The Sword and the Shield

The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.


By Peniel E. Joseph

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This dual biography of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King upends longstanding preconceptions to transform our understanding of the twentieth century’s most iconic African American leaders.

To most Americans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. represent contrasting ideals: self-defense vs. nonviolence, black power vs. civil rights, the sword vs. the shield. The struggle for black freedom is wrought with the same contrasts. While nonviolent direct action is remembered as an unassailable part of American democracy, the movement’s militancy is either vilified or erased outright. In The Sword and the Shield, Peniel E. Joseph upends these misconceptions and reveals a nuanced portrait of two men who, despite markedly different backgrounds, inspired and pushed each other throughout their adult lives. This is a strikingly revisionist biography, not only of Malcolm and Martin, but also of the movement and era they came to define.



Beyond Dreams and Nightmares

On Thursday, March 26, 1964, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. descended, separately, on the United States Senate building. Each dressed in a suit and tie, their similar sartorial choices reflecting a shared status as religious ministers and political leaders who paid sharp attention to their physical appearance. That day, the Senate debated the pending civil rights bill, with opponents of racial justice conducting a filibuster designed to prevent its passage. Their unplanned joint appearance recognized the US Senate’s deliberations as one of history’s hinge points. The Senate debate centered on the fate of the bill, already passed by the House of Representatives, which was designed to end racial discrimination in public life. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 promised to bring the nation closer to multiracial democracy through the end of racial segregation. The proposed law guaranteed that restaurants, movie theaters, swimming pools, libraries, and amusement parks would no longer serve as markers of shame, humiliation, and unequal citizenship for black Americans. President Lyndon Johnson championed passage of the legislation in honor of the martyred John F. Kennedy, who had urged the nation and Congress to embrace civil rights as a “moral issue” in the months before his November 22, 1963, assassination in Dallas, Texas.

Malcolm and Martin attended the filibuster as participant observers in the nation’s unfolding civil rights saga. In a sense, they both sought to serve as witnesses to an ongoing historical drama they had actively shaped in their respective roles as national political leaders and mobilizers.

King’s presence among the spectator’s gallery added a buzz of excitement to the proceedings. He arrived in Washington as the single most influential civil rights leader in the nation. His “I Have a Dream” speech during the previous summer’s March on Washington catapulted him into the ranks of America’s unelected, yet no less official, moral and political leaders. Time magazine named him “Man of the Year” for 1963 and, unbeknownst to King at that moment, he stood on the cusp of being announced as a Nobel Prize recipient. King emerged as the most well-known leader of the “Big Six” national civil rights organizations, which included the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Urban League’s Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) chairman and future Georgia congressman John Lewis.

King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) served primarily as a national mobilizer of local freedom struggles. The NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights group, marshaled its resources toward eradicating racism in law through a series of court cases that culminated in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools, and local efforts to end discrimination in public accommodations and voting rights. Wilkins’s measured approach to racial justice reflected his decades of operating in political terrain that waxed and waned between robust political progress and tragic setbacks. CORE’s roots in the radical pacifism of the Second World War found new life in the direct-action demonstrations of the early 1960s. The avuncular, baritone-voiced Farmer endured stints in jail alongside young student activists and was confident enough to debate anyone who couched his militant nonviolence as passive or weak. The Urban League defined racial justice as opening the doors of economic opportunity within a system of American capitalism that Young fervently believed held the key to black freedom. A. Philip Randolph served as the dean of the black freedom struggle. Tall, courtly, and intelligent, Randolph began his ascent into black politics as a radical socialist during the First World War, before adopting a militant pragmatism as a labor leader bold enough to threaten a march of ten thousand black men on Washington—a march that was halted only after Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order banning discrimination in the military. SNCC was the wild card within the Big Six. Organized by Ella Baker, a King colleague and ally turned political adversary, SNCC helped to radicalize the entire movement through its courageous activism in the most dangerous parts of the South, exemplified by Chairman John Lewis’s willful insistence of putting his body on the line and receiving the battle scars to prove it. In the American political imagination—and to the chagrin of his colleagues—King was the one who personified the struggle for racial justice, civil rights, and black citizenship around the nation.

