Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X: Incompatible or Complementary?

Martin Luther King Jr. And Malcolm X helped shape American black and white culture today. MLK and X seemingly preach two opposing futures for black politics. Martin’s call for nonviolent resistance and Malcolm’s insistence on “any means necessary” were often juxtaposed by society. Malcolm X is often misrepresented as the `black Klu Klux Klan” of racial extremists. Others often misrepresent Martin L. K. as a “religious Uncle Tom pacifist”[1]. These are both gross caricatures of both legendary men. Even decades after their deaths, Martin and Malcolm remain great American icons. However were they ideological opposites? What were the personal, social, and political factors that influenced their leaderships? Where do they differ and where do they converge? What did liberty and justice mean for both leaders? Did victory mean two different things for them? What ways do their ideas converge? What major events shaped their lives? Did their ideologies begin to converge? Church, enemies, allies, family, socioeconomic background, upbringing, faith, education, social environment, experiences with whites and blacks: these were all agents in the formation of their strong views. Through this paper, I posit that although their ideologies sometimes clashed, in the long run they were more conducive to one another than destructive.

Martin was a pastor and civil rights leader, later he became the spokesperson for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Martin was born January 15th, 1929 to Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. in Atlanta, Georgia. His love for the Christian faith was fostered in a black Baptist understanding. He was named Times “Man of the Year” in 1963 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, as well as being the only American with a national holiday in to his name. “King’s practice and thought radically transformed America’s understanding of itself and inspired liberation movement around the world.”[2] Initially, his negative experiences with racial segregation was brought on early at the age five when a white friend’s father told Martin that his son was no longer allowed to play with Martin due to his skin colour. During his childhood, much like Malcolm, he was determined to hate all whites. This attitude changed through the influence of education, positive experience with moderate whites, and most importantly with a greater understanding of religion. This, he experienced while studying at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania and at Boston University School of theology. While studying he encountered Henry David Thoreau’s “Essay on Civil Disobedience”. In graduate school, essays and books from Mahatma Ghandi greatly influenced his nonviolent tenets. Most important was his understanding of “Personalism – a philosophy that accented the infinite value of the human person.” A year prior to earning a doctoral degree, Martin became a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was here where Martin was thrown to the front of the bus boycott initiated by Rosa Parks, December 1st, 1955.[3]

He was a perpetual advocate of nonviolent resistance, starting with the triumph of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 in Alabama. Nonviolence was at the heart of his philosophy of life and proved to be an extremely effective strategy of social change. He contended that nonviolence was the most potent tool for, not only blacks, but for any oppressed people struggling for justice. Interestingly, his studies had not completely given him the nonviolent tenets. In the heat immediately following the bus boycotts he and his family were harassed by white police and supremacists, his house was bombed and received volumes of hate calls and hate mail. In order to defend himself, the Reverend bought a gun permit. Armed blacks were known to guard his home. However, his nonviolent perspective was nurtured with his devotion to the Church, backed his parents. The ceaseless threats to his life and his family’s lives were so strong that he considered leaving as the head of the bus boycott. He sought advice from his parents and the Church. King is recalled at one time saying, “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I’m afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” After much reflection, he felt a voice from within encouraging him to stand for what is right, reinvigorating his devotion to the bus boycott, and to the larger black liberation movement. After another bombing of his house, in an unmatched calmness he was inspired to say, “We can’t solve this problem through retaliatory violence… We must meet violence with nonviolence… Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you. We must love our white brothers… no matter what they do to us.” Using Christian doctrines, he sold his message by aligning their cause with a divine power; their cause was greater than the forces of white supremacy. He drew upon his collegiate studies, especially from his readings of Gandhi who used love as a political instrument of social change by administering nonviolent direct action. King used Jesus’ philosophies and Ghandi’s actions as an instrument of social change. Solidifying his nonviolent zeal, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Many blacks, like Malcolm, thought that King’s methods amounted to “doing nothing.” With fervour, King continually emphasized the active components of his nonviolent approach. The only passive dimension was the refusal to inflict physical harm unto others. To King, “nonviolence resists evil but it refuses to commit evil. Even the enemy is a person and must be treated as such. [It] does not seek to destroy the opponent but rather seeks to make the enemy a friend … Even if nonviolence fails to convert the enemy to a friend; it eliminates hate from the hearts of those who are committed to it.”[4] Violence was impractical and immoral. Blacks were a ten-percent minority in America and if a race war were to arise, blacks would be greatly outnumbered. King understood this and successfully passed his message to many ready-to-retaliate blacks.

