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A photo montage showing Malcolm X in March 1964 and the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC, USA.

The lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: The firebrand and the pacifist

Image Credit: (Right) | Above: (Left) Malcolm X in March 1964 (Right) The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC, USA.

There are many articles highlighting the differences between civil rights activists Martin Luther King and Malcolm X who both paved the way for future generations to challenge racial discrimination and prejudice. But despite their disparate lives, be it their individual upbringing to early youthful experiences and different social environments, they both fought for equality at a time when America was in conflict with itself over matters of race. As different as their philosophies proved they were both radical visionaries shaped by their respective backgrounds and experiences. As men with a shared vision for the future, but embracing divergent strategies, they become two of the most important and influential political activists of the 20th century. Although these two civil rights firebrand leaders operated from conflicting ends of the spectrum, they both demonstrated courage to the point of risking their lives, in order to bring about change for African Americans.

Early Lives and Inspirations

Malcolm X

The charismatic black Muslim activist, whose passionate rhetoric inspired his followers and spread fear among his enemies was born ‘Malcolm Little’ on May 19, 1925. The popular and provocative civil rights activist changed his name to Malcolm X while he was serving time for burglary in prison.

The name change was a protest against white assimilation and to symbolise his unknown African ancestry.

Malcolm X was the fourth of seven children to parents who were themselves members of activist group the UNIA that fought for social change. It was a working class household but one with civil rights aspirations. His parents’ political activities caused them to be targeted by racist groups and the family left Omaha, Nebraska after the Klu Klux Klan burned down their home. When asked by a radio commentator about how such an incident affected his parents - who relocated to Milwaukee and later to Michigan - Malcolm replied 'Insecure, if not unhappy'.

Parents Earl Little, a Baptist lay preacher and his wife Louise instilled in Malcolm and his siblings the values of self-reliance and black pride which was to influence their famous son as a young man to enter politics. Although the teenage Malcolm excelled in high school with an interest in practising law he dropped out after a white teacher told him that such an occupation was 'no realistic goal for a [n-word]'

Distancing himself from his parents’ religious beliefs, Malcolm’s increasingly aggressive outlook about how to get equality for Black Americans may have been due to the family’s experience of racism. His parents’ involvement with activism meant they were frequently racially harassed, in particular by the Black Legion, a white racist group. When his father died in a streetcar accident in 1932 Malcolm’s mother, Louise, believed it was caused by the Black Legion. By 1937 the widowed Louise become involved with another man and after discovering herself pregnant, had a nervous breakdown when he disappeared. Louise Little was committed to Kalamazoo State Hospital when Malcolm was about 9 years old causing him and his siblings to be separated and sent to foster homes. Years later he was to remark that ‘white violence’ killed four of his father’s brothers.

Martin Luther King

Born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, to the Reverend Michael King and Alberta Williams, Martin Luther King, originally named Michael on his birth certificate, was the second of three children. MLK was raised in a devout Baptist household which saw his father enter the ministry becoming assistant pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. King Snr later took over the role as pastor where his oratory skills raised attendance from six hundred to several thousand.

Martin Luther King’s awareness about racial disharmony and prejudice possibly came from his father, who had personally witnessed the rising of fascism in Europe while on a multinational trip for a meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in Berlin. His observations inspired King Snr to speak out against Germany’s treatment of Jews. But it was Martin’s childhood friendship with a white boy, both inseparable and the later trauma of the friendship being terminated after they were sent to segregated schools, that the young King began to understand what it meant to be black in America. His parents took the opportunity at that time to inform him about the violence and oppression African Americans had suffered under slavery and what the reality was for King Jnr in the mid 1930s. But it was witnessing his father’s stand against segregation and then leading hundreds of African Americans in a civil rights march to the city hall in Atlanta that sowed the seeds of Martin Luther King’s passion to bring about change in America and take up the baton to fight for civil rights.

Malcolm X v Martin Luther King : Upbringing

Malcolm X operated from a traumatised youth. His impoverished upbringing where he spent several years in foster homes after his parents died shaped his outlook on life. It was a tough life at the opposite end of the spectrum to Martin Luther King’s somewhat gilded middle-class and church influenced home life.

King was brought up by a middle-class, prosperous African-American family that ran one of the most important churches in black Atlanta. Whatever the social contrasts were between the two men, both were shaped by their historical circumstances. Both wanted the same goals, to make America a fairer place for African-Americans and anyone outside of white mainstream society but had very different tactics on how to achieve those goals.

Tough Starts

Despite the social differences between the two firebrand civil rights leaders, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King experienced similarly tough starts in life. For Malcolm during his youth and entering manhood, it was dealing with oppression and lack of employment opportunities while Martin Luther King suffered a strict and occasionally violent father.