Malcolm X’s presence in the Senate gallery, on the other hand, stoked fear, surprise, and bewilderment among journalists and spectators. From 1957 to 1963, Malcolm served as the “national representative” of the Nation of Islam (NOI), the controversial religious group whose defiant resistance against white supremacy gained them both a large following in the black community and fear and suspicion among white Americans. The NOI forbade its members from actively engaging in political demonstrations, but Malcolm rejected these rules and inserted himself into the black freedom struggle on his own terms. He arrived in Washington on a mission to establish his political independence after a dramatic departure from the NOI.

Malcolm’s reputation as perhaps the most vocal critic of white supremacy ever produced by black America preceded him. As NOI spokesperson, he became Harlem’s hero in the fight against racial oppression. He debated journalists, civil rights leaders, and politicians on subjects ranging from police brutality to unemployment, crime, and social justice, and in the process cultivated a personal reputation as the most militant racial-justice advocate in America. Malcolm’s critics called him dangerous, but his supporters, both in and outside the NOI, embraced him as black America’s prosecuting attorney—unafraid to charge America with crimes against black humanity. To them, he had inspired a long-overdue political revolution. “I have always loved verbal battle, and challenge,” Malcolm said. He set his political sights on eradicating “the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America,” a fight that would take him to the corridors of national power. Even as Malcolm sought to influence the center of American government alongside Martin Luther King Jr., he remained a political maverick whose bold truths upset some of the very civil rights forces he now sought an alliance with. Malcolm was a political renegade, unafraid to identify racial injustice in America as a systemic illness that required nothing less than the radical transformation of the political and racial status quo.1

Malcolm stalked the corridors of the Senate throughout the day, accompanied by five aides and holding impromptu press conferences in between watching, from the visitors gallery, a debate to decide the fate of millions. He declared that he wanted the bill to pass “exactly as it is, with no changes.” But he predicted that, even if the legislation passed, the struggle for black equality would continue: “You can’t legislate goodwill,” he said. “That comes about only by education.” Malcolm informed reporters that he flew in from New York to observe the lay of the land and “see whether we should conduct any demonstrations, and, if so, what form they should take.” It was the first time he had ever visited the Senate.2

Martin Luther King Jr. exited the visitors gallery in the afternoon to speak to reporters in a conference room, where Malcolm sat like a spectral figure on a rear sofa. Lately, King had been preoccupied with Malcolm. During a recent interview with author Robert Penn Warren, King took umbrage with Malcolm labeling him as “soft.” Just eight days later, he now stood for the first time in the same room as a man many considered to be his evil twin. King ignored Malcolm and announced plans for a national “direct action” campaign scheduled to begin in May. “We will not be content at all even if this bill is passed,” warned King, in a comment that mirrored Malcolm’s skepticism about the possibilities of effectively legislating racial justice.3

But in the Senate building, Malcolm offered full-throated support for the pending legislation. The New York Times announced, “Malcolm X Backs Rights Bill” in a short article that introduced him as “the ‘black nationalist’ leader.” By 1964, Malcolm X had turned black nationalism—a historic blend of cultural pride, racial unity, and political self-determination—into a bracing declaration of political independence for himself and large swaths of black folk. This shift recognized mainstream democratic institutions, including the right to vote, as crucial weapons in the struggle for black dignity and citizenship. Malcolm X, the racial separatist who routinely attacked civil rights demonstrations as wrongheaded, had pivoted into an embrace of politics as the means to produce radical ends. Malcolm wanted to spread word of what he was witnessing in the nation’s capital back to Harlem residents who, he explained, “are beginning to feel black”—describing the restive mood among a population that not too long ago insisted on being called Negro.4

King, on the other hand, warned of escalating racial tensions if the bill was not passed. His rising stature in the aftermath of the March on Washington afforded him special privileges in the nation’s capital, including private meetings with supportive politicians such as Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey. King’s access to senators and the president allowed critics, including Malcolm X, to identify him as a political insider captured by reformist impulses. 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. Vowing to convince the nation with “words” and “deeds” of the importance of the civil rights bill, King threatened to organize civil disobedience in the face of “stubborn” opposition to the goal of black citizenship. He candidly discussed the shadow of racial upheaval that simmered beneath the Senate debate and the wider national conversation about black equality in America. Failure to pass the bill, King suggested, would thrust “our nation” into a “dark night of social disruption.” King’s warning about violence echoed Malcolm’s prediction that civil rights legislation, even if passed, could not prevent a violent and long overdue reckoning on racial justice in America.5

