If for the white establishment in the United States, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were as different as ‘oil and water’, they were respected leaders in the black community. While they fought each other politically and advocated different forms of struggle, their goal was the same: the liberation of the black man.
The United States commemorates this Saturday the fiftieth anniversary of the disappearance of Malcolm X, who was murdered on February 21, 1965. This brutal death was experienced at the time as a great shock in the black neighborhoods of major American cities where tens of thousands of people mourned the disappearance of their ‘Our Shining Black Prince’. Some 40 months apart, on April 4, 1968, the Baptist Reverend Martin Luther King, shot and killed by a white supremacist, disappeared in Memphis. President Lyndon Johnson called him a ‘martyr of the nation,’ and members of Congress attended his funeral. In the space of three years, the United States lost two of its greatest figures dedicated to black liberation in the 20th century. For the record, the autopsy of the black pastor revealed that his heart, exhausted by thirteen years of struggle, resembled that of a 60-year-old man. He was 39, just like the champion of ‘black power’ at the time of his assassination!
Although these two black leaders were from the same generation, they faced each other politically and deployed very different strategies to achieve their goal of improving the living conditions of the men and women in their community. Inspired by the teachings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King campaigned for civil rights for blacks through non-violent actions and negotiations with the federal government. Malcolm X, on the other hand, was the antithesis of non-violent thinking and ironically described the civil rights movement as ‘the only revolution that says you must love your enemy. A supporter of the Nation of Islam (NOI) Brotherhood, which claimed to be Islamic and advocated black nationalism, he galvanized the black masses in the northern ghettos by telling them about their pride in their black and African color, culture and heritage. He demanded the separation of blacks and whites, even going so far as to forge an alliance with the Ku Klux Klan to implement this separation effectively. An idea that he later regretted. According to Malcolm X, white society being irremediably racist, the path followed by King could not be but a dead end. The gulf between the two men was long explained by their personal history.
Both sons of Baptist pastors involved in the black movement, they grew up in very different family and social environments. King was a southerner, imbued with Christian values and those of the upper middle class. A Doctor of Theology, ordained a pastor himself, he preached in the church in Atlanta where his father, and before him his grandfather, had served. Influenced by the thought of Gandhi, which he had discovered during his studies, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, whose aim was to coordinate protest movements in the South by building on the associative fabric of the black churches. Thus, it was the black Christians of the South who were the real audience for Reverend King’s sermons and homilies. King’s non-violent protests, sit-ins, boycotts, and peaceful resistance were adapted to the very conservative environment of the small towns of the rural South where segregation was the law.
In contrast, Malcolm X was directed at the black population of the urban ghettos from which he was a product. His father was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan when he was just 5 years old. Separated from his mother, who ended her life in a psychiatric asylum, Malcolm’s journey was complex. His destiny led him from delinquency to political radicalism, passing through prison where he learned as a self-taught man, converted to Islam, before joining the brotherhood of Nation of Islam (NOI) when he was released from prison. Spokesman of this movement and a brilliant tribune, he called on the Blacks to organize themselves by resorting to violence if necessary (self-defense). According to historians, King had ‘warped’ his speech in the last years of his life, coming a little closer to Malcolm’s radicalism.