As a young man brought up in an impoverished working-class background, Malcolm X took up various menial low paid jobs before becoming involved in the criminal underworld. According to biographers, he was a self-declared ‘pimp’ and drug dealer before finding himself incarcerated in Massachusetts in 1946 for being part of a burglary ring. It was here while serving a ten-year sentence in prison that he became introduced to the Nation of Islam organisation led by Elijah Muhammad, described by the media as being ‘black supremacists’ but an organisation that was to change the trajectory of Malcolm’s wayward life as a young man.

As a child, Martin Luther King and his siblings would read aloud the Bible under the strict watch of their father who wasn’t averse to resorting to using a whip to discipline his children or encouraging them to even whip each other at times. Due to his experiences of racial torments and humiliation the adolescent King felt resentment against whites in the segregated South. By the time he was in his late teens the famously religious minister that he was to become was unable to identify with the churchgoers he had been brought up with.

A life-changing moment occurred when he rode a bus and was ordered to stand so that a white passenger could sit. The driver called him a 'black son of a bitch' when King argued. The young King wrote of the incident 'That night will never leave my memory. It was angriest I have ever been in my life'.

Political activism and achievements

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King became associated with religious-political organisations which although having very different strategies and policies aspired for the same outcome in American society...the unconditional emancipation for blacks. As young men, they were both subjected to scrutiny and watched by government bodies.

Malcolm X

A seminal moment for Malcolm X on his journey to fame and activism was while serving time in prison for a series of burglaries he became aware of the Nation of Islam, a religious organisation founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930. Malcolm’s brother Reginald encouraged him to take up the teachings of the ‘new religion’ which differed from traditional Islam, imploring him to give up pork and cigarettes and to become a follower of a movement that preached black self-reliance.

At first dismissive, Malcolm soon began to identify with the religion that promised to free black citizens and depicted whites as ‘devils’.

Writing to the Nation’s leader Elijah Muhammad the young Malcolm X, still under 25 years of age and having renounced his past, promised his religious mentor never to engage in destructive behaviour again.

‘Between Mr. Muhammad’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors...and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life’.

After expressing his opposition to the Korean War in a letter to President Truman and declaring himself as a communist, the FBI opened a file on the man who in 1950 signed his name Malcolm X after obeying Muhammad’s instructions to leave family names behind when joining the Nation. The X for Malcolm symbolised the African name he never knew. At just 27 he was paroled in August 1952.

A year later the FBI turned its attention to Malcolm as a pivotal member of the Nation of Islam due to his successful recruiting of members through a combination of charisma, impressive physical presence and oratory skills. He helped establish new temples in several southern states and encouraged hundreds of African Americans to join. In 1957 the brutal beating and killing of a Nation member, Hilton Johnson, by two New York City police officers saw Malcolm orchestrating a protest of some four thousand people and later instructing them to peacefully disperse. This display of power, by a black man, unsettled the New York Police Department. After a grand jury declined to indict the officers who beat Johnson, the FBI increased its surveillance on Malcolm as well as assigning undercover officers to infiltrate the Nation of Islam. Soon Malcolm’s prominence grew with his often inflammatory comments being widely reported by the press and on radio and television.

In 1960 Malcolm X outraged many US authority figures when he met Fidel Castro. But it was when he was invited by the United Nations General Assembly to official functions of several African countries that many whites, as well as some blacks, became alarmed by the statements he made as the voice of the Nation of Islam. One irony during this period of civil rights activism was that the Nation forbade its members from participating in voting, leading other civil rights organisations to denounce Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam as extremists and not representing ordinary African Americans.

As Malcolm fashioned a reputation as a radical who was critical of the mainstream civil rights movement and called Martin Luther King a 'chump', his verbal attacks calling King’s followers ‘stooges’ of the white establishment set the two visionaries on a conflicting course. Describing King’s famous 1963 march on Washington as 'the farce on Washington', Malcolm X created a deepening schism between the two black activist movements. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), with its values based on peaceful protest and civil disobedience, was fully rejected by Malcolm X’s philosophy to achieve equality through violence (if warranted) and the total separation of African Americans from whites. Appealing to black communities in northern and western cities, many of whom had grown tired of waiting for emancipation, Malcolm X became an alternative leader to Martin Luther King for disenfranchised African Americans who argued that they should defend and advance themselves 'by any means necessary'.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which attracted headlines in the early 60s with its non-violent protests. King wished to advance civil rights through nonviolence inspired by his Christian beliefs and the activism of Mahatma Gandhi. The SCLC’s protests, occasionally clashing with segregationist authorities, sometimes resulted in violence which saw King being demonised and pigeonholed as a radical.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover placed King on his radar for investigation, particularly for anything that might associate King with communist ties. His everyday life was monitored, even for extra-marital affairs and reported to government officials. At the time be believed that a threatening anonymous letter was sent to him to unsettle his mind and encourage him to commit suicide. It demonstrated at least that the SCLC was having an effect and worrying racist authority figures because of its increasing influence.