Martin and Malcolm both recognized the pivotal role violence played in maintaining America’s racial caste system, a system that defined white violence against black bodies as legitimate, legal, and morally just and that regarded black violence—even in defense of black humanity—as criminal, dangerous, and a threat to law and order. Malcolm, who cultivated a well-earned reputation for deploying words of fire, arrived in Washington chastened by his recent and acrimonious departure from the Nation of Islam. He avoided his usually blunt language, even as he characterized the entire debate as a “con game” that threatened to provoke a “race war” if the government was not serious about civil rights enforcement. King spoke of violence as an evil that lurked within a Pandora’s box that the nation might, if civil rights legislation was passed, still avoid. “I hate to discuss violence, but realism impels me to admit that if this bill is not passed in strength, it will be harder to keep the struggle disciplined,” King confessed to reporters. In Washington, Malcolm and Martin found their usual political identities inverted. Malcolm addressed reporters as a budding statesman—an unelected dignitary who identified his moral authority in the thousands of black faces in Harlem, “the black capital of America.” King made no such public claims of leadership; instead, he surveyed a tense national racial climate and declared the passage of the civil rights bill to be the only plausible mechanism that might prevent larger racial storms from engulfing the nation.6

After watching King’s press conference, Malcolm slipped out a side door, where an assistant made certain he would bump into King in full view of the press. Malcolm, six foot three, handsome and smiling, stood eight inches taller than King, who stretched out his hand. For a brief moment, they sized each other up.

“Well, Malcolm, good to see you,” King offered.

“Good to see you,” Malcolm responded. For the next few minutes, they made history by chatting amiably. Malcolm expressed interest in joining civil rights demonstrations while his assistant snapped photos and United Press International and Associated Press cameras flashed. Both men smiled broadly in the AP photo and were caught in more serious reflection by UPI.7

The initial awkwardness of their meeting gave way to a rapport aided by a mutual understanding of black culture, their shared role as political leaders who doubled as preachers, and the rhythms of a common love for black humanity and yearning for black citizenship. Martin and Malcolm would never develop a personal friendship, but their political visions would grow closer together throughout 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. But their relationship, even in that short meeting, defies the myths about their politics and activism.

By March 1964, both men were experiencing remarkable political transitions. Malcolm pivoted into lobbying, protesting, threatening, and cajoling democratic institutions, with the goal of achieving black dignity. His appearance in Washington amplified his quest to wed formal political maneuvers—such as voting rights and policy advocacy—to more maverick and controversial notions of political self-determination—such as gun clubs, self-defense groups, and a black-nationalist political party. Malcolm engaged with American democratic institutions in a manner that allowed him to not only participate in the civil rights struggle but reframe it as global movement for human rights, one that connected civil rights activism in America with movements for political self-determination in Indonesia and Nigeria.8

Meanwhile, King’s political reputation swelled as the movement he came to personify expanded beyond his full comprehension and control. His long-standing appreciation of the relationship between racial equality and economic justice, what the March on Washington had knowingly called “jobs and freedom,” remained thwarted by a nation that refused to contemplate the high price of racial justice—and especially who might pay that cost in privilege, power, standing, wealth, and prestige. King’s candid discussion of violence, what he called “realism,” would rapidly escalate after his meeting with Malcolm. For King, realism produced the sweet spot between aspirations of racial justice and a contemporary reality scarred by Jim Crow.

Over the course of the next three months, Malcolm and Martin organized in the shadow of a national political debate over civil rights whose momentum grew as spring turned to summer. King responded to this rapidly transforming political landscape by making plans to secure voting rights. Malcolm embarked on a five-week tour of the Middle East, where he took the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and became an orthodox Muslim. The two men would not live to see their shared vision come to fruition.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, announced the legal end of racial discrimination in public accommodations and publicly owned property. The bill also ended the practice of diverting federal funds toward segregated facilities, including schools. Enforcement in certain parts of the nation would take years. Greenwood, Mississippi, a site where King and the movement confronted great resistance, drained its public pools rather than integrating them.9

The assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, broke the secret hearts of millions of African Americans who had quietly claimed him as their unspoken champion, alongside the tens of thousands who publicly did so. Malcolm inspired blacks to unapologetically love themselves. He set a fearless example in this regard, offering his story of individual triumph against racism and poverty as a chance at collective redemption for the entire black community. Malcolm’s death arrived before the public acknowledgment of Black Power—a movement birthed from his activism and which would spur King to greater radicalism, more forceful political rhetoric, and an embrace of radical black dignity.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, was a global tragedy. His untimely death indelibly altered American history, evoking a national trauma that we have yet to recover from. A troubling shadow haunts King’s legacy, blunting his impact on American democracy. Over one hundred million Americans watched King’s funeral on television as major cities convulsed in anger, violence, and mourning in the immediate hours and days after his death. Lyndon Johnson’s passage of the Fair Housing Act is usually regarded as a final policy tribute to the racial-justice efforts spearheaded by King. Today, more than fifty years after King’s death, the struggle for racial justice continues in ways that are both historically recognizable and disconcertingly new.

