Below, I will summarize who Martin King, Malcolm X, and Ella Baker were and what they did, and respond with what I have learned from them, and how I hope to follow their examples. I will compare and contrast how Martin, Malcolm, and Ella opposed white supremacy, which Martin describes as an untrue belief used to excuse unjust behavior:
Human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their acts in the garments of righteousness. And so, with the growth of slavery, men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable. The attempt to give moral sanction to a profitable system gave birth to the doctrine of white supremacy.
Comparing Martin, Malcolm, and Ella
Martin, Malcolm, and Ella were the same in that, like Job, they wore justice, which “clothed” their hearts, heads, and hands. They were prophets who loved justice, and organic intellectuals who understood injustice and did justice.
Justice clothed Martin, Malcolm, and Ella’s hearts; they were prophets who loved justice. Lee describes Martin as “a prophet with a pastor’s tender heart for healing, and a pastor with the prophet’s passion for justice.” Cone describes Malcolm as committed to telling the truth with the “simplicity, clarity, and passion of an angry biblical prophet” and as frequently citing Jesus’s saying, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Cone claims, “No one believed that saying more than Malcolm.” Beckett describes prophets as people who suffer for justice, citing Luke 6:22-23, which says, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” Martin and Malcolm were murdered for their opposition to white supremacy, and while Ella died naturally, she lived in poverty because she put the freedom movement – what she called “making a life” – over “making a living.”
Justice clothed Martin, Malcolm, and Ella’s heads and hands; they were organic intellectuals who understood injustice and did justice. West describes Martin as the most “successful organic intellectual in American history” because he effectively connected the “life of the mind to social change.” Ransby describes Ella as an organic intellectual who “learned lessons from the street more than from the academy and who sought to understand the world in order to change it.” While Malcolm did not receive the formal education that Martin and Ella did, Cone describes him as committed to “functional education, that is, the acquisition of knowledge for the purpose of liberating African-Americans from oppression.”
Contrasting Martin, Malcolm, and Ella
Martin, Malcolm, and Ella opposed white supremacy and wore justice in different ways. While Martin was a preacher who worked for freedom in a top-down way, Ella was a teacher and organizer who worked for freedom in a bottom-up way. While Martin was a Black Christian who emphasized love, Malcolm was a Black Muslim who emphasized justice.
Martin was a preacher who worked for freedom in a top-down way. As the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Martin saw himself and other male leaders as “shepherds.” As such, Martin “directed” followers, and himself said, “Leadership never ascends from the pew to the pulpit, but…descends from the pulpit to the pew.” Martin’s perspective on the Montgomery Bus Boycott evidences his preference for top-down leadership:
It is probably true that most of [Montgomery’s Negroes] did not believe in nonviolence as a philosophy of life, but because of their confidence in their leaders and because nonviolence was presented to them as a simple expression of Christianity in action, they were willing to use it as a technique.
To say that Martin preferred top-down leadership is not to say that he disrespected people “at the bottom;” rather, he respected such people. It is to say, however, that he saw people – in some ways – as sheep who needed shepherds, a belief that Ella did not share.
Ella was a teacher and organizer who worked for freedom in a bottom-up way. Ella was a leader in the NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC; however, she believed that change should come from the bottom, controlled by local people; not from the top, controlled by national organizations. Martin’s belief that leadership should descend from the pulpit to the pew was consistent with the “mainstream ministerial tradition” in which Ella saw “no model for collective or democratic decision making.” Ella believed that “strong people don’t need strong leaders” and that “the Negro must quit looking for a savior and work to save himself.” Ella wanted to build a movement more than an organization, and to organize the masses to direct themselves more than to mobilize them to attend big events. She lamented Martin’s tendency – as she saw it – to mesmerize, rather than organize.
