The Sword and the Shield Shows Malcolm X and MLK Were More Alike Than Different

Dr. Peniel E. Joseph's book argues that the civil rights leaders are two sides of the same revolutionary coin

In our nation's hazy memories of the civil rights movement, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are cast as opposites and adversaries. Those stories deceive us, says Dr. Peniel Joseph, founder of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and professor of history and public affairs at UT-Austin. According to Joseph, the two leaders represent different facets of the same project for Black liberation. In his book The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Joseph presents a radical King, deeply influenced by Malcolm X, who argued that "American strength required the nation to actively embrace democratic ideals and not simply congratulate itself for having once expressed them."

Despite differing tactics, Joseph writes, both men believed "the future of American democracy depended on the wholesale recognition of Black dignity and citizenship, struggles that are still ongoing and remain vitally connected to the social movements of the 1960s they helped define."

Less than two months after the book's release, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer catalyzed a sustained wave of protests for racial justice across the country. As the protests have continued, Dr. Joseph has been featured on numerous news programs, helping to contextualize the Black Lives Matter movement within a longer and ongoing fight for racial justice against white supremacy. He states, "There is no way to understand the history, struggle, and debate over race and democracy in contemporary America without understanding Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.'s relationship to each other, to their own era, and, most crucially, to our own time."

On Sunday, Nov. 8, Joseph will join authors Don Carleton and Cynthia Orozco for "The Civil Rights Movement in Photos" panel at the Texas Book Festival. Ahead of that appearance, Dr. Joseph spoke with us about his book, his research, and his analysis of our current moment. A portion of our interview is excerpted below.

On the "Suffocating Mythology" of MLK and Malcolm X

We mythologize them as polarities. We will say that Malcolm is a sword and King is the shield. Malcolm is the bad guy; King is the good guy. Malcolm's the bad cop; King is the good cop. King loves white people, Malcolm hated them, but it's not true and it sets up these polarities that we can never get them out of, to our own detriment. So I argue that they are revolutionary sides of the same coin.

Malcolm X had a great sense of humor. Malcolm did not hate white people. He's a creator. He's a critic of white supremacy. King is a critic of white supremacy as well, and King can be very fierce and very angry. So this whole idea of the sword and shield, they really serve as both. The mythology really flattens our understanding of this history.

On MLK and Malcolm X's Differing Tactics for Black Liberation

I think King is trying to lead this movement for citizenship, Malcolm is trying to lead this movement for dignity, and you see both in the Movement for Black Lives. They're defining it in different ways. They have different strategies and tactics. Malcolm is much more interested in political self-determination and Black people deciding for themselves: How do you combat this system of white supremacy and racism? What do you want to do? What do you feel is holding you back, and how can you be the architect of your own liberation?

King, on the other hand, is more of an institutionalist. Somebody who is saying, "Look, these systems of American democracy, whether it's voting rights or the legal system, the legislative system, we have to reform those systems, and it's only then that we can impact people's lives."

On the Parallels Between the Civil Rights Movement and Today

There's real convergence. Malcolm converges with BLM in terms of BLM's structural criticism of systems. BLM is making the argument that the criminal justice system represents a gateway to panoramic systems of oppression, and Malcolm made similar structural criticism. [Like King,] they've really been about civil disobedience. Their demonstrations have been nonviolent by and large, and in a lot of ways, they follow King. When you read a Movement for Black Lives' policy agenda, they're looking for a beloved community, and even more so than King, they're giving you a detailed road map on how to get there.

On How the BLM Movement Has Evolved From the Civil Rights Movement

[BLM] makes an argument that issues converge with intersectional identities. That we all live race, class, gender identification, sexuality, mental health access, able-­bodiedness versus non-able-bodiedness. We all live those things simultaneously.

[Whereas] when we think about Malcolm and Martin's time, things like patriarchy, heteronormativity, [were] normalized. They are calling out white supremacy, they're calling out racial violence, calling out poverty and segregation, but there's aspects of patriarchy that are normalized within social justice movements [of that time], both Black-led social justice movements and white-led ones, but also queer justice movements, too.

On the Leadership of Today's Movement

Ella Baker said that strong people don't need strong leaders. What we're seeing here is Black women – and really there are thousands of these Ella Bakers all across the country – who are leading the Black Lives Matter movement. Certainly we know about Alicia Garza and Tamika Mallory and Noname and all these different folks, but there's a lot more who are doing it as well.

So I think that you don't need, generationally, a new Malcolm and Martin. They are very, very important and they make sense for their time. You don't need that now, because collective leadership has really been beneficial. So you don't just relate to one person in [today's] movement and you're not connected to that one person's rise or fall.

Dr. Peniel E. Joseph appears at the 2020 Texas Book Festival with Don Carleton and Cynthia Orozco on the panel “MLK, Malcolm X, and Adela Sloss-Vento: The Civil Rights Movement in Photos” Sun., Nov. 8, 6pm. For more information, visit

2020 Texas Book Festival

Through Nov. 15, 2020

In most years, this annual celebration of the written word would draw tens of thousands of book lovers to the Texas State Capitol for two days of readings, panel discussions and cooking demos with some 300 authors. Owing to the pandemic, this year's 25th anniversary festival is taking place online and has been spread over three weekends. The programming for teens and children took place the first week, and now it's the adults' turn. You can find all our coverage of this year's guest authors and their books at, and the full schedule at the TBF website. – Robert Faires

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