Ta-Nehisi says that Malcolm is his heart and King is his brain.
I’d never really had the Malcolm obsession that seemed to enthrall so many of the folks I grew up with, particularly around the time that Spike Lee’s biopic dropped. (In the perhaps unavoidable commodification of Malcolm’s image, every other person in Philly seemed to be rocking an X hat or shirt in the months before the film came out.) Malcolm’s story is an archetypically American one, and his beliefs synthesized the anger that so many Negroes felt toward a powerful country that had mobilized so many parts of itself to grind them down and circumscribe their lives and choices in the pettiest ways. Malcolm was a brilliant autodidact, ravenously curious, handsome, charismatic and deeply disciplined. Is it any wonder that he reamins a template for an idealized black masculinity?
But Malcolm always left me a little cold, if only because he seemed to be the patron saint of those loud, half-nutty, conspiracy-minded armchair revolutionaries who dominate barbershop conversations. (Admittedly, this is more my issue than his.) Here’s a dude who until late in his tragically short life — oh, to see what he would have become! — was the face of an authoritarian organization that was founded by a charlatan and that held as a central tenet that black deliverance from our iniquitous, unjust world would come via a big-ass flying saucer.
Conversely, I’ve always felt that King’s gulliness was wildly underappreciated. His rhetoric was lofty, but still infused with a deep pragmatism; he banged so hard on love and forgiveness in his speeches because he saw the endgame. He knew that even righteous anger was exhausting and exhaustible, that places riven by violence are slow to be made whole again, if they ever are. The Montgomery Bus Boycott slowly brought a racist city to its knees and forced it to change the way it did its business. But on the other side of the fight, folks were going to have to live with each other, something that violence would have made impossible. It was, ironically, the kind of muscle-flexing so many nationalists call for, and it helped catalyze a movement that would fundamentally alter American policy and life.
A lot of folks take issue with comparisons of the push for LGBT rights with the Civil Rights Movement. And they’re imperfect parallels, to be sure. But the push for marriage equality, for example, is a practical appeal for a tectonic shift in the way we think about a bedrock social institution. America will change, and yet nothing will blow up. This has become the model of social progress in America, and it’s why I’ve always been so smitten with King. He tried to thread that needle — radicalism without nihilism — and proved that it was possible.