Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Different Circumstances Made Different Men

Bachelor Thesis, 2017

31 Pages, Grade: 2.0


Table of Contents

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Life Stories
2.1 Malcolm Little;
2.2 Martin Luther King. Jr
2.3 Comparison ofEarlv Years»

3. Role Models»
3.1 Earl Little&NOI
3.2 Daddy King & Mahatma Gandhi

4. Methods
4.1 BlackNationalism
4.2 Integration
4.3 Change of the Method
4.3.1 Human Rights»

5. Role of the Medici

6. Malcolm & King About Each Other

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

It’s the 1950s and 1960s in the United States of America (U.S.A), the time of the so called Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm X (henceforth: Malcolm) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (henceforth: King) were two of the most prominent supporters of African American rights. Even though Malcolm and King had two widely differing approaches, their activism garnered each of them a lot of national and international attention in political, social, cultural, medial and historical debates up until the present age. Their aims and achievements were and still are equated with the support of black rights in each their unique ways. Malcolm found his way into activism after converting to Islam and joining the movement Nation of Islam whilst serving a prison sentence, King on the other hand was led by his Christian beliefs and a deep inspiration of the nonviolent approach of Mahatma Gandhi.

Despite all their differences in life stories, aims and means, eventually the both of them came to fight for black rights. Their public depiction in media and literature however seemingly focused on their disparity, oftentimes even spoke of them as opponents. A look into the Encyclopedia ofMinorities in American Politics gives an idea of that portrayal. The encyclopedia entry on Malcolm may be considered biased, as its tone establishes a rather dim picture:

Malcolm X was bom Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. Malcolm dropped out of school in the eighth grade and embarked in a life of crime. Malcolm made a name for himself as a street hustler until going tojail from 1946 to 1952. He converted to Islam and discovered the Nation of Islam. The group's leader, Elijah Muhammad, taught Malcolm the organization's message of black pride, self-help, and racial separation. [...] In March 1964, Malcolm left the nation and went to Mecca. Upon his return, he moderated his views and began to give tacit support to the civil rights movement. [...] Malcolm used these organizations to preach his new form of Islam and spread his ideas about black nationalism and racial pride (Schultz 2000: 106).

The entry on King paints a more supportive picture:

[...] Martin Luther King, Jr. went on to become the single most influential and eloquent voice for the civil rights of people of color and for all Americans, and a figure recognized throughout the world for his courageous leadership of many organizations and movements. Admitted to Morehouse College when he was 15, King went on to studies at Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1955. [...] King was chosen to lead the newly founded Montgomery Improvement Association in the wake of the bus boycott begun by Rosa Parks' refusal to yield her seat to a white passenger in December of 1955. [...] King soon began to take his position as a leader in the growing civil rights movement in the United States, [...] (Schultz 2000: 981).

This bachelor thesis examines the different life stories ofMalcolm and King in order to find an answer to the question, whether they merely seemed to be opponents in the public eye while actually being some sort of partners. The key aspects of their lives will be outlined and compared. Their main role models will be identified to show, in what way they influenced Malcom and King. Going further, this thesis depicts their methods and changes thereof, including possible influences they might have had on each other. Main significance is given to the role of the media in their public perception. Why were these two men with the same aim during the same time portrayed extremely different? Since there is not much literature provided for this topic, it contains mostly own analysis. The thesis concludes after regarding how Malcolm and King saw each other and how that view might have changed. The main literature is provided by Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson. Her specialized works focus on differences and similarities by looking at life, career and legacies of Malcolm and King. Another basis of literature is provided by Clayborne Carson and Alex Haley, as the authors of The Autobiography ofMartin LutherKing, Jr. and The Autobiography ofMalcolmX. The autobiographies are the basis for this thesis.

2. Life Stories

Every person and every character has its roots in the childhood. Experiences made in the earliest stages of being up until incidents in grown up life form and influence each human being. In order to understand Malcolm’s and King’s activism during the Civil Rights Movement their life stories have to be studied firstly. The following sections outline their life stories individually and compared to each other, in order to sum up and compare their main differences and similarities.

