Martin Luther King and Malcolm X:

On Being, Knowing, and the Dignity of Persons


Discussion paper, prepared for blind review for SAAP, 2010.




            The thesis of this study is that both King’s and X’s views are consistent with philosophical personalism, and are in different and incompatible ways developments and applications of philosophical personalism.  Some years ago I set out to try to discover whether there was a philosophical basis for the antipathy between X and King during the years that X was such a constant and vocal critic of King’s activities, 1957 to1963, and I believe I have found that difference and can show it in clear philosophical terms. Clearly there were other non-philosophical factors that contributed to the tension between the movements headed by each man, but my concern has been to discover their philosophical roots. That essay seeks to be a contribution to the interpretation of King and X and the body of scholarship that has grown up around them. No scholar I have found has yet recognized that the main key to their differences resides in their differing conceptions of the person in community, how their variant views of the intersubjective constituting of persons in community has given rise to their differing conceptions of persons.



The Thesis


            The thesis of this study is that both King’s and X’s views are consistent with philosophical personalism, and are in different and incompatible ways developments and applications of philosophical personalism.  Some years ago I set out to try to discover whether there was a philosophical basis for the antipathy between X and King during the years that X was such a constant and vocal critic of King’s activities, 1957 to1963, and I believe I have found that difference and can show it in clear philosophical terms. Clearly there were other non-philosophical factors that contributed to the tension between the movements headed by each man, but my concern has been to discover their philosophical roots. That essay seeks to be a contribution to the interpretation of King and X and the body of scholarship that has grown up around them.[1]  No scholar I have found has yet recognized that the main key to their differences resides in their differing conceptions of the person in community, how their variant views of the intersubjective constituting of persons in community has given rise to their differing conceptions of persons.


I am not a race theorist, and I am sensible of the fact that using the tools and methods of Anglo-european philosophy on this subject can be regarded as a kind of violence or cultural imperialism. I am aware of the problems raised by standpoint epistemologies and culturalogics which would question either my ability to know what I am talking about, or my standing to say anything about it. I am also aware that I am using the terms “white” and “black” in ways that can be described as essentializing. I cannot answer these likely charges and suspicions here because it would thwart my present purpose. But I regard these matters of race theory as very important and I do not claim the expertise needed to discuss them at the most sophisticated levels. I invite those with such doubts to view this as a piece of “comparative philosophy,” with all that it entails, and as a part of a dialogue mainly aimed at those of Anglo-european heritage who would like to understand better, in language they customarily use, what I have gleaned in many years of studying the thought of King and X, for whatever good it may contain.


Common Philosophical Views of King and X


            Perhaps it goes without saying, or perhaps it does bear repeating, that both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were religious thinkers.  In times past it was not uncommon for people to assume that any thinker, with precious few exceptions, would have his or her basic philosophical assumptions informed by a religious tradition.  Only in the second half of the 20th century did Modernity progress in its ideology so far as to suppose that religious convictions were “disqualifiers,” in terms of the philosophical merit of one’s thinking.  In that sense, both King and X belonged to a world that no longer exists, for in their day, their upbringing, and the context of their adult lives, it was still more or less assumed that a philosopher might be religious to the very core.  Even today this idea would be held in serious suspicion only in the academies.[2]  But that academic suspicion is not relevant to understanding King and X philosophically. I shall therefore sin boldly and treat King and X as serious intellectuals in spite of their being religious.



            In metaphysics, King and X agree that God is the basis of all reality. They have differing conceptions of God, however, and initially I thought that perhaps this difference would explain their philosophical differences.[3]  Malcolm X’s God is very much the God of traditional Islam, very much the all-powerful personal being to whom submission, obedience and all praise is due.  Malcolm X’s God is in control.  In contrast, King’s God is the God of 20th century process metaphysics and philosophical theology.  King’s God is not so absolutely omnipotent,[4] but is the most powerful being.  King’s God triumphs in the end, but cannot be said to be in control of everything.  As he put it more than once, quoting Theodore Parker, “the arc of the universe is long, but I believe that it bends towards justice.”  King’s God wants co-creators and companions and calls persons to be companions to the divine in a beloved community.  X’s God is not in need of any companions or assistance with creation.  This difference in metaphysics is very real and very important, but it is not, in my view, the source of their differences.  At the relevant point King and X agree, and that is that God is the ultimate source of the being, dignity, freedom and moral worth of persons. 

