Martin Luther King, Jr rose to national prominence professing



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Malcolm X

While Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to national prominence professing nonviolent direct action and interracial organizing in the late 1950s and 1960s, Malcolm X became a leader in the Nation of Islam, advocating armed self-defense and the rejection of white allies. Upon leaving the Nation of Islam in 1964, however, Malcolm's ideology shifted to a unified, coalition-oriented struggle for black advancement. While King and Malcolm continued to be at odds over the role of nonviolence in the movement, Malcolm met with other civil rights organizations in the South and repeatedly tried to establish a relationship with King. Although King and Malcolm X never worked together, Malcolm's ideology directly influenced the southern civil rights movement after his 1965 death with the emergence of Black Power.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on 19 May 1925. Both his parents were activists in the Universal Negro Improvement Association established by Marcus Garvey. Malcolm’s father, a Georgia-born itinerant Baptist preacher, encountered considerable racial harassment because of his black nationalist views. He moved the family several times before settling in East Lansing, Michigan, where Malcolm spent his childhood. In 1931 Malcolm's father was run over by a streetcar and died. Police concluded that the death was accidental, but Malcolm suspected that he had been murdered by a local white supremacist group. In January 1939, when Malcolm was thirteen, his mother was declared legally insane and committed to a Michigan mental asylum. Malcolm spent the rest of his childhood in foster homes and reform schools.

In 1941, Malcolm left Michigan to live in Boston. While there, he held a variety of jobs and became increasingly involved in criminal activities. He was arrested in 1946 for larceny and breaking and entering and was sent to prison. While in jail, Malcolm responded to the urgings of his brother Reginald and became a follower of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Temple of Islam, a small black nationalist Islamic sect. (Later named the Nation of Islam, the sect is often called the black Muslims.) Drawn to the religious group's racial doctrines, which categorized whites as "devils," Malcolm began reading extensively about world history and politics, particularly concerning African slavery and the oppression of black people in America. After he was paroled from prison in August 1952, he became Minister Malcolm X, using the surname assigned to him in place of the African name that had been taken from his slave ancestors.

Malcolm X quickly became Elijah Muhammad's most effective minister, using his forceful oratory to bring large numbers of new recruits into the group during the 1950s and early 1960s. By 1954, he had become minister of New York Temple No. 7; and in 1957, he became the Nation of Islam's national representative, a position of influence second only to that of Elijah Muhammad. In his speeches, Malcolm X urged black people to separate from whites and win their freedom "by any means necessary."

Malcolm X was particularly harsh in his criticisms of the nonviolent strategy to achieve civil rights reforms advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr. During a November 1963 address at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference in Detroit, Malcolm derided the notion that African Americans could achieve freedom nonviolently. "The only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy is the Negro revolution," he announced. "Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in the way." Malcolm also charged that King and other leaders of the March on Washington had taken over the event, with the help of white liberals, in order to subvert its militancy. "And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising," he insisted. Malcolm also disagreed with King's promotion of integration, arguing that "No sane black man really wants integration! No sane white man really wants integration. . . . The honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches that for the black man in America the only solution is complete separation from the white man!"

King rejected Malcolm's rhetoric because of its premise on violence. "I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem," King noted about Malcolm. "And, in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief."

Despite his caustic criticisms of King, however, Malcolm nevertheless identified himself with the grass-roots leaders of the southern civil rights protest movement. Malcolm sought King's participation in public forums, but King generally ignored Malcolm’s letters, relegating them to his secretary for reply. Malcolm's desire to move from rhetoric to political militancy led him to become increasingly dissatisfied with Elijah Muhammad's apolitical stance. As he later explained in his autobiography, "It could be heard increasingly in the Negro communities: 'Those Muslims talk tough, but they never do anything, unless somebody bothers Muslims.'"

Malcolm's disillusionment with Elijah Muhammad resulted not only from political differences but also from his personal dismay when he discovered that the religious leader had fathered illegitimate children. Other members of the Nation of Islam began to resent Malcolm's growing prominence and to suspect that he intended to lay claim to leadership of the group. When Malcolm X remarked that President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 was a case of the "chickens coming home to roost,” Elijah Muhammad used the opportunity to ban his increasingly popular minister from speaking in public.

In March 1964, Malcolm announced that he was breaking with the Nation of Islam to form his own group, Muslim Mosque, Inc. The theological and ideological gulf between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad further widened during Malcolm’s month- long trip to Africa and the Middle East. During a pilgrimage to Mecca on 20 April 1964, Malcolm reported that seeing Muslims of all colors worshiping together caused him to reject the view that all whites were devils. Repudiating the racial theology of the Nation of Islam, he moved toward orthodox Islam as practiced outside the group. After returning to the United States on 21 May, Malcolm announced that he had adopted a Muslim name, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, and that he was forming a new political group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), to bring together all elements of the African-American freedom struggle.