From the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the Selma March in 1965, King’s belief in nonviolence held firm. The adherence to his philosophies proved to work in the student sit-ins in 1960, the Freedom Rides in 1961, the Birmingham demonstrations in 1963 and the March on Washington also in 1963. The effectiveness of nonviolence delegitimized any violent reproaches brought on from radical whites, further empowered by media coverage. His nonviolent approach resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill in 1965, but most importantly it sent a strong message to those uninvolved in the Civil Rights Movement: it is unjust to treat blacks as second class citizens.

A strong critic of King’s work was Malcolm X. However, after the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965 and with the rise of Black Power in 1966, many black youth activists became disillusioned with King’s nonviolent ways. Malcolm’s Black Nationalist philosophy was often the alternative to King’s nonviolent resistance. Although at odds with the manifestation of his principles, many of Martin’s critics (including Malcolm X) still admired and respected his commitment to the black cause. Despite dissonant views in the Black community, many whites praised King for his nonviolent approach – however some would reject him when he applied his views to the whole nation. Between 1966 and 1968, the dissolution of the Civil Rights Movement as a single entity weakened much of King’s progress. King’s statement that America was “the greatest purveyor of violence” greatly decreased his popularity, even garnering some resentment. King’s antiwar sentiment during the Vietnam War resulted in a loss of prestige from the public and from government officials, most notably Lyndon B. Johnson. The majority of the country dismissed King solely as a civil rights activist who should not interject in foreign affairs. As a response to the war in Vietnam, King prepared a Poor People’s Campaign to pressure the government to withdraw from Vietnam and to intensify the war on poverty. King and X were converging on a similar but by no means identical view of racial justice and economic health for blacks. This campaign aimed to achieve economic justice for black and white workers in Memphis. It was there where he was assassinated on April 4th, 1968.[5]