2.1 Malcolm Little

Malcolm X was born as Malcolm Little on May 19th 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist minister who had three kids from a prior relationship. Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, was a homemaker. Together they had seven children, Malcolm being the fourth. Ear Little was a follower and activist of Marcus Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.), where he served as a local leader. The UNIA and Earl Little by extension supported the idea that all African men should leave America and go back to Africa to live in peace (Haley 2015: If). Due to his black nationalist preaching Earl Little was continuously harassed by white racists. In 1929 the Little’s family house was burned down by arsonists, presumably due to racist motivations (Haley 2015: 3). Since Earl Little wasn’t regularly employed as a minister the family constantly struggled with financial problems, a condition only aggravated by the burned down family house. Earl and Louise had a conflictual relationship with each other and their kids (Haley 2015: 4f). Earl was abusing his wife and his children. Louise too was abusive towards her children, resenting Malcolm the most. The reason for that was her heritage. She was of Scottish descent and looked almost like a white woman because of her black mother being raped by a Scotsman. Since Malcolm inherited his grandfather’s reddish-brown hair and fair skin, he had to absorb his mother’s abuse due to her unresolved hatred towards whites. Ironically, at the same time his light skin was the reason he was his father’s favorite and hence the child he mishandled the least (Haley 2015: 2f).

Earl Little died in 1931 in an incident with a streetcar which was declared as accidental. Malcolm and his family however were sure of a racist motivated attack (Haley 2015: 10). After his death Louise had serious problems with caring for her seven children. After years of hardship and psychic stress she eventually broke down and had to be committed into a mental institution in 1939. Malcolm and his siblings had to go into foster homes (Haley 2015: 18ff). After his stay with a foster family in his hometown, Malcolm had to go to a reform school because of bad behavior (Haley 2015: 26). There he had a good relationship to white people for most of his school years, later he said that it was a good relationship because they saw him as a mascot. Malcolm considered their everyday racism as more than normal for white people, he knew that talking badly about black people or calling Malcolm a “nigger” was nothing to feel bad about. A history teacher in seventh grade gave a lesson about the Negro's history, which was only one paragraph long. Neither the paragraph nor the teacher, who made fun of black people, was interested in giving neutral information about this part of history (Haley 2015: 30). In these years Malcolm was doing well in the white society and as racism was usual for whites it was also usual for Malcolm. He would admit in his autobiography: “In fact, by then, I didn't really have much feeling about being a Negro, because I was trying so hard, in every way I could, to be white.” This was a regret later in his life, since he never had a feeling of belonging, of being one of them, no matter how hard he tried to be (Haley 2015: 31ff).

When his half-sister, Ella, came to visit him a new chapter in his life began. She impressed him with her appearance, a black and proud woman who had a status in her hometown Boston. During school holidays Malcolm visited her. In Boston he met a lot of black people, with high status, even black-white couples and recognized a difference of how blacks were treated in Boston in comparison to Mason, where he had spent his childhood. Back in Mason, the white society recognized a change in Malcolm. The final cut came when his beforehand favorite teacher asked what he wanted to become and Malcolm answered that he wanted to become a lawyer. His teacher's statement that that's not a “realistic goal for a nigger” was a disappointment for Malcolm since he was one of the best students in class. After recognizing that the teacher had much better advice for his fellow students who were white but not as good at school as he was the disappointment was even deeper (Haley 2015: 36ff).

After his change of mind Malcolm moved to Boston to live with his sister Ella in 1941. Even in Boston, although Malcolm was only befriended with Negroes from the ghetto, Malcolm was trying to be more white, like most Negroes did as he would say. One example was the conk, which used to be a hairstyle where one would straighten one’s hair - an extremely painful process to “look pretty by white standards“ (Haley 2015: 56f). Another example was the fact that Malcolm dated a beautiful white girl, Sophia, who was from the upper middle class. Being with Sophia made him gain respect from any Negro (Haley 2015: 70ff). Years later, this came to be a big problem.

During his stay in Boston, Malcolm heard of Harlem and was curious about it; until finally making it to Harlem. He continued with crime he began in Boston. Years of being a drug addict, hustler and burglar Malcolm was finally arrested for organizing and conducting robberies and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment in 1946. The heavy sentence was not because of the robberies but because of being with Sophia, a white girl, who was also involved in his robberies (Haley 2015: 153ff). In prison Malcolm began to educate himself by using the library. His fellow inmates used to call him Satan because of his anti-religious standing. By his siblings, who converted to Islam and were members of the Nation of Islam (henceforth: NOI) he came to know Allah and Elijah Muhammad, converted to Islam in 1948 and became a member ofNOI.

