and Martin: Still Teachers of Resistance
The Satya Interview with James H. Cone
Photo courtesy of James Cone
James H. Cone is a distinguished professor
at Union Theological Seminary, and teaches courses on 20th century Christianity
and liberation theology. His expertise is in black religion and theology,
about which he has authored several books, including the quintessential
A Black Theology of Liberation (Orbis Books, 1990).
A primary focus of Cone’s is the life and teachings of both Martin
Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and their impact on the African American
struggle against racism and the debate over what the most effective
means of achieving justice were. Cone’s extensive study is compiled
into his groundbreaking book Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream
or a Nightmare (Orbis Books, 1995). Professor Cone took time to discuss
with Catherine Clyne the subtle similarities and differences between
these influential leaders, particularly their views on violence and
the struggle for social justice, and how their teachings are still very
much relevant today.
What do you think are the most common misperceptions people
have about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X?
The most common misperception about Martin King is that he was nonviolent
in the sense of being passive. That is incorrect and he would have rejected
it absolutely. In fact, Martin King would say that if nonviolence means
being passive, he would rather advocate violence. Nonviolence for him
meant direct action, not passivity in the face of violence, so the world
would understand how brutal the system is upon those who are poor and
The most common misunderstanding of Malcolm X is that he advocated violence.
Malcolm did not advocate violence but rather self-defense. He did not
believe that oppressed people could gain their dignity as human beings
by being passive in the face of violence. There was some tension between
Malcolm and Martin largely because they tended to accept these perceptions
of [each other]. But what is revealing is that Martin King came to realize
that Malcolm did not really advocate violence in the same way as, [for
example,] the Ku Klux Klan did. Even though he could not go along with
self-defense as a form of social change, Martin King did advocate self-defense
in terms of individuals who protect their home, their children, and
their loved ones [from] people who would hurt them. Malcolm X came to
see that Martin King’s idea of nonviolence was not passive. Actually,
he wanted to join up with the civil rights movement and Martin King
largely because [he saw] that nonviolent activists actually created
more fear and more change than some of [the] people within the Muslim
movement. So he came to see Martin King in a much more positive light
than is generally understood.
From your experience, what do you think young people are receiving
as the legacies of Martin King and Malcolm X today?
In my contact with college students throughout America, I have discovered
that [they] tend to misunderstand Martin King’s nonviolent philosophy
and openly embrace Malcolm X. One reason for this is because Martin
King is in danger of being used and distorted by the dominant culture,
which has established a national holiday in his name. Young people do
not like the way the American government, corporations and bourgeoisie
black leaders have used King in order to reinforce their own values,
which oppress poor black people. They reject that. And so they tend
to reject Martin King or not want to listen to him because they do not
know much about him.
They like Malcolm X largely because he is much more difficult to domesticate.
His language is blunt, to the point, and uncompromising in his condemnation
of racism and white supremacy in this society. His affirmation of black
identity is also very explicit, giving young people a sense of self
in a world that is negative toward black people.
How are their actions and philosophies relevant
Martin King’s philosophy is relevant because of his accent on
justice, and on the need for people to organize, collectively, in order
to transform this society. That is why I refer to Martin King as a political
revolutionary. He transformed the political and social arrangement between
black and white in America. I knew what it was like to grow up in a
Jim Crow society. And now to experience a society in which Jim Crow—that
is, legal segregation—is no longer accepted, that is due almost
exclusively to Martin King and the civil rights movement. The 1964 Civil
Rights Bill and the 1965 Voter Rights Act are the two major achievements
of Martin King, and thereby established his legacy in America. That
Malcolm X transformed the way black people think about themselves, and
the way in which white people think about black people. Before Malcolm
X, we were “negroes” and “coloreds,” and if
you called black people “black” in the 1940s or 50s, we
would have been upset. Malcolm X, however, helped people understand
themselves as black, and to affirm that blackness as something of worth
and dignity. So in that sense, Malcolm X was a cultural revolutionary.
King referred to himself as a Negro almost until the day he died. Malcolm
X was black in the 50s, and he died making blackness and Africa crucial
to African Americans’ identity. So, we today are black because
Malcolm gave us the right to think about ourselves on our own terms
and not how the white or dominant culture has forced us to think.
