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Visionaries for a Better Tomorrow: Comparing the Life and Leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

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The Civil Rights Movement was a critical event that is important in African American History. From the 1950’s to the mid 1960’s, civil rights activists and leaders rose up across the nation to fight for equal rights and against discrimination. Even local citizens such as Rosa Parks, took a stand against segregation on public transportation. Others also participated in “sit-ins” inside diners for “whites only”. Although people expressed the need for equality, many efforts were shot down. Things began to change in the Jim Crow south when a young pastor named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the largest civil rights boycott against the Montgomery, Alabama bus system. Through his charisma and commitment, Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the strongest and influential civil rights activists. Nevertheless, he was not the only one in the fight for equality.

A revolutionary by the name of Malcolm Little, later changing his name to Malcolm X, rose up and created the belief of Black Nationalism. Malcolm X believed in fighting the enemy (white people) and creating a segregated Black community through forceful measures. Dr. King however desired to bring change by peaceful protest and reached out to all races to join the battle against segregation. We can compare the lives and ideals of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and say they have the same ideas, but their methods and desires for change are much different.

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X developed their positions and philosophies as a result of their personal experience in a Jim Crow nation that legalized and institutionalized discrimination. Malcolm Little was born May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His father Earl Little was a Baptist preacher and a follower of Marcus Garvey. His mother, Louise Norton Little was a housewife and took care of Malcolm’s seven brothers and sisters. Due to Earl’s involvement in civil rights activism, Malcolm’s family had to move a few times because they were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1929, their home in Lansing, Michigan was burnt down. Two years later in 1931, Malcolm’s father was murdered. The Little family knew the KKK was involved in the incident but the police ruled it as suicide. These unfortunate events caused his mother Louise to have a nervous breakdown, which got her sent to a mental institution in 1939. The eight Little children were then split up and sent to various foster homes. Despite this, Malcolm was a bright and focused student, graduating at the top of his class. His dreams were smashed when his favorite teacher expressed that being a lawyer was вЂ?no realistic goal for a nigger” (cite). This statement was detrimental to Malcolm’s spirit because he lost interest in school and eventually dropped out of high school. He later decided to live with his sister Ella in Boston and worked various jobs. By 1942, Malcolm moved to Harlem, New York and by then he had turned to a life of crime, pimping, gambling and selling drugs. Eventually he was convicted of burglary in 1946 and sent to prison.

While in prison Malcolm continued his education and began a self-transformation. His brother Reginald went to visit Malcolm in jail one day to update him with his recent conversion to Islam. Malcolm began to study the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad was the leader of the Nation of Islam, which was an organization that taught the empowerment of black people and separation from white people. Once Malcolm was released on parole, he became a devout follower of the Nation of Islam. This is when he dropped his last name Little and adopted “X” as his last name, which signified his lost African tribal name.

After his release from prison, Malcolm X became a brilliant and powerful orator. Soon Elijah Muhammad appointed him as a minister and spokesperson for the Nation of Islam. His involvement in the Nation of Islam increased its membership from about 400 to 30,000 followers. Malcolm X was also responsible for the conversion of the world famous boxer Cassius Clay, who later became known as Muhammad Ali. On January 14, 1958 he married Betty Sanders.

Martin Luther King’s life and background differed in various ways. Martin Luther King Jr. was born January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. His father was Reverend Martin Luther King and Alberta Williams King. At the age of five, Martin Jr. began school before the legal age of six. In high school, he was very intelligent and by his junior year he waws able to attend Morehouse College, without formal graduation, because of high examination scores. In 1948, he graduated from Morehouse College with a B.A. degree in sociology. This same year Martin Luther King Jr. enetered the Christian ministry and became ordained February 1948 at the age of nineteen. King then decided to attend Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester Pennsylvania. King continued his graduate studies at Yale, Edinburgh in Scotland and Boston University. In June of 1953 he married Coretta Scott. Upon completing his studies at Boston University he became the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1959, he resigned to become the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was also elected as President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was responsible for the Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955 to 1956.

The backgrounds of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were largely responsible for the distinct responses to racism. King who, was able to succeed through higher education, adopted a peaceful philosophy, whereby he felt that blacks and whites can be united and live in peace. Because of unfortunate circumstances Malcolm X believed that only through revolution and force could blacks attain rights. Both X and King were great orators and spread their messages. Nonetheless their intentions came about in different methods and tactics.

One difference between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X is their religion. Malcolm X was a devout Muslim and devoted his life to changing the lifestyle of those around him for the better. If he does not succeed he would always seek action, even violence, instilling his famous quote “by any means necessary”. Malcolm X’s early sources of inspiration were the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, Nation of Islam leader and the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, Jamaican native who advocated a Back to Africa Movement. Elijah Muhammad taught that the black race was a divine race and that it was superior to the white race. The Nation of Islam teaches that the white man was



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