Malcolm began to write to Elijah Muhammad while in prison every day and received an answer as often as possible. In his teachings Muhammad informs the members of NOI that the God of the black people was called Allah and was on earth as Mr. Wallace D. Fard. Elijah Muhammad, the messenger, had the task to teach the black people the truth about the black man's origin. The main argument of his teachings was that the white man was the devil. His religion, Christianity, was used to brainwash the black people. The first humans on earth were black and also Yacub's History was a different one (Haley 2015: 166ff).

After having served seven years of his sentence, Malcolm was released from prison 1952 because of good behavior. He moved to Detroit, stayed with his brother and his family and hadajob. Months later, he was given the new surname “X” instead of “Little” and was henceforth Malcolm X. This was a process NOI members did. Since slaves were given the name of their masters, the “X” was a substitution for the African surname most ex slaves never got to know in the Muslim society (Haley 2015. 203f). Meanwhile Malcolm took any time possible to recruit more members for the NOI in the streets. This was praised by Elijah Muhammad and he was appointed assistant minister in Detroit and later minister of the NOI temple in Harlem. Although it was already a large movement, the NOI received immense media attention due to the TV broadcasting of the documentary “The Hate That Hate Produced”. Almost overnight Malcolm got famous. As Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm was invited to interviews and debates on TV, radio and at Universities. In addition to that, national and international newspapers published a lot of articles concerning “Black Muslims“ which meant the members of the NOI (Haley 2015: 240ff). In 1963 Elijah Muhammad appointed Malcolm as national Minister which meant that he was categorized above any other NOI member.

When on November 22nd 1963 president Kennedy was assassinated Elijah Muhammad ordered all his ministers not to speak publicly about the matter. Against the order, however, Malcolm commented and said '“that it was a case of the chickens come home to roost” (Haley 2015: 307). As some sort of punishment for disobeying is order, Elijah Muhammad silenced him 90 days. When the suspension was extended even further, Malcolm decided to quit the NOI. In 1964, Malcolm established two organizations of his own. The Muslim Mosque Incorporated (MMI) and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). The MMI wasn’tjust a religious organization, more a “organization which would help to challenge the American black man to gain his human rights, and to cure his mental, spiritual, economic, and political sickness” (Haley 2015: 322). The OAAU was an extension of the MMI and included the strive for the abolition of the consequences of racism like unemployment and poverty, including the cooperation with whites (Haley 2015: 380ff).

Also in 1964, Malcolm decided to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. There he realized that Islam was different to what he knew before from Elijah Muhammad's teachings. He was surprised how the white Muslims treated him. He learned that in Islam there is no problem of race, all white Muslims he got to know there were friendly, respectful and cordial, color-blindness as he would call it (Haley 2015: 346ff). In Mecca he got the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz as his Muslim name but still used Malcolm X in public and converted to the Sunni Islam. After that he visited several countries in Africa where he was fascinated of the political interest of young blacks. Moreover he met many heads of states and political and intellectual leaders which influenced and supported him in his political standing (Haley 2015: 356ff).

After having survived several previous attacks on his life, ultimately, Malcolm was shot on February 21st, 1965 while giving a speech at an OAAU gathering in the Audubon Ballroom theater in Harlem.

2.2 Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on May 15th, 1929, in Atlanta to the Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta Williams (Carson 1999: 1). King had a sheltered childhood, good marks at school and he regularly visited church. Even during the time of the Great Depression when most families suffered, family King had no financial problems (Carson 1999: 2f). The first time he became aware that race might be an issue was when, at the age of six, his white friends father forbade the boys from playing together, because King was colored. King got very angry because he could not understand why someone would say such a thing to him. His parents though told him, that there was no reason to be angry. They tried to explain about racial problems on the one hand and about the importance of Christian values on the other, teaching him that anger was not an answer (Carson 1999: 7ff).

