Both Martin Luther King Jnr. and Malcolm X were active forerunners of one of the most significant movements in the history of America, famously known as the African American Civil Rights Movement. They were influential figures in the Civil Rights era which reached its apex during the 1960s. Their powerful voices appealed to African Americans who had been disenfranchised and unabatedly treated as second class citizens across the entire nation. Individually, each had a different approach to the quest for racial equality. Martin Luther King, Jnr. preached the philosophy of “love thy enemy” which had been imposed on him earlier on by his role model Mahatma Gandhi and believed equality could be achieved through peaceful, non-violence means. In contrast to King’s non-violent approach, Malcolm X did not ascribe to such idealism but believed racial equality and justice could only be achieved through force and violence. In this essay, I will compare and contrast King’s idealistic approach to Malcolm X’s radical extremism to show how their views paved the way for equality and social justice.
Many scholars have sought to determine who between King and Malcolm X was responsible for a more significant change in the civil rights movement. The question can only be answered through an evaluation of each man’s views and how coherent each was in agitating for social justice. Many consider Martin Luther King Jnr. as the more influential force behind the movement mainly because it was King who promoted the inclusion of other sympathetic races, including White Americans to the Civil Rights movement, thereby broadening the base of support for their cause. Those who ascribe to this school of thought perceive Malcolm X as a man who believed in black separation as the first step followed by black pride and then equality “by any means necessary”. He is believed to be a man who saw the Civil Rights Movement as an available prospect for revolution in which violence and hating the enemy were the only means of achieving their objective. To better understand the views held by each of the two African American Civil Rights leaders, it is imperative to delve into their origins to determine how their lives shaped their philosophies in the struggle for equality and recognition of African Americans as genuine citizens of the United States of America.
Martin Luther King Jnr. was born in 1929 as a middle child to Reverend Martin Luther King Snr. And Alberta Williams King. He grew up in Atlanta and attended Booker T. Washington High School and later Morehouse College aged fifteen without even graduating from High School due to his high intellectual abilities. He graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951 and later married Coretta Scott in 1953. Throughout his entire academic life, King was a known skeptic of many Christianity claims among them the bodily resurrection of Christ.
In his adult life, Martin Luther King Jnr. was professionally a clergyman who later became an activist and a prominent leader of the Civil Rights movement. As a minister in the Baptist Church, King’s early activism laid the foundation for his future leadership roles that included the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, founding of the 1957 Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the March on Washington in 1963 where he gave a speech that would later be famously remembered as the “I Have a Dream” address. In this speech, he not only established himself as a great orator but more importantly expressed his vision of an American society where a person would not be judged by the colour of his or her skin. King became the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his efforts in ending racial segregation and discrimination by non-violent means. Before his assassination on 4th April 1968 at Memphis, King was working on poverty eradication and ending the war in Vietnam. Besides the Nobel Peace Prize, King also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1977 and 2004 respectively.
Malcolm X, on the other hand, was an African American Muslim minister who doubled up as a public speaker and a human rights activist. His followers saw him as a brave advocate for African Americans’ rights and as a man who spoke strongly against crimes perpetrated against black Americans by the White American society. His opponents and detractors perceived him as a preacher of racism and black supremacy through violence. He, however, remains one of the most influential figures in African American history.
Born in 1925 as Malcolm Little, he was the fourth child of Earl Little and Louise Norton. His father is significantly remembered as an outspoken speaker in the Baptist church, a Universal Negro Improvement Association leader, and a strong supporter of Marcus Garvey. He was a significant influence on Malcolm’s development of black pride values and self-reliance. His early life was characterized by victimization by Ku Klux Klan who lynched one of his brothers and killed two others. After further threats by the Klan, Earl Little’s family had to repeatedly relocate to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and after that Lansing, Michigan. His mother’s Scottish ancestry which gave him a light-skinned complexion was one of the most hateful aspects he saw in himself so much that he was known to repeatedly observe that he “hated every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me.” Despite being a good student in junior high school, Malcolm X dropped out at eighth grade when one of his teachers told him that his ambitions of becoming a lawyer bore “no realistic goals for (an African American)” in a derogatory reference. He later in life remembered the incidence and stated that it made him feel like a career-oriented black man had no place in a white man’s world.
Malcolm X is described as having primarily been influenced by his father’s lessons in black pride and self-reliance as well as his own experiences in adult life. His early life was characterized by significant loses, including his father’s death when he was only thirteen years old and his mother’s admission in a mental hospital. He spent his youthful years in a series of foster homes after which he became involved in criminal activities that culminated in an eight to ten years prison sentence. Prison life was significantly influential to Malcolm X’s life because it is while he was serving his conviction that he converted to Islam, became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and joined the Nation of Islam. He became the organization’s outspoken leaders after his parole. He quit the Nation of Islam after leadership wrangles with Elijah Mohammed, another influential figure among the African Americans, and became a Sunni Muslim.
Before his assassination in New York by members of his group, Malcolm X had founded a religious organization called Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Pan-Africanist Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm X was a renowned agitator and a propagandist. He utilized his exceptional oratory skills in public speaking to influence the emancipation of African Americans to rise against racial discrimination prejudice. Today there are over fifty of his published lectures and interviews being used as scholarly academic materials. His image is highly regarded in the popular culture of rap music, and an abbreviation of his name to a single “X” is found on caps, T-shirts, and buttons. His popularity gives credence to the fact that his views can not be simply be passed off as radical extremism but as a diversity that has grown to be universally recognized.
