Research Papers

The Nuances of the Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Debate

The discourse surrounding the history of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. is one that frames the two figures as opposites: X was radical, while King was a bit more mild mannered. In his book, The Sword and the Shield, Dr. Peniel Joseph takes a different approach, reframing the debate to suggest that the two were more similar than is often portrayed in the mainstream narrative. By evaluating this, Joseph brings the two of them onto a level playing field, one that doesn’t condemn X for being too radical or King for being too mild. This approach has its merits, but the same criticism can be made of it as can be made about strictly contrasting the two: it can dull the merits of each of them alone. It’s impossible to paint the comparison between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as one of only opposites or only similarities. Rather, a nuanced approach is required, one that recognizes that they shared a common goal of black dignity in America and human rights for oppressed people internationally, but sought to achieve this through different means: black nationalism through self defense for Malcolm, and integration through nonviolence for Martin. 

At a base level, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were fighting for the equal rights of black Americans. However, as each of them grew older, their perspectives widened, ultimately leading both of them into the advocacy for human rights for all oppressed people around the globe. For much of his early life, Malcolm X championed black nationalism, an exclusive mindset that focused on the fight for the self determination of black Americans through an independent black nation. This view, while understandable, as explained later, was inherently insular. However, in 1959, Malcolm embarked on a trip through the Middle East, which would end up having lasting effects on his perspective. Though he became aware of the possibilities of complete international solidarity after he learned of the Bandung Conference, it was after the trip that he truly transitioned into an internationalism that focused on fighting for the dignity of oppressed groups everywhere. The clearest demonstration of this international solidarity came in his famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, when he said, “Whenever you are in a civil rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam,”(The Ballot or the Bullet, Malcolm X, 1964) He’s arguing for the expansion of the “civil rights” mindset by saying that it is an inherently American perspective that doesn’t necessarily help the same cause in other parts of the world. Human rights, on the other hand, is a more wide reaching, and therefore more dignified approach. This attitude, coming in the mid-sixties, was certainly a hard one to sell. Trapped in the Cold War rhetoric, attitudes among American citizens were cultivated into ones which resented the enemy and upheld American global supremacy. Malcolm saw through this, instead advocating for an anti-imperialist approach that connected the black struggle in America to the struggles of the subjugated everywhere. 

Martin Luther King Jr. shared the same goals as Malcolm; both fought for the economic and social justice of black Americans, and championed human rights around the globe. While radical in its own right, King’s early activist career focused specifically on the black struggle in America. However, towards the end of his life, he moved from that view into a more international perspective. This demand for international solidarity came as a result of King’s analysis of the Vietnam War. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, he accurately argued that the Vietnam War was an imperial war with no point but to send poor black and white Americans to fight until their death, while also subjugating the Vietnamese people to unjust suffering. He knew that his stance on the war would sever the ties he maintained with white liberals, but clearly, the issue was too important to him to remain silent. In his outspokenness, he transitioned from a distinctly American activist to a global one, showing similar international solidarity to that of Malcolm. The development of the goals of both Malcolm and Martin followed a similar path: a focus on black dignity and justice in America at first, then a wider global demand for the human rights of all oppressed people. However, it is in the strategies and tactics that the differences between the two emerge. 

In looking at their respective backgrounds, the framework for each of their philosophies begins to make sense. Malcolm’s parents were both followers of Marcus Garvey, a prominent black nationalist. It is in this household that Malcolm was exposed to the ideas he would later be a proponent of. Another defining aspect of his childhood was the murder of his father at the hands of white supremacists. When considering the conditions of his childhood, it’s not surprising that he believed in black nationalism as the only way to bring black America out of a racist society. King on the other hand, was the son of a prominent pastor, academic, and community member. His upbringing was decidedly more “white collar” than that of Malcolm and in many ways started on a higher step. King’s father was a proponent of nonviolence and civil disobedience, so like Malcolm, King’s ideologies were with him since his upbringing. Within this context and knowing that they both fought for black dignity and international human rights, the strategies of the two men differed; Martin believed black dignity would come through integration into the white society and he thought this would come through civil disobedience, while Malcolm thought black dignity would only come through black nationalism through self defense.  In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin explains the power of a nonviolent approach. He writes, “Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail, MLK, 1963) He contrasts the use of violence with the subtleties demanded by nonviolence and the power of that. He argues nonviolence is more potent than the opposite because it is not what is expected, but rather subverts expectations in a way that makes onlookers stop to think. Malcolm X thought this approach was naive, that abstinence from violence in the form of self defense didn’t make sense. In 1964, Malcolm delivered a speech to Peace Corps Workers, in which he said, “…it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self- defense, I call it intelligence.” (Speech to Peace Corps, Malcolm X, 1964) He believed by committing to nonviolence, you leave yourself susceptible to the action of those who are not opposed to violence, leaving oneself weak. They both sought after the same thing, but nevertheless advocated for opposite strategies to achieving that end. 

A nuanced evaluation of the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X is required; while they both fought for dignity and equality for black American and oppressed peoples around the globe, they advocated very different approaches to this end, Malcolm championing Black Nationalism through self defense, and Martin championing integration through non-violence. However, while Malcolm and Martin differed in their approach to the same goal, when they are viewed together within the context of the civil rights movement, the power of each of them becomes apparent. Malcolm provided the urgency to Martin’s appealing approach, and their respective techniques complemented the other’s. If Malcolm was the sole figure of the movement, it would have been easy for not only conservatives, but also liberals to pass him off as too radical. Whereas if Martin was the sole figure, there’s a chance liberals would have gotten complacent in making action, and that the movement would have lost steam. Without the two of them fighting for the same thing at the same time, the progress made would have been even smaller. As power has switched back and forth between Republicans and Democrats over the years since the civil rights movement, change towards the goals of Malcolm and Martin has been incremental. The denial of systemic injustice and the picking oneself up approach of the right is clearly misguided. But the changes put in place by the liberals often are very surface level. It’s clear that the confines of the current political climate of the country aren’t conducive to the radical change that is needed in order to ensure the dignity and justice for all Americans. In what ways does American political thought need to evolve in order to ensure these goals are met? How should the approaches of the two men be incorporated? 

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