THE SWORD AND THE SHIELD. The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
By Peniel E. Joseph. Basic Books. 384 pages. $30.
There is a lesson for us all in the writing of Peniel Joseph’s “The Sword and the Shield.” Half a century after the untimely deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph has provided an in-depth look at two dynamic leaders who challenged Americans to live up to our professed belief in equality for all.
Joseph has created an engaging dual biography of the two most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s through the 1960s. His portrayal of these two icons challenges the memories and the opinions of those who lived through the active struggle for liberty and equality during mid-20th-century America.
Joseph reminds us how we tend to fix the images of prominent people, continuing the myths that developed when they were alive, often never taking time to look beneath the images created by the individuals and the public who watch them “strut and fret their time upon the stage.”
The book opens on a scene not many people may recall. March 26, 1964, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. arrive separately at the U.S. Senate chamber to witness the debate of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a seminal piece of the legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
On that March day, the bill’s supporters were suffering through a filibuster by the party in opposition to the bill, a bill that was designed to “bring the nation closer to multiracial democracy through the end of racial segregation.”
Malcolm X and King had different approaches to a common goal, but their presence at this historic moment demonstrated their solidarity in seeking change for the citizens whose dreams they represented. The image of this joint appearance becomes a touchstone of Joseph’s story, a story that looks beyond the public images and seeks the true nature of each man and their relationship to each other and to the movement.
In an intricate weaving of the two biographies, we see a sharper picture of how these two gentlemen complemented each other in their quest for equity for African Americans. When they were alive, Malcolm X was perceived as a firebrand who demanded equality, and King was seen by some as a soft-spoken yet eloquent preacher who was too soft to get everything Blacks deserved.
Each man’s message reached people with different ideas on how to achieve social and economic equality in a country where Jim Crow laws and other institutional racism had robbed a significant portion of the citizenry of their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
As the Movement progressed, each faction slowly changed from its original focus and, like the two leaders, began to move toward a middle ground while still striving for the justice they sought. Their movement toward a central position follows the pattern of compromise central to an effective government of, by and for the people in a diverse society.
The immediate joy of reading this book is a combination of Joseph’s prose and his intellectual integrity, which leave the reader with the satisfaction of having a better understanding of both men. Sometimes his prose follows the structure of King’s sermon-like repetition and rhythm, and sometimes you might detect the powerful voice of the late Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.
Joseph has captured the essence of two men who made an impact on the lives of all Americans at a crucial time in the country’s history: one a dreamer who envisioned little white children and little Black children living in a world in harmony; the other a man who brought to the conversation memories of Marcus Garvey and the need for Black nationalism.
At the end of this book, the reader will have a better understanding of the impetus for change felt by Blacks in mid-20th-century America. If you need a reminder of some of the crimes committed against African Americans prior to the Movement, there are two newly published books that recount particularly heinous ones.
In August 1906, unidentified people raided the town of Brownsville, Texas, home of the First Battalion, 25th Infantry of the United States Army, a unit of 167 Black men. The soldiers were blamed for the incident and, without due process, dishonorably discharged. In 1972, Lt. Col. William Baker, U.S. Army, launched an investigation into the incident.
In the recently published “The Brownsville Texas Incident of 1906” (Red Engine Press, 480 pages, $30.95), Baker recounts his investigation of the incident and the subsequent findings of the Pentagon that the soldiers were not involved. The soldiers’ dismissal status was changed to “Honorable,” and the lone remaining soldier was compensated for the mishandling of the incident.
The other book giving insight into the mistreatment of Blacks is “Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and A Story of Reconciliation” by J. Chester Johnson (Pegasus Books, 216 pages, $27.95). Johnson chronicles what some call the worst racially motivated incident against African Americans in the nation’s history.
Johnson wrote his book as an attempt to atone for the sins of his grandfather who, as a railway official, was involved in the attempt to eradicate the Blacks who lived in Phillips County, Arkansas.
These two books have a common element. In the Great War, there were many Black soldiers who fought in France and earned the praise and thanks of the people whom they liberated from Germany’s attempt to conquer the continent.
When these soldiers returned to America, they met a different reaction to their service — reactions such as the ones recounted in these two books. This aggressive lack of appreciation for the Black veterans’ service seems to heighten the sense of separation that drove Malcolm X and King to seek a permanent solution to the inequity they experienced along with those who supported their efforts to make change.
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