Martin was a Black Christian who emphasized love. Martin’s emphasis on love was informed by the Black church, white seminary, and personal experience with God. Martin’s most well-known experience with God was in 1956, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, when he received a threatening phone call at home, prayed, and heard the voice of God. Days later, when his home was bombed, Martin called an angry crowd of blacks to “love our white brothers no matter what they do to us.” Martin’s emphasis on love did not exclude justice; rather, he wrote, “The white liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love but also justice. It is not enough to say, ‘We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.’ They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all.”
Malcolm was a Black Muslim who emphasized justice. Malcolm’s emphasis on justice was informed by the Nation of Islam and by his personal experience with white racism. Malcolm’s emphasis on justice has been misunderstood as hate; however, Cone writes that – while many of Malcom’s words were “too harsh” – they were true. When Malcolm attacked Christianity as “the white man’s religion,” he was not rejecting what white Christians believed – “Jesus and the Bible” – but how white Christians behaved. Malcolm wrote, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits society as a whole.”
What I have learned from Martin, Malcolm, and Ella
Martin found the truth about man in “neither in the thesis of liberalism nor in the antithesis of neo-orthodoxy, but in the synthesis which reconciles the truth of both.” I believe that Martin, Malcolm, and Ella each represent a partial truth, and that my way forward is found neither in the thesis of one nor in the antithesis of the other, but in the synthesis which reconciles the truth of the three.
First, like Martin, I want to work for freedom from the top-down (the pulpit), and like Ella, I want to work for freedom from the bottom-up (the pew). I agree fully with neither Martin’s thesis that “leadership never ascends from the pew to the pulpit…but descends from the pulpit to the pew” nor Ella’s anthithesis that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” My synthesis of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, is that both strong people and strong leaders were needed – strong people worked to save themselves, and strong leaders directed them to do so.
In my community, I want to work with folks in both the pulpit and the pew. In the context of the white church, I believe that church leaders should direct followers to do justice; however, I do not believe that church members should wait for direction to do justice. If church leaders will not set an example for church followers, then church followers should set an example for church leaders, and if church leaders will not do justice, then we should not follow them.
Second, like Martin, I want to emphasize love, but in a world and white Christian culture that waters down Martin’s message to exclude justice (and thereby misunderstands love), I find Malcolm’s message of justice – expressed with simplicity, clarity, and passion – exemplary.
In my community, I want to emphasize both love and justice. In the context of the white church, I believe that we need to listen to, learn from, and work with both Black Christians like Martin and Black other-than-Christians like Malcolm. Importantly, we need to listen to, learn from, and work with Black people who do not attend white churches; who are not limited by white church leaders (I am not suggesting that we should not work with Black people who do attend white churches, but that we should not work only with such Black people).
Third, like Martin, Malcom, and Ella, I want to oppose white supremacy, and to wear justice. I want justice to clothe my heart, head, and hands; to love justice, understand injustice, and do justice. From Martin, Malcolm, and Ella, I have learned that there are different ways to wear justice; it is not a one-size-fits all garment. In this season of my life, I am “trying on” different ways to wear justice, discerning what “fits” me individually, and how to do justice with others, in community. Below I will describe a project that is part of my discernment process.
How I hope to follow Martin, Malcolm, and Ella’s examples
In 2021, I raised $100,000 from white people and churches for Black leaders in Northwest Arkansas (NWA) with The Witness Foundation. Two Black leaders received $50,000 from 2021 to 2023, but after 2023, The Witness Foundation will not work with us in NWA, so I am working with others to raise funds from white people and churches for Black leaders in NWA. To me, this is an expression of reparations for white supremacy.
In 2022, I worked with my local NPR station to start The R Word podcast to talk about reparations and the church in NWA. In the summer of 2022, I interviewed Greg Thompson, Jemar Tisby, and local Black leaders on the podcast. In the fall of 2022, I worked with my local library to start The R Word book discussion series to continue the conversation started on the podcast. Jemar spoke at the library about How to Fight Racism in the fall of 2022, Greg will speak at the library about Reparations in the spring of 2023, and we will continue the podcast in the summer of 2023.
