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Martin Luther King Jr. And Malcolm X:
Comparing their Messages
Martin Luther King Jr. And Malcolm X are two of the most famous Black American leaders who influenced the African-American's struggle for emancipation during their lifetimes and left legacies that have proved to be even more influential after their premature deaths. Both leaders were contemporaries with similar goals but with widely different personalities and equally contrasting strategies for achieving them. Both men were fiery orators who moved all those who heard them. The message of Malcolm and King has been discussed and debated long after the assassins' bullets silenced the two great men in the turbulent decade of the 60s. This paper is a comparison of the messages of the two black leaders.
The Pacifist and the Radical
Martin Luther King Jr. was essentially a man of peace, a passionate believer in non-violence and the Gandhian doctrine of non-violent struggle (Satyagraha). He believed that under their skins the black and white people were the same and struggled all his life to remove the barriers of segregation created by men of bigotry and racial hatred. Malcolm 'X' on the other hand was the quintessential radical, the Black Nationalist who did not believe that the white man would ever be persuaded to voluntarily allow an equal status to the black man. He did not desire de-segregation and taught his people a lesson of fierce pride in their own race, to develop their own selves instead of looking towards the white society for re-conciliation. He was, however, a man who went through many different phases in his life and towards the last years of his life toned down his message of violent confrontation with the white men. Reflecting this contrasting message of the two great men, Mr. Jerry Large, a journalist, and a fellow black man makes a very pertinent observation:
Martin Luther King Jr. And Malcolm X perch on my shoulders. Martin leans in and tells me we are all the same under the skin. We are bound to love one another by and by. Malcolm shakes his head. He sighs. Indeed, we may be all the same under the skin, he says. We are all motivated by perceived self-interest. Their self-interest is not our self-interest. Never has been. Never will be.
Early Lives and Influence
There is no doubt that our early lives and influences have a major impact on our later intellectual development. As would be expected, the early lives of Martin Luther King Jr. And Malcolm X were vastly different although were born into religious families. King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia (1929) and was the eldest son of a Baptist Minister who served as pastor of a large Atlanta church. He was himself ordained as a Baptist minister at the early age of 18. (Norrell) Malcolm was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska (1925) and his father -- Earl Little -- was a Baptist preacher. While King Jr. studied in segregated schools where he excelled in studies, graduating with a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1948, and earning a doctoral degree in theology in 1955, Malcolm's early life was vastly different. His father was greatly influenced by the "Back to Africa" movement of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and vehemently preached social and economic independence for blacks. Earl Little was murdered in 1931 and is believed to have been killed by white terrorists due to his radical political beliefs. (Finkelman) The murder also devastated the lives of Malcolm and the family; his mother had a nervous breakdown and Malcolm lived through foster home to reform school to Harlem and a life of crime becoming known as 'Detroit Red' in the shadowy underworld. By the time he turned 20 Malcolm was serving a 10-year prison sentence for armed robbery. (Ibid.)
In the meantime, King was absorbing the influence of Christian theology on the struggle of oppressed people and became deeply interested in the non-violent teachings of the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi about political struggle. In 1954 King became pastor of a Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama whose previous minister was already leading protests against segregation and King followed suit. (Norrell)
We have already noted that Malcolm had lived his life in distinct phases -- an important phase of his life started while he was in prison. He came in contact with the Nation of Islam and the teachings of its leader Elijah Muhammad who advocated an amalgam of traditional Islamic religion mixed with the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey and economic self-help programs for blacks living in urban ghettos. More importantly, Elijah and his followers, the Black Muslims, advocated a reverse racist philosophy that dubbed the white people as a race descended from the devil and blacks as children of God. The Nation of Islam also predicted an oncoming war in which the white people would be destroyed and the black people would rule the world. (Finkelman) Malcolm adopted the new religion and on his release from prison took the name of Malcolm 'X' (the Black Muslims dropped their second names -- calling them 'slave' names). Malcolm 'X' due to his impressive oratory and whole-hearted enthusiasm for the cause of improving the lives of ghetto blacks became a leading minister and spokesperson of the Nation of Islam.
The Contrasting Messages
During the decade between the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties Martin Luther King Jr. And Malcolm 'X' delivered widely contrasting messages on the theme of black emancipation. King was ceaselessly endeavoring as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement to integrate the blacks into the mainstream of American life by removing the barriers of desegregation. Malcolm was doing exactly the opposite. He believed that the Judeo-Christian religious traditions, on which Western culture is based, were inherently racist. He held the Christian church responsible for slavery of the Afro-Americans due to its role in abetting and tolerating the inhumane institution. He also disagreed with "turning the right cheek" philosophy of Christianity and found in Islam a religion more in keeping with his aggressively proud nature. He expressed this once by stating:
There is nothing in our book, the Koran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That's a good religion. ("Malcolm Quotations")
Martin Luther King's message was much more conservative. It was based on appealing persistently to the 'Christian brotherhood' and 'American idealism' followed by legal action and non-violent demonstrations, protest marches, and boycotts. The tactics were modeled on Gandhi's 'Satyagrah' practices that he employed in India's struggle for independence from the colonial British. The success of these tactics relied on over-reaction by the white administration that would expose the obvious injustice of the situation. King also appealed for the support and sympathy of the 'liberal' and northern white population and there were many white people who participated in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s. Several older Jewish radical activists such as Stanley Levison provided King with funds and advice on strategy. He also had the close co-operation and support of a number of white Protestant ministers. King genuinely believed in the ideals of civil rights and the right of a people to resist unjust laws just as was asserted by the founding fathers of USA in the 'Declaration of Independence.' He expressed these sentiments in his moving "I Have a Dream" speech in the famous March 1963 Civil Rights march in Washington D.C. By asserting, "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."
Malcolm 'X' was not impressed and quipped "While King was having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare." (Quoted by Finkelman)
He also declared that nonviolence was the "philosophy of the fool." (Ibid.) Malcolm was looking for a deeper respect for the black folks as human beings rather than just winning 'civil rights' in the eyes of law. Writing in n Egyptian newspaper in 1964 he asserted, "We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognized as citizens there until we are first recognized as humans." Despite Malcolm X's negative views on the Civil Rights Movement it did succeed in building the political momentum culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation in public accommodations, as well as discrimination in education and employment. It is, however, true to an extent that Martin Luther's role as the leader of the blacks diminished after 1964 when it gradually passed into the hands of the Black Power movement that followed Malcolm X's uncompromising call for a 'black revolution.' Ironically, Malcolm himself underwent another transformation in his beliefs after a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 and his split with the Black Muslims. Thereafter, he denounced the…[continue]
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