Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement

Start Free Trial

Compare and contrast Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Quick answer:

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.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial


An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Create a chart or diagram to compare and contrast Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

I will compare and contrast the two leaders—my advice would be to put this information in a Venn diagram, with the commonalities of the two leaders in the middle and their differences in the separate part of the circles.  Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights leader who organized boycotts and peaceful protests.  His position as an evangelical pastor made him popular with all but the most strident segregationists.  King was known for his speeches where he envisioned a world where black and white people could live together—this is most eloquently put in King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  

Malcolm X was a member of the Nation of Islam and he viewed separation of the two races as the most acceptable way to achieve justice.  Early in his speaking career, he argued that the white race would fail and that black people were superior to whites.  He accused leaders such as Martin Luther King as being too soft.  Malcolm X spoke to the anger that some African Americans felt having lived under segregation.  Malcolm X would eventually separate from the Nation of Islam and adopt a more moderate message, but he still argued for black political participation in order to achieve civil rights goals.  

Both leaders were assassinated—Malcolm X in 1965 by a member of the Nation of Islam, and King in 1968 by a segregationist.  Both men were controversial in that they were arguing to change the status quo.  Both men were also against the war in Vietnam. The Vietnam War claimed a higher percentage of black than white lives.  

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Contrast and compare Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X?

Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) and Malcolm X were both human rights activists and leaders, but differed in some of their fundamental ideologies and practices.

MLK was a leader in the African American Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, and he believed in the value of civil disobedience as a means of change. He was a Baptist minister and favored nonviolent forms of protest, leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and organizing nonviolent protests, such as the March on Washington, DC, in 1963.

Malcolm X was also a human rights activist advocating for the advancement of black Americans, but he was strongly against the Civil Rights Movement for its focus on racially integrated society. Malcolm X was also a minister in the Muslim faith and a member of the Nation of Islam. Early in his career as a human rights leader, he was quite violently anti-white and believed that people of color should be kept separate from white people for their own safety. By 1964, he turned away from Nation of Islam as he had come to disagree with many of their social beliefs. He instead began practicing Sunni Islam and became a supporter of Pan-African and self-determinist African identities. He believed that Sunni Islam could be a way for people to achieve equality, regardless of skin color, and he even renounced his former hatred for white people.

Both opposed the systematic oppression of people of color and the involvement of the United States in conflicts overseas. Both were also assassinated by people angry with their messages, but Malcolm X was assassinated by members of Nation of Islam who were angry with his leaving their community.

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were both deeply religious men who believed their faiths offered a path to equality among the races, though they worked through differing social movements. Their activism had a lasting impact that can still be felt in the United States today, and many Americans look back to them for inspiration in their efforts to remedy the racial inequality that persists in many societal structures.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on