Martin Luther King vs. Malcolm X: The Right Path To Justice

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When faced with racial violence and injustice, what is the right path to take? Is peaceful protest the answer? Or should the victims fight back physically and respond with aggression? Is there even a point to integration with the enemy? Even though the United States outlawed slavery in 1865, segregation and discrimination against African Americans persisted for nearly a hundred years and still lingers on today. With the continued brutality against African Americans came the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were undeniably prominent activists in the long fight to secure rights for African Americans and other people of color. However, their tactics and methods were vastly different; one was more militant in their beliefs and the other supported passive resistance. It became obvious with time which man’s strategy was more successful: Martin Luther King.

When Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace prize in 1964, he summarized the crisis that America was facing impeccably: “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers” (Nobel Prize.org). When he became a minister in Montgomery, Alabama, African Americans in the South were suffering due to the Jim Crow laws that segregated whites and blacks in everyday life (Prentzas, G. S., and Jack Rummel). Despite the bitter, heinous ways they were treated, King was inspired by Gandhi's philosophy and had the powerful, spiritual notion that the best way to combat these atrocities committed against them was through nonviolent demonstrations and peaceful protests (Prentzas, G. S., and Jack Rummel). One of his first actions within the Civil Rights Movement was organizing the Montgomery bus boycott when Rosa Parks, a black woman, denied giving up her seat to a white person. Despite the threat of death looming over his head, his house even being firebombed during the year the boycott took place, he still held tightly onto the concept of love and civil disobedience overcoming hatred and intolerance. With this mindset, Martin Luther King orchestrated and took part in nonviolent protests where they refused to leave segregated, white-only businesses until they got service. While these efforts took America by storm, King truely engraved his mark on American history with his famous “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on Washington. He announced with passionate certainty in front of thousands of people that their fight would “continue to shake the foundations of the nation until the bright day of justice emerged” (1963). Even after an incident where he was stabbed in the chest, King said in an address given at Bishop Charles Mason Temple, “We aren't going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces. They don't know what to do” (I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, 1968). Martin Luther King was an activist who embodied the idea of light overcoming darkness from the very beginning all the way to his tragic end. King stood tall, never wavering in what he believed to be God’s will, even though he knew could very well die at any moment for his cause.

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Not all activists agreed with one another and Malcolm X had a very different view on the matter of civil rights for African Americans. During his time with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm preached that blacks should come together and do anything in their power to get the rights that they deserve through any means necessary (Escovar). He was a firm challenger to Martin’s visions of black and white people walking hand in hand to the Promised Land. It was evident through his speeches that he strongly opposed working with white Americans. He believed that black people should only trust those amongst themselves and that whites were inherently evil and deceitful. “What we have foremost in common is that enemy -- the white man. He's an enemy to all of us. I know some of you all think that some of them aren't enemies. Time will tell.” Malcolm warned at a rally in Michigan (Message to the Grassroots, 1963). He felt that it was wrong that African Americans were still under the laws of whites, regardless of whether they treated them well or not, and that they should be able to “control the politics and the politicians in his own community” (The Ballot or the Bullet, 1964).

In the same speech, he goes on to say, “You don't have a revolution in which you love your enemy. And you don't have a revolution in which you are begging the system of exploitation to integrate you into it. Revolutions overturn systems. Revolutions destroy systems.”

Malcolm wanted blacks to stick to themselves, essentially, and insisted that intermingling with whites would eventually lead to chaos and being ordered around. They could only rely on themselves to get what they deserved and counting on white people for any kind of help would be self-deprecating and self-destructive. In short, he thought that the only way that could make change happen was to take matters into their own hands, not just wait on the approval of the enemy. Although he disagreed with King, Malcolm knew that regardless of method, all black people were searching for freedom.

“No, I'm not for separation and you're not for integration, what you and I are for is freedom. Only, you think that integration will get you freedom; I think that separation will get me freedom. We both got the same objective, we just got different ways of getting' at it” (The Ballot or the Bullet, 1961).

Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X made a lasting impact on history and both had valid, understandable approaches to the fight for freedom. Nevertheless, to this day, King is the man most Americans think of when the Civil Rights Movement is brought into discussion, not Malcolm X. King was a man of patience and so he was able to compromise and take things slowly, while Malcolm was a man of urgency and resisted the opinions of white people. Malcolm was a bit too radical in his approach and while his ideas were honorable and noble, he also came across as intimidating to many white Americans, further dividing the country. King, on the other hand, was much more approachable and accepted the kindness of anyone who supported his cause, regardless of race. When television broadcasts showed the horrific manner in which peaceful protestors were being treated by the police in Birmingham, Alabama (I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, 1968), it woke America up. If the protestors had fought back, no matter how justifiable it would have been, their violent resistance would have been twisted into a negative light by racist, white Americans and used as evidence that America should stay segregated. Malcolm vaguely implied in his Ballot or the Bullet speech that “bloody revolution” was the only way to get their freedom if white Americans refused to give them rights. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The sit-ins organized by King were very effective even though the participants didn’t resort to violence. It disrupted business and stirred up controversy. The Montgomery bus boycott is a prime example of this as it made the public buses carry the financial losses that their absence came with. In order to get their money and their respect, they had to be respected in return. That was what King was all about. Mutual respect and harmony. That was something that appealed to American nation as a whole and made many white people realize the nightmares they’d been inflicting on black Americans. It appealed to their sense of morality. Malcolm X’s ideals, while understandable and respectable, only fueled the narrative that racists wanted to tell.

Although historians can’t agree on when exactly the Civil Rights Movement began (Smith), one thing is for sure: it’s not over yet. It will never be over as long as there are minorities in the United States that are mistreated and judged for anything but the content of their character. While the movement marches on, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X will be names forever remembered. All things considered, however, Martin Luther King made the more lasting impact on the United States of America with his influential dream of a country where harmonious diversity reigns triumphant.

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