The Space Between MLK and Malcolm X: What the Missional Church Can Learn about Racial Reconciliation

booksTo missional church white people, interested in racial reconciliation, I recommend you read Martin and Malcolm: A Dream or a Nightmare by James Cone. In it, Cone outlines the history of the black struggle for equality, justice and freedom from oppression in the United States. He explores in great depth two profoundly different figures in black American leadership: Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. They provide the two main historical options offered within the black community to overcome racist oppression in America. If a white man like me wishes to enter into this struggle, on the terms already dictated from within the struggle itself, this book offers immense perspective.

Martin Luther King is option one. MLK was a non-violent “integrationist” from the south. He believed the wider white culture could be redeemed. He believed it was possible for the African American to enter into the mainstream American economy/society as full participants. Once white people, especially in the church, saw the horrors of injustice in their land, MLK believed they would live up to their own ideals, that “all men(sic) are created equal.” Martin, according to Cone, was a theological liberal. Although raised in the Southern black church, he was educated in the north. He believed in progress of liberal society. Yet he believed in non-violence as the Christian way to engage the false powers. He was relentless in his advocacy of non-violence as grounded in Jesus Christ (as well as Gandhi/Tolkien etc.).  By peaceful protesting, revealing the horrors and lies, by peacefully living and resisting , God would bring justice for the black community to America.

Malcolm X is option two. He was a black nationalist who believed violence was necessary to stand up to the oppression of the white man’s culture. For Malcolm, the first task was for black people to reclaim their identity. If they did not recover their dignity and self-identity- so beaten down by white society- any attempt by black people to integrate into white society would absorb them into the powers of white men. In essence the black nation would be re-absorbed into another form of slavery. His experience was from the black ghetto’s of the north where white people talked a good game but in the end just developed a different tactic for enslaving back people: the ghetto. Most of Malcolm’s education came from his apprenticeship under the Muslim Elijah Muhammad.

Martin was positive on America. “I have a dream” was his favorite mantra. Malcolm was sour on America believing that if black people were to ever be free they must first separate.  America, for Malcolm, was a “nightmare.”

Cone’s book does more than narrate the historical options. He is helpful in exposing the weaknesses of each theologian and how they changed, Martin becoming much more realistic in his views on American society, Malcolm seeing the weaknesses of a singular identity politics. Nonetheless, both streams are still alive and well today.

In regards to MLK, I resonate with Malcolm’s criticism of MLK’s too optimistic views of America. There’s a dangerous naiveté about MLK’s belief in America.  I believe this criticism applies to the American church in general (evangelicals and protestant mainliners). It too easily believes in America and its systems (evangelical right and the protestant mainline left) which leaves it vulnerable to assimilation to the powers that run deep at work within the systems. Cornel West adequately argues for a black communal resistance to some of these economic forces which have further enslaved his people into a corrupt economy in the name of justice and equality. On the other hand , MLK’s commitment to nonviolence, listening, dialogue brought powerful change as God used this movement in the early years of the civil rights movement. I see these MLK tactics as models for the church’s work to this day.

In regard to Malcolm, I resonate with MLK’s criticism of Malcolm’s rabid identity politics seeking to win battles through inciting militant violent acts against the powers. MLK was right. This would never work. It would merely inflame and create a stronger “white power” movement. Instead of exposing the lies, it would further them. But Malcolm is right to describe theneed for one’s own integrity as a commiunity, understanding one’s own history, so as to be able to enter into relation with the engulfing systems of white Euro capitalism.

Cone’s book describes these two logics in their history: integrationist and identity politics. They remain our default approach to racial relations in one form or another even in Christian circles. Check out the blogs. Check out the books on this subject. It seems we are stuck bouncing back and forth?

Is There a Space Between MLK and Malcolm?