Martin Luther King, Jnr. Agitation for a peaceful resolution to the problem of racial inequality through non-violent means like civil disobedience can be attributed to the influence of his mentors. One of the people who significantly influenced King was his father’s former classmate at Morehouse College, Howard Thurman. Thurman was a theologian civil rights leader and an educator who mentored King among other youths. He had met and conferred with Mahatma Gandhi during his missionary work. The lessons he learned from Gandhi had a significant influence on his students among them, Martin Luther King Jnr. After visiting Gandhi’s birthplace in India, King was so inspired by the legendary Indian’s success through non-violence activism that he later observed in a radio address: “Since being in India, I am more persuaded than ever that the nonviolent form of resistance is the most effective tool available to the oppressed people in their fight for justice and humanity dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life those fundamental values inherent in the universe’s moral framework, and these concepts are just as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”
Unlike Malcolm X who agitated for recognition of African American rights through all means including violence, King’s views were primarily expressed in his numerous sermons and speeches which called for active participation of all Americans of all races to fight against racial injustices and equality. His travels across the entire country brought him face to face with the harsh reality of racism. He realized that it was not only the African Americans who were affected by racism, but poor people of all races had been left out in the country’s socio-economic development. He spoke on behalf of all people who were the victim of all forms of discrimination as he stated in his “I Have A Dream” speech which called for freedom to all citizens. He believed the country could only prosper when all people joined together, leaving no group behind to suffer oppression. His crusade for justice was driven by passionate statements like in a sermon where he stated:
“All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that we’re somehow caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of fate. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I will never be what I should be for some unknown reason unless you are what you should be. You will never be what you should be until I am what I should be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” 
Another famous example of his non-violent approach to the race issue is the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. The boycott was caused by the refusal of a pregnant fifteen-year-old girl to give up her bus seat to a white man according to Jim Crow rules which led to another arrest of an African American woman Rosa Parks for the same offense. The arrest led to a boycott of all the Montgomery buses company organized by King for 385 days during which his house was bombed. He was later arrested, but the boycott brought an end to racial discrimination in all the Montgomery buses.
King’s activism methods in which he expressed his views also included the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which aimed at harnessing the power of all black churches in organizing non-violent protests for civil rights reforms. His literary works, including the 1959 Measure of A Man were a reflection of Gandhi’s non-violent techniques. He believed that the use of non-violent means in protesting against a racist issue like the southern segregation laws referred to as Jim Crow laws would result in extensive media coverage of the African Americans’ struggle for equality and the right to vote. He organized marches and speeches which were successful in the passing into the United States Law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Similar to King, Malcolm X used religion to launch his civil rights campaign. Most of his teachings were expressed through the Nation of Islam. His views were concerned mainly with promoting self-reliance and respect for African Americans. However, the national media focused on the controversial aspects of his campaign, which tainted his widespread appeal. In some sections of the press, he was quoted as making outrageous claims like black people being the original inhabitants of Earth or that the White people were blue-eyed devils. In reality, he was opposed to the non-violence policy in the civil rights movement and agitated for the creation of a separate nation for African Americans. He preached on self-defense by any means the people would find necessary. Malcolm’s violent response can nevertheless be justified by the fact that he spoke to the black community in the south where life was characterized by police using water horses and dogs against protest marchers. This is why he spoke on African Americans defending themselves against violence perpetrated on them by the white American society. However, his call for the creation of a separate Black nation was unworkable. Notably, many African Americans from the Northern and Western States were more in support of Malcolm’s approach than that of the mainstream civil rights movement. They believed that by giving an active expression to their problems and frustration, Malcolm X “made clear the price that white America would have to pay if it did not accede to black America’s legitimate demands.”
In conclusion, both men will forever be remembered for their Black Nationalism spirit that fought for equal rights and justice against white supremacy. However, Malcolm X’s approach to resolving the racial injustice issue, though it was meant for good intentions, often caused ripples between different groups of African Americans. Martin Luther King, Jnr. believed that responding to violence with violence was detrimental to the process of implementing change. He knew that change could only be achieved by uniting all Americans under one accord not by dividing the nation. In Martin Luther’s dream, both White and Black Americans were one people.
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- X, Malcolm, Alex Haley, and Paul Gilroy. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. London: Penguin, 2001.
-  Placido P. D’Souza, “Commemorating Martin Luther King Jnr.” SFGate.com (2003), https://articles.sfgate.com/2003-01-20/opinion/17474454_1_nonviolence-philosophy-king (accessed March 22, 2011).
-  Gary Jeffrey and Christopher Forsey, “The Life of a Civil Rights Leader” (New York: Rosen, 2007).
-  Lewis Baldwin and Amiri Al-Hadid Yasin, Between Cross and Crescent: Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Malcolm and Martin (Gainsville, Fla: University Press of Florida, 1990).
-  Bruce Perry, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill, 1991).
-  Perry, 3.
-  Koffi Natambu, The Life and Work of Malcolm X (Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2002).
-  Ali Khan, “Lessons from Malcolm X: Freedom by Any Means Necessary” Howard Law Journal (1994), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=938821 (accessed March 22, 2011).
-  Malcolm X, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (London: Penguin, 2001)
-  Martin Luther King Jnr. and Carson
- Clayborne, The papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Los Angels, CA: University of California, 1992), 135.
-  Mervyn A. Warren and Gardner Taylor, King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr Martin Luther King JR. (New York, NY: InterVarsity Press, 2008)174.
-  Gerhard Brendler, Martin Luther: Theology and Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)
-  Natambu, 30-31.
-  Perry, 380.