By 1965, King had won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality. The following year he organised two of the three ‘Selma to Montgomery marches’ which were to have a profound effect on the civil rights movement, particularly after the shooting and killing of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by a state trooper during a march in Marion, Alabama in February, 1965. The marches took place along the 54-mile highway from Selma in Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. A non-violent march organised for March 7, 1965, was to demand the right to vote for African American citizens. The protest, apart from highlighting the murder of Lee Jackson, was also about drawing attention to the southern states’ laws upholding segregation and the injustice of using literacy tests as a barrier to stop black citizens from voting.

What began as a peaceful event was turned into a violent excuse for Alabama State Troopers to attack the demonstrators on what has become known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. The ensuing carnage where State troopers used ‘billy clubs’ and tear gas against unarmed marchers was caught on film and televised. A second march two days later saw King confront police at the county end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and obeying a federal injunction led the marchers to the church. That night a second activist and church minister, James Reeb was attacked by a gang of racist thugs and murdered.

The attacks on peaceful unarmed marches and the murders led to a national outcry resulting in the third march on March 21 being protected by 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard. The epic journey along Route 80 attracted thousands and saw 25,000 entering the capital city in support of voting rights for African Americans. With the backing of President Lyndon Johnson the Voting Rights Act became law on August 6, 1965. The route is now memorialised as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Martin Luther King’s speech ‘How Long? Not Long’ was delivered at the Alabama State Capitol.

'Last Sunday, more than eight thousand of us started on a mighty walk from Selma, Alabama. We have walked through desolate valleys and across the trying hills. We have walked on meandering highways and rested our bodies on rocky byways. Some of our faces are burned from the outpourings of the sweltering sun. Some have literally slept in the mud. We have been drenched by the rains. Our bodies are tired and our feet are somewhat sore.'

The emotional speech caused thousands to cheer when King shouted 'We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around'. King’s march on Washington on August 28, 1963, was a call to the US government and authorities to recognise jobs and freedom for millions of African Americans and prohibit racial discrimination. President John F Kennedy was keen to see the march succeed and was initially worried it would have a low turnout, thus assisting the cause by mobilising union workers to participate. More than a quarter of a million people from diverse ethnic backgrounds attended the event which witnessed one of the most famous speeches on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech lasted nearly twenty minutes. It was regarded as one of the most revered speeches in oratory history and went on to help facilitate the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Different Strategies

Malcolm X is the most important black working-class hero, leader and activist in modern times. His take on politics and how to bring about social change for dispossessed Black Americans, Latinos and other non-white citizens came from the lower echelons of the black community. It was a life with raw experience of what it was to be black in 1940s and 1950s America. His father had been killed in 1931 and by the time Malcolm X left prison after seven years for crimes relating to theft and burglary he believed in radical activism to change America. His main belief that underpinned essential strategies for change was that he believed what black people needed was to lead themselves and not rely on Christian traditions to save them.

Martin Luther King fought the same battle but at the opposite side of the political ring. King’s modus operandi for change was shaped by his religious beliefs and Baptist upbringing. As a Baptist minister and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s mantra was ‘non violence is the weapon of strength’. This philosophy underpinned King’s nonviolent protests in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 and his organising the ground-breaking March on Washington in the same year where he delivered his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Opposing Philosophies

Malcolm X’s more radical approach to activism made Martin Luther King’s politics look more palatable to the media and mainstream society. The Civil Rights Act 1963 catapulted both of them into greater radicalisation and highlighted their different views at fighting racial inequality and injustice. Malcolm X didn’t believe legislation would change anything whereas MLK hoped that the implementation of laws, won through the courts, such as the headline grabbing boycott of Montgomery buses in 1955, could begin to dismantle racism and segregation.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

The controversial boycott which lasted 385 days was sparked when seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man after the front white section was full. Previously a fifteen-year-old girl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat to a white man. But Parks’ defiance led to her arrest and the courts. The boycott of the Montgomery public buses finally led to a victorious conclusion when a ruling by the United States District Court, decided to prohibit racial segregation on all Montgomery buses. The ruling which meant blacks were able to sit in the front of buses with full legal authorisation proved to Martin Luther King that non-violent resistance and protest could bring about social change.

Segregation v Integration

Although Malcolm X eventually came to believe in black citizenship his early ‘separatist vision’, which he translated as not being about segregation between black and white citizens but ‘separation’, was based on his belief that white people did not want black people to be citizens and have dignity. Malcolm strongly advocated for African Americans to embrace their own identity and not adopt white society values and culture. Martin Luther King took an opposing view, seeing integration as being the best way to bring about harmony in society and break down divisions. But any notion of assimilation was anathema to Malcolm X who only saw blacks being able to empower themselves through acknowledging their own cultural identity and history and pursue dignity through their own history.

