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Commentary: The Sword and the Shield

Janice Welsch

I recently finished reading Peniel Joseph's The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm X, who was born in 1925 and assassinated in 1965, is often associated with the Nation of Islam, with the slogan "by any means necessary," and with the right of self-defense when confronted with the violence of racism. Underlying this stance was his belief in equity and his insistence that the dignity of African Americans be recognized.

In contrast, Martin Luther King, Jr., born in 1929 and assassinated in 1968, is closely aligned with nonviolence as he also worked toward a more just and equitable society. He led countless civil rights marches and rallies and collaborated with a wide range of civil rights supporters to gain voting rights and full citizenship for African Americans.

Malcolm X grew up in poverty, spent time in prison, and became a staunch supporter of the Nation of Islam, a separatist Black sect that strived for Black economic and political independence. He was, to a great extent, self-taught, learning much of what he knew through his own initiative, his own reading.

Martin Luther King, Jr. graduated from Morehouse College, one of the most esteemed historical Black colleges in the United States. He moved from there to Crozer Theological Seminary and then to Boston University where he earned a PhD.

Malcolm X found intellectual, religious and personal validation in a New England prison while King developed his intellectual, spiritual, and personal identity while in seminary (p. 63).

When Malcolm X was sent to prison it was because of his participation in a series of robberies to benefit himself and a few friends.


When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned, it was because he had participated in acts of civil disobedience to benefit all Americans.

Despite their differences, Malcolm X and Rev. King shared a deep love for their people and a passion for equity and justice. They did not, however, hesitate to take each other on because of the deep divisions that characterized their strategies.

Malcolm X never gave up his belief in the right to self-defense or in his conviction that mainstream society in the US was a fundamentally violent society. Martin Luther King, Jr. never gave up his commitment to nonviolence and civil disobedience. How, then, did they come together?

As a member of the US-based, Black, racially defined Nation of Islam, Malcolm X preached hatred of white people, but after a transformational trip to Mecca, he left the sect and embraced the orthodox global Islamic religion. He abandoned the narrow track of hatred with which he’d been identified and expanded his understanding and love of people as human beings. The scope of his concern and of his love widened when he broke through the dogma that had confined him.

Martin Luther King was lauded throughout the world for his stance on civil rights, but King, like Malcolm, refused to stay on track. He delved deeper, pointed out the connections between racial and economic injustice (p. 295), launched a Poor People’s Campaign, and tied the deep trenches of poverty in the US to the cost of the Vietnam War. Like Malcolm, he refused to follow the script he was expected to follow and, like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., when they moved beyond early notions of who they were, became threats, threats so great, they were killed. But each stayed true to his own inner compass. Each stayed “unfinished.” They never stopped listening and learning. They remained open to different perspectives. They opened their hearts to more and more people as they came to understand more deeply that they were--like us--first and foremost human beings with shared needs and desires. They remain personifications of love and leaders whose relevance today is as great, if not greater, than while they lived.

I urge you to read Peniel Joseph’s The Sword and the Shield to learn more about these remarkable, revolutionary leaders.

Janice Welsch is a Western Illinois University faculty emerita.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.