By Andrew R. H. Jones
In 1865, the enslavement of black Americans was finally abolished. However, as many people would eventually see, racial problems in the United States were far from being completely resolved. Segregation was still a huge problem, as was racial violence. Many black activists approached these social issues using different methods. One of the most memorable black activists was Frederick Douglass, who served as an influence for the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Although Malcolm X’s struggle produced many positive results, King’s beliefs were more aligned with Douglass’s, and they were better suited to solve the problems of racial injustice in the United States of America.
Perhaps the first prominent black activist was Douglass. Douglass undoubtedly served as a great influence for the later leaders of the black civil rights movement, including King and Malcolm X. In 1883, Douglass delivered his “Address to the Louisville Convention.” In this speech, he outlined several of his attitudes about civil rights in the United States of America. Douglass declared that African Americans were every bit as American as other races. However, he noted that they were not treated this way. He pointed that when it came to many job or other opportunities, an African American’s “…claim to consideration… is disputed on the ground of color” (Douglass 1). Douglass went on to describe other social problems such as lynching and political misrepresentation as products of a bigoted and racist society. According to this speech, Douglass believed many social injustices affecting blacks still plagued the United States. Douglass indicated that these social injustices could be resolved in a peaceful manner, such as political pressure upon the government from blacks (Douglass 4).
Eighty years after Douglass delivered his speech to the Louisville Convention, King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Many of Douglass’s beliefs and methods were echoed in King’s letter. For example, in both Douglass’s speech and King’s letter, the two expressed a disappointment with the churches and legal systems of their respective time periods for their lack of action and contempt for activism. In addition, King reflected the optimism and faith in peaceful activism found in Douglass’s speech. However, while “nonviolent direct action” was only hinted at in Douglass’s speech, it was the central basis of King’s work.
King outlined most of his beliefs in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He believed in complete integration. Although his main use of supporting evidence involved spirituality, King has much concrete backing for his beliefs. While discussing the violation of unjust laws in his letter, King gave historical examples of time periods when it was wrong to follow certain laws and right to work outside of them. King used Nazi Germany as a perfect example of this in his letter. He pointed out that aiding the Nazi-oppressed citizens was in violation of Hitler’s laws, whereas Hitler’s corrupt methods held legality. Therefore, it was right to disobey laws that were not just. King wrote that people should violate laws peacefully, and this is another reason that peace has been associated with King for several years (King 4-5).
Many of King’s fellow black activists disagreed with him on his nonviolent stance as well as his firm belief in integration. Malcolm X, who, for much of his political career, was a member of the Nation of Islam, was probably the most famous of these individuals. When asked why the Nation of Islam had not responded to white violence and police brutality against King’s followers, Malcolm X said that the Nation of Islam did not support integration, and therefore found King and his followers to be “foolish.” He also said that King’s followers were “foolish” not to protect themselves from violent white racists (Blake). However, as Malcolm X would later see, integration was entirely necessary in American society. As for nonviolence, Malcolm X overlooked that King’s nonviolent protest had a distinct strategy and was far from “foolish.” The Montgomery Bus Boycotts proved that nonviolent protest was a highly efficient means of activism, and King’s goal of integration was eventually accomplished through his methods.
Obviously, early in his political career, Malcolm X felt quite differently about black activism than King did. Although Malcolm X’s beliefs sometimes followed Douglass’s, his separatist beliefs and “whatever it takes” attitude served as a contrast to Douglass’s beliefs. As a member of Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslim movement (or the Nation of Islam), Malcolm X believed in complete separation between blacks and whites. Additionally, Malcolm X spoke of his belief in “… religious rights to retaliate in self defense to the maximum degree of… ability...” (Blake). This was quite different from King’s nonviolent approach. However, when analyzing Malcolm X’s beliefs, it is important to note a significant transformation in his life. Malcolm X eventually left the Nation of Islam over ideological and practical differences. After returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca taken in 1964, his views were radically different. Malcolm X proclaimed his belief “… in a society in which people can live like human beings on the basis of equality” (Berton 5). No one can possibly know if his other aggressive beliefs would have been reformed had Malcolm X lived longer, for, unfortunately, he was assassinated within months of saying this in an interview.
Malcolm X gave many positive contributions to the United States of America. For one thing, his transformation from hoodlum to Black Nationalist provided evidence that a change from the average street life of many blacks was entirely possible. Robin D. G. Kelly points out that Malcolm X would probably disapprove of the attitudes and behaviors of many black popular culture icons today such as Snoop Dogg or 50 Cent. His further transformation after visiting Mecca influenced others, such as Eldridge Cleaver, to reform their beliefs as well (Harper 387). However, because of a few key errors, Malcolm X did not accomplish as much success in the civil rights movement as did King. King proved to be more cooperative with white politicians throughout his political career, and this led to a smoother course of action than Malcolm X’s militant beliefs did. They most likely would have caused a great deal of unnecessary instability, which can be seen when studying the revolutions of several other countries. What would Douglass say about this stance? If Douglass were in this position now, he could look back on the black civil rights movement and deduce that King’s position was more successful than Malcolm X’s movement for black people as well as this nation as a whole. Douglass would agree with Malcolm X that attention and conflict were necessary to renovate racial injustices, but he would see that King’s movement created a similar amount of conflict as Malcolm X’s did. However, both leaders were able to create this conflict necessary for the black civil rights movement, and both deserve a great deal of credit for their methods of combating racism in American society. Both men are equally deserving of their place in history.
Douglass, Frederick. Address to the Louisville Convention. Philip Foner, ed., The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. 1883.
King, Dr. Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” 16 April 1963.
Blake, Herman. Interview with Malcolm X. University of California. Berkeley. 11 October 1963
Berton, Pierre. Interview with Malcolm X. David Galien. Malcolm X as They Knew Him. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992. 238-265.
Kelley, Robin D. G. “House Negroes on the Loose: Malcolm X and the Black Bourgeoisie”. Callaloo. Vol. 21, Issue 2. 1998, 419-435.
Harper, Frederick D. “The Influence of Malcolm X on Black Militancy”. Journal of Black Studies. Vol. 1, Issue 4. 1971, 387-402.