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1960s and 1970s in America were full of turmoil and unrest. The beginning was promising, marked with John F. Kennedy becoming a president and setting ambitious, reformative laws that promised social change and elimination of discrimination against women and minorities. However, this was met with stark opposition from the Southern states, who hated the liberalist changes Kennedy was trying to introduce. Race-related violence and discriminating “Jim Crow” laws were used to oppress and segregate the African-American population. In response to discrimination, legalized by the “separate but equal” doctrine passed in 1954, African Americans started standing up to the injustice, forming the Civil Rights Movement. But it needed a strong, resolute leader. These two decades gave the civil rights activists not one, but two prominent leaders, who defined the movement in different ways: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (“A Timeline of 1964 and 1963 Civil Rights Milestones” par 1).
In this article we will look at these leaders and study their similarities and differences, because although they had the same goal – freedom and equality of the black minority – their values and methods couldn’t have been more different.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Before becoming a civil rights activist, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pastor at a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. Having studied medicine and law under Dr. Benjamin Mays, a recognized speaker for racial equality himself, King received a firm intellectual foundation for the role that was about to be placed on him. Less than a year after his marriage, African American Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person and was arrested. Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, whom the activists chose as their representative and leader, they protested the arrest with a bus boycott that put a strain on the town’s economy. The boycott, as well as King’s strict adherence to peaceful means of resistance, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, quickly put the movement and King himself into the countrywide spotlight.
This victory inspired the activists to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Its ultimate goal was to end discrimination against African Americans in its entirety and allow the black minority equal opportunities with whites, through non-violent means. King became the leader of the organization and kept the position until his very death. He traveled across the country, performing speeches and lectures on inequality and non-violent opposition to it. Kings rousing talks and adamant refusal in engage in violence cemented his reputation, getting him the Man of the Year award by TIME magazine and the Nobel Peace Prize. His activities, and refusal to respond with violence to violence, earned the movement a lot of support from the white population, President Lyndon Johnson included, which led to the Congress passing the Voting Rights Act, guaranteeing voting rights to people of all races (“Martin Luther King Jr.”)
Despite being King’s contemporary and also a civil rights activist, Malcolm X represented the radical and sometimes violent side of the movement. He and his supporters believed that the civil rights activists were too soft and that people of color had the right to protect themselves through any means necessary. Even his last name was an attempt at rebellion, since he changed it from the original “Little”, “a slave name” in his opinion, to “X”.
Malcolm first encountered racism at a very young age. His father, a Baptist teacher, was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, forcing thing the family to change cities. In spite of this, the father continued preaching about the importance of one’s freedom and was brutally murdered as a result. The death was labeled a suicide, and social workers put the children into foster homes. Malcolm soon left school and entered into a life of crime, which ultimately brought him into prison and in contact with Black Muslims. Inspired by their belief about the white men being the devil of the black men, Malcolm became a passionate supporter of the movement. He believed that the problems of the black population could only be fixed by their own hands. His paths with Black Muslims separated after the latter refused to join in the civil rights movement, and showed signs of massive corruption. Malcolm traveled to Mecca, where he dropped the view of white men as evil, and focused on equality of all races, with the black minority still having to be self-reliant in their pursue of freedom. Soon after his return he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was a massive influence on the Civil Rights Movement and inspired numerous people to defend themselves though any available means and fight back against oppression (“Malcolm X”)
Ultimately, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were firm believers in their ideologies. They were both murdered as a result, and both predicted that their cause would survive them. Despite their differences and only having met once in the public eye, near the ends of their lives they were slowly moving towards each other in their stances. While Malcolm may have thought that non-violence was an unlikely option, it is clear that he respected King for his honest dedication to the cause and willingness to put his life on the line. In return, King seemed to have become more radical in his views in the last years of his life and was even told by the journalist David Halberstam that he “sounded like a nonviolent Malcolm X” (Blake)
While King and Malcolm X never had a chance to unite their forces, they were ultimately fighting the same fight, a fact that they both recognized and respected. The amalgam of their combined beliefs powered the Civil Rights Movement for decades to come.
“A Timeline of 1964 and 1963 Civil Rights Milestones.” About.com Education. n.p., n.d. Web.
Blake, John. “Malcolm and Martin, Closer than We Ever Thought.” CNN. n.p., 2010. Web.
“Malcolm X.” History. n.p., n.d. Web.
“Martin Luther King Jr..” History. n.p., n.d. Web.