In post-war America, the fight against racism threatened to turn the country upside down. The struggle reached a climax in the mid 1960s, and in the midst of it all were two charismatic and articulate leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Their philosophical differences forced them to be at odds with each other as each strategized about how to win the fight for equality and justice for African Americans. Yet, these Civil Rights leaders shared certain attributes. Their similarities allowed them to cross paths and establish common ground, while their actions made them iconic leaders of the African American race. Their shared passion for freedom and equality made them targets, and their commitment to their ideals caused them to die in the prime of their lives from an assassin’s bullet. Irony particularly surrounds the violent death of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose political ideas were deemed too passive and unradical by some critics. Yet, his contributions helped to shape contemporary African American politics.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X walked different paths; however, there were commonalities between them. For instance, both championed an end to the status quo. Furthermore, both men agreed that American society could be transformed only through dramatic changes in attitude and actions at the individual, community and national levels. Each man believed that he had a major role to play in this struggle, and each leader altered his birth name to monikers we now consider legendary. Martin Luther King, Jr was born Michael King, and Malcolm X was christened as Malcolm Little.[i]
Their ideas and words came from a religious base. Both were ministers in their respective religions. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the son, grandson and the great grandson of Baptist ministers, and when he grew up, it was unsurprising that he became a fourth generation Baptist minister.[ii] Malcolm X was also a preacher’s son. He joined the Nation of Islam while incarcerated and then became a lay leader in the Muslim religion. When King and Malcolm X spoke, their power and charisma were obvious and their distinctive styles were honed in their respective congregations. The ideas that each brought forth were characterized by religious undertones and influenced by sacred doctrine.
Their political ideas stemmed from a hope that all African Americans would be ale to walk the streets with their heads held high. A dream of total emancipation from the negative effects of slavery and the desire for freedom in all aspects of life. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech at the March on Washington, he said, “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream . . . that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”[iii] This excerpt illustrates the burning passion in his heart. The same can be said of Malcolm X who refused to accept standard discriminatory practices and was consumed by a vision that someday African Americans would no longer be treated as second-class citizens.
Both their teachings outlived their lives and transcended beyond the geographical boundaries that confined the two leaders. Just as their teachings appealed to the same group of people in different ways, the spread of their ideologies has also taken different paths. Malcolm X teachings have remained in non-mainstream minority groupings only surfacing when such groups find a leader similar to Malcolm X in their defense of the ideology and quickly leave the mainstream with the departure of the leader. In a similar pattern, King’s ideologies have penetrated the mainstream just as they did before and continue to influence policy and personal aspirations of equality along all lifestyles. The pattern of the ideological spread remains unchanged for both leaders’ political theories.
Although both African American leaders shared similarities, they were totally different when it came to the core principles of their political theories. Malcolm X believed that African Americans needed to be more aggressive. He believed that they had to assert themselves when it came to their constitutional rights as citizens of the United States of America and their God given rights as human beings. More importantly, Malcolm X’s core teachings were all about “moral principles of self defense, retaliation, and power.”[iv] Martin Luther King, Jr., on the other hand, chose nonviolent resistance “through unconditional love and direct action.”[v] In other words, Martin Luther King, Jr. believed firmly in the principles of nonviolent resistance against the oppressors of the Negro race.
Their differences in this regard may partly explain why King was admired more than Malcolm X, arguably. Once a year, Americans celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which illustrates this icon’s national importance. In addition, Martin Luther King, Jr., at age 35, received the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements in the fight for equality, freedom, and justice using nonviolent means. He was and is considered as one of the youngest to ever receive a Nobel Prize.
The second major difference can be seen in how both gentlemen envisioned the future when it came to the relationship between blacks and whites. King wanted integration. He not only believed that racism could be eradicated, but also that black and whites could live in relative harmony. One writer captured King’s actions and beliefs more succinctly when he wrote, “Although King’s Gandhian tactics were radical at the time, his goals in 1965 were mainstream: inclusion of black citizens in an integrated American democracy.”[vi] During this period, some questioned the effectiveness of this approach. In fact, there were many criticisms hurled at King, but, in the end, it was all justified.
Similar to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s critics, Malcolm X felt that King’s vision was a mere illusion void of logic. He emphasized the slim likelihood that white people would relinquish control of their positions of authority. One commentator summarized the rationale for the call for separation as opposed to integration; citing Malcolm X, the author wrote the following: “Because they believed they would never ‘pierce the present white power structure’ they decided to form a separate party and elect Negroes to office.”[vii] This reasoning is why many disapproved of King’s nonviolent stance, which Malcolm X viewed as illogical, given the entrenched power of white people. Malcolm X clarified it further by stating: “In the etiquette of race relations, the condition of the oppressed was ameliorated, if at all, through entreaty and supplication and only by the dominant class and at its pace.”[viii] Malcolm X felt that progress was moving at a snail’s pace and something had to be done.
