KENDI: Malcolm, Martin & The Beef Between Activists
The North Star has dropped its paywall during this COVID-19 crisis so that pertinent information and analysis is available to everyone during this time. This is only possible because of the generous support of our members. We rely on these funds to pay our staff to continue to provide high-quality content. If you are able to support, we invite you to do so here.
I was always taught that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X hated each other.
That’s how their relationship was explained to me in school. Martin was peaceful, Malcolm was violent and this ideological difference led them to despise one another.
From a young age, this confused me.
They were fighting for the same rights, striving towards the same goal; equality among Black and white people in America. The difference was only the ways in which they were choosing to get there. So why would that make them enemies and not allies?
I was taught the same thing about W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Both were scholars born in the era of American slavery. Both dedicated their lives to the advancement of Black people and used opposing methods to do so.
I was taught that their opposing beliefs correlated to a direct opposition of each other as human beings.
The questions posed to me in class revolved around, “Who was right” rather than recognizing the value of multiple schools of thought.
I didn’t think to question the way the relationships between these leaders were taught to me until I read an interview Du Bois did with The Atlantic Monthly, one of his final interviews before his death. During the interview, he plainly states, “I never thought [Booker T.] Washington was a bad man...The controversy developed more between our followers than between us.”
That is where much of the tension arose, arguments between everyday people immortalized in history as a reflection upon the men themselves.
I see this happening today, all across social media, with the civil rights activists of our time. Arguments between followers — and I mean literal social media followers — are spun into controversies involving the activists themselves.
I have seen it happen with my dad, Shaun King.
For a man who is constantly in the headlines, constantly being reported as having publicly fallen out with this activist, or politician, or random celebrity, my dad is never actually arguing with any of these people. He is literally the least confrontational person I know.
Unless you are a bigot, my dad most likely has no problem with you.
While he and other leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have different opinions on how best to achieve their goal, rarely does this have anything to do with their personal views of each other. Differences in philosophy are in no way equivalent to animosity or hate between them as human beings, as the media likes to portray.
The belief in this clickbait rhetoric is a damaging and dangerous one.
It skews the focus from the gravely important work these activists are doing to irrelevant, grossly exaggerated and often entirely fabricated stories. Division and infighting have been the downfall of far too many social movements. That is not to say there cannot and will not be tactical disagreements, but they must not overshadow the work being done.
In school, I spent so much time analyzing the reasons why Martin Luther King and Malcolm X “hated” each other instead of comparing the strengths and weaknesses of their movements, recognizing them as equally effective and just as equally flawed. Despite their ideological differences, towards the end of their lives, both men grew to understand and even agree with each other on many fronts.
They recognized they shared a common enemy, a common goal.
I hope we can do the same.