The reason this point of agreement is crucial is that it sets both King and X in a posture to the world that assumes that other human persons cannot with any amount of effort or oppression actually rob another human being of his or her personhood.  The origin of the personal being, worth, dignity, and freedom of any person is in that person’s fundamental relation to the divine, and no third party has the power to alter that relation.  Thus, whatever oppression, injustice, and slavery are, as attacks upon personhood, they have no hope of success.  Many non-theists or secular humanists will not share this view; without such a metaphysical guarantor of our personhood as is found in God, one person can, in principle, successfully annihilate the personhood of another.  Hence, human rights, for non-theists, become the only defense against the metaphysical annihilation of personhood, and these rights therefore take on a moral urgency and ultimacy in secularist discourse that they lack in theistic and traditional discourse.  But for King and X, human rights have no such ultimate status.  Human rights are for them an important human means to insuring that we use our freedom wisely to the end of recognizing what is already the ultimate truth in any case, that humans are persons of worth and dignity because of their relation to something divine.  Oppressing and killing them does not change that worth or that metaphysical status.

            Rather than being a source of disagreement between King and X, I incline at this point towards seeing their conceptions of God as the main source of their points of agreement.  And where Muslims and Christians part company theologically, King and X also part company, for the most part.  This broad agreement in theism and how it founds personal existence, however, is a vital commonality, and the differences between the God of liberal protestants and the God of Muslims are not all that relevant to understanding the question before us.



            Similarly, in epistemology, both King and X held that revelation was a legitimate source of knowledge.  However, King’s epistemology was more balanced, allowing greater legitimacy to sources of knowing that were not dependent upon revelation.  For King, personal experience and group experience, including historical group experience, held a place alongside reason as counterbalances to revelation in his formal epistemology.  This is to say that, for King, one could outline the structure of his epistemology independent of particular content, and see what role revelation played.  This distinction of formal epistemology from genetic or natural epistemology was very much the result of King’s formal education in the Kant, Lotze, Bowne, Brightman line of descent.[5]  Revelation was, in King’s view, capable of being divided into historical revelations, such as are found in Scripture and post-scriptural group experiences, and individual revelations, such as Wesley’s heart strangely warmed or his own experience in the kitchen of his house in Montgomery.  The type of knowledge, its scope and authority, that could be derived from revelation was limited to contexts appropriate to its use.  In some sense revelation might be available in every human situation, and in some sense relevant, but it was not to be regarded as the only means of coming to know or coming to know the truth of what should be done, for King.

            X’s epistemology held more tension, for at one level the authority of revelation was absolute for him.  Being was univocal, and all the true prophets said essentially the same thing. Whether one was speaking of group experience or individual experience, historical or present, the truth was the same truth.  X granted that some might come to see part of the truth without allowing it was revealed, but his confidence was unshakable that the path of knowledge was precisely the same path for every person, and that anyone who remained on the path of knowledge for long, and who was not deceived, would come in time to see things exactly as he saw them himself.  Thus, when arguing a point, whether from history or personal experience, X was willing to follow most any road his interlocutors took and show with perfect clarity how it led to his viewpoint.  X was so effective at doing this in public discourse that nearly all of his philosophical opponents shunned open debate with him.[6]  But it would not be accurate to say that Malcolm’s whole epistemology was exhausted by the concept of revelation –whether in the Koran or in the teaching of Elijah Muhammed, or any other inspired teacher. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that Malcolm believed in the unity of all knowledge and truth, and held that the human mind was capable of knowing truth by holding fast to its unity.  And herein, King and X were of the same opinion.  It would not be correct to say that both were coherentists about truth, but rather to say that they held a view more closely akin to Aquinas’s two-fold theory of truth.  Certainly humanity was free to use the means at its disposal to attain knowledge (observation, reason, sense experience, tradition), but the knowledge attained succeeded in being true by being part and parcel of the one reality whose guarantor was the one true God.  Wherever empirical investigation and experience seem to contradict what was reliably revealed by God, then revelation takes precedence, but only in the form of a task yet to be accomplished –further investigation to improve the mind and make it adequate to the truth, and the continuing presupposition of the unity of truth, knowledge and being as something that the mind can attain.

            In X’s own experience, there had developed prior to his conversion to the Nation of Islam, a commonsense naturalism, roughly Hobbesian and materialistic in outline, and an accompanying ethic that was fairly pessimistic about human nature.  The epistemology and ethic of the street hustler remained in tension with X’s formal epistemology (revelation from God) throughout his life.  The tension comes out clearly in X’s autobiography.  This entire work presupposes a type of first person authority that is foreign to X’s other writings, and Alex Haley well described the visible struggle X went through as he threw off on each occasion the presuppositions of his formal epistemology to adopt the perspective on truth that was taken up in his autobiography.[7]


But in spite of this profound tension in X’s orientation on the question of knowledge, if anything this tension brought him closer to King’s viewpoint.  In spite of X’s traditionalist assumptions about knowledge and King’s modernist ones, their epistemologies had in common the assumptions about revelation and the unity of knowledge that were required for them to find significant common ground.  Thus, their philosophical differences were not mainly epistemological.  It is true that X allotted to history a greater role in the production of human knowledge.  That was his emphasis, however, and not a claim of exclusivity.  It is true that King allotted to abstract reason a greater share than X in the production of knowledge.  But that also was a matter of emphasis rather than principle.  And it is worth noting here, that both King and X were quite sophisticated in matters of rhetoric, whose tropes are dialectical, and not surprisingly both King and X were inclined to a dialectical orientation in secular epistemology, where revelation leaves off. Both held and took seriously dialectical views of historical knowledge. King took this from his formal study of Hegel while X took it from his self-guided study of DuBois. Hence the dialectic of master and slave is one that shows up often in both King and X, and the awareness that the slave has opportunities for development (both moral and epistemological) that the master is denied.  King and X had in common the study of Nietzsche, and both took Nietzsche seriously, and as a result one finds that they have taken seriously the claim that Christianity teaches a slave morality.  This brings us to the next important commonality.