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little, on May 19th, 1925 to Baptist preacher Earl Little in Omaha, Nebraska. Here at this time, segregation reigned. KKK marches, lynching and deep racism were the norm. Much of Malcolm’s childhood is characterized by overt racism. His father, a Black Nationalist and fervent speaker on the inequalities of America, was murdered with Malcolm claiming that white hate groups were to blame. His family was forced to move to Lansing, Michigan under threats of the KKK. In Lansing, his home was burned down by the Black Legionnaires, a white supremacy group. The death of his father put his family in shambles. His mother was institutionalized after having a mental breakdown, and Malcolm and his siblings were placed in various foster homes. Malcolm was uprooted and placed in a white neighbourhood. He went to a white school and he says that there he learned how to blend in and be accepted by white folks. He said that at the time he felt amicable of whites and white culture. However, a white teacher told him that becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger”. Despite being at the top of his class, he dropped out of high school and moved to New York City. He found his way to Harlem and became involved in drug dealing, drug abuse, prostitution, and robberies. In 1946, at the age of twenty-one, Malcolm’s lifestyle caught up with him and he was sentence to eight to ten years of prison. In prison, Malcolm reignited his love for education. With many letters and visits, his family helped convert Malcolm to the Nation of Islam, steered by Elijah Muhammad. In prison, Elijah Muhammad fostered Malcolm’s insatiable thirst for education and his discontent with white America. Muhammad’s and the NOI’s teachings made everything black good and everything white evil; substituting white supremacy with black supremacy. While adopting the Black Nationalist philosophies, Malcolm’s understanding of it emphasized black self-respect and self-defense. He “enjoyed giving whites the same medicine the dished out to blacks.” In contrast to MLK, Malcolm viewed violent resistance as a necessary response to criminal acts. He learned these principles in his formative years, when faced with racism he would often dish it right back.[6] After his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm dropped his “slave name” and adopted the X. He began as a spokesperson for the NOI. All his reading in prison made him extremely articulate with sharp, logic-based arguments. He was an effective recruiter for the NOI, so effective that Muhammad appointed Malcolm the head of Temple Number 7 in New York. Since MLK exposed overt racism in the southern states, X sought to expose covert racism in northern states. He attacked all whites – radical, liberal, moderate – claiming all whites to be the cause of “urban black ghetto[s] where drugs, poverty, crime, unemployment, and bad housing are its defining characteristics.”[7] Malcolm X became a Muslim minister for the Nation of Islam and a Black Nationalist leader. Much of his critiques of whites were deemed disturbing by both blacks and whites. His perspective on the race issue was starkly contrasting to that of Martin’s. His radical views “exposed the racist hypocrisy of American democracy and the ethical contradiction of white Christianity.” Much of his criticism focused on the failure of white people to treat black people as equals, or even as human beings. This principle lay at the heart of all of Malcolm’s arguments. “Whites enslaved blacks for 244 years, segregated them for another 100, and lynched them all along the way whenever and wherever whites had a mind to demonstrate their absolute power over blacks. How could American whites exclude blacks and other people of color from the political process and yet say that [America] is the land of the free? How could white Christians treat blacks as brutes, and still claim love as their central religious principle?” Malcolm’s speeches were often scathing. He exposed the political and religious contradictions that white America had previously believed. Many of his criticisms were blunt and deemed offensive by most. Malcolm was a staunch critique of Martin’s nonviolent approach. He felt that it was hugely hypocritical for whites to urge blacks to be nonviolent. Whites did not apply themselves to the same moral logic that Martin cherished. Malcolm correctly delineates whites’ use of violence to gain their freedom from English Empire. Many blacks and whites incorrectly assumed that this meant that Malcolm was ready to advocate violence. Rather, he advocated self-defense. In further dissonance with MLK, he felt that if whites could defend themselves, why not blacks? He was a strong advocate of black freedom “by any means necessary”. Malcolm contended that if the government does not protect black people and that if the government does not give black people their freedom, then they are within their right to protect themselves and gain their own freedom. Malcolm was well-known to use flagrant language in his speeches. He never considered his language violent, but he wanted his words to be rousing. An example of Malcolm’s bold style of speech is when he said that “chickens were coming home to roost” of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Muhammad would later suspend Malcolm from the NOI for his words in 1963. Following his suspension and continual conflicts with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm travelled to Mecca to become a Sunni Muslim. Malcolm’s break with the Nation of Islam and his return from Mecca in 1964 saw him become a more moderate man. Malcolm’s break with the NOI allowed him to be publically political, which the teachings of the Elijah Muhammad advised strongly against. With that, he made many attempts to join forces with Martin. However Martin tried to avoid Malcolm because of his violent image. In a letter to King in 1963, Malcolm said: “A United Front involving all Negro factions, elements, and their leaders is absolutely necessary … If capitalistic Kennedy and communistic Khrushchev can find something in common on which to form a United Front despite their tremendous ideological differences, it is a disgrace for Negro leaders not to be able to submerge our “minor” differences in order to seek a common solution to a common problem posed by a Common Enemy.” Although there was no response from King; Malcolm had a trouble distancing himself from his previous racist tenets. Malcolm’s return from Mecca saw him rejecting the racist ideologies of the NOI, thereafter seeking to repair his relations with black leaders such as Martin. While sitting in jail, on Malcolm’s meeting with his wife, Coretta Scott King, Martin said, “He spoke at length to my wife Coretta about his personal struggles and expressed an interest in working more closely with the nonviolent movement”[8] … He thought he could help me more by attacking me than praising me. He thought it would make it easier for me in the long run. He said, ‘If white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.’”[9] His philosophies continued to evolve, evidenced by his speech at Barnard College, “It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of blacks against whites, or as a purely American Problem. Rather we are today seeking a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.”[10] He still firmly adhered to tenets of self-defense and his scathing critique of white America. Malcolm’s pull away from NOI caused much hardship. It is reported that they firebombed his house and were responsible for his assassination on February 21, 1965, following a rally in New York.

