They were black men who had a dream but never lived to see it fulfilled. One was a man who spoke out to all humanity, but the world was not yet ready for his peaceful words. “I have a dream, a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed… that all men are created equal.” (Martin Luther King) The other, a man who spoke of a violent revolution, which would bring about radical change for the black race. “Anything you can think of that you want to change right now, the only way you can do it is with a ballot or a bullet. And if you’re not ready to get involved with either one of those, you are satisfied with the status quo. That means we’ll have to change you.” (Malcolm X) While Martin Luther King promoted non-violence, civil rights, and the end to racial segregation, a man of the name of Malcolm X dreamed of a separate nation.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was the conscience of his generation. A Southerner, a black man, he gazed upon the great wall of segregation and saw that the power of love could bring it down. From the pain and exhaustion of his fight to free all people from the bondage of separation and injustice, he wrung his eloquent statement of what America could be. (Ansboro, pg.1) An American clergyman and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, he was one of the principal leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement and a prominent advocate of nonviolent protest. King’s challenges to segregation and racial discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s, helped convince many white Americans to support the cause of civil rights in the United States. After his assassination in 1968, King became the symbol of protest in the struggle for racial justice. (“King, Martin Luther, Jr.,” pg. 1)
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In 1964, Malcolm X founded an organization called “The Muslim Mosque, Inc. In an interview conducted by A.B. Spellman on March 19, 1964, Malcolm speaks of his goals for this organization. “The Muslim Mosque, Inc. will have as its religious base the religion of Islam, which will be designed to propagate the moral reformations necessary to up the level of the so-called Negro community by eliminating the vices and other evils that destroy the moral fibre of the community. But the political philosophy of the Muslim Mosque will be black nationalism, as well as the social and economic philosophies. We still believe in the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s solution as complete separation. The 22 million so-called Negroes should be separated completely from America and should be permitted to go back home to our native African homeland.” (Breitman, pgs. 5-6)
Perhaps the key to these two African-Americans leaders opposing goals lay within their very different pasts. Malcolm X was born in Omaha as Malcolm Little. Malcolm’s faith, a Baptist minister was an outspoken follower of Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist leader of the 1920s. The family moved to Lansing, Michigan, and when Malcolm was six years old, his father was murdered after receiving threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Malcolm’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown and her eight children were taken by the welfare department. Malcolm was sent first to a foster home and then to a reform school. After 8th grade, Malcolm moved to Boston where he worked various jobs and eventually became involved in criminal activity. (Malcolm X, pg.1)
In 1946, he was sentenced to prison for burglary. While in prison, Malcolm became invested in the teachings of Elijah Muhammed, the leader of the black Muslims also called the Nation of Islam. Malcolm spent his time in jail educating himself and learning more about the Black Muslims, who advocated racial separation. When Malcolm was released in 1952, he joined a black Muslim temple in Detroit and became the most prominent spokesperson for the Nation of Islam by the early 1960s. It was then that he took the name of Malcolm X. (“Malcolm,” pg.1)
Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the eldest son of Martin Luther King, Sr., a Baptist minister, and Alberta Williams King. King attended local segregated public schools, where he excelled. He entered nearby Morehouse College at age 15 and graduated with a bachelors degree in sociology in 1948. After graduating with honours from Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in 1951, he went to Boston University where he earned a doctoral degree in systematic theology in 1955. (“King, Martin Luther, Jr.,” pg.1)
Throughout King’s education, he was exposed to influences that related Christian theology to the struggles of oppressed peoples. At Morehouse, Crozer, and Boston University, he studied the teachings on nonviolent Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. King also read and heard the sermons of white Protestant ministers who preached against American racism. He was married in 1953, and in 1954, he accepted his first pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, a church of well-educated congregations that had recently by a minister who had protested against segregation. (“King, Martin Luther, Jr.,” pg. 1)
Whereas King was full of love, peace, respect, and compassion for his fellow white brother, Malcolm X was full of hate, anger, and vengeance. He was a dark presence, an angry, cynical, implacable man whose goodwill or forgiveness or even pity the white race could neither earn nor buy. “Coffee,” he once remarked in an interview, “is the only thing I like integrated.” He also pleasantly mentioned that whites were inherently enemies of the Negroes and that integration was impossible without great bloodletting. Nonviolence was as he put it, “a mealy-mouth, beg-in, wait-in, plead-in kind of action,” and it was only a device for disarming the blacks.
He also believed that everything we had heard to the contrary from the Martin Luther Kings and the Roy Wilkinses and the Whitney Youngs was a deadly dangerous pack of lies. “That’s etiquette,” he said. “Etiquette means to blend in with society. They are being polite. The average Negro doesn’t even let another Negro know what he thinks, he’s so mistrusting. I’m black first- my whole objectives are black, my allegiance is black, my whole objectives are black. By me being a Muslim, I’m not interested in American, because America has never been interested in me.” (Goldman, pg.5)
Black blood, claimed Malcolm X, is stronger than white. “A person can have a teaspoon of black in him, and that makes him black. Black can’t come from white, but white can come from black. That means black was first. If black is first, black is supreme and white is dependent on black.” He meant to haunt whites, to play on their fears and quicken their guilt and deflate their dreams that everything was getting better- and he did. “America’s problem is us.” Malcolm X told whites that if they argued that the sins of the past ought not to visit on them, he would reply: “Your father isn’t here to pay his debts. My father isn’t here to collect, but I’m here to collect, and you’re here to pay.” (Goldman, pgs. 6-9)
Martin Luther King is known for his key role as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization that directed the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery’s black community had long-standing grievances about the mistreatment of blacks on the city’s buses. Many white bus drivers treated blacks rudely, often cursing them and humiliating them by enforcing the city’s segregation laws, which forced black riders to sit in the back of busses and give up their seats to white passengers on crowded busses. By the 1950s, Montgomery’s blacks discussed boycotting the busses in an effort to gain better treatment- but not necessarily to end segregation.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a leading member of the local branch of the NAACP, was ordered to give up her seat to a white passenger. When she refused, she was arrested and taken to jail. Local leaders of the NAACP, especially Edgar D. Nixon, recognized recently arrived King’s public speaking gifts as great assets in the battle for black civil rights in Montgomery. King was soon chosen as president of the MIA, the organization that directed the bus boycott. (“King, Martin Luther, Jr., pg. 2)
The Montgomery bus boycott lasted for more than a year, demonstrating a new spirit of protest among southern blacks. King’s serious demeanour and consistent appeal to Christian brotherhood and American idealism made a positive impression on the whites outside the south. In February 1956, the federal court ruled in favour of the MIA, ordering the city buses to be desegregated. In 1957, King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization of black churches and ministers that aimed to challenge racial segregation.
With King as president, SCLC sought to complement the NAACP’s legal efforts to dismantle segregation through the courts with other SCLC leaders encouraging the use of the non-violent direct action to protest discrimination. These activities included marches, demonstrations, and boycotts. The violent responses that direct action provoked from some whites, eventually forced the federal government to confront issues of injustice and racism in the South. (“King, Martin Luther, Jr., pg. 2)
Ultimately, Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X shared a similar dream. A dream that one day their people would be able to be free from the bondage of prejudice and racism, in which they were held captive. A dream that their children would be able to live in a world where they would not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Although they differed greatly on their philosophies of the means in which they tried to obtain their goal, they shared a common struggle. It was this pain that laid so deep within their souls, that it drove them to speak out to a country whose ears were not yet ready to listen, and whose minds could not stretch to comprehend their radical and strange messages. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were leaders in their time but destined to be legends for all.
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