            King and X also held in common another very crucial point of agreement.  Not only were both of them personalists (and we shall discuss shortly their disagreement here), but they were personalists of roughly the same stripe, to which I would give the name “ethical personalism.”  King and X agreed that ethics is first philosophy, which is to say that before human persons can say very much about what is true, they must first grasp something about the good, and for both King and X this meant recognizing that the fundamental order of the universe is a moral order.  The moral order of the universe is manifest and made available to human knowing as something like the “will” of the divine being, and every single action has to be grasped in light of that moral order; otherwise it could not be “known.” There are no morally neutral acts in the universe in the view of King and X.  Freedom was very real for persons, metaphysically basic to the relation of persons to the divine, and as a result, the order of the universe was first and foremost moral, as opposed to something governed first and foremost by laws of nature or by metaphysical principles (like the primacy of the actual). There is no morally neutral principle in the universe for either King or X.  What God made is good.  Persons can get themselves in line with that order or doom themselves to chaos, which is the effect of sin in our lives, according to both.  King and X may disagree about how much God depends upon finite persons to learn and act upon the divine will, and they may disagree about how one learns about the divine will, and they may differ about which specific acts are and are not in accord with the divine will, but they do not differ upon the basic presuppositions about the moral order of the universe, its founder and its knowability or intelligibility to human persons.



This last point is important because there is another popular viewpoint that both King and X oppose, but with which their views are easily confounded.  From the Anglo side of things, this is a view defended by Whitehead and Hartshorne and Wieman, while from the African-American side it is defended in different ways by Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. The view opposed by King and X could be characterized as the “aesthetic” view of the person, wherein human creativity is seen as its salvation, and creativity, artistic or moral, is held up as the ideal whereby moral values are to be judged.  This view is easily dovetailed with both secular humanism and a certain kind of theism, a kind of theism that emphasizes God’s creative role in the universe and which sees the order of the universe as a developing order in which what is moral also may change.  From this viewpoint, the order of the universe is first aesthetic and only secondarily moral, and indeed, its moral value emerges from its aesthetic value.  Both King and X oppose this view.  For them, the aesthetic order and aesthetic experiences are valuable or pernicious only as they relate to the moral order established by the divine.  King’s and X’s God is not exactly an artist, but a being whose aims are, in the end as in the beginning, moral aims.  The aesthetic experience and the affective life are the results of moral order, not the causes of it or justification for it.  A morally well-ordered soul will see beauty, and a morally chaotic soul will mistake ugliness for beauty and overlook genuine beauty.  Hence, when X teaches about the beauty of blackness, his presuppositions are moral, not aesthetic.


Political Philosophy

            It has been observed by some that King and X held differing political philosophies, but we may rather quickly dispense with the idea that this was an important source of the philosophical tension between them.  In some sense both were a bit at odds with representative democracy, but this had more to do with its individualism than its form of government.  Both King and X were communitarians to the core, and both conceived of a beloved community as the ideal situation for moral life.  It is true, politically, that X was a nationalist communitarian and that his ideas tended in the same direction as all forms of nationalism, which is to say that if he were a secularist, there would be nascent fascism in his assumptions. But X was nowehere close to fascism because he isn’t secular, and because fascism is an impersonalist philosophy. By the same token, King’s communitarian leanings, if made secular, had internationalist egalitarian assumptions, and tended in his case (as in his teacher Walter Muelder’s case), towards socialism. But of course, King was no socialist because he wasn’t secular and socialism is an impersonalist philosophy. Yet, both King and X are communitarians. After Hegel, communitarian philosophers who take dialectical history seriously seem always to tend in either the direction of fascism or socialism, so long as they tend towards secularism.

