Martin Luther King Jr. Never Said Famous Quote Criticizing Malcolm X
One journalist’s archival discovery is changing historians’ understanding of the two civil rights leaders
In 1965, journalist Alex Haley published an interview with Martin Luther King Jr.—the longest he ever gave—in Playboy magazine. The piece famously includes quotes from King that are critical of Malcolm X:
I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views—at least insofar as I understand where he now stands. … I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem. And in 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. 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 decades, King’s comments have been repeated in history books and classrooms across the country. But now, new research suggests that Haley fabricated them.
Journalist Jonathan Eig first noticed something was amiss while conducting archival research for his new biography of King, reports the Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell. In Haley’s archives at Duke University, Eig found what appears to be an unedited transcript of the interview. Reading through it, he realized that Haley moved certain phrases around—and even added in language that King never uttered.
“The quotes had been changed dramatically. Some of them had been entirely invented,” Eig tells PBS NewsHour’s Geoff Bennett. “And we have been telling the story of the relationship between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X for generations, based in part on that quote.”
According to the transcript, King says:
I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views, as I understand them. … 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.
King never said, “Malcolm has done himself or our people a great disservice”; he said that “he falls into a rut sometimes.” King also didn’t say anything about “reap[ing] nothing but grief.”
The comment about “fiery, demagogic oratory” appears earlier in the interview and is not related to Malcolm X. King actually said, “Fiery, demagogic oratory in the Black ghettoes urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence can achieve nothing but negative results.” The phrase “as he has done” does not appear.
Eig tells NPR’s Bill Chappell that the fabrications were “journalistic malpractice.”
“There’s more to it,” he says, “but what King actually said was that he disagreed with some of Malcolm’s views, maybe with many of them—but that he was aware that his way wasn’t the only way. And it sounded like he was much more open to exploring that relationship than the Playboy interview made it out to be.”
He adds that King and Malcolm X “were engaged in an awkward dance, but they were listening to the same music.”
Many historians, journalists and educators were also struck by the find. As the Boston Globe’s Renée Graham writes, “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.”
Even before the news broke, scholars have been looking more critically at the relationship between the two leaders in recent years. Perhaps King and Malcoln X were “revolutionary sides of the same coin,” as Peniel Joseph, a historian specializing in the Black power movement, told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2020.
Now, Joseph tells the Washington Post that he’s glad Eig is “setting the historical record straight.”
One looming question is what the discovery means for Haley’s already complex legacy. His historical novel Roots (1976), which was adapted into a TV miniseries in 1977, faced accusations of plagiarism and historical inaccuracies.
Haley also authored The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), ranked by Time magazine as one of ten nonfiction books that should be “required reading.” More than 50 interviews with Malcolm X served as source material.
Now, the news that he fabricated King’s quotes “should prompt us to scrutinize everything he’s written, including the autobiography,” Eig tells the Washington Post.