Civil Rights Movement Debate: American Culture and Ideas
The civil rights movement lasted roughly a decade and was a tremendous struggle that took place for African Americans to receive the same constitutional and legal rights that other Americans already enjoyed. This was a time where many white people truly believed they were a superior race and acted out violently towards African Americans simply due to the color of their skin. A period where black people dealt with discrimination, violence and prejudice against them at an alarming rate. Something had to be done and justice had to be served which motivated the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and, James Baldwin were all prominent leaders of the civil right movement, but all had different views, theories and tactics on how the civil rights movement should have been led and won. These three African American intellectuals were fighting for the same cause, the need to improve the status of all African Americans in the United States during a time when Jim Crows Laws existed. MLK was a nonviolent advocate while Malcolm X thought that the use of nonviolent tactics would not work. Baldwin argued that blacks should unite with and convert the oppressor. Each of these arguments will be examined throughout this reading.
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were two of the most respected leaders of the civil rights movement. Each pushed for racial equality and freedom. Both leaders imagined how they wanted the world to be differently, as well as had different approaches on how to lead this crucial movement. One thing they both had in common is that they knew they could not sit around and hope for change. They had to act in order to make the change they wanted to see in the world.
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Martin Luther King chose to lead his movement using nonviolent tactics such as sit-ins, protest, marches and grassroot organizing. He wanted to use his words and acts of nonviolent resistance as his power. The religion, education and philosophers he studied, such as Gandhi, all played a huge role in why King decided to take a nonviolent approach to the civil rights movement. MLK was first introduced to the idea of nonviolence in 1944 when he attended Morehouse College and read “Civil Disobedience”. He was completely intrigued by the idea. Martin Luther King said, “Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times, this was my first intellectual contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance.””[footnoteRef:1]During his time at Morehouse, he was on a quest to find a way to eliminate social evil. Later down the line King began to immerse himself in the study of Gandhi and was enlightened. Through thorough examination of Ghandi works, King felt that nonviolent resistance would be the only moral way to help oppressed people while they struggled finding freedom. All the time and dedication that MLK put into studying and educating himself on different philosophers ultimately lead to his decision to respond to the civil rights movement with a nonviolent approach. MLK said, “First it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instrument of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight.”[footnoteRef:2] [1: ] King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride toward freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010) 78.] [2: King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride toward freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010) 90.]
After examination I feel that King wanted his followers to lead with love and not continue to have hate in their hearts. He believed in nonviolent tactics and knew that it was the only way to be able to make a huge impact and change in the civil right movements. MLK was very aware that being violent in that day and time would only make matters worse and would not bring the right attention that was needed for this critical movement. King took time to carefully indulge himself in the study of great philosophers who made huge impacts in their communities. Which ultimately led to many of his decision.
On the other hand, we have Malcolm X who was also an African American civil rights leader like MLK, but they had complete opposite theories on how the movement should have been led. Malcolm X was known for the phrase “by any means necessary.” Cite Malcolm X was tired of being told to “just be patient” or “mindful” as they wait for equal rights to be granted. Malcolm X wanted equal rights to be granted right away and he didn’t care what he had to do as long as he got it.
I believe in order to understand why Malcolm X did not believe nonviolence tactics would work while MLK was for it, then you must understand each of their upbringings. They were both raised completely different and separate, as well as they both practiced two completely different religions. Martin Luther King was born in Atlanta, Georgia and was the son of a reverend. King grew up deeply religious following the Christian faith. King witnessed innocent black people being “savagely lynched.”[footnoteRef:3]. Martin Luther King was subjected to seeing police brutality right in front of his very own eyes, he has witnessed blacks receive tragically unfair injustice in courts. King having to witness and experience such a harsh reality of life for him and other blacks led to him becoming very close to resenting all people, and rightfully so in my opinion. [3: King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride toward freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010)
Even though Martin Luther King went through and witnessed a lot of hardships while growing up, so did Malcolm X. Malcolm X lived a life where he had to endure a tremendous amount of hurt at a very young age. When he was six, his father was found murdered on the towns trolley tracks. It is believed that he was killed by white supremacist organization Black Legion. Malcolm X had seven other siblings and his mother was omitted to mental institution a few years after. This led to Malcolm and his seven other siblings to be split up throughout various foster homes and orphanages. During adulthood, Malcolm X became Muslim and joined the Nation of Islam. He then was appointed the national spokesman of the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X had to grew up in very harsh conditions at a very young age, witnessing traumatic incidents that have stuck with him through adulthood. His outlet on life and white people was not as positive as Martin Luther King. This played a huge part on Malcolm X decisions and stances that he took regarding the civil right movement. This decision differed in many different aspects than the decisions of MLK.