The destructive internal conflict that ended in X’s assassination are the same that would later disrupt Martin’s own Afro-American political ventures, furthered after his own death. Rather than aligning the commonalities of both points of views, Black people chose between the differences of Malcolm and Martin’s stances. Tragically, many of their followers did not understand as they – X and King – did, that at the end of their lives, their basic messages were compatible rather than contradictory. Both saw the rise of strong black-controlled institutions. Both King and X saw that achieving one goal could contribute to the achievement of the other. The differences between the two were not as significant as their dedication to the black cause functioned to unite them.

Martin came from an affluent family while Malcolm struggled through white school and drugs. Both became leaders in their respective religions. Malcolm, Islam and Martin, Southern Baptist. Both used Vietnam to strengthen their own causes. Both had limited involvement in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Martin: Integration and SCLC, non violent, civil rights movement. Malcolm: Black Nationalism and Nation of Islam (later Sunni Muslim), militant, black power movement. Both fought for the black struggle. Martin was popular among the less radical. Malcolm was popular with the young and radical.

Both believed there was a race war to avoid, evidenced in 1963, with MLK’s meeting with Kennedy, saying that, “if something isn’t done to give the Negro a new sense of hope and a sense of protection, there is a danger we will face the worst race riot we have ever seen in this country.”[11] This, after 4 black girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham. Both Malcolm and Martin attempt to align with young groups (SNCC). Both exhibited remarkable leadership, both under-utilized women. They shared abominable views on women. “While Martin and Malcolm challenged white values regarding race, their acceptance of black male privilege prevented them from seeing the connection between racism and sexism… They shared much of the typical American Male’s view on women.”[12] Both of their lives were cut short before their full evolution came to finish. Both felt that the other’s efforts sometimes delegitimized their own. But through greater analysis, one might see that the interplay of their differing views curiously strengthened the other’s cause.

On Malcolm’s death, King says, “He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race. While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problems, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.”[13] Martin understood that they had more in common, and were brothers, rather than enemies. At the start of Malcolm’s philosophy failed to see the “difference between nonresistance … and nonviolent resistance.” Malcolm was a product “of the despair that inevitably derives from the conditions of oppression, poverty, and injustice which engulf the masses of [blacks],” says Dr. King. He understood that in Malcolm’s youth, “there was no hope, no preaching, teaching, or movements of nonviolence … [that] a man who lived under the torment of knowledge of the rape of his grandmother and murder of his father under the conditions of the present social order, does not readily accept that social order or seek to integrate into it.” Although Dr. King says that Malcolm had a “native intelligence and drive which demanded an outlet and means of expression.” Further saying that, “Malcolm was still turning and growing at the time of his brutal and meaningless assassination.” Dr. King felt that Malcolm died at a time when he “was re-evaluating his own philosophical presuppositions and moving toward a greater understanding of the nonviolent movement and toward more tolerance of white people generally.”[14]

While Malcolm attacked King’s views and leading to egg’s being thrown at King by Black Nationalists the day after a rousing speech from Malcolm that defamed MLK, King understood that Malcolm was a victim of the broken system. X previously believed that blacks were lied to when told that blacks were inferior to whites, where X thought that whites were the ones that were inferior. He felt that this systematic withholding of truth exacerbated racism. X believed that whites were the root of the evil of racism. He says, “They are devils.” He is not talking of “an individual white man,” he is speaking of “the collective white man’s historical record… the collective white man’s cruelties, and evils, and greed, that have seen him act like a devil toward the not-white man.” However his break with the Nation of Islam caused him to retract his statement to a more moderate, “The white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly.”[15] His return from Mecca after leaving the Nation of Islam saw Malcolm become a much more moderate man.

