Comparing Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X


Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X embody two radically different responses to civil rights movement during the 1960s. While Martin King’s adherents often misreport Malcolm’s vision and describe him as a “messiah of hate” and a “black Ku Klux Klan” of racial extremists, Malcolm X’s followers misrepresent Martin King’s perceptions, usually caricaturing him a “twentieth century religious Uncle Tom pacifist.[1]” Although they were portrayed as adversaries and shared different views regarding the political Assignment of nonviolence and violence in the black free movement, in real there was no animosity between them. Both were justice fighters and strugglers against racism sharing the same goal of freedom for African-Americans.


Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were black victims of white-dominated America. Both were led by their experiences to become “highly influential, spiritually motivated liberation leaders.”[2] They were devoted to their goals of realizing African Americans’ liberation and were determined to end the oppression of white racism. They were the towering idols of contemporary African American culture. They were complementary to each other rather than oppositional and stood shoulder to shoulder for black opposition against white supremacy. Both made significant contributions to the black freedom struggle although from different philosophical perspectives.

King acknowledged Nation of Islam (NOI) as an alternative mission, being embraced by blacks, to the non-fulfilment of non-violent goals steering to a more militant momentum. Nationalism and integration intensely enriched the texture of African-American struggle. Integration line of thought, endorsed by traditional civil rights activists like King, demanded integration of black people into the mainstream of the American society while nationalism thinking, endorsed by Malcolm, rejected the American aspect of identity and stressed on the African side.

King and Malcolm were religious leaders, “each responded first to a religious calling from which their larger public leadership and significance emerged.”[3] Both King and Malcolm incorporated the social and political connotations of their respective religious faith, which were closely aligned with social conditions, exploitation, and misery of people and resisted the evil forces of racism, capitalism, and imperialism.

King and Malcolm were aware of the dangers of the disunity of political ideology in the black freedom movement. They were sensitive to the “good cop/bad cop” aspect of their relationship.[4] The first meeting between the two, held on 26 March, 1964 in Washington D.C., had a far-reaching, symbolic significance for the black freedom movement. It was the confluence of two great resistance traditions, Martin Luther King, the Christian integrationist, and Malcolm X, the Muslim nationalist. However, it would be wrong to characterize the black freedom movement in terms of integration or nationalism political insights or by way of non-violence and violence strategies. In fact, King seemed more of “a nonviolent Malcolm” while Malcolm did suggest that “retributive violence might conceivably prove unnecessary.”[5] Hence, their political ideologies seemed to approximate at some point with each speculating avenues of communication and anticipating the second meeting prior to the death of Malcolm.

With King’s increased focus on the structural reasons of poverty and imperialism, transgressing the boundaries of civil rights movement, and in the investigation of the solutions, he drew closer to Malcolm’s radical views of capitalism imperialism, and racism. He eloquently condemned U.S. domestic and foreign policy. There was a merging of political principles and a change in political strategizing of both the leaders, there evolved a “moderate Malcolm” and “militant Martin”[6] It so happened that both revised their respective political views regarding the path of black freedom movement.


Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X strove to remedy racial injustices entrenched in the American heritage of poverty, racism, and violence, but their methods were different. Malcolm maintained the right to self-defense by “any means necessary” while King chose nonviolent resistance. Malcolm was the separatist and Martin the nonviolent advocate for civil rights and integration. They were committed to different religious ideologies. In the context of white racial guilt and phobias, Malcolm and King emerged as two distinct crusaders of black freedom movement, “Malcolm representing an avenging angel, spewing hatred, and King a saintly figure who would lovingly correct and forgive whites”.[7] Hence, although their political end was similar their means of attaining it were divergent.

Historically and attitudinally, King and Malcolm exhibited oppositional dimensions. Malcolm’s teachings supported retaliation and self-defense because he had difficulty embracing nonviolence. He rejected King’s nonviolence because that was tantamount to acceptance of institutionalized violence. King, on the other hand, favored a more incremental approach and was a “moderate consensus builder.”[8] King and Malcolm came from different sociological backgrounds. The former was born in a middle-class and received quality education whereas Malcolm hailed from a poor family. Both of them vilified each other’s religious beliefs.

King and Malcolm differed in their political attitudes in the search of black identity and the role of blacks in the freedom movement. King believed that isolation from the mainstream American political and economic life would not help salve their subjugation. He realized that racism was not personal rather structural and dreamt of a just society. Contrarily, Black Nationalism was a desperate challenge to traditional pacifist thinking that inspired Malcolm’s political consciousness. Malcolm became a devoted NOI minister and his outlook toward whites turned into “unremittingly alienated, angry, and hostile, sharply contrasting with that of King and the (mainly) nonviolent southern movement.”[9]

Gradually, black people became disillusioned of King’s racial integration philosophy and became attracted by NOI’s solution of complete separation, and the dichotomies and polarities became pronounced as King delivered a demanding call of “tough love” to his white countrymen” while “Malcolm’s harsh diatribes against whites were unalloyed (until very late) with any prospect for white redemption or interracial reconciliation.”[10]

King had never lost his hopefulness about America’s political and religious values and had “rebuked whites for their prejudicial actions,”[11] expecting them to reform their negative racist attitude. However, Malcolm was distrustful of reforming the oppressive evil nature of whites after an objective analysis of facts and witnessing “the undeniable collective evil of white society”[12] that he believed could only be resolved through separation.


Martin King and Malcolm X represented the black protest movement with their respective political and religious ideologies that were important and complementary to each other for the success of the civil rights movement. Martin was visionary and optimistic of a prospective future and a just society while Malcolm was angered and disappointed by the American nightmare.

Work Cited

Howard-Pitney, David, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Ernest May. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s+... Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004.

[1] Howard-Putney, David, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Ernest May. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s+… Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004 (p. 2)

[2] Ibid. at 33.

[3] Ibid. at 20.

[4] Ibid. at 19.

[5] Ibid. at 21.

[6] Ibid. at 18.

[7] Ibid. at 17.

[8] Ibid. at 17.

[9] Ibid. at 9.

[10] Ibid. at 10.

[11] Ibid. at 102.

[12] Ibid. at 103.