Yet, these are only tendencies in the style of thinking, and it is no more correct to say X was a fascist than to say King was a socialist, let alone a communist. Rather, it would be closer to the truth to recognize that dialectical communitarians like King and X have more in common with each other than either has with liberal individualism, such as is presupposed in American democracy.  Neither X nor King was driven by a primarily political goal. The goal of achieving genuine community was, for both of them, a religious imperative, even if for X the ideal was achieved through submission, while for King it was achieve through agape. Both submission and agape are, after all, modes of self-overcoming (i.e., the opposite of individualism). For each of them, politics was to be engaged only to the extent it has to be in order to accomplish a moral end, which for both of them was the establishment of the beloved community as an actuality on earth, or at the very least, to establish the conditions under which hope directed towards a possible beloved community would not be dashed by suicidal acts of depersonalizing others.  They differed regarding the make-up and basis for social order in this community, King imagining it in integrative and egalitarian, non-hierarchical terms, and X in hierchical terms, available to a chosen people (until the last year of his life), but since for both of them this beloved community was an unactualized ideal, they never came to the point of having to disagree about how to run it.  Here again it seems to me that King and X had more in common than not.


            With so much held in common in metaphysics, epistemology and moral and political philosophy, one wonders how the disagreements between King and X could possibly seem so pointed and deep.  But they are deep and pointed.  It is important to recognize the depth of their agreement in order to appreciate how their fundamental differences could possibly have been so intractable.


Self-defense and Nonviolence


            To begin to understand the fundamental differences between King and X on persons, we need a point of entry.  Several recommend themselves, but I have selected for this audience and occasion the issue of self-defense.  And examination of self-defense will bring us to see what King and X could never hope to agree upon, and also what Bob Harrison taught me so patiently.  The issue comes down to how one conceives of the duty that falls to the person or group that strives to live according to ideals in relation to those who do not so strive.  This is an issue of moral development.  Assuming that by historical experience or divine sanction one person or group has come to have a moral understanding that exceeds other persons or groups, what ought that more advanced person or group do?  Socrates faces this very question is saying that, although the cave dwellers will want to kill him, and will try to, and may succeed, the enlightened individual is in fact obligated to return to the cave.  Both King and X hold that some persons and some groups may come to possess moral wisdom and moral knowledge that others have not attained, and both hold that this moral understanding and development affects a person’s relation to others. 

Both King and X held that a person who possesses such moral knowledge is obligated to return to those less enlightened and to educate.  Both King and X  held, as a result of their dialectical commitments, that oppressed persons and group have opportunities for development of moral knowledge that is not available to oppressors.  They did, however, disagree (for most of their shared time on earth) about whom to educate.  King always held that it was the obligation of the morally developed and enlightened individual or community to educate any and all, and to carry a confidence that all persons were capable of such education.  Toward the end of his life King began to doubt whether Niebuhr might have been right after all in pointing out that the privileged class could not be educated in such a way as to give up its own privileges freely for the good of all.  But for King there was little question about the educability of persons.  X eventually came to the conclusion that all human persons are in principle educable, but for most of his active adult years he struggled and wavered between, on the one hand, seeing whites as incorrigible by nature, and on the other hand, seeing their apparent incorrigibility as the contingent outcome of history.  In differing moments he spoke one way or the other as the audience at hand required.  But there is no question he struggled with the issue, and eventually, as he became an “orthodox” Muslim, came to the conclusion that the moral depravity of whites was a general and contingent fact of history, not something corrupt in their very natures.  Thus, for both King and X, moral development in the furnace of oppression and slavery is a fact of history, the fruit of this fact is the realization of a certain kind of communal moral enlightenment born of undeserved suffering, and the obligation placed upon those who were able to gain this moral understanding was to teach and to liberate at least some of those who lacked it.

The issue between them arose in the matter of what to do about those who did not wish to be educated themselves, and who also wished to prevent this moral education from being disseminated to others.  And here is where King advocated nonviolence while X advocated self-defense by any means necessary. I speak here not of nonviolence as a tactic, or a strategy, but as a philosophical truth deducible from the metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy and political philosophy I have already explained, and upon which King and X agreed more than they disagreed. Yet, the case is not simple.  King allowed self-defense of family and home as a legitimate justification for using violence, although he thought it morally higher to be so much above violence as to be incapable of it.  So the advocacy of nonviolence of King’s part was not without qualification.  Further, X’s advocacy of self-defense was not without its own qualifying context, although the account is complicated.  This is a philosophical tangle which will take us to the very heart of how one conceives the person as other, one’s account of intersubjectivity in light of community.  That is where we must go if we wish to understand the ground of the difference between King and X.