In 2023, I am working with a task force of local leaders to invite white people and churches to invest in Black leaders in NWA. We will raise a $1.25 million endowment that will give $50,000 per year to Black leaders in NWA perpetually. The task force includes twelve local Black and white leaders.
The million-dollar question may be: in the context of a culture that disincentivizes white Christians from doing justice (as explained in my field trip report), how will we invite white Christians to do justice by investing in Black leaders in NWA? I hope to invite white Christians – folks in the pulpit and the pews – to repent, reform, repair, and reconcile.
First, if we want to do justice, then we need to repent individually, because we have collectively behaved unjustly, believed falsely, and failed to love our Black siblings. This means that we need to see ourselves as part of the problem of white supremacy, and we need to repent.
In 2017, my wife and I fostered a Black boy who is 10 days younger than our white son. In this season of my life, watched 13th and learned that slavery did not end, but evolved into Jim Crow and New Jim Crow / mass incarceration, and that while one in 17 white males will be incarcerated, one in three Black males will be incarcerated. I learned that I had behaved unjustly, believed falsely, and failed to love my Black siblings. I was grieved by my sin, and I started to repent.
Second, if we want to do justice, then we need to reform institutionally, because institutions influence individuals. If we want to become just people, but are members of unjust churches, then we will not grow into just people, because we will be influenced by our unjust churches. This means that we need to see our churches as part of the problem of white supremacy, and we need to either reform or leave them.
In 2021, I asked my white church to give to The Witness Foundation. My pastor supported reparations in private but asked not to be associated with the words “white supremacy” in public. When I shared this with a friend, she said her Black church in NWA had received bomb threats from white supremacists that month. Then, I knew: my church was part of the problem of white supremacy, and we needed to reform it. When I asked the church to change, I was called angry, divisive, and not submissive.
Third, if we want to do justice, then we need to repair culturally, because white supremacy exists inside and outside our churches. If we only do justice inside our churches on Sunday, then we will have done little, because injustice exists outside our churches on Monday to Saturday, and it effects people who are not inside our churches on Sunday. This means that we need to see our communities as part of the problem of white supremacy, and we need to repair them.
In 2022, I left my white church. After I left, I met many Black people who had been working outside my church to repair our community, but who I had not seen, because I was too busy inside my white church. Divesting time and money from my white church enabled me to invest time and money in Black-led work to repair our community.
Fourth, if we want to do justice, then we need to reconcile interpersonally; however, we need to repent individually, reform institutionally, and repair culturally first. If we have not started to change ourselves, our churches, or our communities, then we are not ready to befriend Black people, whom we are hurting by our passivity. This does not mean that we must finish changing ourselves, our churches, or our communities before we befriend Black people, but it does mean that we must actively start to do so, now.
In the last few years, as I have repented individually, left my white church because it will not reform institutionally, and repaired culturally, I have reconciled interpersonally with many Black people, who have become my teachers, leaders, and friends.
In the next few years, I hope to invite white Christians – folks in the pulpit and the pews — to do justice by investing in Black leaders in NWA, and to repent, reform, repair, and reconcile. In this, I am inviting white Christians to follow the examples of Martin, Malcolm, and Ella, and to wear justice – to “clothe” our hearts, heads, and hands with it. I am inviting white Christians to love justice, understand injustice, and do justice; to work for freedom from both the bottom (pews) and the top (pulpit); and to emphasize both love and justice, because love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all.
Beckett, Joshua. King as a Prophet Lecture, Winter 2017.
Cone, James. Martin and Malcolm and America. Orbis Books, 1991.
DuVernay, Ava. 13th. Netflix, 2016.
King, Martin. Where Do We Go From Here. Beacon Press, 1968.
Lee, Hak Joon. We Will Get To The Promised Land. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017.
Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Washington, James. A Testament of Hope. HarperOne, 1986.
West, Cornel. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Prophetic Christian as Organic Intellectual