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Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and exposing the lie about a feud that never existed

Much has been made about differences between the civil rights icons. The truth is that they weren’t adversaries, and they reserved their harshest criticism for America itself.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met just once, at the US Senate on March 26, 1964, after a hearing on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.The Library of Congress

In a famous 1965 Playboy interview, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was asked for his opinion of Malcolm X.

With “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,” King reportedly told interviewer Alex Haley. “Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.”

For nearly 60 years, that often-repeated answer would define public perceptions of what was believed to be a bitter relationship between arguably the two most prominent leaders of the modern civil rights era. Except King never said it. According to the author of a new biography of the social justice icon, Haley likely fabricated those quotes.


“I think its historic reverberations are huge,” Jonathan Eig told The Washington Post. While researching his book “King: A Life,” available Tuesday, he discovered an unedited transcript of the interview in Haley’s archives at Duke University and saw sections that differed from what was ultimately published in Playboy.

In the transcript, this is what King really said of Malcolm: “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.”


Yes, King’s comments about Malcolm are critical. But not as dismissive or disparaging as Haley presented them.

“We’ve been teaching people for decades, for generations, that King had this harsh criticism of Malcolm X, and it’s just not true,” Eig said.

How this happened is anyone’s guess. Haley is best remembered for two books — “The Autobiography of Malcolm X, As Told To Alex Haley” published nine months after Malcolm’s assassination in 1965, and “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” which became a worldwide sensation in 1976, a blockbuster miniseries, and received the Pulitzer Prize.

But two years later, Haley settled a plagiarism lawsuit and admitted that “various materials” from “The African,” a 1967 novel by Harold Courlander, “found their way” into “Roots.” In a New York Times interview at the time, Haley said, “Somewhere somebody gave me something that came from ‘The African.’ That’s the best, honest explanation I can give.” Haley died in 1992.

It’s unlikely anyone will ever know Haley’s best, honest explanation as to how fake quotes attributed to King wound up in Playboy magazine. What is understood is how those quotes have skewed our understanding of how these men related to each other during one of the most crucial periods in American history.

King and Malcolm met once and only briefly, at the US Capitol during a Senate debate about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That moment — captured in a famous black and white photo of both men smiling — has fired imaginations for decades. A 1987 play, “The Meeting,” by Jeff Stetson, depicts a fictional 1965 summit between King and Malcolm in a Harlem hotel.


Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee’s film classic about an explosion of police violence and racial tensions on a scorching Brooklyn day, ends with that famous photo and juxtaposes conflicting quotes about violence from the two leaders, as if to let viewers decide which path to equality and justice is most effective.

In 1989, Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (who would also win a posthumous Pulitzer with his daughter Tamara Payne for “The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X”) wrote in a column that “King offered racists the other cheek, Malcolm the back of his hand. Freedom was so important to him that Malcolm counseled risking all, except one’s sense of self-respect, in the fight.”

So much has been made of how King and Malcolm were different. King was a middle-class Baptist preacher’s son from Atlanta who earned his doctorate in systematic theology at Boston University. The man once known as Malcolm Little was educated on the hardscrabble streets of Boston and New York and transformed his life in a Massachusetts prison, where he became a skilled debater and joined the Nation of Islam.

Perhaps fostered by Haley’s fabricated King criticism of Malcolm, discussions sometimes reduce the men to caricatures. Malcolm is portrayed as a rifle-wielding firebrand peering through a window, as depicted in a famous 1964 Ebony magazine photo. King too often becomes what I call “refrigerator-magnet Martin” — his radical vision for America whittled down to bite-sized feel-good-isms sold in checkout lines at Whole Foods or co-opted by people who despise what King fought and died for.


But revelations in Haley’s notes, Eig said, show “that King was much more open-minded about Malcolm than we’ve tended to portray him.”

With Eig’s discovery, we must recast our views on how King perceived Malcolm. It’s also worth interrogating who most benefited from this manufactured feud and what impact, if any, it had in undermining the civil rights movement. But for now, at least we finally know this — these men weren’t adversaries. And in demanding equality, each in their own way, they reserved their sharpest criticism to indict a nation that betrayed its own lofty values during a century of broken promises to Black Americans.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.