Saturday, June 22, 2024

MLK’s famous criticism of Malcolm X was a ‘fraud,’ author finds

MLK’s famous criticism of Malcolm X was a ‘fraud,’ author finds

Jonathan Eig was deep in the Duke University archives researching his new biography of Martin Luther King Jr. when he made an alarming discovery: King’s harshest and most famous criticism of Malcolm X, in which he accused his fellow civil rights leader of “fiery, demagogic oratory,” appears to have been fabricated.

“I think its historic reverberations are huge,” Eig told The Washington Post. “We’ve been teaching people for decades, for generations, that King had this harsh criticism of Malcolm X, and it’s just not true.”

The quote came from a January 1965 Playboy interview with author Alex Haley, a then-43-year-old Black journalist, and was the longest published interview King ever did. Because of the severity of King’s criticism, it has been repeated countless times, cast as a dividing line between King and Malcolm X. The new revelation “shows that King was much more open-minded about Malcolm than we’ve tended to portray him,” Eig said.

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Haley’s legacy has been tarnished by accusations of plagiarism and historical inaccuracy in his most famous book, “Roots,” but this latest finding could open up more of his work to criticism, especially “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley” — released nine months after Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965.

Malcolm X, a member of the Nation of Islam, had frequently attacked King and his commitment to nonviolence, going so far as to call King a “modern Uncle Tom.” But his criticism often had “strategic purposes,” Eig said.

In acting as “a foil” to King, his message had more value to the media. “King saw value in being a foil to Malcolm sometimes, too. But I think at their core they had a lot in common. They certainly shared a lot of the same goals,” Eig said.

Eig, who previously wrote acclaimed biographies of Muhammad Ali and Lou Gehrig, said he found the fabrication in the course of his standard book research for “King: A Life,” due out May 16. When a subject has given a long interview, he’ll look through the archives of the journalist who conducted it, hoping to find notes or tapes with previously unpublished anecdotes.

He did not find a recording of Haley’s interview with King in the Haley archives at Duke, but he did find what appears to be an unedited transcript of the full interview, likely typed by a secretary straight from a recording, Eig said. Eig provided The Post with a copy of the transcript.

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On page 60 of the 84-page document, Haley asks, “Dr. King, would you care to comment upon the articulate former Black Muslim, Malcolm X?”

King responds: “I have met Malcolm X, but circumstances didn’t enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views, as I understand them. He is very articulate, as you say. I don’t want to seem to sound as if I feel so self-righteous, or absolutist, that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. But I know that I have so often felt that I wished that he would talk less of violence, because I don’t think that violence can solve our problem. And in his litany of expressing the despair of the Negro, without offering a positive, creative approach, I think that he falls into a rut sometimes.”

That is not how King’s response appeared in the published interview. While the top part is nearly identical with the transcript, it ended in Playboy like this: “And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.

Some of the phrases added to King’s answer appear to be taken significantly out of context, while others appear to be fabricated:

  • “ … I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice.” King does not say this or anything similar anywhere in the 84-page interview transcript.
  • “Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence …” King says this phrase much earlier in the transcript, on page 12, and in answer to the question: “Dr. King, what is your opinion of Negro extremists who advocate armed violence and sabotage?” King gives a lengthy response that begins: “Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettoes urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence can achieve nothing but negative results.”
  • “ … as he has done …” King does not name Malcolm X as an example of “fiery, demagogic oratory” anywhere in the transcript.
  • “ … can reap nothing but grief.” This phrase does not appear in the transcript.

It is a standard practice in journalism when publishing Q&A-style interviews to make minor changes, such as removing excessive “ums” or truncating long answers where the subject repeats their point over and over again or wanders from the topic at hand. But journalists typically take great pains to ensure any changes do not alter the intended meaning of an interviewee’s response. In addition, outlets commonly will include an editor’s note informing the reader of such changes.

What Haley appears to have done amounts to “journalistic malpractice,” Eig said.

“We should remember that King was always more radical than we like to imagine or talk about,” Eig continued. “He was a Christian radical, and his radicalism came from a different place than Malcolm’s did, but they always had a lot in common. They always believed that you had to take radical steps to change America, to end racism, to create a country that lived up to the words of its promises.”

Indeed, in another part of the transcript, Haley asks King about critics labeling him an “extremist,” to which King responded: “At first, it disturbed me. Then I began to consider that, yes, I would like to think myself an extremist — in the light of Christ-like spirit which made Jesus an extremist for love.”

Eig has shared this discovery with a number of King scholars, and the changes “jumped out” to them as “a real fraud,” Eig said. “They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been teaching that to my students for years,’ and now they have to rethink it,” Eig said.

One of these scholars is Peniel E. Joseph, director of the Center for Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of a number of books about the civil rights and Black power movements. He told The Post he would change how he teaches now that Eig’s “terrific” research was “setting the historical record straight.”

Given Haley’s other scandals, “this is not really surprising or shocking, but it’s bad,” Joseph said.

“We know on other occasions King is talking about Malcolm X without mentioning him at all,” Joseph said. “In this specific case, we have more clarification about how certain media wanted to pit them against each other and use Dr. King as a cudgel against Malcolm.”

King and Malcolm X met only once, and briefly, outside a Senate hearing at the U.S. Capitol on March 26, 1963. Weeks before, Malcolm X had announced his break with the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, and his willingness to work with other civil rights leaders.

When the men met, he told King, “I’m throwing myself into the heart of the civil rights struggle.”

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Haley, who spent much of his life struggling to pay the bills, may have decided to emphasize or exaggerate King’s and Malcolm X’s differences to increase his public profile, Joseph suggested.

In this same period, between 1963 and 1965, Haley was also conducting a series of interviews that would become Malcolm X’s autobiography, as Malcolm X allegedly told it to him. “I believe that what we know about this incident, and others that we know about Alex Haley, should prompt us to scrutinize everything he’s written, including the autobiography,” Eig said.

Joseph is more cautious, saying that even if Haley “took license with it,” all autobiographies should be understood as “a literary creation” and not an exact historical record. Still, educators using the autobiography in their classes teach students to “think critically” about it, he said.

In the end, King “was not afraid to criticize Malcolm, but he was also willing to listen to him, and he was not ruling him out as a crackpot, as a violent wild card. He was thinking about Malcolm and where he belonged on the team of people fighting for justice,” Eig said.

Whatever thoughts King may have had about working with Malcolm X in the future, no such partnership would come to pass. Malcolm X was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965, a month after the King interview published.

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