All of the page numbers are from Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and The Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950's and 1960's: a Brief History with Documents by David Howard-Pitney.
This was written for my US History Class in response to the question of: Americans have tended to overstate the differences between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Do you disagree of agree with this assessment?
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were often called opponents in the fight for Civil Rights. Today most Americans would say that's true; Martin Luther King Jr. was a firm believer in non violent direct action, while Malcolm X felt that the only way to restore black power was through violence. This extreme difference between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, at the start of their careers as Civil Rights leaders has imprinted itself on Americans' memory, and the changes toward the end of their careers and common ground found between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X could not be seen as both men were tragically assassinated before the media could seen the extent of the changes.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s name is easily the most recognized name from the American battle for Civil Rights in the 1960's. He fought hard for black and minority rights and he fought using non violent ways. As a minister in the Baptist Church, King taught that non violence was the proper way of gaining civil rights. Born into a middle class family, King enjoyed a good education and a protected childhood. He went to Morehouse College and then to a seminary eventually receiving a PhD in philosophy. King became a minister in Montgomery Alabama in 1954, where he started his career as the prominent Civil Rights leader.
After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King went to lead the Sothern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) on 1957. His reluctance to use violence still was seen as disruptive by many who lived in the south at that time. King was arrested several times, his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail was written after an arrest during a protest in Birmingham, Alabama. Although King did have its failures, he did have successes; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed with his help. King said in his most famous speech I Have a Dream, "…. I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream that 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…." (pg. 106) King strongly felt that America could change and would change. In his later career he felt that "America was much sicker than he thought."(pg. 136) Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination sparked civil unrest and many riots in major cities along the United States.
Malcolm X, a strong persona in the Civil Rights Movement, a very different man from Martin Luther King Jr., he believed firmly that violence was the only way to solve the problems of race. Through his own ministry with the Nation of Islam (NOI), he reached out and affected many impoverished African Americans living in major cities and rural areas all along the United States. Malcolm X, born as Malcolm Little, lived on poorer areas and slums for most of his childhood. X committed several petty crimes and ended arrested for a burglary ring in 1946 which he received ten years in prison for. He has a limited education until he taught himself during and after prison. While in prison his brother introduced him to the Nation of Islam. Once X had been released from prison he became a minister for NOI. He quickly became the most devoted follower of the Nation of Islam and its beliefs. Malcolm X had been preaching NOI's teachings for several years when a young blond woman asked him "Don't you believe there are any good white people?" He responded "People's deeds, I believe in miss – not their words." The woman then asked what she could do, to which X replied coolly "Nothing." (pg. 112)
Malcolm X's extremist ways appealed to many Blacks living in poor rural areas in the south and the Midwest, what he called the "Grass Roots". He used the media often to tell his beliefs of Black supremacy and to spread the teachings of NOI. X traveled to Mecca (performing the hajj – a trip that all followers of Islam must perform once in their lives) in 1964, doing so changed X. He saw racism could be fought and changed, while he still believed in Black Nationalism. X also admitted that some whites were not all the Devil, like he had believed earlier in his life. After leaving NOI soon after returning from Mecca, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). In February of 1965 Malcolm X was shot several times during a rally by a NOI man.
Americans today believe Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were very different when it came to their way of achieving Civil Rights for Blacks. The reason the similarities between X and King are usually ignored is because the similarities could be only seen at the end of their careers just before they had been assassinated. Malcolm X, when he converted from NOI to true Islam he discovered that racism was wrong no matter where it came from. "The true Islam has shown me that blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against all blacks."(pg. 158) This radical change for NOI zealot to a much more moderate man left Malcolm X in a difficult position. The media which had broadcast his earlier messages of hate and black nationalism now would not forget and accept the new X, and his once fellow Black militants felt he was far too moderate for them. X made several attempts to help Martin Luther King before X died. One instance even sent a message asking if King would want armed Blacks one of the marches for protection. King would deny that request in July of 1964.
Martian Luther King however began to feel discouraged by the civil rights movement by 1967, only four years later. He published his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, which showed his frustration with the lack of goodwill and willingness for change in America. "For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions…. Now I feel differently. I think you've got to go for a reconstruction of the entire society, a total revolution of values…." (Pg 136) King had by then realized that just direct action might not be enough. A reporter once called King a "non violent" Malcolm and although King disagreed the thought was still there.
American only saw and still only see want they wanted to see, Martin Luther King Jr. as a non violent demonstrator and Malcolm X as an unlawful freedom fighter. The fact that there were similarities has been lost to history. The deaths of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X soon after the change in their personal views in the way Civil Rights should be fought for, did not allow this change leave an imprint on American media and memory.