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God in America | Article

People and Ideas: The Civil Rights Movement

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Malcom X.

Malcolm X

When Malcolm Little was 6 years old, his father's body was found lying across the town's trolley tracks. The death was ruled accidental, but Malcolm believed his father had been killed by white supremacists. A few years later, his mother suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized. Malcolm, despite doing well in school, lost interest and left for Boston, where he became a petty thief and street hustler. After being arrested and sentenced to 10 years for burglary, Malcolm began a period of self-education. His brother, a recent convert to the Nation of Islam (NOI), came to visit, and Malcolm immersed himself in the NOI's teachings. The NOI aims to improve the moral, social and economic standing of black Americans and invokes aspects of traditional Islam.

The NOI's teachings depart from traditional Islamic beliefs in fundamental ways. Traditional Islam teaches that Allah is one God and the prophet Muhammad is the final prophet of Islam. The NOI teaches that a man named Wallace D. Fard came to earth as God incarnate and that Elijah Muhammad, the leader when Malcolm converted, was a prophet sent to spread the word about Fard's incarnation. The NOI preached that the original black race of man is superior, while traditional Islam teaches that all humans are equal. Elijah Muhammad advocated a separate nation for his black followers. Muhammad urged black men and women to stop relying on acceptance from whites; blacks needed to accept themselves first. These messages struck a chord with those looking for an answer to racial oppression, segregation and brutality. By the time Malcolm left prison, he had shed the last name "Little," instead using an "X" to signify his lost ancestral surname.

Malcolm X emerged as the principal spokesman of the Nation of Islam during the 1950s and early 1960s. He organized temples; founded a newspaper; and led Temple No. 7 in New York City's Harlem. Elijah Muhammad appointed him the national representative of Islam, the second most powerful position in the NOI. Malcolm X condemned whites, whom he referred to as the "white devil," for the historical oppression of blacks. He argued for black power, black self-defense and black economic autonomy, and encouraged racial pride. He saw Christianity as a religion for the white man, fine-tuned to perpetuate subjugation of the black race. He did not believe that the civil rights movement's goal of racial integration through nonviolence was realistic or moving in the right direction for black Americans. His fiery rhetoric incited fear, and critics condemned the Nation of Islam as a cult.

Malcolm X later began to doubt the leadership of Muhammad- revelations of sexual misconduct, pressure on Malcolm X to help cover up the scandal, and Malcolm's increasing suspicion that the NOI was built on a number of lies led him to end his relationship with the organization. In 1964, he founded his own separate organization, Muslim Mosque, and made a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca. He stated: "There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white." For the first time, he felt completely enveloped by the brotherhood of Islam: "In the Holy World... was the first I ever had been able to think clearly about the basic divisions of white people in America. ... In my thirty-nine years on this earth, the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being."

Returning to the United States, he publicly renounced the teachings of the Nation of Islam and founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity as a vehicle to connect the experience of black Americans to the Third World: "This religion recognizes all men as brothers. It accepts all human beings as equals before God, and as equal members in the Human Family of Mankind. I totally reject Elijah Muhammad's racist philosophy, which he has labeled 'Islam' only to fool and misuse gullible people as he fooled and misused me. But I blame only myself... for the fool that I was, and the harm that my evangelical foolishness on his behalf has done to others." In February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated onstage during a speaking event at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. His philosophy laid the groundwork for later black pride movements, including the Black Panther Party.

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Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The son and grandson of preachers, Martin Luther King Jr. was raised in Atlanta's prominent Ebenezer Baptist Church. King studied theology at Crozer Seminary and Boston University. As a graduate student, King wrestled with the work of major theologians and philosophers, trying to reconcile their thinking with the realities of injustice, the role of the black church and the potential for social change. The Social Gospel articulated by Walter Rausenbusch gave King a theological foundation for social activism and for working for the Kingdom of God on earth. But the Christian concept of brotherly love, with its injunctions to "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies," did not appear to King to be an effective means of achieving social change.

King attended a lecture on the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, presented by Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson. Johnson explained how Gandhi had forged Soul Force, or satyagraha -- the force of love and truth combined -- into a mighty vehicle for social change. Johnson argued that the moral power of Gandhian nonviolence could improve race relations in America, too. King was electrified by this possibility. He promptly bought six books on Gandhi, who had studied Henry David Thoreau. Gandhi took Thoreau's theory and gave it practical application -- "strikes, boycotts, and protest marches all conducted nonviolently, and all predicated on love for the oppressor and a belief in divine justice." King became convinced that Gandhi had found the way for an oppressed minority to struggle against social injustice. King's synthesis of theology and social action would provide him with a solid foundation in the tumultuous years ahead.

At age 26, King assumed the pulpit at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. A little more than six months later, a local activist and member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person; she was arrested. Black leaders called for a bus boycott and prevailed upon King to assume leadership of a newly formed group, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). King was reluctant, then agreed. But death threats kept coming. King felt he simply could not continue. Then one night as he sat alone in his kitchen, King believed that he heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him, urging him to stand up for justice. King vowed to fight on. Three days later, his house was firebombed. King refused to give in to violence, proclaiming, "We still have the attitude of love." In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery's segregated buses were illegal.

King continued to push for change. In 1963 he was arrested and sent to jail for participating in a march in Birmingham, Ala. From his jail cell, he wrote a letter in response to white ministers who accused him of causing trouble and stirring up violence. Drawing on his years of theological study and thinking, King wrote a profound reflection upon Christianity and the imperative for social justice and social change. When King's followers marched on the jail, the violent police response persuaded President John F. Kennedy to finally propose a new civil rights act.

But the fight continued. On Aug. 28, 1963, 250,000 civil rights activists gathered on the Washington Mall. The leaders took their places at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. King spoke last. In language suffused with the cadence of Scripture, King claimed that the nation had failed to honor the promises made by the Founding Fathers set forth in the nation's founding documents.

Then King shifted rhetorical gears, moving from the judgmental prophet to the biblical visionary: "I have a dream." He set forth his vision of America as a land of equality and social justice, ending with the words: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" The White House listened. Within a year, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. But King still came under fire. King held fast to nonviolence: "I will never change in my basic idea that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice. I think for the Negro to turn to violence would be both impractical and immoral."

On April 3, 1968, he went to Memphis, Tenn., to speak in support of striking black sanitation workers. Drawing on the story of Exodus, King preached as a modern-day Moses:

He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And so I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

Martin Luther King was assassinated the following day. He was 39 years old.

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