malcolm says the chickens have come home to roost - and I definitely want to investigate that phrase, what he means by that in the aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination - he's not cheering the fact that Kennedy was assassinated. He's saying that chickens come home to roost exemplifies that the United States has been using violence against marginalized groups, violence overseas, and that violence domestically and overseas that's been deployed in the service of American empire and racism and imperialism came back and boomeranged and killed the sitting president. But he was trying to tell people that they shouldn't be surprised because of the way in which the United States has mistreated so many different groups of people.

That was the final straw in the relationship between the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. Malcolm had been told to stand down and not say anything that could be misinterpreted about President Kennedy's death. Malcolm is constantly at protests. He's constantly at demonstrations. And when reporters ask him, what are you doing here, Malcolm X, he says, I'm here to observe.

GROSS: All right (laughter). So Malcolm X is basically kicked out of the Nation of Islam because of his outspoken political views, because of what he said about the chickens coming home to roost after Kennedy was assassinated and also, I think, because Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation, is getting kind of jealous of Malcolm X and the power that he has and the charisma that he has and the following that he's built. How does Malcolm X start to change once he's ousted from the Nation of Islam?

JOSEPH: I think those changes really predate him being ousted, but I think what we see once he's an independent political activist - he does a press conference on March 12, 1964. When we think about Malcolm as an independent organizer, he says, look; I apologize to the civil rights activists that I may have called names to publicly, and he says, I forgive them for any names they've called me. He says he wants to be a part of the Black freedom struggle, but he also makes the argument that the Black freedom struggle should not be a civil rights movement because when you're a civil rights movement, in his words, you're in the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam, and this is really a human rights movement.

So Malcolm is criticizing the war in Vietnam in 1964. He is traveling to Cairo for the Organization of African Unity conference and making diplomatic ties with so many different third-world, Middle Eastern and African leaders. Malcolm had an office at the United Nations that he had been using since the late 1950s. Malcolm had met up with Fidel Castro in September of 1960 in Harlem. He met with Kwame Nkrumah, who was the prime minister of Ghana, both in Harlem and in Ghana. He transitions remarkably into this international, global political statesman.

GROSS: And a little later, when he travels to several Muslim countries, he rethinks what it means to be a Muslim, and he also rethinks what it means to be white and whether he should make some kind of alliance with white people.

JOSEPH: Yeah. When we think about Malcolm and his Muslim faith, Malcolm had met white Muslims in the Middle East in 1959. He knew that they were white Muslims, and he never personally believed in the Nation of Islam's mythology about white people being invented by a Black scientist named Yakub. He never believed that. Sometimes he followed that line because he was part of that group. But what he does in 1964 is he writes a series of over a dozen postcards that he sends to reporters, he sends to civil rights leaders, and he says that he's had an epiphany in the hajj.

Malcolm was constantly narrating his own life story, ever since he was in prison and out of prison. And what he does with the postcards is he narrates this epiphany in the hajj. And I'm not saying that he didn't have these awesome moments in the hajj, but he understood a lot of what he's articulating as an epiphany in '64 years earlier. He just could not express them because he was in what he later called the straitjacket of the Nation of Islam.

GROSS: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King met face to face only once. Is that right?

JOSEPH: Yes, March 26, 1964, at the U.S. Senate building as the Senate was filibustering the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

GROSS: And it sounds from your book that Malcolm X basically orchestrated this, quote, "accidental" meeting. Describe how he did that.

JOSEPH: Well, it's really Malcolm's lieutenant. So Malcolm goes to the U.S. Senate. He's holding a bunch of press conferences. King is holding a bunch of press conferences. King has been Time magazine's Man of the Year. He's a few months shy of being announced as the youngest Nobel Prize winner in history. So he's a big deal.

So at one point, King is giving a press conference, and in the back of the room is Malcolm X on a couch listening to King's press conference. So people are, like, both watching King and watching Malcolm, and they can't believe what's happening. But as Dr. King is exiting, Malcolm's - his lieutenants make sure that he's going to exit at the precise time and the precise route where they're going to bump into each other and they have to acknowledge each other.

