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The Sword and the Shield
Cover of The Sword and the Shield
The Sword and the Shield
The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
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This dual biography of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King upends longstanding preconceptions to transform our understanding of the twentieth century's most iconic African American leaders.


To most Americans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. represent contrasting ideals: self-defense vs. nonviolence, black power vs. civil rights, the sword vs. the shield. The struggle for black freedom is wrought with the same contrasts. While nonviolent direct action is remembered as an unassailable part of American democracy, the movement's militancy is either vilified or erased outright. In The Sword and the Shield, Peniel E. Joseph upends these misconceptions and reveals a nuanced portrait of two men who, despite markedly different backgrounds, inspired and pushed each other throughout their adult lives. This is a strikingly revisionist biography, not only of Malcolm and Martin, but also of the movement and era they came to define.

This dual biography of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King upends longstanding preconceptions to transform our understanding of the twentieth century's most iconic African American leaders.


To most Americans, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. represent contrasting ideals: self-defense vs. nonviolence, black power vs. civil rights, the sword vs. the shield. The struggle for black freedom is wrought with the same contrasts. While nonviolent direct action is remembered as an unassailable part of American democracy, the movement's militancy is either vilified or erased outright. In The Sword and the Shield, Peniel E. Joseph upends these misconceptions and reveals a nuanced portrait of two men who, despite markedly different backgrounds, inspired and pushed each other throughout their adult lives. This is a strikingly revisionist biography, not only of Malcolm and Martin, but also of the movement and era they came to define.

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About the Author-
  • Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan professor of political values and ethics at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written several previous books on African American history, including Stokely: A Life. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    January 1, 2020
    A revisionist study of the parallel lives of two of America's most significant African American leaders. Joseph (Political Values and History/Univ. of Texas; Stokely: A Life, 2014, etc.), who has written widely on African American history, punctures the widespread myth that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X espoused diametrically opposed philosophies about ameliorating racism in the United States. "A mythology surrounds the legacies of Martin and Malcolm," writes the author. "King is most comfortably portrayed as the nonviolent insider, while Malcolm is characterized as a by-any-means-necessary political renegade." On the contrary, Joseph shows that although the two crusaders often disagreed about tactics, they began to appreciate each other as tacticians during the 1960s, as the civil rights movement began to gain traction during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and simultaneously grew increasingly violent at the local level. Because readers know that each man would eventually suffer an early, violent death, the narrative takes on a poignant urgency as the chapters unfold. While Malcolm was shot and killed in a public auditorium by assassins from the Nation of Islam, an organization led by self-proclaimed prophet Elijah Muhammad but effectively expanded by Malcolm before he split from the prophet, King was killed by a hatemongering white supremacist. Before chronicling the murders, Joseph sets the stage with solid biographical sections about the upbringings of both men. Malcolm grew up in a dysfunctional Midwestern family that fractured quickly, and he grew into a sometimes-violent teenage criminal who served nearly a decade in prison, where he became an autodidact. King grew up in a Southern family that had become part of the black elite, and unlike Malcolm, he received a doctorate and graduated from a respected theological seminary. As the author delineates the philosophies and tactics of each man, he compares and contrasts them on nearly every page, making the various narrative strands cohere nicely. An authoritative dual biography from a leading scholar of African American history.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 16, 2020
    In this authoritative dual biography, Joseph (Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour), a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that the dynamic between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X matured from a rivalry to “a shared revolutionary path in search of black dignity, citizenship, and human rights.” Though the two civil rights leaders met only once, during a chance encounter in the U.S. Senate, Joseph contends that “over time, each persuaded the other to become more like himself.” He focuses primarily on the decade between Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Act (1965), covering such milestones as Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca and King’s role in the Montgomery bus boycott. Through close readings of their public speeches; accounts of their separate travels in Africa, Indonesia, and the Middle East; and descriptions of their influence on and reactions to the Black Power movement, Joseph reveals his subjects’ growing appreciation for each other’s strategies and commitment to the cause of racial justice. Though other meaningful figures from the era get short shrift, Joseph’s laser focus delivers essential insights into the characters of both men. This incisive work uncovers the subtleties of a relationship too often cast in broad strokes.

  • Booklist

    April 15, 2020
    If, as the semiotician Roland Barthes famously argued, "mythology is depoliticized speech," then historian Joseph's (Stokely, 2014) latest can be seen as repoliticizing the nearly mythic legacy of two civil rights heroes: Martin Luther King Jr. and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, more commonly called Malcolm X. Joseph eschews the usual easy oppositional narratives of educated versus working-class, Christian versus Muslim, integration versus separatism, lobbying versus grassroots activism, and non-violence versus self-defense to emphasize their political affinities and shared struggle. He also documents just how unprecedented the scale of Black political organization was during the 1960s, drawing strength from people from all walks of life. Most intriguingly, Joseph portrays King and Malcolm X as political and diplomatic mavericks heroically coping with attempts by the FBI; politicians of various ideologies, including sitting presidents; the mainstream press; and even former allies to deflect, deny, and discredit their moral crusade against American racism and racial violence and their assertion of Black American dignity and civic significance. Joseph's fresh and perceptive dual biography may rekindle political unity in a time of increasingly granular identity politics, sensationalism, and fear.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

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The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
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