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The Idea of America: A Comparison of Martin Luther King Jr’s Beliefs With Malcolm X’s During the Civil Rights Movement

By Rakshan Kalmady

Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X shaped the Civil Rights movement in America as they fought for the same cause of equality and justice for African Americans. However, there was a world of difference in what they believed in, their idea of liberation of African Americans, and most importantly how they wanted to achieve it. The two met only once in their lifetime, outside the U.S Senate in March 1964 for a minute, haunting everyone to imagine what would have been. 

When we talk about the liberation of African Americans and securing equal rights for them, the two most prominent names that come up are Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. People around the world are familiar with their names and in most cases, their names are brought up in the same sentence when one talks about the Civil Rights Movement in America.

More than fifty years after their death, there remains a lot of ambiguity in the understanding of their lives and the legacy that they have left behind, with advocates of different positions trying to sell their versions to uphold their beliefs. It is important to understand that even though both of them fought for the same cause of equality and justice for the African-American community in the United States, there is a world of difference between the two in terms of what they believed in, their idea of liberation of African Americans, and most importantly how they wanted to achieve it. They were seen as adversaries in the black freedom struggle. 

It is worth noting that after Malcolm X’s trip to Mecca and Africa, he came back to America with a whole new perspective, which was quite similar to that of Martin Luther King. King too was evolving, and became more militant in his views on economic justice for black people and was critically vocal about his views on the Vietnam War. His speech in 1967, ‘The Other America’, resonated more with the radical progressives as he called out the inaction and the indifference of moderates.  As in the words of James Baldwin, “By the time each met his death, there was practically no difference between them”. The coming together of their ideologies came too late and close to their assassinations, before which the two leaders hardly ever met. They did not see eye to eye over their differing ideologies, both of which were in some ways contradictory to one another.

Martin Luther King Jr is the biggest name in the West as a strong advocate of non-violent movements in the world that inspired future political and non-violent activists. He was a political thinker whose work influenced generations, especially his struggle against segregation and inequalities in the United States. It was his successful methods in his fight against these struggles and in bringing the nation together to fight racism and poverty that has made him a household name. King integrated concepts of solidarity, empathy, and affection for the radical transformation of human connectedness and self-organization of the society. He believed that humans have inherited a large house, a ‘World House’ as he called it, where humans have to live together, be it Black and White, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu. He preached that “we are a family unduly separated in ideas, cultures, and interests, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”

He embraced the idea of the brotherhood of mankind against the rising inequality and the indifferent attitude of people, especially towards things like slavery and racism. In other words, to bridge this particular gap and restore the broken community, he believed that we need to replace the love of power with the power of love.

On the other hand, Malcolm X was a nationalist and militant who believed in the liberation of African Americans through any means necessary. His work and life are lesser known as compared to Martin Luther King’s, owing to the contrast in their beliefs. Malcolm was known to constantly mock King’s approach to African American Liberation, especially when it came to things like love and hate, separatism and integration, violence, and non-violence. 

Malcolm even looked down at King’s most defining moment at the Lincoln Memorial where he gave his famed speech ‘I Have a Dream’ and called it a circus to please the ‘white devils.’ He believed that King’s preaching of love and integration played right into the hands of white oppressors and denounced him constantly, even calling him a 20th century religious Uncle Tom.  He said that “King was doing the same thing to keep African Americans defenceless in the face of the attack that Uncle Tom did on the plantation to keep those Negroes defenceless in the face of the attack of the Klan on that day.”

Malcolm was closely associated with Elijah Mohammad’s Black Muslim’s Nation of Islam, which had given thousands of black people new confidence in their potential to be creative and productive but also led the path that white people were incorrigible devils.

Malcolm’s ideology was that there was no place for any person of colour in America. In his speech, ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’, he talks about how the way forward was to get out in any way, possibly to Asia or Africa, or as the white called it—the ‘third world country.’ The people had to be freed of their colonial thinking and empowered to lead the fight against their oppressors. He believed that by integrating with them and getting out of the American Framework, they would have the fraternity of the Third world.

Our African brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Asian brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Latin American brothers can throw their weight on our side.”  

