Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X were two reputed leaders of the American awareness. The two men had opposing ideologies and different upbringing. However despite their hard struggle in the African American liberation movement, both the leaders met an untimely death. Malcolm X was born in 1925 as Malcolm Little, a farmer in the rural region of Michigan and the founder of Universal Negro Improvement Association. One of his early memories comprise of waking up in the midst of fire in his house. (Lewin) He had a very troubled childhood and young adulthood. Malcolm grew as a bright student but an incident of racial discrimination in his class made him leave the school and he shifted to Boston. His encounter with subtle racism helped develop his anti-white views later in his life. He was engaged in anti-social activities in Boston and ultimately ended up in prison. He was a representation of the struggle of black people during this time and did not have any faith in Christianity (Shabazz, Haley & X, 5). On the other hand Martin Luther King Jr. pursued the footsteps of his father and attained the position of a minister. He attained his pastorship for the first time in 1955 when he was 25 years of age. Both the personalities took part in politics and both had extraordinary power in delivering speech. However while Malcom X was a vehement preacher for the blacks and called for their organization against the white whom he blamed for all the misfortunes of America, he changed his views later and called for inclusion of whites, in contrast to his anti-white ideologies. On the other hand Luther King was a preacher of non violence who tactfully and persuasively focused on the conflicts of state interest and civic duty, being aware of the privileges obtained by the whites of Birmingham.
Martin Luther King Jr. came into prominence and became actively involved in politics in favor of the Afro American rights when he became the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association and protested the segregation in the buses where the blacks were supposed to leave their seats for the whites. The boycott movement against this began when the issue was sparked by Miss Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat. He resorted to proper reasoning as he explained his involvement in the boycott and against segregation through his letter from the Birmingham Jail. With a tone of peaceful persuasion, he suggests some imaginative solutions to adjust with changing times with respect to the power of hope, optimism, and nonviolence strategy and finally a dream. All these would call for brave reaction under challenging circumstances. His careful reasoning is meant to influence his audience and delivers the underlying message unfolding the conflict of civic duty and the interests of the state that exist. He explains that he was asked by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to help in the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham and this prevalence of injustice brought him there. He did not want to see his people treated unequally and as second-class citizens who have often been victims of broken promises on behalf of the state. Therefore his presence was motivated by a desire to create a continuous organization, give shape to a struggle and clear cut vision along with devising of a plan which could turn their defeats into triumphs. His fellow clergymen had asked him not to come to Birmingham, yet he was there due to the presence of injustice and he did not have the mindset to sit back and watch the demonstrations passively. Coming to Malcom X’s mode of struggle, one finds his strong involvement with the Nation of Islam after coming in contact with Elijah Muhammad’s views. He became actively involved as he became the minister of the Nation of Islam. His involvement and encounters of racial discrimination began from his early childhood itself. His position now gave him the power to raise his voice in favor of righteousness. As a prominent personality he started to present his views on white America and racial politics. His gradual growth and changed views were effectively reflected through his different speeches throughout his life and the speeches showed immense influence on American society. He demonstrated his wisdom, achieved from his visits to Africa, effectively to align black Americans with other non-whites present worldwide. He left Nation of Islam following a conflict with Elijah Muhammad and he converted to Islam. The racial tolerance of Islam irrespective of skin color attracted him towards the religion. His conversion gradually changed his views towards racism. Away from initial anti-white views he appealed the whites to work for racial justice and attempted to create racial harmony. The changes in his personality and views were clearly demonstrated through many of his speeches with conviction. Unlike Martin Luther King who preached in favor of equality in terms of access to privileges and basic amenities in tactful yet persuasive manner, Malcom X was strongly anti-white in t\his disposition especially in early days. He preached in favor of the black and omitted his surname in order to reject racial inferiority status white the surname endowed upon him. His speeches pointed towards his vast knowledge and philosophy, which he derived from his readings, and he had the ability to spread the knowledge understandably amongst his audience. His choice of words and examples and their presentation in sentences had a power to encourage. An example of this can be cited from his speech while he described his views on the dependence of the black people on American whites saying, “…. the white man still calls you what? “Boy!”… Because a child is someone who sits around and waits for his father to do for him what he should be doing for himself, what he’s too young to do for himself, or what he is too dumb to do for himself. You and I build churches and let the white man build up everything for himself”. Malcolm X was seriously concerned with tracing back the history and ancestry of black people and advocated separation from whites (Karim). He thus, in his initial speeches poured all his hatred out for the whites in an exaggerated manner. All his speeches had a very different communicating power that touched people through his style of clarity, emphasis on intonation, gesture, antithesis and rhythm and his conscious use of Black English linguistics to connect with them (Alkalimat, 17). He always criticized people in precise manner but never attacked them personally. He believed in public debate of ideological and political line. Malcolm X was one of the pioneers of using the term ‘African American’ instead of just ‘black’ or ‘negro’ (Alkalimat, 18).
