A Shared Legacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X

The political thought and activism of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. reverberates throughout contemporary social justice movements in America and beyond. Malcolm and Martin created new conceptions of Black citizenship and dignity, and in the process innovated new forms of resistance against multiple forms of political, racial, and economic oppression. They represent two of the most important Black political revolutionaries of the twentieth century. Over the course of their public careers as activists, Malcolm and Martin drew closer to each other – although they met only once in person.

Yet in popular culture, the two are largely remembered as political opposites. Malcolm famously repudiated Martin’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington as little more than a “nightmare” for Blacks living under the nation’s Jim Crow political regime. Martin is too often portrayed as the “good” civil rights leader whose advocacy of non-violence contrasted with the “bad” Malcolm X’s robust support of self defense, his unapologetic criticism of white supremacy, and the domestic and international racial terror practiced by the US. Indeed, the two often sparred verbally during some of the hottest years of the civil rights movement. Malcolm winced at Martin’s tactics in Birmingham in the spring of 1963, which he considered too passive. Martin countered that nonviolence represented the tool of those courageous enough to place their bodies on the line in hopes of transforming America’s searing racial wilderness into a beloved community of racial justice.

Malcolm had become an independent political activist by 1964, departing from the Nation of Islam and completing the Hajj to Mecca during the first of two extended tours through Africa and the Middle East. At this time, Malcolm announced both a willingness to work with civil rights leaders he previously pilloried and his intention to radicalize the movement. As if to make good on this promise, Malcolm visited the US Senate building on March 26, 1964 to witness the filibuster of the pending civil rights bill. He chatted with reporters and listened intently as Martin Luther King Jr. held court with reporters about plans to continue demonstrations even if the bill passed. Afterward, Malcolm and Martin met briefly, for the only time, shaking hands and smiling for photos that ran in major newspapers the next day.

Over the next year, Malcolm X stalked the world like a man on fire, delivering his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech that revealed his support for voting rights tied to the grassroots political activism of the Black quotidian. Malcolm brokered political alliances with African, Middle Eastern, and Third World leaders who were emerging as globally recognized human rights activists. Martin mirrored Malcolm’s internationalism by speaking out against racial apartheid in South Africa and being named the youngest Nobel Peace Prize recipient in history. Malcolm came tantalizingly close to forging a political rapprochement with Martin, traveling to Selma, Alabama to visit him in jail on February 4, 1965 before being rebuffed. Malcolm spoke at a church in Selma, where he assured Coretta Scott King that he only intended to make things easier for her husband. His effort would be cut short less than three weeks later by a team of assassins at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.

The radical Martin fully arose in the shadow of Malcolm X’s death. Over the next three years, he emerged as the most vocal critic of white supremacy, racial violence, and economic injustice in the world. Martin’s long simmering anti-colonialism took on new dimensions through his stance against the Vietnam War, a decision that led to his permanent break from the once-friendly Lyndon Johnson Administration. He refused to denounce Black Power activists such as Stokely Carmichael, and marched alongside young activists who admired Malcolm X in Mississippi and New York City.

Like Malcolm, Martin viewed white supremacy, institutional racism, and racial poverty and segregation as systemic problems that he forcefully denounced in public speeches, interviews, and sermons. Martin’s emergent radicalism resulted in vilification in the press, betrayal from onetime allies, and the enmity of the majority of white Americans.

By 1968, Martin’s call for radical Black citizenship virtually fused with Malcolm’s advocacy of Black radical dignity. Tragically, an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Tennessee struck down the leader of the civil rights movement at the height of his radical transition, during which he expanded the movement’s platform by waging a bold struggle against racism, poverty, and militarism. The revolutionary Martin Luther King Jr. linked a call for radical social democracy in America to a global movement against Western imperialism that Malcolm once heralded as the key to a liberated and more humane future for all.

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. both insisted that Black lives mattered. They called out white supremacy’s negative impact on Black humanity and American democracy.

Malcolm initially did so in bold strokes, issuing words of fire that reverberated from Harlem thoroughfares all the way to the White House and beyond. Martin Luther King Jr. turned into a pillar of fire during his last three years, outraged by the national condemnation of the Watts Rebellion, chastened by his failure to desegregate Chicago, and emboldened to mobilize a movement to simultaneously end war and poverty.

America celebrates the Martin who spoke at the March on Washington but remains studiously silent about the same leader who candidly described the US Congress as “running wild with racism” just four years later. The revolutionary Martin characterized America as the world’s “biggest purveyor of violence” and became regarded in mainstream circles as a pariah, smeared as a fomenter of violence by liberals and conservatives alike.

The afterlives of Malcolm and Martin reverberate in contemporary social justice movements. Black Lives Matter activists have, following a long tradition of prisoner rights and abolition work in the Black community, linked the denial of Black citizenship to a sprawling system of injustice that stretches from public school playgrounds to juvenile detention centers, state penitentiaries, criminal courts and law enforcement officials authorized to abuse, exploit, and punish Black bodies with impunity.

BLM activists have elegantly wedded Malcolm’s bold critique of white supremacy and anti-Black racism with Dr. King’s courageous use of civil disobedience in service of mobilizing large sectors of the Black community and its allies both domestically and abroad. The movement for Black lives policy agenda represents a comprehensive amplification and reimagining of the political thought and activism of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Its focus on the radical transformation of the criminal justice system, wealth redistribution to eradicate poverty, and the fundamental end to institutionalized racism and economic injustice powerfully build upon the legacies of the civil rights and Black Power movements.

Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 90 this year, while Malcolm, had he lived, would be 94. Their lives exemplify the grandeur and the travails of the Black freedom struggle both nationally and globally. Both believed in human rights and sought an end to racial and economic oppression the world over. In so doing, they offer continuing lessons to contemporary social justice movements that have, through a focus on the intersectional nature of personal identities and political struggles, amplified their freedom dreams.

Malcolm’s personal sincerity, political integrity, and undying love for Black people contoured his belief in Black dignity. Acting as Black America’s prosecuting attorney, he reminds us to never forget the depth and breadth of the racial terror and scars inflicted on what is, as of 2019, 400 years of oppression. Martin searched for universal democracy and human rights through the particular struggles of Black folk. His moral and political crusade on behalf of social and political transformation highlights the vital connection between hearts and minds and public policy, political power, and institutions. Together, the legacies of Malcolm and Martin continue to shape the tone, tenor, and potential of contemporary and future social and racial justice activism.

About the Author

Peniel Joseph holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also the founding director of the LBJ School’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. His career focus has been on “Black Power Studies,” which encompasses interdisciplinary fields such as Africana studies, law and society, women’s and ethnic studies, and political science. He is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America; Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama; and Stokely: A Life.