So Malcolm’s legacy is cultural; King’s is political. Both
legacies are crucial and interrelated, but should not be exclusively
identified with each other. King gave us political freedom and Malcolm
gave us a cultural freedom. You see Malcolm in rap music and black studies
and all the cultural creations that African Americans have made in this
society. You see King’s legacy in all the black political officials
who are in state, local, and city governments, and in the federal government.
That would be impossible without Martin King.
You spoke about how they perceived each other in terms of violence
and social justice. Where did their theories and philosophies really
I think Malcolm X and Martin King both had the same goal: freedom for
African Americans. Malcolm X said on one occasion, “Dr. King and
I want the same thing, namely freedom.” Only Dr. King thought
that integration would get us freedom; Malcolm said separation would
get us freedom. King thought you could not get freedom as an American
by destroying or declaring your intentions to separate from America,
and we would get freedom primarily by emphasizing our American identity.
Malcolm, however, thought we would get freedom by emphasizing our African
identity and origin: You must know where you came from before you can
know who you are right now and who you want to be in the future.
I think you need both emphases, because we are African American. It
is important to know that the African comes first. Malcolm X’s
point is crucial: without knowledge of one’s past, before we came
to America, we will not know how to be African American. We will end
up being “American Africans,” and that is a silly thing
What were their thoughts on what the primary causes were for
the continuation of racism in America? Even though racism was basically
legislated against, it continued.
Malcolm and Martin both agreed that white supremacy was the cause of
African American oppression, and the effect [that had] was to disenfranchise
black people. Culturally—that’s Malcolm X, make them want
to be white instead of being black. For King it was political and economic
disenfranchisement, and social degradation. King did not think you could
get rid of white supremacy unless you dealt with those. Malcolm acknowledged
[these existed] but he felt the worst oppression was to teach people
to hate themselves. He said you’ve got to deal with the person’s
mind and how they think about themselves before you can teach them to
do anything about social and political oppression. Malcolm would contend
that you can be politically and economically oppressed and still be
culturally free—and that no one can oppress you, really, without
your cooperation, without your accepting what they say about you; and
thereby wanting to be like your oppressor. That’s why he wanted
to separate black people from white people—let them learn to be
on their own and think and do for themselves, then when they relate
to white people they won’t be begging [them] for things. King,
on the other hand, felt there are too many white people in the world
to expect separation to really work. He felt we have built this society
just like white people have—it’s not theirs alone, it is
That was the tension between them. However, they both moved towards
[one another], and ultimately saw themselves as complementing each other.
King realized that black people, being only 12 percent of the population,
were too small [a minority] to get our freedom without the support of
the white community, at least progressive whites. Malcolm initially
did not think any help could come from whites. Now, at the end of his
life, King was less optimistic about this; he saw whites as “unconscious
racists.” And Malcolm was more optimistic at the end of his life.
They sort of met each other. Malcolm saw whites, particularly some white
liberals who actually gave their lives in the struggle for justice for
black people—he referred to them as the “John Browns”
Where do you think we are today? I mean, Martin and Malcolm
were struggling against racism over 30 years ago. Yet a lot of it is
still alive today.
Yes, it is still very much alive today. That’s one of the reasons
why, despite the distortion of the King holiday, there is a great deal
of activity in America among grassroots and progressive people who realize
that the cause for justice, which King and Malcolm advocated, [is] still
with us. And they see in their language, in their persons, and in [their]
knowledge about them, a way of illuminating injustice in the world today.
King is useful particularly in terms of his accent on economic justice
at the end of his life, and his critique of America’s war in Vietnam.
For anyone who opposes the war in Iraq today, people find King’s
opposition and speeches against Vietnam, where he called America “the
greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” very useful.
Malcolm X is useful in helping people who are poor, who have little
power, to learn to speak about their own self-worth, even though they
cannot politically change their situation. Malcolm speaks to those who
need language for talking about their enslavement in the ghetto. See,
Malcolm grew up in the ghetto, so he himself knows how to speak a language
that empowers people who don’t have political power.
