That’s the title of a book I picked up the other day. It’s not that recent, but Is a useful comparison of the two men, their background, beliefs, and the way they responded to the challenges of the Civil Rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were about the same age (Malcolm X four years older), but came from very different backgrounds. King was from the black middle class, which influenced his point of view and strategy. He saw nonviolence as the best way for black citizens to get the same rights as anyone else, believing that appealing to the consciences of white people would persuade them to treat black people just as they treated whites.
Malcolm X came from the lower class. His father had been a minister working for civil rights along the line of Marcus Garvey, who had advocated a return to Africa for black people. Malcolm’s father died (it’s uncertain if it was accidental, or murder), his mother was left with eight children she had trouble supporting. They all got very hungry, she became demoralized because she had to accept help, and eventually had a mental breakdown. The children were put in foster homes and survived, but were deeply traumatized.
At least Malcolm was, and spoke bitterly about it in later life. He became angry and rebellious partly because of that, and partly because of the behavior of his white foster family. Not because they were overtly abusive, but because they frequently used the word “nigger”, completely unaware of how Malcolm felt about that. He lived an “integrated” life in that he lived with white people and felt controlled by them. By contrast, King had attended segregated schools and developed a sense of himself independent of immediate white control. Malcolm X also mentioned having wanted to become a lawyer, and being told by his high school guidance counselor that becoming a carpenter would be more realistic. He didn’t finish high school and became a hustler on the streets first of Roxbury, Massachusetts, then in New York City. He went to prison at about age twenty, where he was inspired to change his life.
Though King came from the black middle class, he wasn’t immune to racism, and experienced it fairly often in the form of rudeness that reminded southern blacks that they could be seriously mistreated without being protected by law or anything else. He later said he decided to hate all white people, but that his parents reminded him they were Christians and weren’t supposed to hate.
Malcolm X’s experience was in the north, and he remarked that he thought he’d have preferred living in the south where whites were very clear how they felt about blacks. Northern liberals, he said, would pretend to be friends with black people, then desert them. He pointed to his white foster family as people who meant well, but had no idea how he felt about anything.
King’s family believed in the value of education, Martin became very well educated. He said that he felt eternally in debt to white figures like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and blacks like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. He was also indebted to his parents who sacrificed so he could meet the residence requirements to get his PhD. Once he became ordained he decided to return to the south, feeling that he could best serve the civil rights cause there. Not long after he had taken his first post as minister came the Rosa Parks incident, in which she refused to give up her seat in a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white person, and was jailed. He was practically drafted into being a leader of the movement in Alabama and Georgia.
Before this he had joined the NAACP and made speeches about social justice. And after the Parks incident author James H. Cone makes clear that he wasn’t telling blacks to love whites. He assumed that blacks already did because they were predominantly Christian, and didn’t behave violently towards them. Instead, he was telling blacks they it was appropriate for them to stand up for their rights, that segregation was an evil system, and their courage could change it.
Which it did. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted most of a year, and the bus company eventually capitulated. That’s what made Martin Luther King Jr. a national figure.
Malcolm Little, as he was known then, went to prison in 1945 at the age of about twenty. He was still angry, to the point of being nicknamed “Satan” because he swore so much. But that changed when he was told to cool down, and his brother would show him how to get out of prison. At about the same time another convict told him to start using his brains and got him to start learning to read and write.
This prepared him for the message of Elijah Muhammed, who claimed to be a messenger from Allah, and that the white man was the devil. Because of his experiences, this was a message Malcolm was prepared to receive, and he put all his energy into self-improvement, now feeling like a valuable human being, which he had never felt before. He began writing to Elijah Muhammed, as well as his siblings and some hustler friends. When he was paroled in 1952 he went to Detroit to live with his brother, got a job, and began attending the Nation of Islam (Black Muslim) temple in the city, and converting to Islam. Not long after, he met Elijah Muhammed in Chicago, and received his “X” from him. The X was because the name Little was a white man’s name, and his African name was unknown. It wasn’t long before he became a minister, and did so well organizing the Detroit temple that he was sent to organize the temple in New York City, and then became a sort of trouble-shooter for Elijah Muhammed, traveling all over to speak and organize.