 Let us enter this tangle with a passage:


Both the individual and society have a right to self-defence.  This right has all the sacredness of moral personality in both cases.  There can be no moral life without the security of the individual, and this in turn demands the security of the social order and of personal rights. . . . The person who will not regard the rights of others must be coerced and fettered in the measure of his attack upon others.  It is just that society should so deal with him that he shall be prevented from doing mischief, and that others shall not be tempted by his example to do likewise.  Whatever is necessary to guard society against the criminal, and to make the criminal industry unprofitable, society may justly do.  Whatever lies beyond this, in the way of absolute expiation and punishment, belongs not to man but to God.[8]


One might be surprised to learn that this passage, which advocates coercion and self-defense by any means necessary, is from the hand of the founder of Boston personalism, Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910).  What interests us particularly in this case is the idea that the right of self-defense “has all the sacredness of moral personality,” both at the level of the individual and the group.  Certainly one way of understanding how the moral life of the person or group may be carried on is by recognizing that it must continue to exist in order to be a source of enlightenment to others, or that at the very least it has a right to continue to exist regardless of whether the person and community chooses its own continuation.  And indeed, here is the key to everything.  In the face of the Other who wants no moral progress or enlightenment for himself, and who also wants no one else to have any, personal and group moral existence has a profound choice: self-sacrifice or self-defense by any means necessary.  For King, the higher road is self-sacrifice.  X could never quite bring himself to believe this choice is anything but folly –a choice that only a chump would make.

We might very well recognize that the theological differences between Christianity and Islam are in play here.  Both traditions hold self-sacrifice in the highest esteem, but in the case of Christianity, self-sacrifice is undertaken for the salvation and reclamation of the unenlightened and the morally depraved.  In Islam self-sacrifice is undertaken as required by Allah for the achievement of His holy ends, and in perfect submission to His will, but not specifically for the reclamation of others, and certainly not at the choosing of the unbelievers.  Martyrdom comes by Allah’s will, not by the action of the enemies of Truth.  Both traditions have the same principles, but there is a difference in emphasis.  In both theological views there are rewards for those who sacrifice themselves.  In view of this, one might be content to say that King’s and X’s disagreements on matters of nonviolence and self-defense were really rooted in the differences of their respective religious traditions.  I do not think, however, that this is entirely correct.  It is a contributing factor, but neither King nor X was a mindless practitioner of his own tradition.  Each sought the philosophical justifications for what was already believed on faith.  And in speeches and writings, each offered justifications quite independent of theology and religion for self-defense or for nonviolence. The two-fold theory of truth discussed earlier, revelation and reason, is operative here.

Thus, we have traced the difference to matters of moral obligation towards those beyond the morally developed group for which one speaks.  And here, King and X part company in the most decisive ways.  While both agree that the personhood of the individual cannot be taken away by slavery, oppression, violence, death, or refusal on the part of the unenlightened and undeveloped to recognize the gift of moral education from those who are superior in moral knowledge, they cannot begin to agree on what is to be done about such persons.  While both agree that dignity comes from the relation between a person and God first, and from the community second, and from the recognition of individual others only in a derivative way, they cannot agree upon whether a morally developed individual is obligated to interact with what the Other can be (but has not achieved), or with what that person is in actuality.

King advocates here a thoroughgoing moral and philosophical idealism, saying, with Brightman (and his other teachers), that the “law of ideal personality” requires that we encounter the other first in light of what his ideal possibilities are, and only secondarily in light of what he has actually achieved.  By the extension of Brightman’s moral laws in the work of King’s other teachers Muelder and DeWolf, communities of less morally developed persons must be encountered first in terms of their ideal possibilities and only secondly in terms of what they actually are in the present. This precludes cultural or economic imperialism and colonialism. Brightman, Muelder, DeWolf and King all regard the person’s fundamental nature as ideal, and his actual nature as a contingent product of his choices up to that time, nearly always including many choices that are less than optimal. Indeed, for King and Brightman (as for Kant, see C3, sect. 73) a “person” is not even empirically intelligible to us as a person except reflectively and ideally. Nor are we intelligible to ourselves as persons by any other than the ideal route. Persons might (through self-objectifying choices) functionally (not metaphysically) abdicate their own personhood and ideal possibilities, but even if they do, a morally guided individual must still encounter those persons as ideal beings first.  King saw the resort to violence by a person as evidence of that person’s having given up all hope of attaining his own ideal possibilities, and sinking into the downward spiral of self-dehumanization.  A person using violence cannot, in King’s view, truly brutalize his victim –at least not without the victim’s co-operation, which training in nonviolent resistance teaches us to avoid-- he can only brutalize himself.  But although the person using violence has given up on himself, it is the victim’s moral obligation to recognize that God has not given up on that person, and that no person can succeed finally in abdicating his own personhood.  Personal beings cannot cease being personal, no matter how much they may think they desire it. 

Obviously this dynamic relation between self and other can be described phenomenologically, in the sorts of terms Sartre or Levinas made so well known, but the moral dimension of the dynamic is, I think, better characterized in the philosophies of King and Gandhi.  Never is one justified in giving up on the personhood of the other in any case, and indeed, the greater one’s own moral development, the greater will be the ease with which one may suffer the violence of the other with serenity, and for his betterment.  One only needs confidence in one’s own personhood to begin this moral ascent.  Or so King’s side of the ledger goes.  On the matter of personhood, God gives us a blank check and the account is never overdrawn.  Death itself is not enough to empty this bank account, since personhood does not depend upon any continuance of biological life for King.