A huge turning point for the civil rights movement was the March on Washington of 1963 or the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This massive protest in the form of a march took place in order to bring attention to all the inequalities faced by blacks. This march was organized and led by civil rights leaders such as Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr. This was of course a peaceful march and was where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream speech.” During this speech King said, “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”[footnoteRef:4]. King had a dream that even the most racist states such as Mississippi “A state sweltering with the heat of injustice… will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”[footnoteRef:5] [4: King, Jr., Martin Luther. 2017. I Have a Dream Speech (Primary Source Document) August, 1-3] [5: King, Jr., Martin Luther. 2017. I Have a Dream Speech (Primary Source Document) August, 1-3 King wanted to leave a message with the thousands of people who were in attendance that day. A message that even though at the time they were experiencing rather difficult times due to racism he still had a dream of the “American Dream” that all U.S residents should be able to experience no matter their skin tone or upbringing. King made it clear that all men were created equal and he demanded that everyone should be treated as such.
King looked at the civil rights movement as a movement that advocated change for the better in his eyes. Martin Luther King Jr wanted all races to be able to integrate and work together as one. He wanted future generations of African Americans to be able to live a better more comfortable life than he did amongst white people. He didn’t want African Americans to be judged solely off the color of their skin. King wanted blacks to be able to indulge in the American dream that most non-black Americans were offered at the time.
Malcolm X had other plans than Martin Luther King and a different perspective in regard to the march. Throughout time Malcolm X felt that integration would eventually lead to the destruction of the white and black man. He instead thought that African Americans should instead focus on helping each other. Malcolm X said, “Not long ago, the black man in America was fed a dose of another form of the weakening, lulling and deluding effects of so-called integrations. It was the Farce in Washington, I call it”[footnoteRef:6]. Malcolm X disagreed with the March on Washington and felt that is was highly unorganized. He saw that there was no real leader. Unlike King Malcolm X used the word farce when describing this event. Another word for farce is absurd. The fact that he viewed the March on Washington as farce exhibit the debate between himself and leaders such as Martin Luther King who say this march as necessary. [6: X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965) 278
In the above quote Malcolm is referring to the March on Washington and is responding to the “I Have a Dream Speech “by Martin Luther King. Malcolm X also criticized “Any student of how integration can weaken the black man’s movement was about to observe a master lesson.”[footnoteRef:7]. It is safe to say that Malcolm X was not in agreeance with the March on Washington and the leader’s tactics. In fact, he referred to the event as an “Kentucky Derby… for the status-seeker, it was a status symbol. Were you there?”.[footnoteRef:8]Due to the facts that whites were now participating he felt that it was all for show and that the march was suddenly made chic. He states that the march had become an “outing, a picnic”[footnoteRef:9]. Malcolm X did not like the idea of African Americans coming together in unity with the very people who suppressed their ancestors. An exhibit of this is when he stated “While tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against?”[footnoteRef:10]. [7: X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965) 278 ] [8: X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965) 279] [9: X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965) 279] [10: X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965)280]
James Baldwin was an author, activist, and play writer. James Baldwin is well known for his novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” which showed insight on race, spirituality, and humanity. He was raised by a young single mother and was never told who his biological mother was. Baldwin also served as a youth minister in the church from the age of fourteen to sixteen. James Baldwin realized a love for reading at an early age. Baldwin started to become more prominent in the civil right movement in the early 1960s where he joined Martin Luther King Jr in his marches. James Baldwin’s thoughts on how civil rights should be won and the tactics used were not the same as Kings or Malcolm X. In fact, his ideology was somewhere in the middle of MLK and Malcolm X. Baldwin was able to agree and disagree with some aspects of both MLK and Malcolm X ideology. James Baldwin favored many of the aspects Malcolm X stood for. He knew that he wasn’t going to sit around and wait on the white man. Malcolm X and Baldwin had a lot in common. They were both well-educated African Americans who were determined to shed light on all the injustices that the white man has brought on black people even a century after emancipation. Unlike King, who wanted to integrate with the white man, James Baldwin and X did not find that as a good solution. Baldwin once stated in 1963 “I was icily determined….to die and go to hell before I would let any white man spit on me, before I would accept my place in this republic.[footnoteRef:11]. As shown in the above quote James Baldwin was opposed to letting white people get away with disrespecting blacks and doing absolutely nothing about it. [11: Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press 1963)]
In September of 1963 James Baldwin and Malcolm X had an intellectual debate during a radio broadcast. During this debate you could see both of their stances on civil rights and how they thought the movement should have been won. The two differed in many ways one being that Baldwin was not religious at all while Malcolm X practiced the Muslim faith. James Baldwin expressed that he wanted to see a world where skin color did not exist. He believed that as long as the color of the skin mattered then there would be bloodshed. While on the other hand Malcolm X made it clear that he was a black a man and was proud to be one. “I have no desire what so ever to lose my identity”. Malcolm X thought it was devasting that blacks where the only people on earth who did not mind losing their identity. Malcolm X did not like the fact the black man is the only man who is constantly encouraged to behave nonviolently while whites are encouraged to fight violently and are praised for it. He also examined how the black race is the only race who is told to forget the past and move forward. Malcolm X wanted blacks to know their history and be aware of where they truly come from. While, James Baldwin believed that blacks have to face the terrible history of blacks in America and recognize that is also a remarkable history and made blacks the people that they are. Baldwin was against eliminating their history.