Determined to unify African Americans, Malcolm sought to strengthen his ties with the more militant factions of the civil rights movement. At a Cleveland symposium sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in April 1964, Malcolm delivered one of his most notable speeches, "The Ballot or the Bullet," in which he urged black people to "submerge their differences and realize that it is best for us to first see that we have the same problem, a common problem—a problem that will make you catch hell whether you're a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist."

Although Malcolm continued to reject King's nonviolent, integrationist approach, he and King had a brief, cordial encounter on 26 March 1964 as King left a press conference at the U.S. Capitol. Soon thereafter, Malcolm wired King to offer his support of King's campaign in St. Augustine, Florida. Malcolm offered to organize "self-defense units" to give the Klan a "taste of their own medicine to demonstrate that the day of turning the other cheek to those brute beasts is long over." King declined the offer, calling Malcolm's suggestion "a grave error" and "an immoral approach." In early 1965, while King was jailed in Selma, Alabama, Malcolm met with Coretta Scott King. He told her he did not come to Selma to make things more difficult for King, explaining, "If white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King."

On 21 February 1965, less than three weeks after his meeting in Selma, Malcolm was fatally shot while giving a speech in New York City. After his death, his views reached an even larger audience with the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. His philosophy of armed self-defense was advocated by the Black Power movement that emerged in 1966.

Clayborne Carson, "Malcolm X," in John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the most visible advocates of nonviolence and direct action as methods of social change, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta on 15 January 1929. As the grandson of the Rev. A.D. Williams, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist church and a founder of Atlanta's NAACP chapter, and the son of Martin Luther King, Sr., who succeeded Williams as Ebenezer's pastor, King's roots were in the African-American Baptist church. After attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, King went on to study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and Boston University, where he deepened his understanding of theological scholarship and explored Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent strategy for social change.

King married Coretta Scott in 1953, and the following year he accepted the pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. King received his Ph.D. in systematic theology in 1955.

On 5 December 1955, after civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to comply with Montgomery's segregation policy on buses, black residents launched a bus boycott and elected King president of the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association. The boycott continued throughout 1956 and King gained national prominence for his role in the campaign. In December 1956 the United States Supreme Court declared Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional and Montgomery buses were desegregated.
Seeking to build upon the success in Montgomery, King and other southern black ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. In 1959, King toured India and further developed his understanding of Gandhian nonviolent strategies. Later that year, King resigned from Dexter and returned to Atlanta to become co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church with his father.
In 1960, black college students initiated a wave of sit-in protests that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). King supported the student movement and expressed an interest in creating a youth arm of the SCLC. Student activists admired King, but they were critical of his top-down leadership style and were determined to maintain their autonomy. As an advisor to SNCC, Ella Baker, who had previously served as associate director of SCLC, made clear to representatives from other civil rights organizations that SNCC was to remain a student-led organization. The 1961 "Freedom Rides" heightened tensions between King and younger activists, as he faced criticism for his decision not to participate in the rides. Conflicts between SCLC and SNCC continued during the Albany Movement of 1961 and 1962.
In the spring of 1963, King and SCLC lead mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, where local white police officials were known for their violent opposition to integration. Clashes between unarmed black demonstrators and police armed with dogs and fire hoses generated newspaper headlines throughout the world. President Kennedy responded to the

Birmingham protests by submitting broad civil rights legislation to Congress, which led to the

passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Subsequent mass demonstrations culminated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28 August 1963, in which more than 250,000 protesters gathered in Washington, D. C. It was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
King's renown continued to grow as he became Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1963 and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. However, along with the fame and accolades came conflict within the movement's leadership. Malcolm X's message of self-defense and black nationalism resonated with northern, urban blacks more effectively than King's call for nonviolence; King also faced public criticism from "Black Power" proponent, Stokely Carmichael.
King's efficacy was not only hindered by divisions among black leadership, but also by the increasing resistance he encountered from national political leaders. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's extensive efforts to undermine King's leadership were intensified during 1967 as urban racial violence escalated, and King's public criticism of U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War led to strained relations with Lyndon Johnson's administration.


In late 1967, King initiated a Poor People's Campaign designed to confront economic problems that had not been addressed by earlier civil rights reforms. The following year, while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, he delivered his final address "I've Been to the Mountaintop." The next day, 4 April 1968, King was assassinated.


To this day, King remains a controversial symbol of the African American civil rights struggle, revered by many for his martyrdom on behalf of nonviolence and condemned by others for his militancy and insurgent views.
Clayborne Carson, "Malcolm X," in John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)


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