On X’s side of the ledger these accounts do not balance.  He and King agree that no one is morally obligated to sacrifice himself or his family for another, and they agree that the preservation of one’s own life and the life of one’s family is a legitimate basis for the use of any means necessary to defend oneself and others.  But for X, the choice to sacrifice oneself for another, especially when that other has chosen functionally to abdicate his own personhood in acts of violence, is not a morally admirable –or even defensible—choice.  Why does X not agree on this point?  The story is somewhat complex, but it is worth understanding.

Malcolm X believed that persons could effectively (not just functionally, but permanently) abdicate their own personhood, and that the best evidence one could get about whether any given person or group had chosen to forego the gift of personhood was to observe actual behavior.  Moral wisdom for X involved the willingness to recognize that persons must interact first on the basis of what we actually are (not first upon what we can or could be), and only upon what is shared in actuality can there be any hope of a meaningful exchange of moral ideals.  In short, trust among persons is built in actuality first, and upon the basis of that trust one may begin gradually to think about shared ideals and directions and aspirations.  It is not to be expected, X believed, that even morally developed persons and groups will have the same ideals as other morally developed persons and groups, let alone morally depraved persons and groups.  And in light of this, X held that one could fairly read the white race as actually depraved and morally bankrupt, a conclusion for which he had abundant evidence and precious little counter-evidence.  A clear and uncensored rehearsal of the actual behavior, historically and in the present, of the Anglo-europeans as a group, makes a fairly compelling case for this depravity.  And surely no non-white person can be morally obliged to sacrifice himself or his family or group for the reclamation of the white race which, after all, has had all the advantages and opportunities any group could wish for its moral development and has chosen overwhelmingly to persist in brutish (which is to say self-dehumanizing) behavior.

One can hardly look for more convincing evidence of this than the uses of violence, pre-emptive war, and torture endorsed and even proudly defended by the previous administration in the USA. I wish that this brutality had changed since Malcolm’s day, but it really hasn’t, and if anything the depravity of the white race has spread since then, as has its violence.  The only solution to such willful abdication of ideals is total separation of those who refuse their own personhood, according to X.  The only way to preserve the moral gains of non-white peoples in the fiery furnace of oppression is to separate, so X believed.  I have no doubt that the failure to separate from whites and the triumph of integrationist philosophies has had the effect of robbing the non-white races of much of their moral learning and development, and very many have watched their younger generations come to believe that they really are not persons, but just “consumers” and that freedom is simply freedom to buy what one wants. This sort of dehumanizing and depersonalizing propaganda is difficult to resist, since the violence that it perpetrates is a murder of the soul for the sake of the pleasure of the body. That is why getting off drugs, alcohol (and pork) was at the heart of X’s practical moral teaching.

But how does the story go, with regard to X’s philosophical justification for separation?  I think it goes something like this: X generally reserved some of his most vitriolic language for Northern white liberals who expressed sympathy with the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the South.  Why?  Basically the Northern white liberals represented the deepest temptation to self-hatred with which an African American would ever be faced, according to X.  If a morally depraved individual or group offers to recognize the personhood of the people it oppresses on grounds of the acceptance by the oppressed group of the values of the oppressors, the oppressed group is deceived into abdicating its own moral worth and its own history and form of existence in favor of a form of existence that can never be its own, and which is morally inferior to its own form of existing.  If personhood means accepting the supposedly generous expansion of the white man’s sphere of moral concern to include oneself, one has achieved not personhood but servitude to alien and inferior ideals.  One can be confident of the inferiority of these ideals, X thinks, simply in virtue of the fact that they come from one’s own oppressors –if the ideals were actually better ones, why isn’t the one holding them out to his group offering them freely and without conditions?  Why is the one offering these ideals oppressing the other groups now, and why has he oppressed them in the past?  What must one give up to accept his gift of recognition, and what gives him the standing to be doling out recognition anyway? I don’t know, but I would like to put put that question to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas, and I might add, I’d like to hear Barack Obama’s answer to the same question, or at least Michelle’s answer. The extension of the white man’s sphere of moral concern is based on a profound self-deception, X believed, and is a natural outgrowth of his actual moral inferiority (which as we have said, may not be inherent in his mode of existence, but is abundantly evident in his actual choices). The other side of this dialectic is that no genuinely morally developed person or group would even imagine that the expansion of its own sphere of moral concern to include others was in any sense a determining factor in whether those newly included in his sphere had the power to determine their personhood. Yet, that is the underlying and unconscious logic of the offer of the Northern white liberal: “come, be a person like we are,” they say without saying, or in a more kindly formulation, “please become recognizable to us.” White people, in my experience (and I have a good deal of experience being white), simply cannot hear this or grasp that they are doing it. They just cannot imagine that they are not morally alright, as a group. As a group, being well-meaning or well-intentioned must perform a lot of metaphysical work for white folks, even allowing for tremendous variation among them. As Niebuhr pointed out repeatedly, privilege and power just always impair those who possess them. Perhaps King just could not quite embrace Niebuhr’s realism –King was, after all, a philosophical idealist.

