How did Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X use religion to bolster their respective strategies for Civil Rights?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both giants of the Civil Rights Movement understood that their causes had to be rooted in religious doctrine not only to persuade their following, but to increase its persuasion to others as well as justify their paths to equality for people of color in America.  For Dr. King, the use of Christianity was vital in making the cause of Civil Rights something more than a political idea.  Dr. King understood that Civil Rights provided the opportunity for all Christians to follow the teachings of Jesus and transcend that which is around them.  In this call for transcendence, Dr. King argued that fighting for Civil Rights through civil disobedience rooted in nonviolence was a way for people to move closer to the realm of Christ and embody Christian teachings.  Religion was the force that Dr. King believed would galvanize all people, Black and White. into action.  Through reaching across racial lines through the appeal of Christianity, Dr. King understood that he could transform the Civil Rights Movement into a human struggle and not merely a political one.

The appeal to the divine in human beings was also a foundational belief for Malcolm X.  Yet, his embrace of Islam was rooted in the idea that Islam taught a spiritual austerity and focus that appealed to people of color.  Malcolm X argued that African- Americans must recognize that in order to purge themselves of the venom of racism and the mistreatment due to race, a strict code of Islamic conduct was needed. In this, Malcolm believed that embracing Islam would allow individuals to transcend what is in terms of racism and embrace what can be in terms of recasting oneself in the mode of Allah through the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.  Like Dr. King, Malcolm X understood that Civil Rights had to be broached within the topic of religion in order to further its cause and move it from a political one to a moral entity.  The primary difference was that Malcolm X argued that the spiritual austerity required in Islam prevented people of color, specifically African- Americans, from seeing themselves as secondary to Whites.  This meant that a staunch stance of self- defense and self- assertiveness was needed for this was the representation of the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.   Just as Dr. King believed that nonviolent civil disobedience moved individuals closer to Christian goodness, Malcolm X taught that assertive defense of oneself as a Muslim moves one closer to the teachings of Islam.

Both never quite abandoned their use of religion, even though they moved in their thinking as they reached the end of their lives.  Though cut short by assassin bullets, both recognized the overall importance of spirituality and religion in their causes of Civil Rights. Malcolm X broke away from the Nation of Islam, but never surrendered the idea that all human beings are one under the creative powers of Allah and Islam.  Dr. King moved towards a more aggressive stance in countering racism in the North, but never lost sight of how his calling was a Christian one, an element that compelled him to tell his followers to keep persevering even if he is not present "at the mountaintop."  In both thinkers, there is a profound understanding that religion was vital in ensuring that Civil Rights was a reality for African- Americans in the 1950s and 1960s.