He suggests that change happens when there are two distinct forces at work on the same position. One radical (Malcolm X) and one rational (Martin Luther King. Jr). I’m sure there are nuances to the history of the civil rights movement, but there is a familiar pattern. The radical position gets attention and riles up those who disagree, and space is created for a moderate position to gain ground by being more paletable than the radical.
My position is that you need attention to have influence, and radicals can bring attention to an issue that is being ignored. But there are other ways to get attention. You can earn it from people who learn to respect you for intelligent work you do, problems you’ve solved, or smart things you say.
In my experience real change in organizations happens quietly, in small meetings with a handful of people – The drama of movements, big speaches, and flaming e-mails is to get enough influence to earn a seat in those small meetings. Or to have the ear of someone else that’s there to represent you, or give you the scoop on what’s happening next, before the whole organization knows.
So I don’t think you need radicals for change – They can help by adding leverage to a position, surface a point of view that’s gone unheard, or put momentum behind an idea that is being ignored, but often there are other ways to achieve those things without taking radical positions or actions.