But this is a subtle business, this intersubjective recognition dynamic, as Levinas and others have been at great pains to show us.  Yet, the business is not too subtle for the keen eye of Malcolm X.  If forms of moral existence do not depend upon the recognition of the inferior by the superior, then they certainly do not depend upon the recognition of the superior by the inferior.  Upon seeing that African-Americans were in fact a morally more developed group than whites during the time he lived, and this is a point with which King only mildly disagrees, but not as loudly or unconditionally as whites wish he would have, X came to the conclusion that the gift of inclusion by one’s own moral inferiors, however powerful they were, was hardly a gift worth taking, and yet, all around him black Americans were not only accepting the “gift,” they were fighting for the offer of it in the South, as led by the “Reverend Dr. Chickenwing,” as Malcolm once called him.  X was alarmed by the rate at which blacks were being seduced to become like whites, and he saw in this the deterioration of the one group without any serious prospect of improving the other group.  He fought against this seduction of an inferior morality with every ounce of strength and courage and intelligence he possessed.  As he came to understand King better, he came to realize that King was not wholly deceived by the attitude of Northern liberals, although it seemed to require a first-hand encounter with the bureaucratic forces of Richard J. Daly before King fully grasped how poisonous the “support” of Northern white liberals could be.

But the philosophical lesson here is an important one.  Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.  If the gift that, say, Plato brings you is an invitation to be a “philosopher,” as over against the morally inferior “sophists,” you’d best make sure the sophists are truly morally inferior before accepting the gift.  If a Northern white liberal offers you a chance to participate in his world, with or without terms and conditions, it is wise to be certain that his world is morally better than the one you are forsaking.  The grass may not be greener, and in the case of the world created by Northern white liberals, the grass is poisoned by more than a little DDT.  If anyone wishes to abdicate everything higher in his own nature, he could hardly do more to achieve that abdication of all things higher than to adopt the values and prevailing practices of white American civilization.  Certainly white America has taught the world to pursue its most bestial pleasures and selfish desires at the expense of the environment, the future, and of any persons who lack the military might to protect themselves from our ruthless economic and cultural imperialism. We are now, just as we were in Christmas of 1967, the greatest purveyors of violence on the face of the earth. Although he would not say it in just this way, King had hoped that white America might be morally improved by means of integration, by a melding of the moral wisdom of its people of color with the resources of its white population.  This was an idealistic vision, and King was, after all, an unapologetic idealist.  X was as realist, and in the end I think he was right about what would happen, even if King was right about what should happen.  X foresaw the further and increasing corruption of the nonwhite people of the earth by the values of the whites, and he foresaw their subsequent loss of the moral progress and wisdom for which they had suffered so much.  He saw that it was possible that black people might become just like white people, in the main, serving the Modern technological monster of industrial civilization and behaving like beasts that were nearly indistinguishable from whites.  He lamented this emerging likelihood while he saw King as struggling to give black people the chance to follow the path to their own destruction.  X saw very little hope for the whites, and believed they were on a historical path that was certain to lead to their self-destruction.  But regarding blacks he held out hope that they might succeed in holding themselves aloof from this decline into bestiality, selfishness and violence, if only their leaders were strong and resisted the lures of the white liberals.

Unhappily, X was in the main correct about the tendencies that were beginning to become dominant in his last years, and for the most part the great black hope has been dashed in the 45 years since then.  White people have been improved very little, if at all, by the level of racial integration achieved following the Civil Rights movement, and American blacks have experienced a continuing decline in the quality of their organic communities.  Blacks who are willing to behave like whites have been increasingly rewarded like whites, to some degree, but is that a good thing? As I consider the bonuses AIG Financial Services executives feel they ought to receive, and the utter corruption and moral depravity that could prevent them from recognizing that this is a travesty, I find myself doubting whether I want to be rewarded in the way that contemporary Americans of any race now reward themselves. Perhaps a better reward would be a walk in the woods or time spent with family and friends.  I think I am slowly coming to understand why Malcolm X thought I ought to approach the question with philosophical seriousness.




[1] The scholarship up to 1991 is covered exhaustively in James H. Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991).  Cone makes a persuasive case for reading King and X along lines similar to those I am proposing here, and I regard my own effort as building upon, elaborating and extending Cone’s thesis there.  More recent scholarship is nicely surveyed and summarized in Robert L. Jenkins, The Malcolm X Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002).  Regarding this latter source it is interesting to note that among the dozens of professors and intellectuals who contributed to the encyclopedia, not a single one is a philosophy professor, and only one, Henry Whelchel, is a religion professor.  Precious little attention has been paid to Malcolm X by professional theologians and philosophers. Specifically, however, the most relevant studies are listed in my works consulted list.



