The history of the American civil rights movement would be incomplete without the mention of two pivotal names – Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Both men were Americans of African origin who lived at a time when apartheid still had its nails dug deep into the American society’s flesh. They started movements, inspired a people and stood by their beliefs and principles till they died. While both men were active in the civil rights movement about the same time and had immense following among the people, their leadership style, personality and beliefs varied greatly.
How people perceive these great leaders to be also differs greatly. Martin Luther King Jr. has always been viewed as a ‘Leader’, a man who was always ahead of his time, who had a clear and great vision of the future of the world. On the other hand, Malcolm X has been viewed as an ‘Extremist’, a person who, although has great and noble aspirations, would go to any extent to achieve his objectives. Although their approaches and contribution to the American civil rights movement differed greatly, both men had a tremendous impact and influence on the future of African Americans.
MLK and Malcolm X had a great passion for speaking to the people in a frank and sincere manner. They were excellent orators and public speakers, many of their speeches are remembered and referenced even today. Both men were never afraid of saying what they thought and felt. Martin Luther King Jr. was about four years younger than Malcolm X and began advocating equal rights for African Americans about two years later than Malcolm X.
It is widely accepted that a person’s childhood experiences have a deep and lasting effect on his or her mindset. This concept was probably applicable in the case of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Malcolm X, on the other hand, came from an economically backward home, growing up in an unfriendly and hostile neighborhood. He had a very limited education. Born as Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, he had several brutal experiences as a child. Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, a Baptist minister, was also actively involved in seeking equality for African Americans. Malcolm regarded his father highly and felt that he was the strength that held his family together .
Earl Little was mercilessly killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. His home was deemed to be unworthy for valuation in 1929 by Black Legion, an extremist white organization. Malcom’s mother was not able to bear the loss of her husband and the falling apart of her home and was sent to a mental asylum. Malcolm and his six siblings had to move from one foster home to another. Although one of the brightest students in his class, Malcom’s white English teacher did not permit him to attain a high school diploma. These events more or less effectively destroyed Malcom’s life.
In the year that changed Malcolm X’s life forever, Martin Luther King was born on January 15, 1929. Martin Luther King Jr. or MLK, belonged to middle class household. He received a thorough education and did not have a particularly adverse childhood. His parents taught him that all races should be respected and considered equal to each other. In particular, great emphasis was laid on the education of African American in order to uplift their social standing. As his father was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people or NAACP, MLK has an early insight into the tough life that African Americans lead.
With his parents being highly educated, Martin Luther King Jr. attained his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1948 as well as a doctorate in 1955. MLK was a devout Christian and held ministry for a long time. He was strictly against violence and advocated non-violence even when he was attacked and/or targeted. Malcolm X, on the other, had converted to Islam and believed in the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’. In fact, one of his most well known statements is ‘By any means necessary’. His rebellion against oppression was more physical in nature. During the initial stages of his activism, Malcolm X had no qualms about using force of acts of violence to attain his objectives. However, he later met several other Muslims in Jerusalem and his mind-set changed towards a non-violent approach.
It can be seen that both men had tremendously different childhoods and upbringing which greatly impacted their perception of the rights of African Americans and the methods by which they could be attained. The difference in the approach of MLK and Malcolm X is clearly visible through an analysis of the famous March on Washington. On August 28, 1963, more than 20,000 Americans marched from Washington to the Lincoln memorial, marking the pinnacle of the civil rights movement. Even when his protests were faced with violent repercussions, King never resorted to violence himself. He always believed in and preached that all races, across continents and countries, should be one, living together in perfect harmony. He was against any and all forms of hatred and violence.
On the other hand, Malcolm X felt differently about the march.. He believed that, were all the races of the world to live together, it would lead to utter chaos. He felt that, for African Americans to have any respect and rights in th country, they would first need to start respecting themselves first. Malcolm X believed that King’s idea of a world living in togetherness would be a disaster.
MLK preached that the rights for African Americans should be attained through peaceful and non-violent methods such as peaceful protesting. He called these his ‘weapons of love’. Malcolm X, on the other hand, wanted to achieve equality for African Americans at any cost, even if it meant resorting to extreme and violent means. He had believed in the division and separation of black and white races up till the time that he underwent a change of heart when he visited Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Although the end result sought by both men was the same, equality for African Americans, the manner in which they sought to attain this objective was very different from each other.
At the end of the day, it was MLK’s peaceful methods and non-violent approach towards the civil rights movement that made him a much loved, respected and even revered figure in history, not only by African Americans but white Americans as well. Malcolm X’s path, although may have attained equality for African Americans in the end, it would have ended up dividing the two races for a very long time, leaving scope for future chaos and upheavals.
Both leaders had several pivotal moments during their lives which contributed greatly towards their own individual development and the civil rights movement itself. Martin Luther King Jr., having a solid background in social reform from what he learnt from his father, had a firm hold on the concepts of non-violent protests. Several movements started by him are well known even today. Some of these movements include the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and the March in Washington 1963.. MLK was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Malcolm X, on the other hand, became a prominent member of the Nation of Islam, an organization of black Muslims led by Elijah Mohammed. Elijah initiated Malcolm to the tenets of Islam, which eventually led to his conversion to the religion and the gradual changing of his extremist mindset. Malcolm made pilgrimages to Mecca and also travelled across the globe to study the state of black cultures in other countries.
Despite the differences in the approach towards the rights of African Americans and how they should be attained, both leaders met a similar end – death by assassination. On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated amidst nationwide riots by blacks at the height of the civil rights movement. His famous ‘I have been to the mountain top’ speech even predicted his death a day before the assassination. It is often said that, what MLK could not have achieved in his life, was achieved by the tumultuous emotions stirred in the African American and even white community by his death.
Malcolm X too was assassinated, albeit by members of his own organization, the Black Muslims. It is believed that his assassination was part of a major conspiracy against the black Muslim movement and as a direct result of his breaking away from Elijah Mohammed. Malcolm X’s death too sent shockwaves across America and it too contributed towards the speeding up of the civil rights movement. The assassination of both leaders acted as a catalyst to the attainment of right for African Americans, a dream that both men harbored.
In conclusion, it can be said that the childhood experiences of martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shaped their beliefs and approaches towards the concept of equality of races. While MLK followed a completely non-violent approach, resorting to passive protesting and public speaking to drive his fight against racism, Malcolm X believed that the rights of African Americans should be attained at any and all costs. While both men were assassinated to prevent them from taking the civil rights movement further, it only served to achieve the very purpose for which both had fought, i.e. the rights and equality of African Americans and the end of apartheid. Both men had a tremendous influence on the African American community, not only during the civil war but in the long term as well. Their legacy has left a mark so deep in the community’s DNA that its effect can be felt even today.
Howard-Pitney, David. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s: A Brief History with Documents. St. Martin's: Bedford, 2004.
Long, Richard A. Black America. New York: Chartwell Books Inc., 1986.