In many ways, racial segregation in America has worsened since King’s death. National progress has been stalled, indeed reversed, by local, state, and federal policies—from gentrification and zoning laws to tax codes—that have made dreams of racial integration as distant as an unseen horizon. Shortly after the passage of fair housing legislation in 1968, Congress passed a national crime bill that planted the seeds for the contemporary crisis of mass incarceration. The Safe Streets Act of 1968 successfully helped to reimagine the nation’s domestic priorities over the next half century, diverting tens of billions of dollars from anti-poverty, housing, and educational programs into the world’s largest prison system. America’s criminal justice system warehouses, exploits, punishes, and executes the same brown and black faces King challenged the entire world to embrace in love. It is no accident that Richard Nixon’s rhetoric of “law and order” during the 1968 presidential campaign season flourished in the wake of King’s assassination: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had warned against the specter of massive racial uprisings if the nation remained unwilling to commit to guaranteeing black dignity and black citizenship.10

King’s death roiled national politics generationally. His assassination turned him into much more than a martyr. He became one of the founding fathers of postwar American democracy, a social-movement leader whose memory reinforced both the grandeur and travails of the nation’s racial history. Yet, King’s posthumous celebration in contemporary American popular culture remains incomplete. He is recognized as perhaps the nation’s most famous advocate of nonviolence and celebrated as a prophet whose stirring example unleashed the racial progress that culminated in Barack Obama’s presidency. He balanced his critique of America’s complicity in promoting materialism, militarism, and racism with a defiant optimism about democracy’s enormous potential to achieve a more hopeful and humane world. But the more incendiary of King’s politics are still too often ignored, discounted, or unmentioned. The radical King identified racism, poverty, and war as threats against the entire planet, but this aspect of his legacy remains sidelined because of the discomfort his words of fire continue to cause.

In the popular imagination, Malcolm is the political sword of the black radicalism that found its stride during the heroic years of the civil rights era and fully flowered during the Black Power movement. King stands in contrast as the nonviolent guardian of a nation; his shield prevented a blood-soaked era from being more violent. Their respective worldviews antagonized, infuriated, and inspired each other. In many ways, Malcolm might best be considered black America’s prosecuting attorney, a political leader who condemned white institutions and citizens for historic and contemporary racial crimes. The sight of Malcolm regaling Harlem audiences, reporters, and television cameras with the era’s boldest analysis of institutional racism—always laced with biting humor—remains an indelible image of the period. His sternly handsome face conjures up “a space of myth and mourning.” He forged personal intimacy with a mass audience by boldly confronting America’s brutal history of racial trauma, and his uncanny ability to recognize the revolutionary potential found in the distillation of black pain proved transformative. Over time, he convinced large swaths of the black community that the very source of their oppression—their blackness—held the key to liberation. Malcolm believed in the intrinsic value of black life even when many African Americans did not. In the early days of the civil rights movement, this made him a man ahead of his time. After his death, his unyielding faith in the beauty of black struggle made him an icon.11

While Malcolm inspired black folk on urban street corners from Los Angeles to Harlem, King captivated the centers of American power. The image of the thirty-four-year-old Georgia preacher addressing the nation on August 28, 1963, from the National Mall in Washington, DC, transformed him from a protest leader into a statesman respected by American presidents and world leaders. Whereas Malcolm bonded with audiences through confessional admissions of his youthful moral failings and righteous anger over the indignities of Jim Crow, King displayed a passionate empathy for both sides of the nation’s racial divide. He raised the philosophy of nonviolence as shield against the humiliation, poverty, and violence of America’s Jim Crow system. Martin Luther King Jr., contrasting Malcolm X’s prosecutorial zeal, became the nation’s chief defense attorney on both sides of the color line. He defended black humanity to whites and convinced African American audiences that embracing the architects of racial oppression could lead to a transformed world, contoured by racial justice.

