The Sword and the Shield

This undergraduate seminar course focuses on the revolutionary lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.  On Thursday, March 26, 1964, the United States Senate would decide the fate of the Civil Rights Act. That day, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. descended, separately, on the Senate building, serving as witnesses to an ongoing historical drama they had actively shaped in their respective roles as national political leaders and mobilizers. Malcolm, the sword, and Martin Luther King Jr., the shield, transformed the aesthetics of American democracy. These two metaphors reflect a new interpretation of Malcolm and Martin, in which a partnership is illuminated by examining the intricacy of their lives.

A mythology surrounds the legacies of Martin and Malcolm. King is most comfortably portrayed as the nonviolent insider, while Malcolm is characterized as a by-any-means-necessary political renegade. By March 1964, both men experienced remarkable political transitions. In truth, King’s conciliatory image masked the beating heart of a political radical who believed in social democracy, privately railed against economic injustice, and viewed nonviolence as a muscular and coercive tactic with world-changing potential. His shield prevented a blood-soaked era from being more violent. Malcolm stands in contrast as the political sword of the black radicalism that fully flowered during the Black Power movement. The real Malcolm and Martin offer a more complex portrait of the Civil Rights Movement; the braiding of their political lives together provides a new, difficult, and challenging, but ultimately more satisfying understanding of these men and the times they shaped.

This course examines the political lives of two social-movement leaders who assumed divergent, but crucially similar roles. Over time, each persuaded the other to become more like himself. Reexamining Malcolm and Martin alongside each other highlights the debt contemporary racial-justice struggles owe them both. Students interested in the lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights, the Black Power Movement, history and public policy would find this course of interest.

Students will be evaluated based on five criteria:

Weekly three-paragraph critical analysis of the readings
Malcolm X/MLK Classroom Debate
Final seven-page essay on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Class participation

Reading: We will read _1 book chapter and/or one article per week.

This course will take a critically expansive look at the impact of Malcolm X/MLK on American democracy and global human rights movements; how we narrate and remember their lives today; what telling this story about MX/MLK reveals about contemporary notions of democracy, freedom, and citizenship. We will read, study, and discuss Malcolm and Martin’s world historic lives, debates, controversies, and impact____. My conceptualization of the lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. draws from a diasporic and radically inclusive list of sources, and comprises a wide spectrum of scholars, organizers, activists, politicians, and the quotidian.