Martin Luther (Michael) King Jr. and Malcolm (Little) X were both passionate leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. Both men achieved advancements in the cause. Each man played a role, but walked very different paths. One led to violence while the other led to change. One man is mentioned in history while the other man made history.
Both King and Malcolm X were sons of preachers. While growing up in the same era, both experienced racism but at very different degrees. King’s parents tried to shield their children from prejudice as much as possible. King Sr. was a successful minister in Atlanta, Georgia, where the family fought against segregation laws and discrimination. King even lost a close childhood friend simply because of the color of his skin.
When King was five, Michael King Sr. traveled to the Holy Land and Europe. While there, he visited several historical sites of German Reformer Martin Luther. Greatly influenced by Luther’s contributions to the Protestant movement, King changed both his and his son’s names to Martin Luther King.
Malcolm X’s family faced bigotry head on with several attacks from white supremacists. Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, moved the family multiple times to escape racism. It didn’t work. The family lost everything in a house fire while white firefighters stood by watching. Two years later, Little’s body was found lying across streetcar tracks. Having received numerous death threats, the family was convinced it was murder. The police ruled otherwise. Malcolm’s mother never recovered and was committed to a mental institution. The children were placed in separate foster homes.
While growing up, both young men questioned their family’s religion. King rebelled and rejected his family’s strong beliefs. His father dreamt of him following in his footsteps into the pulpit. King Jr. abandoned that calling until a Bible class in college renewed his faith. As a result, he began focusing on a career in ministry. The principles from his solid Christian upbringing guided King down a path of peace.
Malcolm’s life led him down a troubled road. After dropping out of school at age 15, he moved to Boston. He soon became active in the criminal element of the city, selling drugs and participating in other crimes. His lifestyle caught up with him in 1946. While in prison, Malcolm converted to the Nation of Islam. Focusing on black nationalism, the idea of complete separation from white society attracted Malcolm. Upon his release in 1952, he dropped his “slave” surname Little for “X” to honor the “unknown name of his African ancestors”.
By the 1960’s, Malcolm was a minister in the Nation of Islam Temple. King was a preacher in the Baptist Church. While Malcolm followed Elijah Muhammad down the road of a bloody revolution, Martin followed Christ’s teachings. Gandhi’s message of peace and non-violence also greatly influenced King. Malcolm professed bloodshed, division, and separate nations for the races. King preached peace, unity, and coexistence.
The past 8 years we have been reliving the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. But this time, under President Barack Obama and his support for Black Lives Matter, we are seeing a movement led by Malcolm X, not Martin Luther King Jr.
King’s assessment of Malcolm X in a January 1965 Playboy interview accurately applies to Obama and BLM leaders today:
“He is very articulate … but I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views … I don’t want to seem to sound self-righteous … or that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answer … I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem. And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice… [U]rging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.”
King continued on with his peaceful crusade for equal rights after Malcolm X’s assassination. Non-violent protests, refusing to fight back against aggressive law enforcement, won the support of the American people. King rejected the calls for a violent uprising, especially after Selma’s “Bloody Sunday”.
“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
If we really want to honor Martin Luther King Jr., then stop acting like Malcolm X. King’s advise works for all situations, not just racial ones. Stop the hate, stop the name-calling, and engage in meaningful dialogue. That doesn’t mean abandon your principles. King never did. But, instead, our approach and actions can bring the change we seek. As King preached:
“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.” —A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King brought about real change for the black community. His example and witness are not something we should honor just one day of the year. All Americans can learn from his demonstration of peace and non-violence every single day of our lives. If we do, maybe, just maybe, his dream will come true.
But that’s just my 2 cents.