A bunch of reporters are around. King speaks first and says, good to see you, Malcolm. And he says - Malcolm says, good to see you. King is 5-foot-7. Malcolm is 6-foot-3. We have the only pictures that we ever have of them together in a shared space. And there's one picture where they're broadly smiling. Malcolm X teases King and says, now you're going to get investigated (laughter) now that you've been pictured with me, not realizing that, really, they're both under investigation by not just the FBI, but by a whole phalanx of different surveillance - special police at the local level, at the state level, the FBI at the national level, but also the State Department and the CIA. So these are two men who were both under wide, wide swath of criminal investigation - illegally, but certainly investigation.

GROSS: Let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Peniel Joseph, author of the new book "The Sword And The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives Of Malcolm X And Martin Luther King Jr." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Peniel Joseph, author of the new book "The Sword And The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives Of Malcolm X And Martin Luther King Jr." Joseph is the founding director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas Austin. So how did King and Malcolm's visions start merging, because you describe their visions as eventually merging?

JOSEPH: Well, they start to merge especially in the aftermath of Malcolm's assassination, February 21, 1965. Right after Malcolm's assassination, King has what he later calls one of those mountaintop moments. And he always says there are these mountaintop moments, but then you have to go back to the valley. And that mountaintop moment is going to be the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Even though, initially, when we think about March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday, demonstrators, including the late Congressman John Lewis, are battered by Alabama state troopers - nonviolent demonstrators, peaceful demonstrators - on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

But by March 15, LBJ - the president is going to say, these protesters are right. And they are part of a long pantheon of American heroes dating back to the revolution. And then March 21 to the 25, the Selma-to-Montgomery demonstration is going to attract 30,000 Americans, including white allies, Jewish allies like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, to King and the movement. So King is going to make his last fully nationally televised speech on March 25, 1965, where he talks about American democracy, racial justice, but the long road ahead. And when we think about by that August - August 6, 1965 - the Voting Rights Act is passed. So these are real high points.

But then five days after the Voting Rights Act is passed, Watts, Los Angeles, explodes in, really, the largest civil disturbance in American history up until that point. And when we think about after Watts, that's where King and Malcolm start to converge, because Malcolm had criticized the March on Washington as the Farce on Washington because he said that King and the movement should've paralyzed Washington, D.C., and forced a reckoning about race in America. And they didn't do that. By 1965, King says that - in this essay, "Beyond The Los Angeles Riots," that what he's going to start doing is use nonviolence, civil disobedience as a peaceful sword that paralyzes cities to produce justice that goes beyond civil rights and voting rights acts.

GROSS: And you write that King started to see violent disruptions rooted in racism as a form of political protest - one that he disagreed with, but he refused to cast a negative judgment against it.

JOSEPH: Absolutely. What King starts to see and realize is that the great society, for all its ambitions, for all the positives that it's done, is not enough. It's both because of Vietnam - but he comes to realize that what Malcolm had called America's searing racial wilderness - the jagged edges of American democracy, of segregation, of police brutality, of violence, of endemic poverty - had to be completely eliminated. And he comes to see that the only way they can be eliminated is not through just Congressional legislation, but it's really through this sort of moral and political reckoning that the entire nation would have to go through. And that's what King calls the Beloved Community.

The Beloved Community, for King, is a world that's free of racial and economic injustice. But it requires shared sacrifice. And that's where, at times, Malcolm misunderstood King, just like King misunderstood Malcolm. Malcolm and some people thought King wanted only Black people to sacrifice, that they had to turn the other cheek and experience what Dr. King called redemptive suffering. King argues that white people are going to have to sacrifice, too.

Everyone's going to have to sacrifice to build that Beloved Community. But he becomes more vocal about white sacrifice starting at the end of '65 and into '66 when he moved to Chicago for a year, lives in dilapidated slum housing conditions, what people used to call the projects - but racially segregated, economically impoverished neighborhoods. I mean, he really calls out Mayor Daley. He calls out LBJ. And then by '67, the radical King becomes a revolutionary at Riverside Church in New York.

