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A Few (New) Lessons You Never Learned from Malcolm X

A Few (New) Lessons You Never Learned from Malcolm X
Posted by Patrick Miller

If you pay attention to right-leaning news outlets, you’ll know that many conservatives show a deep disdain for “MSM” (mainstream media). They feel that mainstream media has not only misrepresented them but also neglected its journalistic calling to report the truth—whether it suits their political tastes or not.

It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. Most newsrooms skew heavily left, publishing Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting like The 1619 Project, despite their own fact-checkers throwing up red flag after red flag about erroneous “facts” in the piece.

It seems that the media, on the left and the right, is more interested in reporting the narratives that fit their worldview than in reporting reality. Given the left’s current ascendancy not only in the media but also in Hollywood, the academy, big business, and the White House, it’s no surprise that people on the right are calling foul play. (Never mind that right-leaning news organizations also politicize the news.)

Do You Really Know Malcolm X?

As followers of Jesus, we value the truth over our tribe’s preferred truth. So we should be alarmed when our culture becomes divided into politically tribalized echo chambers. I am reminded of Malcolm X’s words, though he was not a Christian:

“I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.” 

This is a deeply Christian aspiration. If the truth will set us free, we do not fear following it.

Interestingly, Malcolm X shared many of the right’s current misgivings about the media. A year before his assassination, Malcolm X was quite confident that he would die. And he predicted what the media would do with his legacy.

“When I am dead — I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form [and it’s worth pointing out that he was right]—I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with ‘hate.’ He will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of ‘hatred’ — and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race.”

When I read these words, they haunt me because they match what I was taught about Malcolm X. And they underline the media’s power to distort our understanding of history.

The False Mythology of Malcolm X

I grew up in mostly white schools, with exclusively white teachers of history. As an adult, I’ve had to account for the fact that my education — not only about the evils of slavery but also the failures of reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the barbarism of racism, the white church’s participation and complicity in racism, and the plight of Black people — was woefully anemic.

This is especially true when it comes to my understanding of Malcolm X’s life, activism, and work.

My American history teacher taught that Malcolm X was a militant, pro-violence figure and juxtaposed him with Dr. King and his non-violent approach. But as I read Malcolm X’s autobiography, I began to realize that this was a caricature.

Malcolm X’s continual refrain was, “We’re nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us. But we are not non-violent with anyone who is not nonviolent with us.”

In other words, Malcolm X argued for self-defense, a position you’d be hard-pressed to find a conservative or a liberal contradict. His position developed out of a lifelong struggle against both overt and covert racism in the American north. As a young man, Malcolm X found himself deep in a life of crime. He saw crime, hustling, and drug use as pathologies created by white racism and Black poverty. The white man in the north, having denied Black people legal, salutary ways to make money, forced the Black man into this life of crime.

The violence was rarely the medieval barbarism King faced in the south but a subtle, constant erosion of the Black community’s sense of self-worth and autonomy. This drove Malcolm X to advocate for radical separation from the white community in commerce, community, and all of life. It also led to deep-seated animosity toward white culture, which he saw as corrosive to the common welfare of the Black community.

How Dr. King Moved Closer to Malcolm X

As it turns out, the 1960s media machine invented the strong juxtaposition between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr — the former being “the wrong kind of Black man” and the latter being “the right kind of Black man.” 

Toward the end of Dr. King’s life, he drew closer to Malcolm X’s understanding of racism. In King’s last televised interview, he explained that he still held to non-violence as “the morally superior” way. But he admitted that the situation, with covert pervasive racism in the north, certainly required new tactics. 

“The problem [in the south] was more crystalized and in a sense more visible in the south. … The frustrations [in the north] are much deeper. The bitterness is deeper. And I think that’s because in the south, we can see pockets of progress here and there. … Whereas in the north, the negro only sees retrogress. He doesn’t find it as easy to get his vision centered on his target — the target of his opposition — as he does in the south. Consequently, this has made for despair and at many points cynicism — the feeling that you can’t win.”

Dr. King had come to understand what Malcolm X had witnessed firsthand: dealing with covert racism is, in many ways, more difficult than dealing with overt racism. He called this personal reckoning “agonizing soul searching” because “some of the old optimism was a little superficial [and] must be tempered with a solid realism. And the real fact is that we still have a long, long way to go.” He concluded that the dream he spoke about before the Washington Memorial “turned into a nightmare.”

He understood that while someone could kill haters, it is much more difficult to kill hatred. While you can resist unjust people, it is much more difficult to resist injustice. And the problem in the north was covert hatred and systemic injustice.

Is the Media Discipling You?

Let’s return to the main point at hand. The media has tremendous power in today’s thought economy. One only need look at Tucker Carlson lambasting Senator Ted Cruz for calling the January 6 rioters “terrorists.” Cruz responded by coming onto Carlson’s show and repenting in dust and ashes. He even tweeted his public humiliation to appease his followers. Why did Cruz do it? Because Tucker Carlson’s show shapes the perceived reality of his viewers, and his viewers are Cruz’s political base.

The stories of MLK and Malcolm X show how susceptible we are to the media’s influence. They highlight the need for followers of Jesus to have countervailing influences in their lives. We need the Sermon on the Mount — with its radical call to love our enemies — to function as a bulwark against the hatred and vitriol both sides of the media promote.

Stop and consider your own media diet. Is your view of politics, history, race, gender, sexuality, and religion informed more by Jesus or by journalists? Don’t give yourself over to the propaganda machine. Choose the truth of God over the truth of your tribe — and it will set you free.

Need a detox from all of the tribalism in our culture?Check out our 5-Day Detox, designed to challenge you to move closer to Jesus and further away from the political tribalism that divides us. 


Posted by Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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