These two African American intellectuals have two different but equally strong opinions. I agree with Malcolm X and how strongly he feels about blacks needing to be more educated about their African ancestors and heritage. At the time it was extremely hard for blacks to be able to identify themselves and where they came from because the white man had told them lies and hid a lot of information from them. While it is extremely important for blacks to know where they came from I also can understand the stance that Baldwin took. It also makes since to me that Baldwin wanted saw the black or negro history as a remarkable wanted and wanted blacks at the time to understand that.
In 1964 Malcolm X stated in a speech “I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”[footnoteRef:12]. This statement made by Malcolm X speaks volume. It is clear on how Martin Luther King and Malcolm X thought differently and had two completely different visions. Martin Luther King wanted to be included in the so-called American dream. While Malcolm X did not picture America as a dream at all. Instead he saw it as a complete nightmare for blacks. Malcolm X elaborated in his speech that he doesn’t even consider himself American. He felt this way because this was a period where many whites (Americans) viewed themselves as superior to blacks and some didn’t even consider them real people. But whites had rights and were treated fairly and were the true Americans. Blacks on the other hand were not granted this luxury, so how could they really be American if they are faced with so many more issues based off the color of their skin that whites (Americans) have to deal with? So instead of Malcolm X viewing himself as an American just because he was born on U.S soil he views himself and the 22 million other blacks in the U.S as “Victims of Americanism” [12: X, Malcolm. “The Ballot or the Bullet” (Speech, Cleveland, OH, April 3, 1964) Edchange] [13: X, Malcolm. “The Ballot or the Bullet” (Speech, Cleveland, OH, April 3, 1964) Edchange]
Baldwin stood up for the injustices the black community had to bare through every day and even said “There is no reason that black mean should be expected to be more patient, more forbearing, more farseeing than whites; indeed, quite the contrary”[footnoteRef:14]. Paraphrase, while Malcolm and mlk were disagreeing Baldwin took a stanceThe period in which James Baldwin lived in made African Americans fear for their lives around white people. They were expected to act a certain way to white people, and always be respectable no matter what. James Baldwin realized this cruel unfair treatment. Baldwin took a stance and said this not fair and is not how we should continue to live our lives. [14: Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985. (New York: St Martins 1986) 35]
James Baldwin differed from Malcolm X because he did not solely agree that separation of the races was the best option. Malcolm X can be viewed as having hate for whites at one period of time and did not want to integrate. While on the other hand, James Baldwin did not have hatred for whites. But he was opposed to the cruel treatment of blacks by whites. Baldwin wanted to inform people that no skin color or religion is more important than the human being. Baldwin once stated that “all men are brothers”. James Baldwin stood behind love and realized that no matter if you were black or white, unless you accepted love then everyone is lost. He believed that both races had to take the time out to examine the hate many people have harbored, would be the key to solving problems. [15: Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket (California; Newsreel 1990)
On March 7, 1965 civil rights nonviolent activist such as Martin Luther King led the Selma to Montgomeregy marches protesting for racial injustices. Yet again this was a peaceful march using the nonviolent tactic. The protestors were fighting for the failed voter registration campaign as well as for the inhumane murder of an unarmed man killed by police named Jimmie Lee Jackson a week prior. These unarmed marchers were brutally attacked by state troppers and other officials with tear gas and billy clubs. This march is also known by the name Bloody Sunday and received media coverage for the world to see. Martin Luther King educated himself and realizaed that resisting and not fighting back when harmed does not mean that someone is being a coward. Instead they should be seen as courageous. One most see the bigger picture on how crucial this tactic was to the civil rights movements. Through media coverage it was shown blacks being brutally beaten and harassed by white officials. They were being harmed just because they were peacefully protesting. This showed to the world what blacks really go through on the daily. They can peaceful and cause no harm but still be humilatted, mocked, and terrozied because of what they look like. This type of humiliating being brought to the world attention caused outgrage and resulted in the civil rights movement receiving way more support from non blacks than was expected.
Finally, all three of these African American intellectuals, are known as heroes of the civil rights movement. These courageous men all witnessed the horrible mistreatment of blacks and were even mistreated themselves by whites. All of these courageous men saw a huge issue and put their best foot forward to make an everlasting change. Even though they all had their own perspectives on how the civil rights movement should have been won, they all left their everlasting mark on this widespread movement which resulted in changing the lives and outcomes of so many African Americans and minorities. The bigger picture at the time for these men were solving many of the injustices that were done to the black community and with the help of thousands of Americans coming together with these leaders, they were able to solve these issues.