Malcolm X’s view of the civil rights issue was much different from Martin King’s. King had developed intellectually and culturally, and he believed most other blacks could do the same if given the chance. Malcolm X’s experience on the streets convinced him otherwise. Poor blacks couldn’t believe white society had any interest in treating them with respect because they’d never experienced it. King had experienced racism, but not as often or in as severe a form as Malcolm X and the poor people he spoke for. In his autobiography, which I read shortly after it was published, he tells of a conversation he had with a street person in New York City which other black leaders he was with didn’t understand at all, since the person was talking slang they’d never encountered. This separation was the basis of much disagreement between him and King. Malcolm X disliked the idea of integration because it seemed something that whites could give to or withhold from blacks. He came from the Black Nationalist tradition which insisted that black and white needed to be separated so whites couldn’t interfere with black lives.
In the late 1950s my siblings and I had a comic book about King, Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery bus boycott. So I knew at least a little about him and his activities, though I didn’t follow him or them closely. I did happen to be watching with my grandmother TV coverage of the March on Washington in 1963, and heard his most famous speech, I Have a Dream. It made my hair stand up.
I encountered Malcolm X’s autobiography not more than two or three years later, and was greatly impressed by it. I have never had to change my opinion that both were great men and incorruptible in a way that few figures since have seemed to be.
King felt that justice transcended black and white, that all were simply human, and that integration was therefore his goal. He said that black and white had been put together in America at this time, and needed to work things out together. Malcolm X saw white people as evil, with few exceptions, though he began changing his mind in the last year or so of his life. King also saw beyond racism within the USA, and toward the end of his life began looking at injustice on the international stage, impelled partly by his view of the Vietnam war.
Malcolm X’s change of heart came partly because he was cast out of the Nation of Islam, partly because of jealousy of other less successful ministers, partly because he discovered Elijah Muhammed was corrupt and not interested in changing (Muhammed had been sleeping with his young “secretaries” and had produced several children out of wedlock). This was another trauma for Malcolm X, who had felt Elijah Muhammed to be his father, teaching him the right way to do things, including being very morally strict. Discovering his “father” was imperfect and didn’t wish to change was disheartening.
But it opened the door for changes for Malcolm X. He went on the Hajj to Mecca, and felt completely accepted there by white as well as black. He also visited African heads of state and got a more international perspective. On returning to the United States, he began his own organization to more fully take part in the civil rights struggle. He also went along with the view the national media liked, that he and King were opponents. Actually, at this time they had started to see each other as complementary, working towards the same goal from different perspectives and correcting each other’s mistakes. Malcolm X made a speech in Georgia, where most of King’s organization was, attacking King on several points, but afterward visited King’s wife to tell her he was attacking King because he thought that was how he could best help him. Malcolm’s being more extreme than King made King more acceptable to the powerful even as he became more radical.
1963 to 1965 was the time of King’s greatest popularity, the time of the March on Washington, his I Have a Dream speech, his reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills. After this he became increasingly disillusioned. He had believed that most whites recognized that racism was unjust, and that it was only a few violent bigots that blocked equal rights for blacks. When he began campaigning for civil rights in Chicago he began seeing that the whole structure of society was stacked against blacks, and very few whites wanted that to change. He remarked that he had been working so blacks could buy hamburgers in the same places as whites. Now he began to feel that his work needed to help blacks be able to AFFORD hamburgers.
