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The Two Titans of Civil Rights

Brandon M. Terry, interviewed by Nawal Arjini

Our March 11 issue contains the second of Brandon Terry’s two essays on the life and legacy of Malcolm X. The first, “Malcolm’s Ministry,” about the political formation of Malcolm X, was published in our February 25 issue. The second, “What Dignity Demands,” compares the intellectual trajectories of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and the myths and contradictions that obscure the lives and thought of those men in our imaginations today.

Terry was raised in a family that, as he put it over e-mail, “engaged in a lot of intense arguments about politics.” He first picked up Malcolm X’s famous Autobiography when he was eleven or twelve—probably too young, he admits now—and found it put words to the “inchoate sense of rage and resentment I had about the manifest suffering I witnessed” in his hometown of Baltimore, a city that, as Terry writes, “puts America’s staggering class divisions and legacy of racial injustice into bold relief.”

At home, “race was nearly always at the forefront of our conversations,” he told me, particularly with his mother, his grandmother, and his uncles Ronald and Eddie, who, “unlike some adults who think politics is not the business of youth,” indulged Terry’s curiosity “and let me sit ringside as a sort of judge whose reaction could quietly score a contest bounded by mutual love, and thus incapable of ever really ending.”

In the terms of the colloquial shorthand for gauging someone’s politics—“Malcolm or Martin?”—those two uncles were split. Ronald was “a strident Black nationalist,” who celebrated Kwanzaa and filled his library with books on African history, Afrocentric philosophy, and “terrifying pamphlets about alleged plots and schemes against the Black race—especially its men and boys.” A self-taught contractor, Ronald rehabilitated some of Baltimore’s abandoned rowhouses to “build decent housing for poor and working-class Black people in the city.”

Where “Ronald idolized Malcolm, Eddie revered King,” Terry said. Eddie was, in his nephew’s words, “the kind of pugnacious centrist liberal that was more common in those days,” “relentless in his high expectations,” and “capable of indulging in chitlins and classical music, and teaching his nieces and nephews about art museums and Motown, all with the same equanimity.” Eddie’s belief in art’s ability to transcend race stemmed in part, Terry believes, from his experience as “a closeted gay man in late twentieth-century Baltimore,” who “found interracial fraternity and cultural vitality far more hospitable to his intimate life than the Black nationalism on offer from Louis Farrakhan and Frances Cress Welsing.”

Eddie bet his nephew $60 that he would get into Harvard. Terry accepted, and paid his uncle upon admission—an investment in his future as Assistant Professor of Social Studies and African and African-American Studies there. “I keep a painting of him in my office now to remind me of his faith and generosity,” Terry says. But Terry’s own intellectual trajectory diverged from both those of his uncles. Reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, he was swept up in “Malcolm’s otherworldly discipline, and the way he turned studying and arguing into something glamorous and significant. I loved his boast, ‘You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man,’ and tried to live it out with the faltering self-seriousness of an ambitious youth far more temperamentally inclined to fun than fanaticism.”

And, like so many other readers, Terry was enchanted by the “fire and brimstone”—how Malcolm spoke “without apology or moderation about those who seemed to have been left behind by the achievements of the civil rights movement our teachers celebrated—people like my two incarcerated brothers, or my family members in crumbling housing projects, dealing with drug addiction.”

As an undergraduate, Terry studied black political thought under many scholars who are now his colleagues, and his thinking shifted again. “I began to see just how much more fire than light such rhetoric shed on questions of political economy, the metaphysics of race, and the ethics of racial solidarity,” he told me, and a desire to answer those questions led him to the philosophy of Dr. King.

I asked Terry about what he saw as the most important gap in the public understanding of Malcolm and King. “It’s hard to pick just one,” he said, but he settled on both men’s deep critique of American militarism: Malcolm X’s anticolonial vision is mostly ignored and “King’s is mainly caricatured, as in Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize speech, as a naïve pacificism or narrow complaint about federal spending priorities.” But, he went on, “both men ventured remarkably prescient and prophetic judgments about the ways that security state machinations and profligate war-making would prove utterly devastating to American life.”

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The argument in Terry’s forthcoming book, The Tragic Vision of the Civil Rights Movement, as he explained it to me, is that “the stories we tell of that epochal event sit centrally at the heart of who Americans imagine ourselves to be: in the concepts (citizenship, rights, equality, racism) we use to argue with each other, and even at the existential level of what we might reasonably hope for our future.” That era, which once seemed romantic, is now “faltering under the difficulties it has accounting for the depth and persistence of racial injustice,” “extreme economic inequality,” and “the marginalization of Black women’s voices and needs.”

Many activists in the contemporary movement for Black lives draw cautionary lessons from that time, including the need to avoid the cult of personality that surrounded both Dr. King and Malcolm X. “For many organizers now,” Terry observed, “it is axiomatic that charismatic leadership goes hand in hand with democratic deficiency, sexism and heterosexism, and weakness in the face of state repression or media demonization.” Part of Terry’s work is to complicate our view of these men as simply figureheads: they were each flawed individuals, canny strategists, and political philosophers in their own right.

Today, “in the heat of rejuvenated Black radicalism,” Terry told me, we should neither blindly repeat the tactics of the civil rights struggle nor dismiss them as total failures. Instead, he hopes, we can bring back the “radical critique, self-reflection, and reconstructive vision” that made Malcolm X and Martin Luther King such enduring figures in the first place.

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