“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist Minister
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister, believed that all people were equal in the eyes of God. Dr. King believed that discrimination against African Americans violated the basic principles of which the United States was founded on—such as the pursuit of happiness—and therefore sought to end segregation in the South (source). He studied and admired Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian activist whose use of nonviolent resistance was crucial in the struggle for India’s independence from British rule in the in the 1940s (source). With Gandhi’s example in mind, Dr. King would practice nonviolent protests to achieve his goal. White Southerners often touted the idea that black people in the South were content with segregation and that the system worked well for both races. In other words, many white Southerners asserted that the South was a peaceful and stable place because of segregation (source). However, Dr. King knew these claims to be false as he was an African American man from the South. He believed that nonviolent resistance was the best method to reveal segregation for the despicable social system that it was, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it” (source).
Dr. King was proven correct, as peaceful protesters—including children—were assaulted by police, police dogs, and blasted with fire hoses. Protesters participating in peaceful sit-ins at lunch counters were viciously attacked by white Southerners, while white police officers observed and did nothing (source). However horrifying and dangerous for the protesters, nonviolent resistance showed the world that the apparent peaceful stability of the segregated South only existed because black people had been oppressed by the very real threat of violent retaliation. These nonviolent protesters were not physically harming anyone; they were simply putting themselves in places they weren’t allowed to be. These harmless acts of defiance were all it took for white Southerners to try to reinforce the racist social order through prompt and extreme violence. Dr. King advocated nonviolent protests not because he was cowardly or passive; he preferred nonviolent protests because he knew it would expose the truth about segregation (source).
Malcolm X was a minister in the Nation of Islam, a black political and religious organization founded by an American named Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930 (source). As a minister, Malcolm preached black nationalism, the beliefs of the nation, and converted tens of thousands of African Americans to Islam. Malcolm condemned white people for their historical oppression of black people, referring to them collectively as the “white devil” (source). He conformed to the principles of the Nation of Islam and famously declared that black people would obtain respect and rights “by any means necessary” implying violence was a possibility (source). Malcolm was not a pacifist, and he criticized the nonviolent resistance practiced by Southern civil rights leaders like Dr. King. Malcolm referred to Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington as the “Farce on Washington” (source). To Malcolm and his followers, the idea of passively being beaten by white racists was repulsive. But just as Dr. King didn’t necessarily use nonviolence because he was pacifist, Malcolm didn’t threaten violence because he was a violent person.
Malcolm believed that black people had been submissive and idle in the face of racism for too long and now it was time to fight back. He proclaimed that white people would not be persuaded by words or peaceful protests, but only by the threat of a strong revolt by frustrated and angry black people who were tired of being marginalized (source). Despite his provocative rhetoric, which was often infused with violent implications, it’s important to note that Malcolm never actually incited violence nor participated in any violent protests. In his actions, Malcolm was just as much of a man of peace as Dr. King was.
Toward the end of their lives, the goals of both Malcolm and Dr. King changed after helping to attain the right to vote and desegregation. Dr. King focused on economic justice and an end to the United States war in Vietnam (source). Dr. King understood that the right to vote and desegregation would have limited benefits for African Americans who were homeless, unemployed, and poor. The wealth gap between white people and racial minorities meant that soldiers fighting in Vietnam were disproportionately people of color. White people tended to have more money and could more easily afford college, therefore making it easier to defer from the draft. At the end of his life, Dr. King’s next goal was to organize poor people of all races to pressure the government to act quickly and effectively to eliminate poverty (source).
Malcolm’s beliefs were transformed in the last year of his life. In 1964 he made a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in Islam. While there, he saw people of all different colors peacefully worshipping together. This experience inspired Malcolm to convert from the Nation of Islam to regular Islam, which Malcolm believed could end racism (source). After his return from Mecca, Malcolm no longer talked about the benefits of racial separation or violence as justifiable means to achieve goals. Malcolm strongly renounced the Nation of Islam and especially its founder Elijah Muhammad, “I totally reject Elijah Muhammad’s racist philosophy, which he has labeled ‘Islam’ only to fool and misuse gullible people as he fooled and misused me” (source). The bitter break between Malcolm and the nation resulted in Malcolm’s assassination, carried out by members of the Nation of Islam (source).
Dr. King and Malcolm X only met one time briefly and they had been publicly critical of each other (source). They both believed the other to be doing a disservice to their cause, but after Malcolm X was assassinated Dr. King wrote, “. . . the murder of Malcolm X deprives the world of a potentially great leader” (source). Despite their differences, their ultimate belief and goal was the same: that black people in America should to be treated as human beings and that the system, as it existed, could not be tolerated in good conscience.”