Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are two of the most well-known advocates for black equality that the country has ever seen. The two fought for equality at a time when black Americans were treated with no respect or dignity and had little to no rights at all.
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While the two men were massive proponents for the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, each movement differed in it ways to achieve equality. Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence while Malcolm X stood for the exact opposite he wanted black Americans to stand up for themselves. While both men stood by different ideologies both had a huge impact in the fight for equality.
Martin Luther King Jr began his leadership at a young age of 25 years old, when he led the Montgomery bus boycott. the Montgomery movement emphasized nonviolence as a guiding credo of moral courage (Franklin & Higginbotham 2011, pg. 514). King and his activists at Montgomery formed the new civil rights movement which looked to end segregation and seek racial harmony. The organization drew inspiration from black culture and religious faith with the church becoming a focal point to help strengthen and empower them in order to prevail over their oppressors. The Civil Rights Movement was centered around King’s ideology of nonviolence in the hopes it would win over the rest of America. Martin Luther King however did not start by believing in nonviolence as his ideologies grew over time. King at the age of five began his early resentment of whites when the father of his white friend told young Martin that his son could no longer play with him because he was colored (Cone 2001). In his early years he was taught to hate whites at church and at home. His philosophies began to change with better influences of religion, personal experiences, and education. Dr. King attended graduate school in which he met liberal whites as teachers and fellow students; he also encountered progressive theological and philosophical ideas that reinforced his beliefs about justice and love, integration and the beloved community (Cone 2001). None of these influences were as strong though as the faith of his parents and of his black church. What made King such a great leader and what helped start the Civil Rights Movement was that his personal experiences and journeys though life all accumulated to his ideology of nonviolence. He began as someone who disliked the whites but grew to accept them and realize we could live in peace, that’s what allowed King to be such a great impactful leader. More individuals could get behind King because his message was inclusive. He spoke always of love, without boundary of race, class, or nation. His audience, from wherever it came, could feel included (Huggins 1987).
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continued his peaceful protests from Montgomery and the Bus Boycott to Birmingham Alabama. On Good Friday, April 12th Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham and this arrest spawned the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail in which Dr. King famously stated, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere (Franklin & Higginbotham 2011, pg. 523). Dr. King anywhere he went faced constant violence from his hotel rooms constantly being bombed and relatives of Dr. King facing the same treatment. Dr. King was resilient however in his ideals and remained a nonviolent advocator through and through. Dr. King said it himself the best in that he is determined to use the weapon of love (MLK vs. Malcolm X 2008). A key factor that allowed the Civil Rights Movement and its nonviolent actions to be more supported across the United States was that the press began to cover Dr. King’s protests and marches in which photographs and television coverage allowed all of America to witness the peaceful non-violent protests and how they were being harassed and beaten in public. This became a huge deal for the Civil Rights Movement as it began to win the hearts of everyday American citizens who may have been skeptical of the movement. The culmination of video and newspaper coverage along with nonviolent peaceful protests and a powerful well-spoken leader like Dr. King was the reason why the Civil Rights Movement was successful. Without Dr. King and his ideologies America may look and feel like a different country still today. In saying this though I believe Malcolm X and his self-defense ideas were ahead of his time and in todays day and age I feel his ideology is more practical with all the senseless violence still being committed to black Americans.
Malcolm X in 1948 sent a form letter to Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam seeking to join this religious sect. At that juncture, membership was relatively small, and the Nation’s fiery anti-white rhetoric had failed to strike much of a chord (Horne 1993). Malcolm X began his rise starting as a minister for the Nation of Islam’s Mosque No. 7 in 1954 in Harlem. Malcolm X and the Black Muslims grew exponentially into the 1960s due to the electrifying presence of NOI minister Malcolm X (Franklin & Higginbotham 2011, pg. 551). Malcolm was a huge public opponent to the Civil Rights Movement and spoke more on black pride and black manhood. Malcolm was a big proponent of militant self-defense (Horne 1993). Malcolm argued that nonviolence was more dangerous and unmanly. He saw black Americans go fight in the Korean War willing and ready to die for their country and could not believe that when they returned home of their refusal to fight for their freedom and instead take the nonviolent approach. His message was the exact opposite of Dr. King’s. Two sides working for their same goal yet enemies at the same time. By the late 1960s Malcolm X and his ideologies had spread rapidly and an armed revolution began to take hold. His philosophy on being able to protect one’s self and women and children from white Americans had taken root. Malcolm X was the epitome of Black Power and he was able to internationalize the African American freedom struggle (Franklin & Higginbotham 2011, pg. 554). A common misconception regarding Malcolm X is the notion around violence however. Many people including myself before I began researching this topic would believe that Malcolm X advocated for violence in his movement, when in reality it was him advocating for self-defense. Malcolm had pointed out the hypocrisy in how white Americans wanted black Americans to obtain their freedom when white Americans fought a war to win theirs. Malcolm could not stand for this inequality and thus strongly urged black Americans to act in self-defense. Malcolm stated that “”if you want to know what I’ll do, figure out what you’ll do. I’ll do the same thing-only more of it. He contended that blacks should use any means necessary to get their freedom and whites should be prepared for reciprocal bleeding (Cone 2001).