After X’s death, King began to toy with the idea of “temporary separation”. King’s understanding that the economic health of black communities was a symptom of the larger problem and should be put as a priority. This is exhibited through his Poor People Campaign. “In forming the Poor People’s Movement right before his tragic assassination, King made clear that future struggles would have to focus on socioeconomic equality rather than political equality.”[16] Malcolm X always understood that the condition of black Americans were a nightmare of racial injustice, urban poverty, and drug addiction” all with underpinnings of negligence and hypocrisy from whites. King also came to understand that Malcolm’s emphasis on black pride would cultivate a sense of oneness within the American blacks. Martin began to understand the importance of racial pride, even if he took such pride for granted. He recognized that African Americans would never be free until they signed their own Emancipation Proclamation “with the pen and ink of assertive selfhood,”[17] and with that he touted nonviolence. However, “he knew that nonviolent struggles seeking reconciliation and redemption do not offer the same excitement and emotional satisfaction as do revenge and retaliation; yet he also understood that despite our differences, we are inextricably bound together in a network of interdependence on our increasingly endangered planet.”[18]

King was for integration, X was for separation. He advocated black survival, seeking a place free of racial violence. At certain crucial points, both men seemed to belong to a single narrative. Both had overlapping yet sometimes opposite perspectives. In the end they had more in common than differences. King and Malcolm’s popularity both sharply rose with their deaths, although King’s fell with his antiwar stance leading to his death. Their differing geography also held a huge importance in their differing stances. King in a middle class home in Atlanta, nurtured by his sense of self-worth through his parents and religion. X’s was characterized by the racial hate that killed his father. They both dabbled in the others view. Integration and nationalist agendas were not unfamiliar to either man. Faith was a great contributor to both men’s ideologies. For King, ideologies of equality in his southern Baptist upbringing characterized his perspective throughout life; liberal Protestantism, Gandhi: all in the struggle of the black experience. Malcolm’s stance is characterized by his parents’ influence in their involvement with the Black Nationalist activism, his father being the president of an Omaha branch of Black Nationalism. His childhood was subject to white violence and overt as well as covert racism. His rough time in a white high school made him drop out. He began criminal activities in Boston and Harlem. His resentful attitude of society eased his conversion into Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. He was drawn to it because it defined whites as the devil and it strongly emphasised black pride. “His experience in the ghetto taught him that the black masses could be neither integrationist nor nonviolent.” The lack of political order, moral conscience, and regard for human dignity within society made nonviolence unappealing and Malcolm thought that it was delusionary to think that integration would succeed. He felt that with nonviolence, “whites would not have to worry about a revengeful response to their brutality.”[19] For MLK, racism was a problem of many dimensions. He says that “segregation is not only politically, economically, and socially unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.” King ties racism with economics, saying that “the basis for the birth, growth, and development of slavery in America was primarily economic … [Thus] men had to convince themselves that a system which was so economically profitable was morally justifiable.”[20] From this, racism developed.

Malcolm’s vision of society was one of respect for all people, although how he believed it would manifest changed after leaving the Nation of Islam. He believed that the only way that black people could be saved was not to integrate, but to separate from white society. Malcolm also believed in racial pride. He says, “As other ethnic groups have done, let the black people wherever possible, however possible, patronize their own kind … and start to build up the black race’s ability to do for itself.” However, his ideology did not call for segregation. He advocated separation. To Malcolm, “segregation is that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors. But separation is that which is done voluntarily by two equals – for the good of both.” By the end of his life, his views were much more about equality: “I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such, I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”[21]

For Martin, a society was one that was in harmony with the “American Dream” and with the Christian Church; albeit he was still quite critical of both. He sought to better both by ending racism and incorporating integration. For Martin, “the greatest blasphemy of the whole ugly process [of racism] was that the white man ended up making God his partner in the exploitation of the Negro.” A just society for King, valued brotherhood, democracy, community, freedom and peace: integration unites these ideals since it is based on the recognition that all life is equal and interrelated. For King, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In seeking integration, a black person not only wins rights for himself but also produces substantial results for the nation.[22]

For Malcolm to achieve his goal, he wishes to harbour black economic and political solidarity and separate from the supposed evil white society. Before his trip to Mecca, many of Malcolm’s speeches and visions of a greater society involved arming black people. He had many militant undertones. But For Malcolm the actors of this vision should be black Americans, however his break with Elijah Muhammad later saw him employ some whites. Using moral and religious activity, Malcolm saw a vision of solidarity with all black people, leading them to gain self-respect through black pride, and finally ending at respect for all races.