After reading Cone, I’m left asking, can the church of Jesus Christ (which played a periphery role in both MLK and Malcolm’s strategies for different reasons) offer a space of reconciliation between MLK and Malcolm, a place where MLK’s non-violence meets Malcolm’s preservation of identity. Can there be such a space opened where we come together mutually submitting to the Lordship of Christ and under that power dynamic, be present to one another nonviolently hearing each other’s stories, carefully discerning what God is doing locally in this space and time to reconcile, heal, work together and renew? This space – between MLK and Malcolm -  must always be an intensely local engagement contextually driven, on the issues that plague our village, our city, our hospitals, our police forces, our courts, our housing, our education?

To me this is the church entering God’s mission in a way that brings MLK and Malcolm into this one place.

Of course, there is a group led by a black theologian who has been doing this for years, on the ground, locally. His name is John Perkins. The movement is CCDA.  The missional church, I suggest, would do well to stop many of its conferences, and just attend to what CCDA is learning and doing on the ground. To me CCDA is opening up that unique and incredible space of the Kingdom breaking in that lies between MLK and Malcolm?

Now I’m saying all this as a white guy reflecting on what I’ve learned. This is not the theological resolution James Cone puts forth in the book. For those who know Cone’s work, what have I missed? What does everybody else think? What am I missing on this extremely short summary of Cone’s book Martin and Malcolm?

Posted in Book Reviews, Diversity and Mission, Incarnational, Missional Leadership
7 comments on “The Space Between MLK and Malcolm X: What the Missional Church Can Learn about Racial Reconciliation
  1. Chris Hatch says:

    I attended the CCDA conference for years before moving to London and count John Perkins as one of my spiritual heroes, so I’m a bit biased; but I’ve often wondered why CCDA and Perkins haven’t been picked up by the urban missional folks over the last 5 to 10 years. The cynic in me has certain (not so godly) answers but I continue to pray that Perkins and CCDA will have a growing voice into the work of the younger missional guys. Thanks for bringing this up.

  2. Ric Hudgens says:

    David, This is great. I wrote about Martin and Malcolm around the time of the MLK Memorial dedication:

    I agree about CCDA as a unique meeting place for these concerns. King’s view did continue to evolve after “I Have a Dream” and by the time of his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech his views of America don’t seem that different from Malcolm’s.

    I love the story about the young black radical criticizing Dr King as an “Uncle Tom” and lauding the militancy of Malcolm X. His usually calm father grew increasingly agitated and finally said “You don’t know nothing! All Malcolm did was talk. But Dr King ended the terror of living in the South.”

    See you at CCDA!

  3. Great reflections! I do think that the church can learn much from MLK and X and the space between them. Regarding the “preservation of identity,” I’d suggest that this too is deeply, unconsciously being formed by “America and its systems,” not least the systems of colonialism and empire which brought America to be. CCDA and most of the American church have (again, unconsciously) taken identity politics for granted in the name of progress, diversity and multiculturalism. I wonder if there is a more radical, a more Christian approach to identity and difference? Of course, the way that we attend to these deeply informs whether we subvert or reinforce what it is that we need to overcome – whiteness! (Much of my thinking on this stems from the work of Victor Anderson, Tommie Shelby, J. Kameron Carter, Willie Jennings, Walter Benn Michaels, Jonathan Sacks and others.)

  4. Joe Davis says:

    Thanks for this Dr Fitch! I wasn’t aware of this book by Cone before and it sounds like one I need to read… already on the Kindle!

    I haven’t read much into Cone, but I have read some Delores Williams and I wonder where the womanist option(s) land in this discussion since “the black church” is surely not all run by the men ;)

    • David Fitch says:

      The glaring patriarchal blind spots of the black civil rights movement is mentioned by Cone in numerous spots in the book.

      • Joe Davis says:

        Ah, good to know. Williams criticizes Cone’s overly male account of black history and experience in *Sisters in the the Wilderness* so its good to hear that he’s acknowledging the patriarchy of the Civil Rights Movement.


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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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