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Malcolm X: Make it Plain | Article

Malcolm and the Civil Rights Movement


Although they only met once, Malcolm X was often asked his opinion of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Initially scornful of King and his strategies, Malcolm later began to recognize the worth of — and even began tentative participation in — the movement.

Same Problem, Different Directions
Near the end of his life, Malcolm X publicly recognized that "Dr. King wants the same thing I want — freedom!" But for most of his ministry he did not identify with King and the civil rights movement. Although both Black Muslims and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference had the same general goals of defeating white racism and empowering African Americans, Malcolm and King had different tended to speak at different venues (street corners vs. churches) and had different aims. Malcolm, who would publicly deny that he was even an American, worked for a Nation of Islam that sought to create a separate society for its members. Malcolm rejected integration with white America as a worthwhile aim (deriding it as "coffee with a cracker") and particularly opposed non-violence as a means of attaining it. "That's what you mean by non-violent," he said, "be defenseless." In Malcolm's mind, the African American could never surrender his right of self-defense against white violence.

Nothing But Scorn
As for the apostle of non-violence, for years Malcolm showed him nothing but scorn. King was a "fool," a modern-day "Uncle Tom," and his march, where King gave his celebrated speech, just a "farce on Washington." The "white man pays Reverend Martin Luther King, subsidizes Reverend Martin Luther King, so that Reverend Martin Luther King can continue to teach the Negroes to be defenseless." And the Christianity that motivated King was "the white man's religion." For his part, civil rights leader Thurgood Marshall called the Nation of Islam "a bunch of thugs organized from prisons and jails and financed, I am sure, by some Arab group." King himself took the higher road, rarely criticizing Malcolm but also refusing to publicly debate him. King would not debate, his secretary told Malcolm, because "he has always considered his work in a positive action framework rather than engaging in consistent negative debate."

Changing Times, Changing Notions
As time passed, Malcolm X became less confrontational towards King and the rest of the civil rights movement, a shift that came in tandem with his growing estrangement from Elijah Muhammad. To be sure, the Nation of Islam talked a good game, but when Los Angeles Temple secretary Ronald Stokes, originally from Roxbury, was gunned down by police, Muhammad refused to permit an aggressive response, counting on God to avenge the incident. In Malcolm's words, "[Muhammad] is willing to wait for Allah to deal with this devil, [but] the rest of us black Muslims...don't have this gift of divine patience with the devil. The younger black Muslims want to see some action." Meanwhile, King and his followers were scoring a number of social and legislative victories.

No Longer Adversaries
Bit by bit, Malcolm began a process of engagement with the movement. He went to Washington and witnessed debate on the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, running into King in the process. "I'm throwing myself into the heart of the civil rights struggle," Malcolm said. Where previously his separatism had meant no interest in voting, he now told Mississippi youth that he was with voter registration efforts "one thousand per cent." He accepted an invitation from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to speak in Selma, Alabama, and had conciliatory words for Coretta Scott King, whose husband was then in jail. "I want Dr. King to know that I didn't come to Selma to make his job difficult," Malcolm said. "If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King." While never embracing King's Christianity or his commitment to non-violence, near the end of his life Malcolm X gave indications that he was willing to work with the fellow preacher, that they could be, if not exactly partners, then at least no longer adversaries in the quest for civil rights.

In a telegram to Betty Shabazz after Malcolm's assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "While we did not always see eye-to-eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems we face as a race...."

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