Martin Luther King and Malcolm X: Paragons of Civil Rights Movement

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Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are the most celebrated paragons of Civil Rights Movement. They enabled their fellow Afro-Americans to realize their true place in American community. They further helped them to sense their true worth in the American socio-political system. Both devoted their lives for the cause of justice and equity in American society and struggled for the end of racial discrimination against Afro-American community at individual, state and federal level. They even sacrificed their lives during this struggle. “Both King and Malcolm X promoted self-knowledge and respect for one’s history and culture as the basis for unity.” (Dyson 1993, 253) Yet their philosophies about black power and methodologies to achieve just a place for Afro-Americans differ quietly. This difference in their approaches and actions were due to their upbringings in different environments, influences, and their source of inspirations.

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Dr. King and Malcolm X belonged to almost similar religious backgrounds and were brought same socio-economic environment for Afro-American where racial discrimination and segregation pervaded in American society.[1] Fathers of both were Baptist priests. Beside these similarities, there is vast chasm between their upbringing experiences. Dr. King was brought up in an economically comfortable middle-class family. His parent ensured good-quality education and secure environment for him. During his boyhood, young King witnessed and experienced various incidents of racial discrimination and segregation. (Cone 1997, 24-25) Moreover, his father was engaged with the activities of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Whereas Malcolm X belonged to an under-privileged and hard-up family but his father was a known equal right activist. Furthermore, his surroundings were filled with an air where terror and hatred prevailed. That’s the reason that his family-house was arsoned by Klu Klux Klan and his father died in this incident. So both these personalities were shaped in different environment and by different experiences. Fathers of both were associated with equal rights movement in one way or the other. These associations set an impetus for them to long for equality of rights for their communities and actively participate in equal right equal-rights movement later in their lives. So early environments of both these leaders mainly formed their dissimilar responses to American racial dilemma. Malcolm X experiences drove on a path of extremism and vengeance whereas Dr. King adopted the strategy of non-violence.

In addition to these past experiences, their sources of inspiration were also different. Dr. King followed the great Indian leader Gandhi and a prototype of his methodology of civil-disobedience to achieve the goals. Malcolm X derived his inspiration from Elijah Muhammad but he never followed his ideology or philosophy of life. Mostly his dreadful past experiences fashioned his thoughts and ideologies. His roles as Muslim preacher always dominated his socio-political struggle for equality. That’s the reason that Dr. King is regarded as world leader whereas Malcolm X is considered as religious figure who lectured about strong Black nationalism. The basic orientation of his equal-right ideology was religious primarily. For example he says in a letter to followers while he was attending Muslim pilgrimage;

“During the past 11 days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug) while praying to the same God—with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blonde, and whose skin was the whitest of white. . .we were truly all the same because their belief in one God has removed the white from their minds and the white from their behavior and the white from their attitude.” (Malcolm X 1996, 339-341)

His values and ideals were not higher and were molded by short-term benefits for black American community. Dr, King preached humanity and the elevated ideals of equality and fraternity at socio-economic and political level in particular and at universal level in general. That’s the reason that he is regarded as the major facade of civil rights movement.

            There is another similarly between these towering personalities of Civil rights Movement. Both were matchless orators and propagated their message through commanding and influential speeches. However, their intentions and philosophies were different like their target audiences. Malcolm only addressed the black Americans and urged them to do “any means necessary”[2] to achieve their goals. He justified violence on the ground that “if it is right for America to draft us and teach us how to be violent in defence of the country, then isn’t it right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.”[3] (Clarke, Bailey & Grant 1969, 253). In contrast to Malcolm, Dr. King aimed at preaching non-violence and his target audience was both blacks and whites. “King was basically a peaceful leader who urged non-violence to his followers. He travelled about the country giving speeches that inspired black and white listeners to work together for racial harmony.” (Patterson 1989, 35)

            So above-mentioned arguments and supporting evidence clearly manifest that Dr King’s philosophy and attitude toward the discrimination dilemma was constructive as compared with Malcolm X. He believed that civil disobedience will bear fruit one day and American society will homogenous and equitable. His was a worldview whereas Malcolm X views was narrowed down by his religious orientation. King reached the integrationalist doctrine whereas Malcolm X propagated the separatist doctrine. But it is a fact that Malcolm mended his ways during the last years of his life and followed a course that was close to the ideology and attitude of Dr. King.

Works Cited

Clarke, John Henrik, A. Peter Bailey, and Earl Grant. Malcolm X; The Man and His Times.

            [New York]: Macmillan, 1969.

Cone, James H. Martin & Malcolm and America. New York: Orbis, 1997.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism. Minneapolis:

            University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Malcolm X. Autobiography of Malcolm X . New York: Ballentine Books; . 1996.

Patterson, Lillie. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Freedom Movement. New York: Facts on File,


[1] Malcolm X was only four years older than King so they were raised in same socio-cultural milieu.
[2] It is a quote from his famous speech, “The Bullet or the Ballot.”
[3] From a speech delivered in November 1963 at New York City

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Martin Luther King and Malcolm X: Paragons of Civil Rights Movement. (2017, Jan 07). Retrieved from

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