Malcolm X regarded action as the only way to influence change on the American political atmosphere. His rhetoric is full of the feelings of oppression that African Americans felt under the political ideological system of the time such that each African American saw themselves as victims. When Malcolm X spoke to address the grievances of African Americans, he did so as a victim just like those whom he was representing. Therefore, his teachings resonated more with the heavily oppressed and poor compared to the relatively well-off enjoying mild social status in the American socio-economic system. The extremist boldness of Malcolm X added to his resentment of the prevailing law in America. According to his rhetoric, Malcolm X saw that there were only two options of putting a stop to the oppression of the African American, using the ballot box or an armed struggle. Either choice was not favorable with the existing government or therefore he became an enemy of the state as long as he advocated his political ideologies. Contrariwise, King’s ideology presents a variety of choices that aim to bring the oppressed and the oppressor to a common ground without the feeling that one group is taking from another.
Malcolm X’s teachings resonate well with revolutionary causes and therefore capture the spirit of minority groups in all aspects of their lives[ix]. His teachings brings out the lack that minorities experience and seeks to compel them to put an end to their dissatisfaction by joining an uprising that will ultimately uplift their socio economic status to the level of those that oppress them. Unfortunately, none of the individuals forming the prevailing political class falls under the classification of the oppressed as described by Malcolm X, therefore they cannot relate on a personal level to his teachings. Other than their revolutionary proclamations, Malcolm’s teaching depended on his energy of message delivery; he had to display a strong unwavering character capable of no compromise in championing the causes of the oppressed. His teaching was forceful compared with King’s powerful teaching.
It must also be pointed out that their differences are exemplified in the way they crafted their speeches, declarations, and actions when in the public eye. Their personal and political views affected the way they handled their social and political activities. It can be argued that both men were activists, though only one became an expert at dealing with mainstream politics and managing the tension between the oppressed, frustrated black minority and the white majority. For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to work with former President Johnson, and their collaboration resulted in the creation of landmark laws whose impact is still felt to this day.[x] Malcolm X, on the other hand, succeeded in alienating himself from mainstream society and failed to exert a positive influence on the White House to help him to reach his goals.
Martin Luther King, Jr. may have had a better feel for politics, but in the eyes of his critics, that political savviness became a liability. The radicalized segment of the African American community wanted substantial results and possibly interpreted King’s cautious stance as a sign of weakness. King’s strategies were viewed with contempt by many African-Americans, especially some young people. Malcolm X’s fiery rhetoric was more desirable for many of them. In the words of one author, “They weren’t willing to wait for the slow, patient, methods of the NAACP, or even the civil rights movement, to take effect.”[xi] Despite the speculation, no one will know how far Malcolm X was willing to go when it came to his ideas of self-defense and retaliation, because of his untimely death. But, it can be said that the nonviolent approach to the issues of racism has proven more effective than the alternative.
While King’s ideologies of non-violence and dialogue portrayed him as a weak leader in the eyes of the oppressed African Americans, his method proved more effective compared to that of Malcolm X. King had power that resided in the principles he preached about. His ideology embodied universal principles of love and acceptance such that it would be adapted to a variety of courses against oppression[xii]. In addition, his message depended on the belief of the listener more than on the messenger. As a result, King’s followers were true converts of his principles and would become advocates for the same to other people. King’s relative success of penetrating the state and converting a few individuals lies in the power embodied in his message rather than his character.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X shared the same dream of the eventual elimination of racism. They hoped that the members of the Negro race would come to know the true meaning of the phrase “all men are created equal” and be treated fairly. However, they differed sharply in the methods chosen to make this dream come true. King adhered to a Gandhi-like, non-violent approach and sought to integrate with the mainstream society. Malcolm X opted for more radical measures and was willing to retaliate against oppressors. Radicalized members of the African American community frowned upon the less agressive tactics of King and most of this constituency doubted King’s effectiveness. They were excited with the ideas articulated by Malcolm X. But, in the end, it was the non-violent, civil disobedience approach of Martin Luther King, Jr. that awakened the conscience of Americans both black and white and more so resonated universally. Every year, Americans commemorate the contributions of King through a national holiday that bears his name, and that practice alone is enough to testify to the positive impact of his legacy.
[i] “Malcolm X (1925-1965).” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research Education Institutue, accessed 14 February 2011. http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_malcolm_x_1925_1965/
[ii] “King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968).”
[iv] Laurence Bove. Philosophical Perspectives on Power and Domination: Theories and Practices. (Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1997), 223.
[vi] Nick Kotz, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005), 297.
[vii] William Terence & Martin Riches. The Civil Rights Movement: Struggle and Resistance. (New York: PALGRAVE, 1997), 92.
[viii] William Sales, From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1994), 168.
[ix] Baggins Brian, “History of the Black Panther Party”. Marxists Internet Archive, assessed 27 April 2011. http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/black-panthers/
[x] Kotz, 112.
[xi] Beatrice Gormley, Malcolm X: A Revolutionay Voice for African Americans. (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2008), 87.
[xii] James Cone, Black Theology in American Theology. (Journal of American Academy of Religion, Vol 53, No. 4, pp. 775-771, 2008), 759.
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