From Brandon Terry’s long review of The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by Peniel Joseph:
. . . The extent to which King’s vision of justice exceeded the horizons of American nationalism is still perhaps the least appreciated element of his public philosophy.
For those used to seeing King situated in a progressive story of American liberalism, it can be surprising to learn that as early as the 1950s, he considered Black freedom struggles to be part of the wave of anti-imperialist revolt in Africa and Asia. “The determination of Negro Americans to win freedom from every form of oppression,” he proclaimed, “springs from the same profound longing for freedom that motivates oppressed peoples all over the world.” He strongly identified with anticolonial liberation movements, meeting veterans of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement in India in 1959 and traveling to Ghana for Kwame Nkrumah’s inauguration in 1960. Like many leftist figures navigating cold war politics, however, King’s criticisms of American foreign policy could often seem restrained, couched in the obligatory tropes of anticommunism or paeans to pacifism.
It was Vietnam that served as the inflection point for King’s radicalization on matters of global justice, but Joseph helps underscore Malcolm’s underappreciated influence on this shift. Malcolm was a prescient critic of the war from the outset, eviscerating its premises with a moral clarity that eluded most commentators, who were gaslighted by lies that US troops were acting as noncombatant “advisers” in Southeast Asia. “You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality,” Malcolm warned, charging that the war was a “criminal” act made palatable by racism and deception.
Malcolm’s antiwar critique and denunciation of the draft as “the most hypocritical governmental half-truth that has ever been invented since the world was the world” found its most important supporters among the student organizers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the first civil rights group to dissent from the war and the draft. How, Malcolm asked, could one accept being drafted to fight on behalf of a supposed democracy, only to return home concerned about how you “can get a right to register and vote without being murdered”?
King, whose political ties to Lyndon Johnson and mainstream liberals made him more tentative in speaking out against the war, became openly critical of the administration after young activists pressed him on the hypocrisy of preaching nonviolence at home while remaining quiet about militarism abroad. Against the private advice and public chastisement of some of his closest advisers, he denounced both the war and the systemic injustices revealed or intensified by the effort to fight it. The war, he charged, represented a threat to free speech and legitimate dissent, and it bred cynicism concerning both the use of violence and the rights of nonwhite peoples for self-rule. Further, he charged the war effort with the “cruel manipulation of the poor,” lamenting its unethical waste of vital resources as well as how it sent
the black young men who had been crippled by our society…8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.
In our era of perpetual warfare, with its boomerang effects on domestic liberties and civic trust, such insights remain unheeded.
The questions both men were converging on concerned the worth of citizenship in a society riven by economic domination, racial hierarchy, and belligerent militarism: What, if any, allegiance or sacrifice could such a society demand? The ideal of “radical black citizenship,” which Joseph most closely associates with King, contends that full, equal citizenship for African-Americans requires not just the formal recognition of equal rights but also the fair value of those rights. This means not only the ability to act on them as any other citizen might, but also the inability of a privileged class of citizens to unjustly enrich themselves at the expense of the least powerful.
In Why We Can’t Wait (1964), for example, King wrote that “Negroes must not only have the right to go into any establishment open to the public, but they must also be absorbed into our economic system in such a manner that they can afford to exercise that right.” As Joseph reminds us, his conception of civic equality extended to things like “a good job, living wage, decent housing, quality education, health care, and nourishment.” Or as King put it in 1967, true freedom in an affluent society cannot mean the “freedom to hunger, freedom to the winds and rains of heaven, freedom without roofs to cover [our] heads.”
. . . King’s view of the world that he hoped mass protest would bring into being went far beyond Malcolm’s populist appeals to the “downtrodden masses” left behind by civil rights legislation. For King, equal civic standing, at least in an ostensible democracy, also means that each of us participates in decision-making, determining the contours of our common life together through deliberation. Indeed, one of his principal arguments concerning the evil of segregation was its assault on freedom. Segregation, King said, imposes undue “restraint on my deliberation as to what I shall do, where I shall live, how much I shall earn, the kind of tasks I shall pursue.” Segregation destroys the vital human capacity to authentically “deliberate, decide, and respond” by imposing restrictions on when and where we may enter.
If democratic citizenship is to be free and equal, it must uproot habits, power arrangements, and resource distributions that leave us subject to the arbitrary impositions of others in the most vital domains of life. As Joseph notes, such demands extended to capitalism itself and partly explain King’s skepticism toward its basis in “cut-throat competition and selfish ambition.” In 1967, for instance, he wrote that “if democracy is to have breadth of meaning,” we must overcome the “contemporary tendency in our society” to “compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity.”
. . . Malcolm’s criticisms of so-called integrationism never adequately grappled with the leftist tenor of King’s views, which could be better described as “reconstructionist” rather than “integrationist.” For King, authentic integration was “meaningless without the mutual sharing of power.” Kingian integration would involve the widespread redistribution of assets and real democratic participation in economic and political decision-making instead of allowing municipal borders, the dictates of private profit, and existing measures of “merit” to unfairly disadvantage the life chances of so many Americans.