Throughout our sojourn in America, we’ve always had two faces, two demeanors, as represented by King and Malcolm. Ultimately, though, each was seen as a threat by the American establishment. In truth, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Minister Malcolm X were not that different. They were fellow travelers on the same road, the one headed toward fulfillment of the Dream America holds for all in proclaiming that she’s the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.”
MALCOLM X vs. MARTIN LUTHER KING
Everything has its opposite. Black has white. Night has day. Hard, soft. Hot, cold. If there was a Martin Luther King Jr., there had to be a Malcolm X. Martin Luther King, history remembers. Malcolm X, history tries to forget. But each man in his own way dominated the times in which he lived. . .
Malcolm’s earliest memory is that of waking in the middle of the night in a burning house. His mother and father fought to get the children out as the blazing walls came crashing down. They coughed and stumbled their way out into the night as his father fired at the fleeing men on horseback dressed in white. . .
Martin Luther King, Sr. was a prominent minister in Atlanta, Georgia. The family lived in the middle class Black section of Atlanta, the largest city in the South. Everyone here was a professional: a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher, or they owned their own business. Martin attended the local Black high school graduating at the age of 15. He entered Morehouse College, also in Atlanta, finishing at 19 at the very top of his class. . .
Malcolm’s father, a farmer in rural Michigan, was a follower of Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. From its base in Harlem, in the 1920s, Marcus Garvey and the UNIA set up chapters in Black communities around the world. He taught that “Black is Beautiful,” and that Africans throughout the Diaspora must return (repatriate) to the Motherland. Malcolm as a boy attended meetings of the local UNIA chapter with his father who was a prominent member. However, a few years after his house was destroyed, Malcolm’s father was killed by a white mob. . .
Martin decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a minister. In 1955, at age 25, he became a Doctor of Divinity and received his first pastorship. It was in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. At that time, throughout the South and much of the North, whites and Blacks, by law, attended different public schools and used different public facilities. The Black schools and facilities were inferior, and Blacks were denied the right to vote. On the buses they rode in back, the whites in front, and if the white half was filled, the Blacks had to surrender their seats. One day, though, one of Montgomery’s citizens, Mrs. Rosa Parks, decided to fight back. . .
Though Malcolm’s mother tried desperately to keep the family together, she found that she could not. She eventually had a mental breakdown, was institutionalized and the children were split up and sent to foster care. Malcolm, nonetheless, became the best pupil in the all-white eighth grade class he attended. However, when he told a teacher that he’d like to be a lawyer, the man called him a racial epithet and told him to learn to do something with his hands. After dropping out of school, Malcolm became deeply involved in street life, was arrested, convicted and sent to jail for a long time. . .
On December 3, 1955 Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on the bus to a white passenger and was arrested. In response, the Black community of Montgomery organized a boycott of the buses, and Martin Luther King, being newly arrived, and therefore not suspected of being under the influence of local white interests, was selected as the chair of their meetings. After a 13 month struggle, the boycott was successful and the buses of Montgomery were integrated. In the following years, Martin Luther King emerged as the head of a movement for justice and equality that branched out from Montgomery and swept through the South. . .
While in jail, Malcolm became a follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam in America, in many ways the successor to Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. Malcolm became the Nation’s most effective and charismatic leader establishing chapters throughout the country and swelling membership by leaps and bounds. He and the Nation advocated self-defense and the total economic and political independence of Black America. They emerged as a counterpoint to the movement for inclusion advocated by King and his followers. . .
Thus Malcolm and King each became a focus of one of the opposing wings of the movement for equality that swept Black America, and the country, in the middle of the last century. The titanic struggle shook the nation and the world, and its reverberations are still felt today. As for King and Malcolm, born three years apart, they would also depart three years apart, each assassinated in the struggle at age 39. (Malcolm in New York in 1965. King in Memphis in 1968.)
At times those in power were eager to deal with King for fear of having to contend with Malcolm and the forces he represented. However, though initially favored by the American government, once King opposed the War in Viet Nam, the government stopped protecting him. Also towards the end, King pressed beyond social equality and sought economic parity. And he would not desist, even when some of his followers struck back at those who struck them. And as for Malcolm, it’s said that towards the end, he too seemed to change some of his views.