Religion in Contemporary America

Review of James H. Cone, Martin & Malcom & America: A Dream or A Nightmare Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1991.
Reviewed by LeAnn Poole.

Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare written by James H. Cone is a book that takes an in depth look at Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, their ties to each other and what they meant to American society. Before the reader can understand why Martin and Malcolm developed such varying views on civil rights, he first discusses the details of the social and economic lifestyles that each man was raised. Cone explains that through their personal backgrounds, Martin's stable familial and financial security where he was protected from racism as opposed to Malcolm, whose family was broken and economically deprived, are what cause one to become and integrationist and the other, a nationalist.

Cone then begins to analyze the religious backgrounds, which he claims would later shape their opinions on American society. He shows that his Christian background and its teachings to love everyone, including your enemies formed Martin's concepts such as the "American Dream", nonviolent protest, and love of the enemy. The author shows that Martin's ideas were also shaped by the emphasis of the Black Church and their comparison to themselves to the Hebrews of the Old Testament and their past as slaves. Their belief that God would deliver them and lead them to a Promised Land gave King the inspiration to preach of an American dream for black people.

Cone's next discussion involves the religious background that shaped Malcolm's theories and ideas. The author discusses the reasons why Muslim beliefs were so easy for Malcolm to accept. For Malcolm, Cone discusses the Muslim beliefs as taught by Elijah Muhammad that revolved around the ideas that African-Americans were the chosen race of God and that white people were devils that would eventually be destroyed. Cone explains that these were ideas that Malcolm could believe in because of his experiences. Malcolm's strong convictions in his faith, Cone assesses, is what would lead to the beliefs that Malcolm would become known for such as, "By any means necessary", anti-integration, and his belief that God only helps those who help themselves.

Cone progresses in the book to explain what these two leaders religious beliefs and varying theories began to shape the African-American's view on which way freedom could be best achieved in the 1960's. Cone's last analysis of these two men is of the strengths and weaknesses in each man's philosophy and the effects they had on society then and now.

Cone concludes that the different social and economic backgrounds are what led these two men to practice their respective religions. The author then argues that their religions are what would lead them to develop their very different philosophies on American and how freedom for African-Americans could best be achieved.

Throughout the book, Cone's major premise is that both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X's philosophies were shaped by their personal backgrounds and religious backgrounds. To prove his point, Cone delves back into both men's early beginnings so that the reader can understand why one man would later believe in African Americans having a future in American while the other believed that African-Americans should began their own country.

By discussing the early lives of Martin and Malcolm, he tries to show the reader why one man was led to Christianity and the other to the Nation of Islam. From this, Cone builds his argument that each man's approach to civil rights was influenced greatly by their personal backgrounds that would in turn, influence their religious choices therefore influencing the theories that they would later develop. His argument is very convincing but it is also very true. Our family backgrounds and experiences do effect which religion we choose participate in because we want the religion to agree with the beliefs that we have already formed. The religions that we affiliate ourselves with also give us new beliefs from the ones that we already have and we transform our lives so that we grow within the religion that we practice. Therefore, Cone's argument is very acceptable that both Martin and Malcolm's philosophies were developed from personal experiences and their respective religions.

To defend his argument, Cone discusses both Malcolm and Martin's early beginnings and then begins to discuss both Christianity and the Nation of Islam. The author does this to show the reader why each man was drawn to his respective religions. By explaining the beliefs and appeals of both religious groups, it is easy for the reader to see why each of these men chose the religion that they were affiliated with.

Cone's description of the Nation of Islam of the 1960's, was a religion that appealed to the African-American's who lived in the North and dealt with a more hidden type of racism than in the South. It appealed to those blacks that felt nothing but hopelessness and were surrounded by nothing but ghettos, prostitution, drugs, jail and death. It also appealed to the African-American that saw nothing good in American society and felt as though they would never be accepted by white society.

Nation of Islam beliefs such as the African race being the chosen people of God and meant to rule their own country, as well as the fact that the white man was a devil that would eventually be destroyed, was something that appealed to the inner city African-American. Drugs, jail, and the ghetto o were situations that Malcolm could relate to which Cone explains, were the reasons why Malcolm became such a loyal follower of the Nation and of Elijah Muhammad.

Cone's portrayal of the Nation is very accurate because through his descriptions, he shows the reader, why the Nation and Malcolm made such an impact on the African-Americans in the North and failed to appeal to those African-Americans in the South. Cone's description of Christianity in 1960's showed a religion that appealed to those African-Americans that faced racism that was more open than in the North.

It appealed to those blacks who had a strong faith that all of their problems would eventually be worked out. It also appealed to those African Americans who believed that America was a land where they could succeed. Christianity taught that God would correct the problems of any man who chose to believe in his son Jesus and follow him. It also taught, with the help of the Black Church Cone asserts, that the African American would be set free as the Hebrews of the Old Testament and they too, would be delivered to a promised land where they were no longer be oppressed. Christianity also taught, Cone explains, that by loving the enemy as Jesus did when he was oppressed only then would the oppressor be converted into believing that segregation was unjust.

Cone's explanation of Christian beliefs shows that it appealed to the optimistic African-American. He also shows that this optimism as well as this strong belief that God would deliver was instilled in King from the time he was born. King was raised in a family of renowned Baptist ministers and activist so he had always been taught that African-Americans could make it in American society. Cone shows that because of the atmosphere King was raised in, Christianity and optimistic beliefs such as integration and freedom were an easy transition for him.

Cone's portrayal of both religious groups is also very objective. He does not attempt to compare one group to the other or attack one group's religious beliefs. Cone's makes an effort to try to show how these two religions influenced both King's and Malcolm X's thinking. Cone gives an equal amount of explanation as to how both of these religions began and handles their varying beliefs not with criticism but with explanations as to why they believed what they believe. Cone takes great care to show no favoritism to either religion, but informs the reader as to what defines both Christianity and Islamic beliefs.

Cone's discussion throughout the book of the lives and religions of these two men as well as their philosophies are also looked at objectively. Never once does he compare one man's belief or philosophies to each other, nor does he offer any more or any less on either man. He does not criticize their views but instead offers each man's position to the reader with an unopinionated tone so that the reader can determine which man they agree with for themselves.

Cone book gives great insight into the contemporary religion of Islam and Christianity by showing how these two religions and some of their beliefs have evolved with the years. In his book, he offers the beliefs of Christianity and Islam in the 1960's and the reader can compare those beliefs that each religion taught in the past to what they teach now. Cone's book does not try to offer any new insight on their religion but tries to acclimate the reader to their beliefs and the reasons why they believe what they believe. This is helpful because in this way he does not force ideas on the reader but the leaves the decision up to them to decide with which man or religion they agree with the most.

In conclusion, Cone book is not one that tries to force ideas or a religion on the reader but instead offers new insight on two of these most important civil rights leaders of the century. In no way should any Christian or Muslim group who decides to read this book become offended about the portrayal of their particular religion because his portrayal are based on the facts of their beliefs and not his own opinions. If anything, they will no doubt learn things that they did not know about each other's religion and will just gain new knowledge on the men that contributed so much to both Christianity and the Nation of Islam.

Reviewed by LeeAnn Poole

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