Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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What are some similarities in the achievements of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X? 

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Though the lives of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X never overlapped, they had many striking parallels.

First, both men were raised in broken families. Douglass was born a slave in 1818. He barely knew his mother and did not know the identity of his father (commonly believed to be his master, Thomas Auld). He lived first with his grandparents and then in the house of Thomas Auld's brother, Hugh. After secretly learning to read, Douglass was sent to work for a farmer known to be a harsh disciplinarian. The beatings he received failed to make him submissive, however, and he entered adulthood a highly intelligent, headstrong young man who was quick to violence.

Malcolm X was born in 1925 to a large family. He was the son of a preacher, but after his father died under questionable circumstances, his mother became mentally unstable. As a result, the family was broken up, and Malcolm Little spent much of his childhood in different homes. After moving to Harlem, Malcolm became a criminal and was imprisoned for burglary. He, too, had shown intellectual promise, but the hardships of his youth left him an embittered young man.

Both men acquired an education in captivity and were transformed by it. In his autobiography, Douglass describes how clandestinely learning to read led him to condemn slavery and recognize the hypocrisy of slaveholders who claimed to be Christians but then fought for the right to own other human beings. Malcolm X, meanwhile, became a voracious reader in prison, educating himself in history, philosophy, and literature. He also was exposed to the Nation of Islam at this time and underwent a spiritual rebirth, converting to Islam. He gained the discipline to abstain from drugs and alcohol and learned to use words as weapons rather than resorting to physical violence.

Douglass and Malcolm X both became preachers, which gave them mastery of public speaking and rhetoric. In their preaching, both men blended the spirituality of their respective religions with a relentless dedication to the cause of civil rights for African Americans. Frederick Douglass became a prominent figure when leading abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison took note of his abilities and invited him to speak before larger and larger forums.

Malcolm X began his career as a Nation of Islam preacher in Detroit. His efforts as a speaker and community organizer led to the opening of temples across the US and rapidly swelled the ranks of NOI membership. He was an impressive speaker, by turns humorous and severe. Additionally, as a tall, handsome, and well-dressed young man, the public took note of him. Within a few years, he effectively became the national mouthpiece for the NOI and its leader, Elijah Muhammad. In this role, he appeared on television and at public debates alongside other leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement.

Both men wrote impressive autobiographies. The life story of each man is now considered to be a literary classic. Without the benefit of radio or television, writing took on a greater importance for Frederick Douglass. Thus, it was his writing that brought him international renown and helped him raise the funds to purchase his freedom. Malcolm X, on the other hand, was famous as a speaker. He had already achieved international fame and then became its victim. He was ostracized from the NOI and received constant death threats. He only dictated his autobiography to Alex Halley shortly before his assassination, and the book became a bestseller after his death.

Finally, both men had the moral courage to stand up to influential leaders with whom they disagreed. Douglass broke from William Lloyd Garrison over the issue of whether slavery could be abolished within the bounds of the Constitution. Douglass felt it could and was proven right with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Douglass later broke with Elizabeth Cady Stanton over the issue of suffrage. Douglass wanted the vote for all men and women and was a committed suffragist, but he supported a 15th Amendment dealing solely with voting rights for African American men, as he felt that the American people were not yet ready for universal suffrage.

Malcolm X initially broke with the NOI after discovering corruption and sexual improprieties committed by the organization's leadership. After making a pilgrimage to Mecca, he began to preach his own message, which dropped the categorical denunciation of white Americans that he had been preaching on behalf of the NOI. Unlike Douglass, who lived out his days comfortably, Malcolm X became a martyr for the cause of civil rights, murdered in February 1965 at the age of 39.

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Both Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X devoted their lives to exposing the injustices that confronted African American men and women in the United States. Douglass, like Malcolm X, was a prolific writer and a gifted public speaker who spent the first half of his life as an abolitionist, pointing out the horrors of slavery and frequently illustrating the gap between the institution and American democratic ideology. After emancipation, he was an advocate for African American rights, including suffrage and education. He was particularly critical of the racist politics of the post-Reconstruction era, which gave way to the implementation of Jim Crow segregation in the late nineteenth century.

Malcolm X confronted the reality of systemic racism in the United States, both in the Jim Crow South and especially in inner cities. Like Douglass, he advocated black self-respect and self-reliance in the struggle for equality, pointing to education in particular as a key to success. Unlike Douglass, he advocated black nationalism, generally regarding the more reconciliationist positions of his contemporary Martin Luther King, Jr. as hopelessly idealistic and unlikely to lead to real equality for African Americans.

The kind of black nationalism Malcolm X espoused was inconceivable in the antebellum era, but Douglass aggressively promoted African American rights amid the Civil War, seeing the conflict as a referendum on slavery long before most politicians were willing to frame it that way.

Interestingly, an important parallel between Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass is that both used the medium of an autobiography as a platform for their activism. Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was among the most widely-read of the slave narrative genre, while Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-written with Alex Haley, was equally important to cementing the legacy of Malcolm X (it was published less than one year before his murder in 1965).

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Two similarities in the achievements of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X lie in the way they taught themselves to be literate and in the tone of their writings.

Both men did not receive strong and sustained formal instruction in literacy. As a slave, Frederick Douglass did not even receive an education.  He initially learned the fundamentals of reading from Sophia Auld, one of his mistresses. Upon hearing of what his wife was doing, Hugh Auld forbade her from teaching the slave.  Douglass had to piece together the elements of literacy instruction from outside sources.  His reading and writing skills were self-taught.  Malcolm X's path followed a similar arc. While he did receive formal education, it was limited.  Malcolm X dropped out of school and lacked a foundation for effective reading and writing.  While he was in prison, he relearned the skills needed to be an effective reader and thinker. This took the form of familiarizing himself with every word in the dictionary and reading increasingly complex works. Like Douglass, his building of reading and writing skills took place under his own guidance. 

Both men are also similar in the defiant tone they strike towards white society. Frederick Douglass is unabashed in his condemnation of slavery.  He does not believe that slavery needs to be gradually eliminated.  He demands its dissolution.  He sees it as "fatal poison." When he challenges Covey, Douglass shows a defiance associated with his stance on slavery:  "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.’’ Malcolm X was equally forceful in his opposition to racism perpetrated by members of the white community.  This blunt rejection of racism is seen in his insistence that African-Americans must achieve their freedom "by any means necessary" and in his advocation for self-defense.  Like Douglass, he was unapologetic about his approach.  Both men are similar in how the tone of their work caused consternation in the white community. Both men's legacies were forged because of this tone towards injustice.

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