The ballot v the bullet

Although only meeting each other once at a public gathering and exchanging polite acknowledgement of each other, no two men fighting for the same outcome could have been so different in their beliefs and strategies to bring about emancipation for African Americans.

Malcolm X advocated for Black empowerment by ‘any means possible’ countering Martin Luther King’s philosophy of peaceful non-violent protest to bring about change. But Malcolm’s notion of empowerment leant itself to ideas of Black Supremacy and the separation of black and white Americans. He also criticised the mainstream civil rights movement, particularly King’s beliefs for its emphasis on non-violence and racial integration. King hoped for social change and civil rights for African Americans through goodwill. Malcolm X demanded change through action, even that which was violent as long as the ‘end justified the means’.

If King was seen as a non-violent apostle appealing to blacks, who were afraid of agitating the authorities or white society with demands, Malcolm X was unapologetic about protesting and fighting for was he believed was African Americans’ rights for equality, respect and freedom at any cost. His philosophy was for change through transformational action.

In what can be seen as the most disingenuous of attacks on Martin Luther King’s most notable achievements, Malcolm challenged MLK’s famous 'I have a dream' speech, counter-posing what he saw as a utopian notion of the future put forward by the mainstream civil rights movement that suggested a time will arrive when being black or white doesn’t matter anymore when people live in freedom and harmony. Malcolm X said in contrast to this view that inequalities did not come from nowehere. Defending his position when a journalist accused him of having a prejudicial view, Malcolm X replied in a calm manner. 'No-one was more thoroughly integrated with whites than I. No one lived more in the society of whites than I.”


Malcolm X

After a tense period when Malcolm X famously fell out with his former mentor and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, after accusing him of extra-marital affairs and having eight children by different teenage girls, Malcolm feared the organisation wanted to kill him.

On February 21, 1965, the controversial civil rights activist was making an address in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on a stage to members of the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), when a man shouted from the audience '[N-word]!' Get your hand outta my pocket!', rushing forward and shooting him in the chest. During the panic and mayhem, two other men charged firing semi-automatic handguns. Malcolm X received 21 gunshot wounds to various parts of his body and died at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital at 3.30pm. His three assassins were all members of the Nation and sentenced to life in prison in March 1966. Malcolm X’s funeral in Harlem was attended by 30,000 mourners and transmitted live by a local television station.

Ten years later four more Nation members were identified but the case was not reopened. Controversy about who planned Malcolm X’s assassination and carried it out has led to recent TV and film documentaries investigating the murder that took place over half a century ago.

Martin Luther King

Before MLK’s tragic assassination on March 29, 1968, he had suffered a knife attack ten years earlier while he was signing copies of his book Stride Toward Freedom in Blumstein’s department store in Harlem. It was a near-fatal attack by a mentally ill black woman who believed King was conspiring with communists against her personally. On the fateful day he lost his life King went to Memphis, Tennessee in support of black sanitary workers. His flight had been delayed by a bomb threat and almost as if having a premonition he reflected on the subject of mortality hours before his death. 'Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.' While staying in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel King as he stood on the motel’s second-floor balcony he was fatally shot. His assassin was James Earl Ray, a forty-year-old fugitive and felon. He was apprehended as part of an international police operation after fleeing to Toronto and then later to Lisbon, Portugal before being arrested at London Heathrow Airport as he tried to make his way to Brussels.

Ray’s single bullet had passed through King’s right cheek, smashing his jaw before lodging in his shoulder. He died at St Joseph’s Hospital at 7.05 pm. At his autopsy, the 39-year-old civil rights activist was found to have the heart of a man twenty years older. This was put down to the stress of 13 years in the civil rights movement and a life constantly aware of danger.

Malcolm X v Martin Luther King: Quotes

MLK : 'I say to you, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream'

MX : 'We haven’t experienced the American Dream. We’ve experienced the American nightmare!

MLK : 'I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed : "We hold these truths to be self-evident : that all men are created equal"'

MX : 'We need freedom by any means necessary. Our forefathers aren’t the pilgrims. They didn’t arrive on Plymouth Rock. The rock was landed on us'

MLK : 'I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be not judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of the their character'

MX : 'You and I have never seen democracy, all we’ve seen is hypocrisy' and 'If you were black you were born in jail'

After a visit to Britain and discovering that Smethwick’s successful candidate for the Conservative Party, Peter Griffiths had campaigned with the words “If you want a [n-word] for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour', Malcolm X compared the treatment of minority residents with the treatment of Jews by the Nazi party with the retort, 'I would not wait for the fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens'.

For more articles about Black History, check out Sky HISTORY's Black History Month hub.