Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: The Motive Force of Change in America

May 30, 2010

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were the defining figures of the 1960s black freedom struggle. These two towering leaders influence and determine the scope and tone of the civil rights struggle and black power movement. Through their philosophy and leadership, they set the moral and social agenda for much of the second half of the twentieth century, laying the foundation for a more democratic society and the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Martin achieved his bona fides in the South and Malcolm achieved his in the North. Ironically, the year, 1965, which the civil rights movement reached its zenith with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, saw the ascendency of Malcolm X and black nationalism as the philosophy and practice informing the black freedom struggle. Conversely, King’s influence and statue started to spiral downward.

Though Malcolm and Martin differed in their approach to attaining freedom for African Americans, their critique of American racism, society, and policy worked synergistically to break the legal and ideological hold of white supremacy on American society, while at the same time transforming blacks and other progressive people into a force for social change. It would surprise most to know that King’s sermon for Sunday April 7, 1968 was entitled Why America May Go To Hell. It would surprise many to know that King questioned if black would be able to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial: “It [Declaration of Independence] has never had any real meaning in terms of implementation in our [black] lives.” And, it would shock almost all to know that King supported strategic black separatism:

When we see integration in political terms, then we recognize that there are times when we must see segregation as a temporary way-station to a truly integrated society. There are many Negroes who feel this; they do not see segregation as the ultimate goal. They do not see separation as the ultimate goal…I must honestly say that there are points at which I share this view. There are points at which I see the necessity for temporary segregation in order to get the integrated society.

King was an integrationist and promoted and practice nonviolence, and advocated civil rights. On the other hand, Malcolm was a black nationalist, espoused use the use of violence in defense of blacks and freedom, and advocated human rights. Yet, understanding and appreciating the achievements of the 1960s and the expansion of democracy as a result of the ‘60s struggle, requires seeing the contributions of Malcolm and Martin as one, and that the two of them are “related not as inferior and superior, not as better and worse, not as weaker and stronger, but as complements-complements in one necessary and symmetric whole.”

Malcolm and King Speak

As reflected below, by the mid-sixties, the worldview Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were very similar, and they were in agreement on many of the major issues of their day. In fact, during the historic Selma March, Malcolm told Coretta Scott King, “I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.” Hence, Malcolm and King were actually orbiting towards each other, perhaps toward an operational unity- unity in diversity.

By the mid-1960s both Malcolm and Martin believed that social conditions in the black ghettoes, punctuated by poverty and behavioral ills, had reached a tipping point and that blacks were less hopeful that they would experience the American dream.

The night before he was murdered King warned, in his famous “I See the Promised Land” speech in Memphis, “if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”

And Malcolm warned, “1964 threatens to be the most explosive year America has ever witnessed. Why? It’s also a political year. It’s the year when all of the white politicians will be back in the so-called Negro community jiving you and me for some votes. The year when all of the white political crooks will be right back in your and my community with their false promises, building up our hopes for a letdown… As they nourish these dissatisfactions, it can only lead to one thing, an explosion.”

A Dream Deferred

In 1963, King inspired the nation and elevated the hopes of black people with his I Have A Dream speech, considered speech of the twentieth century. By 1965, black people were weary of King’s dream.  Poet Langston Hughes articulated the sentiment of most black people in his poem, A Dream Deferred.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun

Or does it explode [like a Watts Rebellion]

In August 1965, the most fearsome urban violence in U.S. history broke our in the predominantly black area of black people in Watts in Los Angeles. According to the author of Freedom is Not Enough, James T. Patterson, the Watts rebellion was a “disaster for the morally powerful, interracial, nonviolent civil rights movement King and other had succeeded in shaping into a luminous force for racial justice…Many white Americans began to reconsider their views of black people-not as cruelly segregated, long-suffering southerners, but as violent out-of-control ghetto dwellers.”

In “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” broadcast on Christmas Eve 1967 on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as part of the Massey Lectures, King acknowledged, just as Malcolm had long concluded “that not long after talking about” the dream in Washington, “I started seeing it turn into a nightmare.” He spoke of the nightmarish conditions of Birmingham, where four girls were murdered in a church bombing a few weeks after his speech. He spoke of the punishing poverty that he observed in the nation’s ghettoes as the antithesis of his dream as were the race riots and the Vietnam War.

Juxtapose to King’s Dream was Malcolm Nightmare. Malcolm saw the underbelly of King’s Dream, the lived experience of everyday black people struggling to find meaning in America as the “unwanted:”

I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.

Race and Racism

As mentioned above, 1965 was a turning point for liberalism and race relations between blacks and whites. Both Malcolm and King began to rethink their position on race and race relations, bring them closer together on race. Malcolm said, I say again that I’m not a racist, I don’t believe in any form of segregation or anything like that. I’m for the brotherhood of everybody, but I don’t believe in forcing brotherhood upon people who don’t want it. Long as we practice brotherhood among ourselves, and then others who want to practice brotherhood with us, we practice it with them also, we’re for that. But I don’t think that we should run around trying to love somebody who doesn’t love us.” However, politically and strategically, Malcolm opined, “Whites can help us, but they can’t join us. There can be no black/white unity, until there is first some black unity.”

King on the other hand began to have a more pessimistic view of whites and race relations, lamenting, “the fact is that there has never been any single solid determine commitment on the part of the vast majority of white America…to genuine equality for Negroes…most Americans are unconscious racist.”

On Violence and War

Both Malcolm and King believed that America was the greatest threat to peace in the world. In his speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, King admonished America, stating, God didn’t call American to do what she’s doing in the world today. God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war [such] as the war in Vietnam.” In this same speech he went on to say that America was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Similarly, Malcolm believed that America was a war criminal.  Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood, dripping with the blood of the black man in this country. He’s the earth’s number-one hypocrite. He has the audacity — yes, he has — imagine him posing as the leader of the free world… Let the world know how bloody his hands are. Let the world know the hypocrisy that’s practiced over here.”

Elsewhere, he asserted “If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it’s wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it’s wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.”

Malcolm and Martin: In Unity and Struggle

In short, examining the worldview of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King at there most developed and mature stages, makes clear that these two leaders and thinkers were positioned to unite the two tendencies in the black freedom struggle-moderate civil rights and radical black nationalist movements. What is instructive is not to see Malcolm and Martin as antagonist or polar opposites, but as two leaders who disagreed on method, but were in agreement on the outcome. “Our people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods, or tactics, or strategy.”

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