Martin’s vision was determined to be non violent. Drawing from Gandhi, he believed that nonviolence was the greatest persuasion. King employed the tenets of nonviolence because “it does resist, it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding, the attack is directed against the forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing evil, the nonviolent resister is willing to accept violence if necessary but never to inflict it, the nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him, and it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice.”[23] King preached that violence was both impractical and immoral as a means to achieving racial justice. For him, Malcolm’s approach only asked for more violence, in a never ending one-upmanship. X’s anger over white racism was a strong counter argument to King’s integrationist philosophies. Where King’s policies previously seemed radical, X’s philosophies made King’s view seem acceptably moderate by comparison. However with his return from Mecca, X began to understand that King’s integrationist approach was much more militant that it seemed on the surface. And through Martin’s refusal to be associated with the violent principles that Malcolm’s separationist approach, Malcolm was forced to stay the route, understanding that a sharp contrast to King, white people would gladly listen to King’s demands.

Martin was born to the southern Negro middle class while Malcolm X was a product of the poor black masses. The two having vastly different social spheres. However different their approaches may be, the goal of both men was to cultivate brotherhood among blacks, and towards the end of X’s life, among all races. Both men used religion as a way to unify. For Martin, nonviolence was not only a moral principal, but a tactic. For Malcolm, he only advocated violence if it was meant for self-defense. While King wanted desegregation, X sought separation. Malcolm advocated self-affirming solidarity and self-respect for blacks. Martin later adopted this tenet. Malcolm at first exclusionary, later found place in his heart for all races, while Martin always advocated for all races being the agents for change but especially for the church and government policy. Both men agree that the institutions of religion/spirituality provide a solution to the ills of racism. Both men died before seeing their dreams come to fruition. Malcolm’s death is steeped in irony; black people that he so dearly loved, turned on him. Martin’s death is a symbol of America’s inability to tolerate black disobedience to the norm. The learning point of from both of these great men is that blacks need not choose between Martin and Malcolm, but rather acknowledge the value in both.

Martin was heralded as the nonviolent champion of change; Malcolm, as the symbol of the defiant, angry, alienated youth. Integration versus separatism, nonviolence versus armed self-defense: both of them offered partial, incomplete insights into the fundamental issues of the African American experience.[24] They agreed about the direction of the black struggle but disagreed on how change would manifest. To Martin, America embodied the American Dream based in religion and individual rights. For Malcolm, America was a nightmare rife with injustice from which black people needed to liberate themselves “by any means necessary” Although these perspectives were disparate, each of their movements were conducive to the other’s. They both fought for the same fundamental: that blacks should be treated equally. Fundamentally, their causes were similar. Towards the end of their lives, their views began to merge, however both were abruptly ended. Both made militant approaches, Martin’s being strictly nonviolent; Malcolm’s in self-defense. The biggest disparity between the two lay in the means and ends of their similar goals. Both sought to end the black struggle within America. Malcolm’s end goal was separation. Martin’s end goal was for full integration. The means to Malcolm’s goals was “by any means necessary” while Malcolm’s was strictly nonviolent. While it was not likely for the two to join to a single force against racism, at the end of their lives, they both began to understand the other’s philosophies more and perhaps its uses for their own causes. They should never be pitted against one another, but along side. In the end they shared more in common than they had differences. “Rather than symbolizing two differing positions of the black struggle, King and X represent complimentary understandings of the dilemmas facing black people. Both men understood the importance of building strong, black-controlled institutions, both realized that nonviolent tactics could be used militantly and were essential aspects of the black struggle”, both understood the importance of harboring a positive sense of a black identity. One of the biggest tragedies, besides their deaths, is the ideological warfare committed in their names.[25]

