New biography of Martin Luther King Jr. undercuts a widely cited quote about Malcolm X
Updated May 15, 2023 at 2:13 PM ET
It's a biting piece of criticism aimed at Malcolm X that for decades was attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. But a new biography of King suggests history books about these two men may need to be rewritten — because King never actually said the words.
King never said he felt "Malcolm has done 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 kids this quote from the ‘Playboy’ interview."
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The words King and Malcolm X said about each other are vital to understanding the relationship between two leaders who took different approaches to confronting systemic and deadly racism in America. Their rivalry was played up during their lives and in 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.
Biographer calls it 'journalistic malpractice'
Eig says he realized the interview's original transcript didn't contain the widely cited quote as he was reading through archives at Duke University while researching his book, “King: A 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 about Malcolm X in this way.
"There's more to it," Eig said, "but what King actually said was that he disagreed with some of Malcolm's views, maybe with many of them — but that he was aware that his way wasn't the only way. And it sounded like he was much more open to exploring that relationship than the “Playboy” interview made it out to be."
Eig was asked whether he feels 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 tape 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 delicate task — and it does not entail adding language out of whole cloth.
"We don't know for sure that Haley typed that draft, but we do know that his byline was on the story," Eig said. For drastic changes like the ones he found, Eig said, "I can't believe that Haley would have signed off on that without having seen it. I think either way, it's journalistic malpractice."
Eig's interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep will air Tuesday on Morning Edition.
The "disservice" quote about Malcolm X spread far beyond the pages of “Playboy.” It's included in “The Autobiography Of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” which was assembled from King's words by historian Clayborne Carson.
When asked for comment about the discrepancy, Carson told NPR, "I'm 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 softened by early 1965.
It's the latest question about Haley's writings; others have included accusations that he plagiarized portions of his seminal 1976 work, “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” Haley settled one of those claims as a court case neared conclusion.
Here's what the 1965 article said
In the interview published weeks before Malcolm X was assassinated, Haley quoted King as saying:
He is very articulate, as you say, but I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views . . . I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem. And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery demagogic oratory in the black ghettoes, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.
Here's what the transcript says
In the original transcript, King's line about "fiery" oratory wasn't directed specifically at Malcolm X. It came slightly earlier in the interview, in reply to a broader question from Haley asking King to give his "opinion of Negro extremists who advocate armed violence and sabotage."
Haley then asked about Malcolm X — and in a major discrepancy, the word "disservice" isn't part of King's answer, according to the records:
PLAYBOY: Dr. King, would you care to comment upon the articulate former Black Muslim, Malcolm X?
DR. KING: I have met Malcolm X, but circumstances didn't enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views, as I understand them. He is very articulate, as you say. I don't want to seem to sound as if I feel so self-righteous, or absolutist, that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer. But I know that I have so often felt that I wished that he would talk less of 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, creative approach, I think that he falls into a rut sometimes."
King praised Malcolm X's integrity
“Playboy” published Haley's interview with King in its January 1965 issue. On Feb. 21 of that year, Malcolm X was assassinated. His death came as signs of a potential thaw between the two civil rights leaders emerged.
"Malcolm X used King as a foil [and] tried to provoke his audiences by mocking King as a chicken, as an Uncle Tom, even," Eig said. "And it played well for his audiences because it made him seem like the more threatening. It also scared white people, which, you know, I think Malcolm wanted to do."
King acknowledged his rival's taunts and their disagreements over nonviolence. But he also said he could understand that a man whose life was shaped by despair, hate and violence would refuse to integrate himself into a racist social order.
On Feb. 5, 1965, Malcolm X visited Selma, Ala., meeting with Coretta Scott King while her husband was being held in jail.
"He spoke at length to my wife Coretta for about his personal struggles and expressed an interest in working more closely with the nonviolent movement, but he was not yet able to renounce violence and overcome the bitterness which life invested in him," King said.
It was Malcolm X's intelligence and drive, King said, that allowed him to shape himself and turn away from an early life of crime.
"It was a testimony to Malcolm's personal depth and integrity 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 meaningless assassination."
His death, King said, "was an unfortunate tragedy."
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A previous version of this story said that Alex Haley's interview with Malcolm X appeared in the January 1965 issue in Playboy. In fact, the interview was with Martin Luther King, Jr.