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March 2004
Malcolm and Martin: Still Teachers of Resistance
The Satya Interview with James H. Cone


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 weak.

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 today?
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 was political.

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 intersect?
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 to be.

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 ours too.

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” of today.

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 there?
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 of resistance.