This is not the case with Martin Luther King who, unlike hatred or strong statements against the whites, used logic and diplomacy to point out his views. While Martin Luther king Jr. has also elaborately mentioned through the letter what all he had expected from the white moderates. For instance, he has expected the law to be there for all and justice ensured for all equally. In his words, “I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.” (“Letter From A Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]”, 1963) All these lack of understanding from the white moderates can only precipitate violence. Hence he calls for a face of true democracy in the form of promises which are meant to be kept and plans and actions that are taken with a genuine approach to promote justice and equality among the mass. These genuine feelings come only when the interests are common and a single action may fulfill both the party’s objectives (Halyard). In the words of the King, “There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation” (“Letter From A Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]”, 1963). Thus broken promises and unaddressed issues have enhanced the discontent among the mass. One would also note that while Malcolm X rejects the term “negro” King uses it emphatically to highlight the differentiation that was practiced and to highlight the flaws in the system to preserve the interests of the blacks.
Martin Luther King’s strategy was respected by the state for long, especially for his nonviolent fight against racial inequality and injustice in US. A king of reconciliation and convergence of the opposing ideologies of the two individuals might be traced as the speeches that Malcolm X delivered before his death spoke about the integrity and tolerance instead of segregation of the whites and the blacks. In his famous Ballot or Bullet speech he advocated the democratic rights of the black Americans in his usual clear and determined way. This time he showed opposition for the long term victimization and exploitation of the blacks rather than mere presenting mere anti-white sentiment. His speech was able to generate motivation, persuasion and inspiration among the listeners with his proper use of illustration and allusion of the events, “1964 threatens to be the most explosive year America has ever witnessed…… 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 Ballot or the Bullet speech by Malcolm X”) His experience about Islam during his pilgrimage made him change his hatred for white people for their color but he opposed their pride to be white and their feelings to be superior. However while he reveals mainly a pride in being black and in turn a sense of superiority, Martin Luther King has always pleaded with the whites to join hands and meet his expectations form them. Malcolm X is keener on preaching how much the whites are dependent on the blacks in all spheres, especially politically (for votes). Hence if the two personalities had not met their deaths at an unripe age, there could have been a chance perhaps of convergence of ideologies and actions.
- Alkalimat, Abdul. Malcolm X, The Last Speeches. New York: Pathfinder, 1989.
- Karim, Imam Benjamin, Ed. “Black Man’s History”. Malcolm-x.org. 1962. May 3, 2011 from < http://www.malcolm-x.org/speeches/spc_12__62.htm>
- Lewin, Dr. Arthur N. MALCOLM X vs. MARTIN LUTHER KING,2006, May 3, 2011 from: http://www.blackwebportal.com/wire/DA.cfm?ArticleID=2541
- Halyard, Helen. “Thirty years since the assassination of Martin Luther King”, 1998, May 3, 2011 from: http://www.wsws.org/news/1998/apr1998/mlk-a4.shtml
- Shabazz, Attalah, Alex Haley & Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. USA: Balantine Books, 1987.
“Letter From A Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]”, University Of Pennsylvania – African Studies Center, 1963, May 3, 2011 from: http://www.futureofthebook.org/letterfrombirminghamjail/my-dear-fellow-clergymen/
“The Ballot or the Bullet speech by Malcolm X”. Famous Speeches Index. 1964. May 3, 2011 from :