Malcolm and Martin achieved political maturity in a revolutionary age that fundamentally transformed race relations in the Global North and South. In the 1950s, a time when Jim Crow laws in the United States diminished black citizenship nationally and virtually obliterated it in the South, the two leaders emerged as internationally recognized advocates for racial justice. Their supple intelligence, political courage, and dazzling oratory set them apart as the quintessential activists of not only their generation, but all subsequent ones that followed. They innovated radical political activism as an enduring vocation capable of eliciting respect from opponents, gaining devotion from supporters, and inspiring lasting political change globally.

Malcolm’s formal political activism outside of prison, which spanned the years 1952 to 1965, overlapped with King’s, which occurred from 1955 to 1968. While Malcolm embraced political activism as a vocation three years before King, his time as a national figure arrived in 1959, three years after King’s emergence as the public face of the epic Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. The mythology presents King as a hopeful optimist whose soaring “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington is contrasted with Malcolm X’s unapologetic declaration that black citizenship would only be achieved through “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

Contemporary depictions of both men have left us with indelible icons more than flesh-and-blood human beings. Too often, our complex and messy national civil rights history has been related to the general public like a children’s bedtime story, one that requires—indeed, mandates—a happy ending. Civil rights are now largely recognized as a political and moral good, the movement’s demands for citizenship and equality retrospectively considered unassailable parts of our democracy. The era’s combative militancy, even among advocates of nonviolence, is obscured in this telling or, at times, forgotten. The real Malcolm and Martin offer a more complex portrait of the era. Braiding their political lives together provides a new, difficult, and challenging, but ultimately more satisfying, understanding of these men and the times they shaped.

Malcolm and Martin, in life and death, retained sharp differences. They disagreed on the role of violence in organizing a political revolution. Early on, they diverged on the source of racial oppression, with Malcolm focused on systemic patterns of racial injustice and King attuned to racism’s invidious damage on hearts, minds, and souls. Cultivated in the black Christian church, King deployed religious language in political sermons that elevated the struggle for racial justice into the moral issue of the twentieth century. Malcolm found his religious faith in two distinct forms of Islam that gave him the personal strength to match his political convictions. He embraced the language of street speakers—from learned griots and intellectuals to corner-store hustlers—to offer an unvarnished portrait of institutional racism, white supremacy, and racial violence.

But a binary understanding of Malcolm and Martin is incomplete. Two-dimensional characterizations of their activism, relationship, and influence obscure how the substantive differences between them were often complimentary. It underestimates the way they influenced each other. And it shortchanges the political radicalism always inherent in each, even when they seemed to be reformist or reactionary. This book 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.

Malcolm and Martin were considered two of the most dangerous activists of their generation. A wide range of politicians (including presidents), Justice Department officials (most notably FBI director J. Edgar Hoover), and police and intelligence agencies marked them as subversives capable of fomenting civil unrest and racial disorder. FBI agents placed illegal wiretap surveillance on King courtesy of the sitting attorney general, garnering compromising information that threatened to derail him and the movement. Malcolm attracted both federal surveillance and a branch of the New York Police Department, the Bureau of Special Services, which served as the NYPD’s version of the secret police and tracked him from the early years of the Cold War until his death.

In what follows, I argue that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. represent two black revolutionaries whose lives, activism, and political and intellectual thinking became blueprints for racial and economic justice advocacy around the world. At the height of their international visibility and political power, they recognized in each other a kindred spirit whose very presence helped them fulfill their respective roles. Their dual strategies, in retrospect, amplified and built each other up. Malcolm’s envelope-pushing militancy offered Martin leverage against allegations that he was a communist or worse. Martin’s aura of political moderation aided Malcolm’s quest to galvanize America’s black underdogs: the street-corner hustlers, artists, prisoners, formerly incarcerated, and drug addicted who became his family before his religious conversion in prison.


