The Strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the Course of the Mass African-American Protest of the Early 1960s
“I am convinced that for practical as well as moral reasons, nonviolence offers the only road to freedom for my people.” When Martin Luther King, Jr. made this quotation in 1966, he still held the opinion that violent resistance to white supremacy would be futile. But at this time a certain amount of people, especially young blacks in the northern cities, turned towards a strategy of armed resistance which was spread by radical black nationalists like Malcolm X. Beginning shortly after the Second World War, when the hopes of most African Americans for racial equality were not fulfilled, and on its peak at the end of the 1950s, an increasing number of blacks protested peacefully against discrimination. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and leading figures like MLK helped to organize several demonstrations, sit-ins (Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, 1960) and boycotts (Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955), aiming at full integration of black Americans. At the same time, but evidently opposing these nonviolent forms of protest, the Nation of Islam (NoI), amongst them Malcolm X, demanded a new kind of Black Nationalism which emphasized black pride, unity and self-respect. Nevertheless, these pragmatic radicals aimed at separatism, but the vehicle to achieve it was supposed to be a revolution. These two antagonistic approaches determined the Civil Rights Movement from the mid 1950s onward.
To understand the developments of the early 1960s it is essential to have a look at the beginning nonviolent protests of the mid and late 1950s. Following the pioneering Brown v. Board of Education court cases (1954/55), the Montgomery Bus Boycott can be regarded as the initial major remonstration which was led by MLK. Two years later he ascertained its importance and impact on the forthcoming years in one of his earliest published articles. He points out that the identity of blacks changed remarkably – the passive self-pitying image, caused by decades of submission and setbacks, was substituted by a new form of dignity and self-respect which are the compulsory preconditions for a movement of social change. For the first time a mass of African Americans showed their ability to challenge the system of segregation by expressing unity under a supreme leadership. The increasing importance of black ministers, who transformed their churches into starting points for further protests, as well as the nonviolent resistance itself as a new and powerful weapon are highlighted by MLK. In 1957 this newly established alliance between the black church and the Civil Rights Movement culminated when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was founded under the presidency of MLK who graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1951. Adam Fairclough emphasizes the impact of this union by describing it as a fusion of black Christianity with the concept of mass direct action which Mahatma Gandhi had used in India to struggle against the British colonial rule. Unlike the NAACP which could be easily repressed by the state, the SCLC had a significant advantage due to its appeal to one of the basic American moralities – Christianity. But until 1960, however, the SCLC shunted into passivity while being short of financial resources. In addition, its main focus changed to voting rights after the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created a Civil Rights Commission observing putative discriminatory objections, had been passed. Nevertheless, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 can be considered as the first important achievement in the black freedom movement since the Reconstruction Era of the 1870s.
An increasing number of peaceful protest actions occurred at the beginning of the 1960s raising the hope of African Americans. The Greensboro lunch counter sit-in (1960) was not a spontaneous action of four students to protest against segregation. Fairclough points out that they undoubtedly knew their action would provoke whites – beside the fact that they had arranged newspaper reporters to be on the spot. But before they started the sit-in they had been advised by experienced older people and later on by the NAACP. The legal status of their sit-in was questionable as well (violation of private property) – state governments had not been confronted with these kinds of remonstration so far. Only a few days later, sit-ins skyrocketed in bordering states (i.e. Virginia and South Carolina) and thus became a nationwide topic. In contrast to the passive nature of boycotts, sit-ins offered a great advantage, because of the demonstrators’ direct physical presence at the focus. Although the whites’ reactions, which included increasing policy brutality and numerous arrests, were violent and hostile, most of the protesting blacks (especially in the cities throughout the Deep South) endured their nonviolent struggle. The reaction of the North was positive as well – northern black students showed their sympathy, raised money to support their southern fellows and many northern journalists reported about the sit-ins in a positive way. Nevertheless, the outcome of the sit-ins was ambiguous. Whereas the integration of the lunch counters failed in the Deep South due to brutality and arrests, protesters achieved progress in the upper southern states with the help of consumer boycotts which generated economic pressure on commerce. The newly established Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) proved to be a powerful organization by coordinating upcoming actions of protest and MLK became the most significant leader of the civil rights movement in the South.