Both men have grown larger than life. Malcolm and Martin needed one another, their ideas and strategies brought them to a symbiotic movement that furthered the other’s cause. In the end, to curtail the grandeur of their legacies, we have only their words with which to understand them:

“There is a magnificent new militancy within the Negro community all across this nation. And I welcome this as a marvelous development. The Negro of America is saying he’s determined to be free and he is militant enough to stand up.” King, 1963.[26]
“Don’t let anybody frighten you. We are not afraid of what we are doing … We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity.” King, 1955[27]
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” King, 1967.[28]
“Black men have slammed the door shut on a past of deadening passivity,” King, 1968[29]
“It is a disgrace for Negro leaders not to be able to submerge our ‘minor’ differences in order to seek a common solution to a common problem posed by a common enemy.” X, 1963.[30]
“We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognized as citizens until we are first recognized as humans.” X, 1964[31]
“I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color.” X, 1965[32]

These consecutive quotes effectively show how they were always fighting against the same problems of racial injustices. Rather than juxtapositions, Malcolm and Martin should be seen as complimentary forces towards a better, stronger society. Malcolm’s quote from “The Ballot or the Bullet” sums of the sentiment of this paper, that more than differences, these men share commonalities. “Although I’m still a Muslim, I’m not here tonight to discuss my religion. I’m not here to try to change your religion. I’m not here to argue or discuss anything that we differ about, because it’s time for us to submerge our differences and realize that it is best for us to see that we have the same problem, a common problem … Whether we are Christians or Muslims or nationalists or agnostics or atheists, we must first learn to forget our differences. If we have differences, let us differ in the closet; when we come out in front, let us not have anything to argue about.”[i]


Carson, Clayborne. “African-American Leadership and Mass Mobilization.” Black Scholar 24, no. 4 (Fall 1994): 2.

—. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York, New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1998.

Carson, Clayborne. “The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.” OAH Magazine of History (Organization of American Historians) 19, no. 1 (January 2005): 22-26.

Cone, James H. “Martin and Malcolm on Nonviolence and Violence.” Phylon (1960-) (Clark Atlanta University) 49, no. 3/4 (Autumn – Winter 2001): 173-183.

Dyson, Michael Eric. “Martin and Malcolm, Review:” Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare.” by James H. Cone.” Transition (Indiana University Press on behalf of W.E.B. Du Bois Institute) 56 (1992): 48-59.

Hatch, Roger D. “Racism and Religion: The Contrasting Views of Benjamin Mays, Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr.” Journal of Religious Thought 36, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 1979/1980): 26-37.

Mattson, Kevin. “Martin Luther King, Jr.” Social Policy (Rutgers University) 30, no. 2 (Winter 1999): 29-32.

Robert Kelly, Erin Cook. “Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X: A Common Solution.” OAH Magazine of History (Organization of American Historians) 19, no. 1, Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 2005): 37-40.

[1] (Cone 2001)

[2] (Cone 2001)

[3] (Cone 2001)

[4] (Cone 2001)

[5] (Cone 2001)

[6] (Cone 2001)

[7] (Cone 2001)

[8] (Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. 1998)

[9] (Carson, The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. 2005)

[10] (Cone 2001)

[11] (Carson, The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. 2005)

[12] (Dyson 1992)

[13] (Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. 1998)

[14] (Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. 1998)

[15] (Hatch 1979/1980)

[16] (Mattson 1999)

[17] (Carson, The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. 2005)

[18] (Carson, The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. 2005)

[19] (Dyson 1992)

[20] (Hatch 1979/1980)

[21] (Hatch 1979/1980)

[22] (Hatch 1979/1980)

[23] (Hatch 1979/1980)

[24] (Carson, African-American Leadership and Mass Mobilization 1994)

[25] (Carson, African-American Leadership and Mass Mobilization 1994)

[26] (Robert Kelly 2005)

[27] (Robert Kelly 2005)

[28] (Robert Kelly 2005)

[29] (Robert Kelly 2005)

[30] (Robert Kelly 2005)

[31] (Robert Kelly 2005)

[32] (Robert Kelly 2005)

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