This piece was originally published on January 18th, 2010.
“King’s words have been appropriated by the people who rejected him in the 1960s,” said Professor James Cone, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York and who wrote the book “Martin & Malcolm & America.” “So by making his birthday a national holiday, everybody claims him, even though they opposed him while he was alive.”
Malcolm influenced King as deeply as King influenced Malcolm. These men each grasped at the end of their lives that the face of racism comes in many forms and that the issue was not simply sitting at a lunch counter with whites — blacks in the North could in theory do this — but being able to afford the lunch.
King, when he began his calls for integration, argued that hard work and perseverance could make the American dream available for rich and poor, white and black. King grew up in the black middle class, was well educated and culturally refined. He admitted that until his early 20s, life had been wrapped up for him like “a Christmas present.” He naively thought that integration was the answer. He trusted, ultimately, in the white power structure to recognize the need for justice for all of its citizens. He shared, as most in his college-educated black class did, the same value system and preoccupation with success as the whites with whom he sought to integrate.
But this was not Malcolm’s America. Malcolm grew up in urban poverty, dropped out of school in eighth grade, was shuttled between foster homes, abused, hustled on city streets and ended up in prison. There was no evidence in his hard life of a political order that acknowledged his humanity or dignity. The white people he knew did not exhibit a conscience or compassion. And in the ghetto, where survival was a daily battle, nonviolence was not a credible option.
King, especially after he confronted the insidious racism in Chicago, came to appreciate Malcolm’s insights. He soon began telling Christians that “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion in need of new blood.”
In the last months of his life, King began to appropriate Malcolm’s language, reminding listeners that the ghetto was a “system of internal colonialism.” “The purpose of the slum,” King said in a speech at the Chicago Freedom Festival, “is to confine those who have no power and perpetuate their powerlessness. … The slum is little more than a domestic colony which leaves its inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated at every turn.” The chief problem is economic, King concluded, and the solution is to restructure the whole society.
In a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” he gave at Riverside Church a year before his assassination, King called America the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” a quote that won’t make it into many Martin Luther King Day celebrations. King’s strident denunciation of the Vietnam War and economic injustice at the end of his life saw many white liberals, members of his own staff, as well as allies within the political power structure, turn against him. King and Malcolm, in the final days of their lives, were lonely men.
King and Malcolm would have excoriated a nation that spends $3 trillion waging imperial wars in the Middle East and trillions more to fill the accounts of Wall Street banks while abandoning its poor. They would have denounced the liberals who mouth platitudes about justice for the poor while supporting a party that slavishly serves the interests of the moneyed elite. These American prophets spoke on behalf of people who had nothing left with which to compromise. And for this reason they did not compromise.
Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence
By Rev. Martin Luther King
4 April 1967