Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's is a prime example of a movement containing both utopian and practical elements. To the outside observer, the passive resistance of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s rousing "I Have a Dream Speech," seems hopeful and utopian. In contrast, the gritty determination of Malcolm X and the Black Muslims, who sought equal rights, but not integration, seems the more practical approach. However, both extremes of the Civil Rights Movement contained both practical and utopian elements. The outcome of the Civil Rights Movement was to accomplish most of the practical goals of both extremes and even some of the ideals. However, almost 40 years after the assassinations of both Dr. King and Malcolm X, the remnants of both extremes, as well as the rest of Americans, are still trying to decide which version of utopia to support.
Most Americans have at least a passing familiarity with the civil disobedience espoused by Dr. King and those working with him in the Civil Rights Movement. People are less familiar with the more radical elements of the struggle for civil rights. Furthermore, it is impossible to understand the radical ideology espoused by Malcolm X and his peers without looking at the historical context of black radical ideology.
Although the self-determination debates had begun among black leaders in the early 20th century, they exploded in the 1960s. According to some, struggles over colonialism in the third- world was as much of a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s as events in American history ("Study Guide"). Whatever the catalyst, in the 1960's Malcolm X reached his height of power. As the leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X sought an end to the Euro centrism that he believed was responsible for the oppression of people of color, from slave days until his time. As the leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was not seeking equality; he sought nothing less than the downfall of America as a respected nation. In his own words, Malcolm X believed that his generation would see:
How the enslavement of millions of Black people in this country is now bringing white America to her hour of judgment, to her downfall as a respected nation. And even those Americans who are blinded by childlike patriotism can see that it is only a matter of time before white America too will be utterly destroyed by her own sins, and all traces of her former glory will be removed from this planet forever (Goodman, 121-122).
Malcolm X clearly anticipated a clash, probably violent, between black people and white Americans. In fact, Malcolm X viewed the civil rights struggle in the United States as a small part of a global struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors.
The Utopia sought by radical black ideologists was not an America where blacks had the same rights as whites, but no America. Furthermore, to Malcolm X, when he was the leader of the Nation of Islam, all white men were enemies, without exception. The white man was the common oppressor, exploiter, and discriminator against black people (Malcolm X Speaks, 4). While Malcolm X believed that violence might be a necessary part of the struggle for civil rights, his real message was political, he believed that "the political philosophy of Black nationalism means that the Black man should control the politics and the politicians in his own community," (Malcolm X Speaks, 38). However, Malcolm X stressed that it the choice available to blacks was "the ballot or the bullet" (Malcolm X Speaks, 41). Although gritty, those views were as Utopian as ideas of passive resistance. It was unrealistic for radical black ideologists to believe that the majority of black Americans were in a position to resort to violence if they were not given immediate factual equality. The reality was that black Americans, no matter how dissatisfied with the political climate of the 1960s had families to support, children to protect, spouses, parents, and siblings to consider. The black radicals wanted black people to put aside those more personal concerns for the more global ideas. However, for a father looking at his children, few things are more important than being alive to see those children grow. A widespread revolt by blacks simply was not practical.
However, members of the Nation of Islam and other black radicals also had a practical approach to civil rights. Espousing violence to attain civil rights contained an implicit acknowledgment that black people seeking their civil rights would be subjected to a severe threat of violence. Furthermore, Malcolm X targeted blacks in the lower classes, recognizing that blacks in the middle class would not be as receptive to his message. While King and other leaders that espoused civil disobedience targeted blacks in the middle-class, or at least with middle-class values, the black radicals targeted black men in prison. They acknowledged the reality that years of oppression combined with economic disadvantage did have debilitating effects on culture and made blacks more likely to be convicted of crimes. The practical parts of the black radical movement came to light when inner-city blacks rose up in violence in ghetto riots, beginning with the riots in Watts. The Watts riot, in its boldly aggressive display of mass-black violence, demonstrated to white America that years of oppression had blacks, as a community, simmering and seething with resentment. The Watts riot demonstrated that not all blacks were like those shown on television, submitting passively as police turned fire hoses and dogs on them just because they were attempting to exercise their civil rights. However, the Watts riot also highlighted that violence, on its own, was not going to be enough to end oppression.
In contrast to the Utopia envisioned by Malcolm X, which involved the downfall of America, Dr. King's version of Utopia involved an entirely different vision of America. Dr. King's vision was a vision of a traditional Utopia:
I have a dream that one day 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." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring. When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet,…