Let’s shift gears a little bit. I read your essay, “Whose
Earth Is It Anyway?”, published in 2000, and I’m curious
to hear your thoughts on something you wrote, now that it’s four
years later. You wrote:
People who struggle against environmental degradation but do not
incorporate in it a disciplined and sustained fight against white supremacy
are racists—whether they acknowledge it or not. The fight for
justice cannot be segregated but must be integrated with the fight for
life in all its forms.
Where do you think we are with that today?
I have found in the African American community that just because they
see clearly the problem of racism as it affects them directly, they
don’t always realize that fighting against environmental injustice,
or fighting against sexism, or homophobia, is as crucial as fighting
against racism. So we don’t always make those connections.
And I am at the same place with the environmental movement. It does
not make the connections with racism, and realize that if it’s
really opposing the exploitation of the earth, it would begin with those
who are affected the worst; not primarily with the privileged. But it’s
hard for people to fight against things that don’t affect them
directly, [that they] don’t perceive emotionally and psychologically.
Most of the toxic dumps are in places where people don’t have
resources to fight against them, usually black communities—and
poor white and poor anybody else; generally, blacks represent a high
percentage of the poor. But the environmental movement [is] much more
concerned about saving some privileged context in which they are engaged
or feel close to, than they [are] about poor black communities in the
ghetto. I don’t see that in the language of the environmental
movement, at least not up-front. So I’m pretty much [in] the same
place I was when I wrote that four years ago.
One of the reasons you said that environmentalists
don’t really “get” it with regard to racism is:
What is absent from much of the talk about the environment in First
World countries is a truly radical critique of the culture most responsible
for the ecological crisis.
Do you think that’s still the case? Do you think that
the anti-globalization movement, for example, may have made some headway
Oh I think the anti-globalization movement has made headway there. See,
I’m talking about the dominant emphasis, not about every last
environmentalist in the movement. There are always [significant] small
groups who do have a larger vision. The anti-globalization movement
is one of the best examples of people who see [that] what’s happening
with the environment in America affects what happens to the environment
in the Third World. And I am very impressed with the fight for global
justice, from the perspective of the environment, that you see in the
anti-globalization movement. So I would say they would be an exception.
But I wouldn’t put the Sierra Club in that group.
Would you say that the anti-globalization movement is also working towards
getting rid of racism?
I would say, indirectly. It is not as explicit in its anti-racism focus
as it is in anti-globalization in general. I think racism, white supremacy
is there, but I don’t think it is [addressed specifically].
One of the ways you can find out what a culture is doing is to ask:
What resources do the people use in order to critique the exploitation
of the world? They’ll use Martin King because he is highly visible,
but they don’t use Malcolm X much; and I would say they don’t
use the culture of the poor for insight into how to fight oppression
of the poor. I think you have to use resources from every cultural context.
I think that people who come from dominant cultures tend to only use
resources from within their own culture, and to dominate even the resistance
movement in terms of how you think about resistance. You can see that
in the abolitionist movement in the 19th century against slavery; whites
dominated the thinking even though they were not the victims—black
people knew much more about how to resist slavery than those who had
never experienced it. I see that also in the civil rights movement,
when whites came in they wanted to dominate the movement.
If you really want to resist the oppressor, you have to step outside
and use resources from other cultures that are victimized by the dominant
culture. You know, my people have survived white supremacy for 400 years!
We might have some resources useful for resisting it.
So, some of those resources you would say are Malcolm and Martin?
Exactly. And not just simply their favorite phrases. Martin and Malcolm
represent a people, a history and a culture, and most white people don’t
know much about the history and culture of African Americans—or
any other minority group and certainly not much about Africa—in
terms of it is a source for resistance against European colonization.
What is your hope for the future?
My hope for the future is to see people from all over the world learning
from each other how to resist cultural domination, economic and environmental
exploitation, how to resist all forms of human injustice. I would like
to see people learn how to resist by getting resources from as many
places as possible. I think what is most needed is for the people of
the world who are resisting exploitation to learn from each other and
pool their resources so that they can become a more effective force