Friday, May 11, 2012

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.: Violence & Nonviolence

John M. Kang has published an intriguing article, “Martin V. Malcolm: Democracy, Nonviolence, Manhood,” (West Virginia Law Review, Vol. 114, No. 937, 2012) which examines the role of socio-cultural circumstances and conditions of one’s birth and upbringing (psychologically and phenomenologically speaking, as ‘personal life experiences’) as important factors in why leaders (and by implication, those they lead) choose violence or nonviolence as alternative means to accomplish their socio-economic and political ends.

Kang contends that “By sifting through their words [i.e., those of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.], we may gain a better idea about why someone would choose nonviolence over violence (or vice versa). Through them, we also may understand better how personal life experiences, rather than formal study in ethics or philosophy, are responsible for shaping a person’s conception of democracy.” In short, “Malcolm’s defense of violence in furtherance of political action was, like King’s creed of nonviolence, explainable in part by looking to personal history:”

“King lived in an economically comfortable family that afforded stability and certainty. He ‘went right on through school and never had to drop out to work or anything.’ Growing up in an upper middle-class neighborhood, King was blessed with a father who was “able to provide us with the basic necessities of life with little strain. [….] Malcolm grew up in violence. …[He] also grew up very poor. This too would affect his worldview.” [….]

Kang’s tentative and qualified conclusion takes the form of a generalization that admits, therefore, of exceptions:

“It is hard to generalize why an individual may embrace peaceful means of democratic change while another may embrace violence. [….] Those leaders who, like King, have been blessed with a loving and financially comfortable upbringing are probably more likely to embrace nonviolence and an account of democracy that seeks peaceful coexistence with those who were once their oppressors. On the other hand, violence and separatism are likely to appear more attractive to those who have lived Malcolm’s life, a life damaged by violence as well as sustained by its power.”

One exception to the generalization (which readily comes to mind after Steve Shiffrin’s recent post) I think is worthy of deep consideration is that of the leading members of the Weatherman (later, ‘Weather Underground’) that evolved out of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the late 1960s. The Weathermen were clearly the most “violent” (in quotes, as their putatively ‘revolutionary’ violence was comparatively tame: it resulted in several deaths, to be sure, but it was largely directed against various forms of property, and included advance warnings to the authorities), of the factions that emerged within the SDS and helped ensure its eventual implosion and demise. Its leaders stood apart from even other leaders in the New Left student movement generally owing to their privileged upbringing and decisive affluence. As Todd Gitlin writes, “They radiated confidence as if to the manner born, in no small part because they were children of cornucopia par excellence. Compared to the general run of SDS members, and the previous leadership groups, they came from wealth, they were used to getting what they demanded, stamping their feet if they had to, wriggling away without punishment.” Gitlin proceeds to document and fill out this characterization in his classic study, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987).

Kang is not the first person to raise the question of how “personal life experiences” played determinative roles in the shaping of Malcolm and Martin’s respective worldviews in general and views on violence and nonviolence in particular. James H. Cone’s book, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), sketches the importance of family and the relevance of social context in comparing these two remarkable black leaders from the 1960s, hence, for example, the respective chapters, “The Making of a Dreamer,” and “The Making of a ‘Bad Nigger.’” In addition, Eugene Victor Wolfenstein’s incisive study (which ‘contains’ a ‘psychobiography’ but is much more than that), The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (London: Free Association Books, 1989), helps one understand in a very vivid way how the social circumstances of one’s upbringing and life (in this case, owing to the determination of race and class variables) can deeply impinge upon and in some measure shape the (‘worldview-type’ and significant) moral and political choices one perceives and comes to make over time.

In a future post, I will address the role of violence as part of the quest for progressive (here: ‘revolutionary’) personal and social transformation with the Weathermen and the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and early 1970s.


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