While growing older Martin became more and more aware of the everyday segregation taking place Atlanta, e.g. in schools, buses, toilets and restaurants. One memorable event occurred when he went shopping with his father and they were not allowed to try on shoes like whites were. His father was furious about it (Carson 1999: 8ff). In general, King said that his father was not just a preacher but also interested in racial problems, trying to organize protests against segregation, commenting on integration and being active in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). King Senior never thought of violence as an option to achieve equality or integration since Christian values did not allow for it.

Since King was a very good pupil, he made his way to college. There the new experiences he made weren’t just intellectual but also racist. During his first years in college, King self-acknowledges, that he was trying to act more white:

I was aware of the typical white stereotype of the Negro, that he is always late, that he's loud and always laughing, that he's dirty and messy, and for a while I was terribly conscious of trying to avoid identification with it. If I were a minute late to class, I was almost morbidly conscious of it and sure that everyone else noticed it. Rather than be thought of as always laughing. I'm afraid I was grimly serious for a time. I had a tendency to overdress, to keep my room spotless, my shoes perfectly shined, and my clothes immaculately pressed (Carson 1998: 17).

Church and religion were very dominant aspects of King’s life from early on. Because of his father being a preacher, he attended church regularly. This paved the way for him:

Of course I was religious. I grew up in the church. My father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy's brother is a preacher. So I didn't have much choice (Carson 1998: 1).

Even with the omnipresence of religion, King has had insecurities and identification problems with his faith. This however changed after intensive studies and a professor's influence, encouraging him to continue his path of believe. He entered Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948, where he received a Bachelor of Divinity (Carson 1999: 14ff). In 1955 he received a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University (Carson 1999: 32ff). In these years he met his wife Coretta Scott, who was a singer. They decided to move to Montgomery, Alabama, where King became pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. This decision was made deliberately because the couple considered the racial problems in the South to be more crucial than in the North (Carson 1999: 35ff).

A new chapter in the King family’s life began on December 1st 1955, when Rosa Parks got arrested for not wanting to give her seat up to a white man. This was a turning point for black people in Montgomery (Carson 1999: 50f). They decided to boycott buses in which black people were prohibited from sitting in front rows, to show that the white community was very much dependent on blacks. Instead of taking buses, they rather walked or shared cars. Not even one black passenger was seen in busses for nearly a year. During this period King was elected head and speaker of the protest group Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), giving emotional speeches on the matter. His involvement in the MIA and the boycott made him and his family targets. Their house was bombed while his wife and child were inside. Fortunately, they were not harmed though. This was no reason for King to start using or preaching violence. In contrast, he explicitly preached against using it (Carson 1999: 78f). The bus boycott ended when the Supreme Court ruled that the bus segregation laws were unconstitutional. This was King's first success. It also made him president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. In that same year he published his first book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story and held numerous speeches advertising non-violent protests all over the country (Carson 1999: 99).

In 1959 King travelled to India. His childhood fascination with the country grew when he learned about Mahatma Gandhi in college. He was impressed by Gandhi's self­criticism and theories of love which led India to freedom from the British Empire (Carson 1999: 121ff).

In I960 King to Altanta with his family to gain more time for his involvement in the civil rights struggle. He was arrested and was imprisoned because he did not want his fine to be paid. In previous times he had conversations with John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon about civil rights but never publicly endorsed one of them. For both his opinion was important regarding the race problem in America (Carson 1999: 143ff). During his arrest Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy made an effort for King's release. This led King to thank Kennedy publicly while still emphasizing said that he did not endorse Kennedy. Nevertheless, it had the consequence that Kennedy gained strong support from black voters all over the country and won the presidential elections in I960 (Carson 1999: 148ff). His effort for King's release was the turning point for a lot of black people to favor Kennedy over Nixon, since Nixon did not react publicly to King's arrest although he had had many conversations with King (Carson 1999: 148f). The Albany Movement in 1961 with the so called Freedom Rides against public segregation was titled as a failure by King himself and critics.


Excerpt out of 31 pages


Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Different Circumstances Made Different Men
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel  (Englisches Seminar)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, I had a Dream, Nation of Islam, Human Rights, NOI
Quote paper
Dilan Erdogan (Author), 2017, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Different Circumstances Made Different Men, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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