Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement

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Compare and contrast Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were both civil rights leaders during the 1960s. Both were deeply religious but had different ideologies about how equal rights should be attained. MLK focussed on nonviolent protest (e.g., bus boycotts, sit-ins, and marches), while Malcolm X believed in attaining equal rights by any means necessary.


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Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were near contemporaries, born four years apart in the 1920s, and both experienced the bitter racism of mid-twentieth-century America. Each died by gun assassination in the 1960s. Both were prominent, charismatic leaders of black movements, working for the empowerment of the black citizens of the United States.

A chief difference between the two was their attitude toward violence. King was completely dedicated to nonviolence, modeling his movement for civil rights on Gandhi's successful nonviolent movement to free India from British rule. King's followers, like Gandhi's, practiced satyagraha, or the power of nonviolent truth, training in not responding to provocation before being sent to resist. King firmly believed that violence on the part of blacks would only empower whites to feel justified in slaughtering them.

Malcolm X, in contrast, took a dimmer of view of whites than King, seeing them through the lens of the black nationalist Nation of Islam of which he was part. He believed violence was often the only language whites understood, because it was the method they had long used to control people of color. In his view of the acceptability of violence, Malcolm X echoed mainstream American thinking, though such sentiments sounded shocking when directed at whites by a black man. Malcolm X also believed, unlike King, that getting white acceptance was impossible. Blacks needed to turn their backs on white culture and develop their own, separate society based on helping each other.

Both men sought to empower blacks with a sense of pride, purpose, and the possibility of better lives for themselves and their children. It is worth noting that at the end of his life, Malcolm X went to Mecca for the Islamic hajj, or pilgrimage, and there experienced profound transformation. For the first time ever, he experienced whites treating blacks as equals, and he came home believing that reconciliation was possible. Unfortunately, he was assassinated before he could implement his new thinking.

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Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were both civil rights leaders during the 1960s, but had different ideologies on how civil rights should be won.  Both men were also deeply religious, but followed different religions and paths.

Martin Luther King Jr. advocated nonviolent protest, which had worked well for Gandhi during the years of Indian independence (India became independent in 1947).  By organizing sit-ins, protests, marches, and boycotts, MLK jr. hoped to encourage African-Americans that by peacefully and legally protesting, they could build a country where all races are treated equally.  MLK jr. was Christian and used examples from the bible to help support his ideas of working together to become more Christian and closer to God.

Malcolm X took a different approach to civil rights when he was imprisoned for a string of burglaries in Boston.  In jail, he embraced Islam and converted.  Malcolm X appreciated the egalitarian nature of Islam; regardless of class or color, everyone was equal in Allah's eyes.  Because he did not see this happening in America, he took a different approach to civil rights.  He believed in getting civil rights by "any means necessary"; to defend yourself, and to fight for equality, Malcolm X believed that anything done to achieve these goals was necessary.  This brought civil rights outside of the realm of peaceful, legal, nonviolent resistance.  For Malcolm X, some violence may be necessary in order to achieve equality for all.

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Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were inspiring, charismatic figures who sought to transform the conditions of life for African Americans. Millions looked to them for leadership and guidance in the long and bitter struggle for change. Controversial figures, they were hailed as heroes by some and demonized by others.

Beyond these similarities, there were huge differences between the two men. King sought racial equality for African Americans within the existing system. As he stated in the famous "I Have a Dream" speech in the March on Washington, he wanted to fulfill the promise of American liberty, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence ("All men are created equal") and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address ("A new birth of freedom").

For Malcolm X, this was nothing more than wishful thinking. He argued that American society was so deeply infested with racism and oppression that African Americans would never be granted anything like equality. It was therefore futile for King and other members of the mainstream civil rights movement to agitate for change within the system; it was the system that was the problem in the first place.

That being so, Malcolm X argued for radical separation between the races, not the kind of integration endorsed by King. Only in this way, he believed, would African Americans begin to recover the dignity of which they'd been systematically stripped ever since they were first brought to America in chains.

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Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr were civil rights leaders in the 1960s.  Both of them wanted to improve the status of black people in the United States.  Outside of that, there was very little that was similar about them, especially before Malcolm X went to Mecca late in his life.

The major difference between the two was their attitude towards whites.  King was an integrationist.  He wanted blacks and whites to work together towards a society in which all races got along together and mixed with one another as equals.  By contrast, Malcolm X was a black nationalist.  He wanted blacks to keep to themselves.  He wanted them to have equal rights and to be economically strong just like King did.  But he wanted them to get those rights without white help and he did not think that mingling with whites was a good thing.

So both of them wanted blacks and whites to be equal.  But Malcolm X wanted them to remain separate while King wanted them to integrate.

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Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both were champions of the African-American cause and fought for equal rights for this historically oppressed community. They both had the greatest impact on the civil rights movement during the 1960s. There were a number of differences between them, none so significant as their approach to achieve the desired results.

MLK was born in a middle-class Christian family and was well educated, while Malcolm X was born in a poor Muslim family and was hardly schooled. MLK was a proponent of non-violence and wanted blacks and whites to exist and work together. Malcolm X, on the other hand, was a supporter of "by any means necessary". He was thus a supporter of using violence, if need be, to achieve his objectives. He was also distrustful of whites and wanted the blacks to support each other. 

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