Malcolm was painted in the face of the media however as a preacher of hate and violence (Cone 2001), his message was skewed and used against his movement and his character was slandered. He argued that white Americans would never adopt Dr. King’s ideology of nonviolence and that they more closely adhered to his own, yet black Americans were seen as the only race on Earth that has no right to defend itself and thus Dr. King’s strategy was seen as less threatening and more popular. It deplored Malcolm seeing black women, children and men who could not defend themselves being beaten and harassed in the streets by the police, dogs, and white Americans. He argued that if the government does not protect black people, they are within their right to protect themselves (Cone 2001). Malcolm X was a strong outspoken leader who wanted nothing more than to see his black brethren finally free and equal and able to live in peace. Malcolm X’s strong personality and unwilling to change his philosophy was why he was such a strong leader and voice for the Black Power Movement. He preached for black strength and courage and his message still stands today. Malcolm X was the face of black power and he was able to spread his message internationally which helped the movement grow and soar.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X stood on opposite sides of a movement all wanting the same outcome. While the two revolutionaries differed on their approach for achieving black equality they both in the end wanted peace for black Americans and equality for black Americans. While they differed in ideologies they were very similar through other aspects. Both gentlemen were very outspoken leaders of a movement and neither were afraid of standing up for what they believe in. Both men preached and proclaimed truths in which everyone could learn from. Non-violence at its core helps to make the world a better place yet if not, all adhere to it is when problems arise. Malcolm a strong advocate for self-defense argued that why is it not okay for black Americans to defend themselves from violence while their white counterparts could do with ease. His message was arguably ahead of its time and the message was powerful and true which ultimately led to his death.
Many people see the polar opposites in the two powerful figures, but little know that towards the end of their lives they each began to accept the other ideals whether it was said publicly or not. In 1965 Malcolm X traveled to Selma Alabama to meet with Dr. King, Malcolm began to believe that King believed in what he was doing (Blake 2010). It was believed that Malcolm X may have been willing to join the civil rights cause (Blake 2010). However, this never had the chance of happening as Malcolm X was shot and killed before he had the chance. Like Malcolm, Dr. King toward the later years of his life began to shift his ideals and King became more radical as Malcolm became more reserved. Martin began moving his movement up north and with this started speaking out against poverty and voiced issue over a guaranteed annual income for American citizens, he spoke out against the Vietnam war and wanted society to be restructured (Blake 2010). His closest movement toward Malcolm’s ideals when he began to preach about black self-pride and was photographed in a Black is Beautiful button and even before his death a journalist named David Halberstam stated that Martin Luther King sounded like a nonviolent Malcolm X (Blake 2010). By the times of both men’s deaths former supporters had abandoned them and both died at the age of 39. While the two men differed in their ideals each ideology was perfect for the movement they created, the nonviolent civil rights movement had an articulate charismatic leader who inspired the general public of the country and the black power movement had a fearless leader who refused to back down or speak his mind about how he felt. Each man were perfect for their roles in helping to change and shift America in a direction for the better and while they may have taken different paths to do it they still accomplished a common goal.
Blake, John. Malcolm and Martin, Closer than We Ever Thought. CNN, Cable News Network, 19 May 2010, www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/05/19/Malcolmx.king/index.html.
Cone, James H. Martin and Malcolm on Nonviolence and Violence. Phylon (1960-), vol. 49, no. 3/4, 2001, p. 173., doi:10.2307/3132627.
Franklin, John Hope., and Evelyn Brooks. Higginbotham. From Slavery to Freedom: a History of African Americans. McGraw-Hill, 2011.
Horne, Gerald. ‘Myth’ and the Making of ‘Malcolm X.’ The American Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 2, 1993, p. 440., doi:10.2307/2166843.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Charisma and Leadership. The Journal of American History, vol. 74, no. 2, 1987, p. 477., doi:10.2307/1900035.
MLK vs. Malcolm X. YouTube, YouTube, 6 Mar. 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=kG_NqsBzKhE.
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