Biographer discovers that Martin Luther King’s harshest criticism of Malcolm X was made up.
Writer Jonathan Eig, whose new biography of Martin Luther King Jr, King: A Life, comes out next week, has discovered that King’s harshest rebuke of Malcolm X was conjured out of thin air. The famous criticism, which appeared in a 1965 Playboy interview with writer Alex Haley, read 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.
But what Eig found—or didn’t find—in the Alex Haley archives at Duke University paints a different picture. Nowhere in the complete transcript does King say “… I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice.” Nor does he say “… can reap nothing but grief.” And the most (in)famous part of the criticism, about Malcolm X’s “Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence…” is part of an answer to an entirely different question that appears earlier in the interview, a generic prompt that reads: “Dr. King, what is your opinion of Negro extremists who advocate armed violence and sabotage?”
While Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X certainly disagreed about both tactics and philosophies in the struggle for Civil Rights, these revelations suggest that their alleged antagonisms were largely exaggerated. And as King shifted from enemy of white America to one of its secular saints, his radicalism was conveniently and consistently airbrushed out of the historical record, with Malcolm X often cast as his extremist foil.
As journalism goes, the outright fabrications here are obviously inexcusable, but the stitching together of quotes, with no care for context, is almost as negligent. No one will ever know if this was Haley’s doing, or his editors, but this discovery by Eig represents an important shift in assessing King’s opinion of his “radical” foil.