This was contrastingly different to King’s idea of the American Dream and social integration. What this did was not only prevent the two leaders from becoming closely connected in association or friendship but also shaped the way they viewed each other.

Even though they knew of each other, there is only one documentation of them having ever met. The only time they met was in 1964 when they showed unity on various issues faced by the blacks in America and pledged to put pressure on Congress into passing the Civil Rights Legislation.

King and his associates chose to keep their distance from Malcolm and Black Muslims, even though Malcolm had made many attempts to put their differences aside, keep an open mind and fight the white oppression together.  Malcolm believed that King deliberately avoided him so that he wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of his white and liberal friends. 

Such comments hurt Martin Luther King Jr and he had addressed it in several speeches.  When asked about it, he acknowledged that Malcolm was a brilliant man who had the power of persuasion and superior debate that can sway people to his side. He even elaborated upon how popular he was in Harlem as they resonated with him, but they differed majorly on an ideological level, where he saidI disagree with many of his political and philosophical views – at least insofar as I understand where he now stands. I don’t want to seem to sound self-righteous, or absolutist, or that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answers. I don’t know how he feels now, but I know that I have often wished that he would talk less of violence because violence is not going to solve our problem.

It was only in 1960 that King made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with Malcolm X and his organization, which created an image that they were bitter enemies.

This shows that there was mutual respect between the two but they just could not work together because how they wanted to achieve their common goals was strikingly different. This continued even after Malcolm visited Mecca and Africa where he came back as El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz and changed perspective on race especially integration with Whites which made him re-evaluate his thinking on hatred and non-violence, and in some ways was closely aligned with King’s idea of fighting oppression. 

However, Malcolm X was brutally assassinated shortly after this visit, which deeply hurt Martin Luther King. In his letter to Malcolm’s wife, King talked about how saddened he was by his shocking and tragic assassination. He mentioned that while they didn’t look eye to eye in their methods, he had a deep affection for Malcolm and called him an eloquent spokesman.

It would be fair to say that Martin Luther King had a bigger impact on American Society as he had this vision which he achieved through his nonviolent movement to redefine American Democracy. He did this by reinventing the term “The American Dream”. He believed that the way to achieve this dream is by rejecting all the social, cultural, and economic evils and integrating the best of the American Dream like justice, morality, equal opportunity, and solidarity, to create a self-reliant and inclusive America. America for him represented this land of freedom for everyone, built on the foundations of the idea of a generous and hospitable place open for all. A place to fulfil everyone’s dream. 

He derives the meaning of the expression from the Declaration of Independence, the constitution, and the biblical tradition of the Old and New Testaments, as interpreted by Protestant liberalism and the black church. He, therefore, urges the Americans, and the black community, in particular, to have a better understanding of American Democracy as a dream.

He did know its limitations, which meant that even if he wanted it enacted immediately, this would have to be a slow, inclusive and creative process. It also meant that the American Dream had multiple meanings depending on where you come from. For some, it might mean a good life, to others world domination. The awareness about the limitation of the phrase comes from understanding Malcolm X, his upbringing, the surroundings that he lived in and how it shaped his personality before he visited Mecca.

He also publicly went on to acknowledge this after Malcolm’s death and said: “Malcolm X was a product of the hate and violence invested in the Black’s blighted existence in this nation. He, like so many of our number, was a victim of the despair that inevitably derives from the conditions of oppression, poverty, and injustice which engulf the masses of our race. But in his youth, there was no hope, no preaching, teaching, or movements of nonviolence. He was too young for the Garvey movement, too poor to be a Communist- for the Communists geared their work to the Black intellectuals and labour without realizing that the masses of Black were unrelated to either and yet he possessed a native intelligence and drive which demanded an outlet and means of expression” 

It was obvious that the two leaders come from very different schools of thought, but despite that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King needed each other, and in some ways even helped each other shape their personalities and what role they play in the African American Freedom Struggle. Unfortunately, they never had the chance to acknowledge how much they owed each other in this life. 

Rakshan S Kalmady, 2nd Year MA in Public Policy Student at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.

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Image credits – The Library of Congress.

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