Could Alex Haley's False Quotation of MLK Have Changed History?Roundup
tags: civil rights, African American history, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Alex Haley
Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history. He is the author of The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.
The relationship between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, long a contentious backdrop to the history of civil rights and anti-racist activism in America, is under new scrutiny after the bombshell news that a quote denigrating Malcolm X, published in Playboy and attributed to King, is apparently fraudulent.
In addition to forcing the world to confront its understanding of these defining leaders, this news, first reported by The Washington Post, also calls into question the credulity within which scholars and journalists have examined archival materials and other sources that make up the historical record.
This new information adds to the ongoing rethinking of the relationship between King and Malcolm X. Changing the way we consider their relationship helps us to reconsider the era that shaped both men as well as our own.
For if King and Malcolm X were not on opposite sides of the political fence as is popularly remembered, what new insights and possibilities does that offer for contemporary America to navigate a path away from racial division toward truth, justice and reconciliation?
The quote in question comes from a 1965 article in Playboy, an interview with King conducted by journalist and author Alex Haley, best known for “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Roots.”
In the Playboy interview, after asking King for his thoughts about Malcolm X, the following quote appeared: “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.” King purportedly continued. “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.”
The revelation that this quotation — which was interpreted at the time and for years to come as evidence of a fissure between the two men and their approaches to civil rights — was fabricated by Haley comes from Jonathan Eig, author of “King: A Life,” the first major biography of King in a generation (a book for which I offered advance praise). Eig’s work makes great use of newly surfaced archival materials, dozens of interviews and a close reading of sources to offer a more nuanced portrait of King and the historical and material context that shaped him.
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