Northern blacks were stuck in ghettos, and couldn’t get out. Few if any whites wanted blacks in their neighborhoods, and few wanted more than a token few blacks to get good jobs. Powerlessness encouraged blacks to indulge in alcohol and illegal drugs. The Nation of Islam encouraged them not to use the substances, but their program stopped there. Malcolm X remarked that if, after you stop drinking and drugging you’re still poor, not much has changed, unless you have a reasonable chance at good employment. Hardly anyone wanted black employees, no matter how qualified, for anything but menial work.
Where Malcolm X and Martin King most differed was over method of protest. King believed in nonviolence, rousing the consciences of one’s enemies with love. Kenneth Clark noted that this approach was difficult for many poor blacks, who naturally resented being mistreated. It was a good strategy in the South, though, especially in the age of mass media in which everyone could see on TV the brutality of the Southern response to the demand for rights. Malcolm X saw this method as encouraging blacks to be passive in spite of terrible mistreatment, though King was giving blacks the same message as Malcolm, essentially: stand up for yourself. You have the right to decent treatment and equal protection under the law.
But Malcolm X also had a point: that blacks had the right to defend themselves when whites brutalized them. Whites had never been reluctant to use violence against blacks and others. Cone points out that in American history there have always been “bad niggers” whom whites were reluctant to mistreat. Famous basketball player Bill Russell’s grandfather was such a person, driving the Ku Klux Klan away from his house after being threatened by them. The problem is, that’s not a good strategy for the whole country, in which blacks are no more than 13% of the population. Ronald Reagan, at the time Republican governor of California, made clear where he stood after the Black Panther Party asserted their right to bear arms in self defense by instituting gun control laws in the state.
Both leaders emphasized the need for education. King hired well-educated people to advise him, and took retreats during which problems could be studied and workable solutions proposed. Malcolm X said he wished he could go back to school at the level where he quit and cover everything he missed, eventually getting a degree. Whenever he had time he rapidly absorbed books he thought he could learn from.
It was tragic that Malcolm X was assassinated just after he had left the Nation of Islam and his point of view was still evolving. It’s impossible to know what he could have been and done had he lived.
This was also the time of King’s disillusionment. He felt the loss of Malcolm X as terrible, but he had himself begun changing his view. He began to see the civil rights problem as being economic as much as anything else, and that racism was destroying the promise of America internationally, as well as at home. He abhorred the war against the North Vietnamese, who had cited the American Declaration of Independence in their constitution, as a war against dark skinned people controlling their own country. Many urged him not to criticize the war, but he felt that God had commanded it of him, and refused to back down. That, along with his work against the Northern white power structure most probably led to his own assassination. It’s also impossible to know what he could have been had he survived.
In the last years of his life he joined Malcolm X in condemning white America and telling us that if we don’t eradicate racism and other forms of brutality, we’ll destroy our nation. The destruction may not be obvious yet, but it’s clear that we haven’t (at least in sufficient numbers) changed out ways. Some will dispute that, but it seems pretty clear that African-Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of the largest prison population on earth. That the country supposed to be the greatest democracy in the world has more prisoners than China or Russia ought to be alarming. China makes no pretence of being a democracy, Russia makes no more than a pretence.
Racism and class warfare are strikingly similar. Class isn’t always based on skin color, but the categories often overlap: dark skinned people are often in the lower class, which privileged classes have historically felt free to use violence against. Class prejudices have incited violence against striking factory workers or miners, regardless of color. That’s why Martin Luther King was organizing a Poor People’s march at the time of his death. He saw that race and class were closely connected, and more broadly, that injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.
Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were totally committed to the struggle for civil rights. King said it was a privilege to suffer for a good cause, and trusted in God when he began denouncing the Vietnam war. He knew he was likely to die of violence, as did Malcolm X. The latter said, “If you don’t have a cause you’re willing to die for, erase the word ‘freedom’ from your vocabulary.”
While both were imperfect, they were also incorruptible: nothing could stop them from speaking their minds and organizing, except death. I think we yearn for people like that, and make heroes of people we HOPE are incorruptible. As far as I can see, no one in this country has adequately replaced them. We’re poorer because we lost them.