Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X have come to be two profoundly controversial figures in American history. The way these remarkable men died has become the last manifestation of intolerance and loathing that was the ultimate message of the white society’s segregative practices. With their vibrant rhetoric and revolutionary ideas, King and Malcolm X presented a tangible threat. Ideologically, they stood on the opposite poles but apart from that – and their social background – these two fates bear significant similarities. King and Malcolm X boldly raised their voices on behalf of the black community for the sake of justice. Although they came from different backgrounds, practiced different religions, and critiqued each other for what they regarded as flawed visions, there was much more to it than ideological rivalry and confrontation on religious grounds. These two lives were in itself a historical happening in the atmosphere of violence and fear.
First and foremost, the part that religion played in the lives and ideologies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X is often underestimated. It is quite justifiable since they have made society and politics their primary action platform. From the work by Howard-Pitney, however, the significance of religion as a rhetorical base becomes clear. King, for instance, was an adept of several religious philosophies at once, incorporating the best in them to create his very own philosophy. The theology of liberation regarded human beings as a source of good, which was particularly appealing to King. On the other hand, he could not have overlooked the history full of pain which was the history of his people in the US. Slavery and segregation assured King of the indispensability of evil.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s theories conformed to what King saw and knew since they proclaimed human beings as containers of evil, which was most ferociously unleashed in – and by – collectives (Howard-Pitney 41-43). King adopted the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence and adjusted it to Christianity. His was the philosophy of responsibility and awareness of the unified race of human beings that suffered. Unlike King, Malcolm X had been always convinced of the evil nature of the whites. The tragedies that he suffered and witnessed as a child were the primary precondition; later, he was attracted to a philosophy that justified his utterly radical views. Elijah Muhammad’s religion gave him the theoretical background that came to be regarded as close to extremist and furthering racial prejudice, only in reverse (55-56). The differences in the religious stances are, thus, obvious. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that religion was what inspired both King and Malcolm in their fight for justice and was an effective imperative for their followers.
In essence, the diversity of religious and, consequently, philosophical stances can be explained by the fact that King was a Christian (peppering his ideas with Hindu influences), and Malcolm X was a Muslim. As a result, even at the heat of events, King has never regarded violence as a means of achieving goals. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King provides a detailed explanation of his actions, particularly his non-violent protests against the local power shift in Birmingham (77-78). He was a believer in the unification of all races to eradicate injustice and inequality and preferred to fight with words. His rhetoric and appellations to religious images were his only weapons. When criticized for provoking violence by his speeches, he conceded that it was well-nigh criticizing Jesus as if He were angling for being crucified.
Contrary to Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X believed in the necessity to achieve the goal by all means, even if they included physical violence. The suspicion with which he treated white people and the bitterness with which he prophesized that they would eventually succumb to God’s judgment for their sins deserved him the image of a gadfly. At the time when Elijah Muhammad had the most influence over Malcolm, he equalized slavery with the First Offence. Later, he maintained that black people were in their right to give an equal response to the whites’ crimes. Such a position was in itself a critique of King’s non-violence proclamations. Malcolm X argued that King was an advocate of black-to-black violence; as a result, his main position was the unification of black people – presumably, against the white (134-135). In his turn, King regarded Malcolm’s religion as hateful and bitter.
Albeit the differences in positions, there is another point of contact between these two remarkable biographies. Neither Martin Luther King, Jr. nor Malcolm X stayed static in their views, drifting from open self-righteousness towards deeper and more profound spirituality. Later in life, their views of rights mostly concerned the rights that all human share, deviating from what they used to struggle for. The Vietnam War proved a string influence over King’s ideas and messages. He turned onto the issues of poverty and the hypocritical notions of unity that both the whites and the black fought for in Vietnam. The nation that claimed to bring liberty was herself bound hand and foot by segregation, which appalled King.
As to Malcolm X, in 1964 he made a pilgrimage and ceased to serve as a communicator of Elijah Muhammad’s ideas. He eventually came to acknowledge the issue of race as the problem of the US and not the racial issue. In other words, he regarded it as a historical problem and realized the presence of good in every human being. He even adopted some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideas regarding groups and collectives as the most active conductor of evil (159). Having slowed down his flight, Malcolm seemed to realize that he will never be able to get away with it. He seemed to know his future would be doomed. The adepts and agents of Muhammad would never forgive what they regarded as his betrayal. The forthcoming generations, as well as the best minds of his own, would always regard him as a gadfly and an oppositionist to what King proclaimed – peace – and misinterpret his intentions. However, for what it was worth when the future of Civil Rights was concerned, his impact is hard to overestimate (179).
Had Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. acted together, they might have changed the situation at its root twice as fast. However, both minds succumbed untimely to the sheer reality of hatred and stagnation. Towards the end of their lives, both King and Malcolm X developed views that have led them to independence and mental freedom from the boundaries of white governance and radical Islam. Theirs were probably the most important steps on the way to a better society, and they virtually paved the path with their lives.
Howard-Pitney, David. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s: A Brief History with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.