During the late 1950s MLK started to manifest his strategy of nonviolent resistance in several essays, speeches and books. From the beginning on he condemned the use of violent resistance, because blacks in the USA did not have access to the instruments of violence and were clearly outnumbered by whites. Despite his middle-class background, he criticized the lack of interest for social change among the better off black middle-class during the 1950s. After developing into a charismatic, but religious leader, he succeeded in attracting large masses of blacks among the middle class as well as the working class, although he did not reach the main part of youngsters in the northern cities. In 1959 he concluded about his protest strategy: “One is the approach of pure nonviolence, which cannot readily or easily attract large masses, for it requires extraordinary discipline and courage.” This quotation clearly shows that MLK was aware of the extent of his suggested way of struggle. After studying Gandhi’s actions of resistance in India, which were sometimes responded by massacres with fatal casualties, MLK forged ahead a challenging way. He defined his long-term strategy within four steps: 1. gathering information about the occurrence of social injustices, 2. negotiation, 3. self-purification and 4. direct action. The nonviolent direct actions produce a crisis as well as tension in order to force a former unwilling community to negotiate about the problem. But he could not expect a devoted self-sacrificing of black students who took part in the boycotts, sit-ins and demonstrations. The dangers of these actions were predictable since policy brutality had already increased in the ghettos of bigger cities during the 1950s. But a new kind of optimism, associated with a black feeling of unity and a self generated dynamic, about the recent developments and increasing progress encouraged many blacks to follow MLK’s leadership. He always demanded full integration of blacks, instead of mere desegregation, into the existing society as the ultimate goal and compromises with whites, because he did not regard the Civil Rights Mo vement as a struggle between the white and the black community. Appealing on the morality of whites he considered it a disparity between justice and injustice. MLK achieved to question the basic rights of American citizens (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) which were regarded as God-given rights. Independent from the racial background, every American citizen was de jure entitled to these rights. In fact, the ‘American Dream’ turned out to be a moral dilemma. He brought forward the argument that African Americans would pay taxes as well so why should they be discriminated and treated differently to whites? One of his major philosophical rules, however, stipulated rather to win the friendship and understanding of the opponent than to humiliate him. But the most important achievement of MLK was his ability to appeal to whites as well when he included them in his philosophy – to fight social injustice independent from skin color and improve the whole American society. This progressive idea definitely helped to raise his popularity even amongst whites. Although many of his followers were humiliated in different ways, MLK managed to encourage large masses of African Americans to struggle peacefully against discrimination and segregation. But his principle of nonviolent resistance demanded stamina and discipline from his supporters and led to step by step improvements which other radical organizations, like the NoI, regarded as too deferred.
 King, Martin L., Jr. “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom” (1966), in: James M. Washington (Ed.). A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: HarperCollins, 1991, 55.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. shall be abbreviated as MLK in the following paragraphs.
 Cf. King, Our Struggle (1956), 75.
 MLK points out the devastating impact of segregation on the self-image: “[…] segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” King, Letter from Birmingham City Jail (1963), 293.
 MLK considered Gandhi as a kind of archetype of non-violent resistance, deeply studied his teachings and appreciated his Indian freedom struggle in many of his speeches, essays and books.
 Cf. Fairclough, Adam. Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000. New York: Penguin, 2002, 234 et sqq.
 Approximately 3600 students were imprisoned during 1960. Cf. Fairclough, Better Day Coming, 243.
 By 1961 more than 100 southern cities had desegregated their lunch counters. Cf. Chafe, William H. Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom. New York: Oxford UP, 1980, 143.
 Fairclough, Better Day Coming, 241-247.
 Cf. Washington, James Melvin (Ed.). A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: HarperCollins, 1991, xi.
 King, The Social Organization of Nonviolence (1959), 32.
 Nonetheless, MLK realized the danger, or rather the tempting nature, of violence as a kind of self-defense which was even regarded by Gandhi as a legitimate instrument. Ibid.
 Cf. King, Letter from Birmingham City Jail (1963), 290/291.
 Malcolm X commented: “I don’t see any American Dream; I see an American nightmare.” Malcolm X. “The Ballot or the Bullet” (1964), in: George Breitman (Ed.). Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements. New York: Pathfinder, 1993, 26. Although a bit grim, he totally catches the mood of many African Americans.
 Cf. King, The Rising Tide of Racial Consciousness (1969), 150.
 “The majority of Negroes want an alliance with white Americans to tackle the social injustices that afflict both of them.” King, Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast (1964), 180.
- Quote paper
- Stefan Küpper (Author), 2008, The Strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the Course of the Mass African-American Protest of the Early 1960s , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/145406