[2] See the writings of George M. Marsden on this topic, especially The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).


[3] I am obliged at present to gloss this term briefly. By “philosophical differences” I mean here something pretty academic –philosophy understood as the discipline practiced in the academies by the professors, and differences indicating the sorts of disputes had by such people in pursuing their discipline. Thinkers like Cornel West, Richard Posner , and to some extent Richard Rorty, use the term in this way. They would not regard the question of such philosophical differences as important, however.


[4] There has been a fair amount of discussion regarding whether and to what extent King was a theistic finitist.  My own view from studying the text is that King was clearly a finitist in graduate school but developed away from theistic finitism as he matured and reconnected to his black Baptist roots.  Hece, his development moved him gradually towards a view of God and a metaphysics more congenial to Malcolm X’s.


[5] Louis V. Baldwin has done everything that can be done to demonstrate that every crucial idea King ever had originated in the black church and from his cultural roots, and that the white academy contributed nothing important to his thinking, and was, if anything, an obstacle to King’s realization of the better ideas he gleaned in his upbringing. See Baldwin, There is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991). I will not here dispute that claim, but I will point out that if Baldwin were correct, most of Rufus Burrow’s 2006 book, God and Human Dignity would be simply wrong. Burrow praises Baldwin without reservation, and then calmly goes on to show how much King learned from the white academy.


[6] See James H. Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare, 101-102.


[7] See Alex Haley’s “Epilogue” to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as Told to Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), pp. 397-398. For his comments on King, see p. 406.


[8] Bowne, The Principles of Ethics (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1892), 275.



Works Consulted


Ansbro, John J. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Masking of a Mind. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982.


Baldwin, Louis V.  There is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.


---------------. To Make the Wounded Whole: The Cultural Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.


---------------, ed. Between Cross and Crescent:Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Malcolm and Martin. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2002.


Branch, Taylor. At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Year, 1965-68. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007.


---------------. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.


---------------. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.


Burrow, Rufus, Jr. A Critical Introduction to Personalism. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999.


---------------. God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.


Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997.


--------------. God of the Oppressed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997.


--------------. Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991).


DeCaro, Louis A., Jr. On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X. New York: New York University Press, 1996.


Dyson, Michael Eric. April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King’s Death and How It Changed America. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2008.


-------------. I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Free Press, 2001.


-------------. Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Erskine, Noel Leo. King Among the Theologians. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1995.


Fortune, Aaron G.  A Philosophical History of American Progressivism (Doctoral Dissertation). Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 2007.


--------------. “Violence as Self Sacrifice: Creative Pacifism in a Violent World.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 18 (2004): 184-92.


Gallen, David. Ed. Malcolm X: As They Knew Him. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1992.


Glaude, Eddie S. In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.


--------------. Ed. Is It Nation Time? Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.


Goldman, Peter. The Death and Life of Malcolm X. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.


Green, Judith M. Deep Democracy:Community, Diversity, and Transformation. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.


--------------. Pragmatism and Social Hope: Deepening Democracy in Global Contexts. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.


Herstein, Gary L. “The Roycean Roots of the Beloved Community.” The Pluralist 4:2 (Summer, 2009): 91-107.


Howard-Pitney, David. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2004.


Ivory, Luther D. Toward a Theology of Radical Involvement: The Theological Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997.


Jenkins, Robert L. Ed. The Malcolm X Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.


King, Martin Luther, Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998.


-------------. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Six vols.  Eds. Clayborne Carson, et al. Berkeley, CA: University of Califfornia Press, 1992-2007.


--------------. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Speeches and Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed James M. Washington. New York: Harper Collins, 1986.


Lawson, Bill E. and Koch, Donald F. Eds. Pragmatism and the Problem of Race. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.


Lewis, David L. King: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970.


Lincoln, C. Eric. The Black Muslims in America. 2nd ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961.


--------------. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Profile. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984.


Moses, Greg. Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. New York: The Guilford Press, 1997.


Outlaw, Lucius. On Race and Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1996.


Perry, Theresa. Ed. Teaching Malcolm X. New York: Routledge, 1996.


Roberts, J. Deotis. Bonhoeffer and King: Speaking Truth to Power. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.


Sabl, Andrew. Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.


Smith, Kenneth L. and Zepp, Ira G. The Search for the Beloved Community: The Thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. Updated Ed. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1998 [1974].


Wood, Joe. Ed. Malcolm X: In Our Own Image. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.


X, Malcolm. The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley. With epilogue by Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.


--------------. By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter by Malcolm X. New York: Pathfinder, 1970.


--------------. Malcolm X on Afro-America History. Expanded ed. New York: Pathfinder, 1970.


---------------. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements. Ed. George Breitman. New York: Grove Press, 1965.


---------------. Malcolm X: The Last Speeches. Ed. Bruce Perry. New York: Pathfinder, 1989.


--------------. The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard. Ed. Archie Epps. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1968.