  • "Enchanting."—New York Times
  • “Joseph, a prolific historian of twentieth-century African-American politics, an indefatigable public commentator, and arguably the leading chronicler of the Black Power movement, sheds light in The Sword and the Shield on the complex intellectual and strategic dynamics beneath the publicly fractious relationship between Martin and Malcolm.”—New York Review of Books
  • "Mr. Joseph, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, weaves [Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X's] stories fluidly and with vivid detail, helping to strip away the high gloss of mythology."—Wall Street Journal
  • "It is a fascinating story, full of subtle twists and turns."—Washington Post
  • "In this brilliantly braided biography, Peniel E. Joseph tells the story of each man’s identity and how their ideas shaped America, making clear that we can never fully understand one without the other."—TIME
  • “A brilliant revisionist study of the lives of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Effectively challenging the conventional dichotomy between the two men, it shows, instead, how their paths became increasingly convergent, coming to represent ‘overlapping and intersecting strains of revolutionary black activism.’”—The Guardian
  • “In the year of Black Lives Matter, this comparative biography of two of the great figures in the struggle for racial equality in the US stands out.”—Financial Times
  • The Sword and the Shield delivers both strong storytelling and exemplary history, dismantling popular distortions of its subjects, and arriving at a nuanced and profoundly revealing portrayal of converging visions that informed, challenged, and sharpened each other even as their proponents seemed publicly and irrevocably at odds.”—New York Journal of Books
  • "Joseph's fresh and perceptive dual biography may rekindle political unity in a time of increasingly granular identity politics, sensationalism, and fear."—Booklist
  • "As the author delineates the philosophies and tactics of each man, he compares and contrasts them on nearly every page, making the various narrative strands cohere nicely. An authoritative dual biography from a leading scholar of African American history."—Kirkus
  • "Though other meaningful figures from the era get short shrift, Joseph’s laser focus delivers essential insights into the characters of both men. This incisive work uncovers the subtleties of a relationship too often cast in broad strokes."—Publishers Weekly
  • "The Sword and the Shield is a landmark. It is what happens when one America's greatest historians of African America shines the same light on two of African America's greatest historical figures. Peniel Joseph deploys his supreme talents as a biographer and movement historian to interweave the world-shattering lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X."—Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist
  • "Arguing against facile juxtapositions of the political philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Peniel Joseph has written a powerful and persuasive re-examination of these iconic figures, tracing the evolution of both men's activism. The Sword and the Shield provides a nuanced analysis of these figures' political positions in addition to unfolding the narratives of their personal lives. Well-written and compelling, this important new book brilliantly explores the commonalities between the political goals of Malcolm and Martin."— Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
  • "The Sword and The Shield is a masterwork of bold historical revisionism that will change how we think of the dynamic relationship between Harlem's Hero Malcolm X, and America's Apostle Martin Luther King, Jr. By probing their distinctive styles of social combat, and by examining the historical contexts of their evolving, complex and often interrelated philosophies of race and political transformation, Joseph shows how each man was bigger than the sum of his competing symbolic parts. Joseph destroys the one-dimensional views of their ideological conflicts, and roots both figures in the cultural milieu and racial maelstrom that marked the age they inherited and shaped. By showing how Malcolm and Martin started as adversaries, then became rivals, and eventually, on occasion, unwitting compatriots in global black resistance to oppression, Joseph brilliantly illumines the defining personalities at the heart of the black freedom struggle during the height of its revolutionary expression in American history."—Michael Eric Dyson, author of Jay-Z: Made in America
  • "In this brilliant, timely, and eloquently written dual biography, Peniel E. Joseph, a leading scholar of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power era, not only demonstrates his command over Malcolm X's and Martin Luther King Jr.'s activism and thought, but also his penetrating understanding of the black freedom struggle and the times and events that inevitably shaped his subjects. A profound and important book, The Sword and the Shield will shape how future generations interpret Malcolm's and King's monumental contributions to American culture, politics, and democracy."—Pero G. Dagbovie, author of Reclaiming the Black Past: The Use and Misuse of African American History in the Twenty-First Century
  • "Peniel Joseph is an omnivore historian with a gift for synthesizing fact and ideas into a vivid, accessible package. In The Sword and the Shield, he has reconciled two dissonant icons in a satisfying, intimate blend of narrative and insight."—Diane McWhorter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution
  • "Peniel Joseph has written the civil rights history for our time. He explains how partisanship has distorted the legacy of a movement that promoted the citizenship and dignity of all Americans. Joseph recounts how the iconic civil rights leaders worked in tandem to unleash the common potential of American democracy, and how we must all do the same today. This is a deep book that will move readers to action."—Jeremi Suri, author of The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America's Highest Office

On Sale
Mar 31, 2020
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Peniel E. Joseph

About the Author

Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, and Associate Dean for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of award-winning books on African American history, including The Sword and the Shield and Stokely: A Life. He lives in Austin, Texas.  

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