MLK never said famous quote that criticized Malcolm X, biographer says : NPR
It is a biting piece of criticism aimed at Malcolm X who for decades has been attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. But a new biography of King suggests that history books about these two men may need to be rewritten — because King never actually said the words.
King never said he felt “Malcolm did himself and our people a great disservice,” author Jonathan Eig told NPR, despite that famous quote appearing in a 1965 interview with Alex Haley, for Playboy magazine.
“This is really important,” Eig said, “because we’ve been teaching the kids this quote since the Playboy interview.”
The words King and Malcolm X said about each other are vital to understanding the relationship between two leaders who took different approaches to confront systemic and deadly racism in America. Their rivalry was played out throughout their lives and into the years that followed, despite their overlapping goals.
“I would say they were engaged in an awkward dance, but they were listening to the same music,” Eig said.
The biographer calls it ‘journalistic malpractice’
Eig says he realized the original interview transcript did not contain the much-cited quote while reading through the archives at Duke University while researching his book, King: Life, which comes out on Tuesday. His discovery was recently reported by The Washington Post.
It’s “journalistic malpractice,” Eig said, to misrepresent what King thought of Malcolm X in this way.
“There is more,” said Eig, “but what King actually said was that he did not agree with some of Malcolm’s views, perhaps with many of them – but that he was aware that his way was not the only way And it sounds like he was much more open to exploring that relationship than l Playboy interview did it.”
Eig was asked whether he feels that Haley or his editors were responsible for the inconsistencies.
“I feel pretty strongly that it’s Haley who made this change, because it happens early in the process,” after an audio recording of the interview was transcribed but before Haley submitted a draft to Playboy.
While journalists sometimes edit quotes to clarify an interview subject’s remarks, it’s a tricky task — and don’t it involves adding language from whole cloth.
“We don’t know for sure that Haley typed that draft, but we do know that his line was on the story,” Eig said. For drastic changes like those he found, Eig said, “I can’t believe Haley would have signed on to this without seeing it. I think either way, it’s journalistic malpractice.”
Eig’s interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep will air on Tuesday Morning Edition.
The “disservice” quote about Malcolm X extends far beyond the pages of Playboy. It is included in The Autobiography Of Martin Luther King, Jr.which was compiled from King’s words by historian Clayborne Carson.
When asked for comment on the discrepancy, Carson told NPR, “I am certainly troubled by Haley’s apparently unethical decision to distort King’s statement about Malcolm X.”
It was likely, Carson added, that King’s feelings toward Malcolm X had subsided by early 1965.
It is the last question about Haley’s writings; others included accusations that he plagiarized portions of his seminal 1976 work, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Haley resolved one of those claims as a court case came to a conclusion.
Here’s what the 1965 article said
In the interview published weeks before Malcolm X was killed, Haley quoted King as he said:
He is very articulate, as you say, but I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views. . . Many times I wished he would talk less about violence, because violence will not solve our problem. And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive and creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery demagogic oratory in the black ghettoes, exhorting the Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he did, can reap nothing but sadness.
Here’s what the transcript says
In the original transcript, King’s line about the “narrative” oratory was not directed specifically at Malcolm X. It came a little earlier in the interview, in response to a broader question from Haley asks King to give “his opinion of Negro extremists who support armed violence and sabotage.”
Haley then asked about Malcolm X – and in a major discrepancy, the word “disservice” is not part of King’s answer, according to the records:
PLAYBOY: Dr. King, would you care to comment on the articulate former Black Muslim, Malcolm X?
DR. KING: I met Malcolm X, but circumstances did not allow me to talk to him for more than a minute. I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views, as I understand them. It is very articulate, as you say. I don’t want to appear as if I feel so self-righteous, or absolutist, that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he has some of the answer. But I know that many times I felt that I wanted him to talk less about violence, because I don’t think that violence can solve our problem. And in his litany of expressing the despair of the Negro, without offering a positive and creative approach, I think he sometimes falls into a rut.”
King praised Malcolm X’s integrity
Playboy published Haley’s interview with Malcolm X in its January 1965 issue. On February 21 of that year, Malcolm X was assassinated. His death came as signs of a potential meltdown emerged. between the two civil rights leaders.
“Malcolm X used King as a foil [and] tried to provoke his audiences by mocking King as a chicken, as an Uncle Tom, even,” said Eig. “And it played well with his audiences because it made him look like the most threatening. He also scared white people, which, you know, I think Malcolm wanted to do.”
King acknowledged the taunts of his rivals and their disagreement about nonviolence. But he also said that he can understand that a man whose life was shaped by despair, hatred and violence will refuse to integrate himself into a racist social order.
On February 5, 1965, Malcolm X visited Selma, Ala., met with Coretta Scott King while her husband was being held in prison.
“He spoke at length with my wife Coretta about his personal struggles and expressed an interest in working more closely with the non-violent movement, but he was not yet able to renounce violence and overcome the bitterness that life invested in it,” King said.
It was Malcolm X’s intelligence and drive, King said, that allowed him to shape himself and move away from an early life of crime.
“It was a testament to the depth and personal integrity of Malcolm that he could not become an underworld czar, but turned again and again to religion for meaning and destiny. Malcolm was still turning and growing at the time of his brutal and senseless murder.”
His death, King said, “was an unfortunate tragedy.”