Malcolm X's contributions to the civil rights movement cannot be viewed in isolation, without taking into account his influences and contextual variables. By the time Malcolm X wrote his Autobiography, he had already developed a well-articulated and logical political philosophy. His influences as stated in his autobiography include Marcus Garvey, from where Malcolm X's father learned the ideas he passed onto his son. It was Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam that had the most formative personal influence on Malcolm X Although he does not explicitly refer to W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, or even much to his contemporary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., these thinkers did have some influence on Malcolm X because of their great influence on American culture in general. Malcolm X did develop his political and social philosophies in light of the views and methods of King, DuBois, and Washington. While all of these prominent thinkers shared in common some core goals, and hoped to see an America without racism, their approaches and methods differed significantly. Malcolm X's conversion to Islam and his generally worldly point-of-view makes him most like his predecessor W.E.B. DuBois. However, DuBois was from a relatively privileged background compared to Malcolm X Malcolm X understood, as DuBois did, the phenomenon of institutionalized racism. Both Malcolm X and DuBois were cynical about the possibility of achieving racial parity in a country that had proven itself unable to put out the flames of hatred even a hundred years after the Civil War ended. Although his views toward black nationalism softened somewhat after he broke from Elijah Muhammad's group, Malcolm X remained committed to a model in which African-Americans achieved self-empowerment and self-liberation without depending on the white dominant culture or its support systems.
A generation or two prior to Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois developed a cohesive sociology of race and class in America. Although DuBois's intellectualism was fostered in white institutions, his ideas were far more visionary than those of his contemporary, Booker T. Washington. Washington's conciliatory approach to civil rights led to what can easily be called meaningless solutions like the Atlanta Compromise, in which Washington basically agreed to accept the social hierarchies that prevented African-Americans from achieving upward social mobility, economic empowerment, and political empowerment. Whether it was because he was fed up with trying, or because he saw no other way, Washington's ways pleased and helped whites far more than blacks. Reacting against Washington, W.E.B. DuBois became an advocate of more thorough and thoughtful social change. DuBois directed his erudite education towards fruitful endeavors that exposed the close connections between race and social class in America. Booker T. Washington's model of vocational education for African-Americans perpetuated the problem of institutionalized racism; by tracking African-American students into the vocational sector, Washington was conscripting his people to be members of the underclass for generations to come.
DuBois, on the other hand, had reaped the benefits of a liberal arts education and understood that a higher education in institutions like Harvard gave one access to cultural capital as well as financial capital. Based on his understanding of sociological and political theory, DuBois proposed a more thorough overall of social and political institutions that would allow for upward social mobility. Although Malcolm X had little experience with the ivory tower, his views more closely resemble those of W.E.B. DuBois than of Booker T. Washington. Malcolm X would have found Booker T. Washington's views and methods infuriating, in fact.
Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who Malcolm X found to be more conciliatory towards whites than was necessary, would have agreed that Booker T. Washington's approach did not go far enough in addressing the root causes of racism. However, both Malcolm X and Dr. King came of age in a different era than DuBois and Washington. DuBois and Washington came of age in during Reconstruction. DuBois recognized that Reconstruction was a farce; Washington accepted things as they were. By the time Martin Luther King, Jr. And Malcolm X came of age, it was obvious that Reconstruction had failed and that more needed to be done to achieve civil rights.
Whereas Dr. Martin Luther King believed in the potential for integration and reconciliation, Malcolm X had largely traded in that dream for a more radical vision of the future. Just as W.E.B. DuBois advocated for Pan-Africanism in a postcolonial world, Malcolm X advocated for pan-African-Americanism in a post-Reconstruction, post-Jim Crow world. Self-determination was the cornerstone of both the philosophies of W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X
Malcolm X remained keenly aware of institutionalized racism, even if he did not frame that awareness in scholarly terms as DuBois did. One of the arenas that Malcolm notices institutionalized racism is education. Malcolm X frequently mentions the skewed version of history that the white dominant society uses as a form of propaganda that perpetuates racism. For example, in Chapter 13 of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the author writes, "It's unbelievable how many black men and women have let the white man fool them into holding an almost romantic idea of what slave days were like." The chapter on African-American history is sidelined, and segregated. Just as public space is segregated, so too is intellectual and cultural space.
Malcolm X did not totally shun white institutions. He understood the need to capitalize on those institutions when it would promote the values of civil rights. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X understood the importance of using the system to make genuine social, economic, and political gains. Thus, when Malcolm X is approached by the Mike Wallace show to make a documentary about the Nation of Islam, he willingly accedes with the approval of Ellijah Muhammad. "On the wire of our relatively small Nation, these two big developments -- a television show, and a book about us -- naturally were big news," Malcolm X notes in Chapter 14 of The Autobiography. As if in a self-fulfilling prophesy, Malcolm X then goes on to describe budding awareness that the tools of the white media would be a "two-edged sword" when he writes, "through the white man's powerful communications media, our brainwashed black brothers and sisters across the United States, and devils, too, were going to see, hear, and read Mr. Muhammad's teachings which cut back and forth like a two-edged sword," (Chapter 14). When the television documentary aired, the producers opted to use a title that had the word "hate" in it twice, thereby denigrating the Nation of Islam as a hate organization. A firestorm erupted, in which the media fomented negative reactions against the Nation of Islam. Nation of Islam happened to use rhetoric that in no uncertain terms lambasted the white dominant culture, using words like "devils." Yet as Malcolm X points out, the dominant culture cannot stand it when its faults are brought its attention. "Here was one of the white man's most characteristic behavior patterns -- where black men are concerned. He loves himself so much that he is startled if he discovers that his victims don't share his vainglorious self-opinion," (Chapter 14). The white establishment expects "Yes, Massah," and doesn't like to hear anything else.
Moreover, the documentary illuminated the ways the media placed a wedge between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And Malcolm X Malcolm X is too dignified to mention Dr. Martin Luther King by name but he does state, "I'm not going to call any names. But if you make a list of the biggest Negro "leaders," so-called, in 1960, then you've named the ones who began to attack us "field" Negroes who were sounding insane, talking that way about "good massa." Here, Malcolm X reveals his in depth awareness of the structure of racism, and how it has become embedded in every social institution including the media. Dr. King's conciliatory approach might not have been as severe an "Uncle Tomism" as Booker T. Washington, but in this case, it came close. By disavowing the relevance of the Nation of Islam in promoting self-empowerment and the construction of a social identity that was neither subordinate to, nor dependent on, the mainstream civil rights activists were playing right into the white establishment's calls for peace on their terms. Yet even Dr. Martin Luther King understood that their terms were not good enough. In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King addresses those who asked the peaceful protesters to be patient and "wait" for equality. Ironically King writes in complete agreement with Malcolm X, when he states, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
Malcolm X's goals and Martin Luther King's goals were essentially the same, and even their methods do not appear appreciably different until it becomes apparent that Martin Luther King was a true idealist and Malcolm X was a realist. Just as DuBois finally understood that institutionalized racism had possibly poisoned American culture beyond repair, Malcolm X also knew that full integration was not yet possible. Dr. Martin Luther King,…