January 15 is celebrated every year as Martin Luther King Junior Day in the United States in honor of the famous civil rights activist. While King is venerated throughout the country as a major voice for peace and justice in the 1960s, the other major figure of the civil rights movement, Al Hajj Malik Al Shabazz or Malcolm X, is somewhat less enthusiastically embraced by the mainstream.
The reason for this is that certain images of both figures have been crystallized in the public consciousness. Neither image is truly representative of the complexity of each person. In the case of Martin, we are presented with a non-violence preaching reformer with a message of love and integration between African-Americans and their white counterparts. His most well-known moment was the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech in 1963. Malcolm X’s public image is the radical spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, who spoke of white people as demonic and called for blacks to segregate themselves from these corrupted lot. His signature phrase would be ‘By any mean necessary’ which he spoke of in 1964.
The reality is that both Martin and Malcolm had matured beyond the caricatures that are ascribed to them, before they were tragically assassinated. King spent much of the early 1960s at the forefront of the civil right movement and went to jail multiple times for his struggle. He sincerely felt that by appealing to the good conscience of the white majority in the country, he would be able to secure the civil and political rights denied to blacks and push back against the extremists. He was an open advocate for integration between the different races and in using nonviolent means to achieve the goals of the movement.
Later, King came to the realisation that without securing economic justice (for not just blacks but all those in poverty), the ultimate aims of the civil rights movement would be incomplete. He began to lose faith in the good will of the white ruling class and the superficiality of their lofty rhetoric about love and harmony while blacks were still suffering deeply. He said his dream had, “turned into a nightmare.” And when he spoke out strongly opposed to the imperial war in Vietnam, he was shunned by the same white establishment that had embraced him years earlier.
Malcolm X, on the other hand, had no illusions about the mendacity and viciousness of ruling elite of the racist country he was born into. Representing the Nation of Islam cult, he spoke about the evil of the white race and advocated for separation of the races. He experienced firsthand the injustices of the economic system and saw the solution as the organisation and empowerment of his impoverished black brothers and sisters rather than dependence on outsiders. He saw no use for the non-violent tactics of King and pressed for the right to self-defense in the face of violence from the state. The imperial wars abroad were likened to the oppression the blacks faced at home. And most importantly of all, blacks would need to free themselves from the mental and spiritual bondage caused by a legacy of slavery that was centuries old.
Following his departure from the Nation of Islam and acceptance of orthodox Islam and travel to Hajj in 1964/65, Malcolm X returned to the US as determined but wiser than before. While still vehemently against the injustice faced by his people, he no longer demonised white people and was on the record as being against any type of segregation. He saw the need for political organisation of his community and to work with people of all races and creeds as long as they were pursuing the same goal.
King and Malcolm X only met once, very briefly outside the US Senate on 26 March, 1964. The photo of that encounter hints at the possibilities that could have been realised had both of them joined forces for the greater good. Towards the end, King was becoming more outspoken on the deeper systemic injustices that Malcolm had identified since the beginning, whereas Malcolm was moderating his more hard-line views on race relations he earlier held. Yet in 1965 and 1968, Malcolm and King were assassinated, and historians can only speculate on what they could have achieved as a united front.
Featured Image Source: Stitchting Bekeerling