GROSS: And what makes him a revolutionary when he speaks there?

JOSEPH: At Riverside, everything comes together. At Riverside, King says that the United States of America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, that we have Black and white young people murdering the Vietnamese in Vietnam, but they can't get together in the United States because of racial apartheid and segregation. One of the most fascinating parts of that speech and powerful moments is when he says, it was OK for me to be nonviolent in the United States. But when I tell the United States to be nonviolent and stop napalming Vietnamese babies and children and women and men and boys and girls, they tell me that I shouldn't speak. And so he starts that speech by saying that there comes a time when silence is betrayal. And so when we think about Dr. King, he is no longer silent about the depth of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, the depth of materialism in the United States, militarism. He says those are the triple evils facing humanity - militarism, materialism and racism. And he is no longer silent about what he feels are the shortcomings of the Great Society.

GROSS: When you look at the protests today, the protests that we've seen going on for months now, do you see within those protests the same kind of contrast that you see when you look at Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and their tactics?

JOSEPH: Well, I think I see convergence. So what's really extraordinary is that the Black Lives Matter protesters really are protesting for a radical Black dignity and citizenship and see that you need both. So Malcolm and Martin are the revolutionary sides of the same coin. And really, the BLM movement has amplified that.

So on one level, radical dignity really looks at structural problems and the structural violence, structural inequality in the United States, the depth and breadth of white supremacy. The idea of citizenship is actually looking at how do we transform these democratic institutions in ways that will achieve Black citizenship but in a way that Dr. King talked about, with universal basic income and health care for all and education and desegregation. So we've seen both nonviolent civil disobedience but also very, very radical and militant denunciations of the existing status quo.

GROSS: You describe your scholarly work as Black power studies. How were you introduced to the expression Black power?

JOSEPH: I was introduced to Black power through just growing up in New York City in the 1980s. And my mother was a hospital worker - 1199 Union SEIU, Mt. Sinai Hospital. So I grew up - I was on picket lines in elementary school and really was around very, very politically active, politically minded people. And they introduced me to the phrase Black power.

GROSS: Were you an activist before becoming a scholar?

JOSEPH: Absolutely. I never expected to be a scholar (laughter). I thought I'd be a door-to-door, day-to-day organizer against things like police brutality, racial injustice. I grew up in a New York City where Black women and men were being killed and brutalized by the NYPD, and there were demonstrations and protests and resistance against that. And it was really going to University, Stony Brook University, where I encountered African and African American professors who piqued my interest, who spotted me and thought that I could write and that I could speak and I should connect what I wanted to do as an activist to this scholarship and that I could do both.

GROSS: So your mother came to the U.S. from Haiti. Was she disappointed in what she found here in terms of opportunity? Did she expect to confront the racism that she confronted?

JOSEPH: I don't think she was disappointed, but I think she was probably a little bit surprised. But she was an activist in Haiti. I'm the proud son of Haitian immigrants, and she was my first historian, my first feminist, my first teacher and human rights adviser and activist and exemplar. So I think that she really rolled up her sleeves and taught me and my older brother that her line in the sand was always about human rights. So she was always somebody who was pro - not just pro-Black, but she was pro-Jewish, she was pro-women, she was pro - anybody who was the underdog in the community we grew up in New York City, she was on that side. So she always taught us to be on the right side morally and politically. And she's indefatigable. So she's hugely resilient, super-disciplined and was a human - is a human rights activist. And she gave us that example and gave me that example. So my mom remains my biggest hero.

GROSS: Peniel Joseph, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

JOSEPH: Thank you, Terry. I'm a big fan.

GROSS: Peniel Joseph is the author of the new book "The Sword And The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives Of Malcolm X And Martin Luther King." After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review a new documentary that he thinks is terrific. It's about the Boys State program, which, like the Girls State program, is for high school students who are chosen in each state to participate in a weeklong program in which they have to form their own representative democracy. Justin says the results are inspiring and dispiriting. This is FRESH AIR.


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