Malcolm X and Martin Luther King

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were some of the prominent African American leaders during the 1950s and 1960s. They rose to prominence during the same time. Despite these striking similarities, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King represented extremely dissimilar philosophies. Martin Luther King envisioned a society whereby African Americans and Whites would work together. On the other hand, Malcolm X foresaw a society where African-Americans controlled their own lives. In addition, Malcolm X and Martin Luther had different perspectives regarding the use of violence in achieving their goals. Moreover, they had different perspectives with respect to the roles and involvement of Whites on the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther was as a Baptist minister whereas Malcolm denounced Christianity to become an African American Muslim. The legacies of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are controversial. Nevertheless, some scholars argue that their ideas overlapped. In the light of this disagreement, this paper compares the ideas of Martin Luther and Malcolm X in terms of their political goals, race relations in America and strategic approaches.

Political Goals

Malcolm X and Martin Luther were influenced by extremely divergent political philosophies and goals. For Malcolm X, difficulties facing African Americans could not be solved through discreet and nonviolent means (Malcolm, 1965). Malcolm X held the belief that the difficulties facing Blacks had accumulated over the centuries, and that time had come for the problems to be dealt with forcefully or never. Essentially, Malcolm X’s political goal was to achieve black separatism, which advocated for the independence of Black people as well as reclaiming the masculinity pride of African Americans. Malcolm X consistently argued that the Western culture was full of pretense and racist actions (Malcolm, n.d). As a result, he was of the view that separatism as well as having Blacks control their own economics and politics were superior tactics when compared to the tactics advocated for by Martin Luther King. For Malcolm, it was imperative for African Americans to be proud of their national identity, accept their rights spelled out in the Second Amendment, and guard themselves against White hegemony as well as extrajudicial viciousness. Moreover, Malcolm X believed that African Americans were supposed to form their own society as well as ethical values (Malcolm, 1964b). Overall, Malcolm X supported for Black Nationalism that is characterized by black cultural nationalism, black political nationalism, and black economic nationalism; all of which could be achieved using black separatism. On the contrary, Martin Luther King’s political views were mainly integrationist. The political views of Martin Luther King are evident in his I have a Dream Speech, whereby he distanced himself from the radical and militant civil rights movements advocated by contemporaries like Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X (The King Research and Education Institute, 2014). Malcolm embraced the spirit of brotherhood; as result, he embraced white Americans. Essentially, Martin Luther King advocated for cooperation between Blacks and Whites in order for cooperation to be achieved (Hakey, 2014).

Race Relations in America

The year 1965 is perceived to be a turning point for liberalism as well as racial relations existing between Whites and African Americans. At this time, both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X started rethinking their stance as regards race relations in the United States, which almost reconciled their perceptions on race relations. Malcolm X did not consider himself a racist and did not believe in any form of segregation (Malcolm, 1965). Malcolm X supported the idea of brotherhood for everyone; however, he was against the notion of forcing brotherhood on people who do not desire it. For Malcolm X, as long as brotherhood was practiced among African American themselves, then others wanting to practice brotherhood with African Americans are welcome; however, there was no need of trying to force Whites into brotherhood if they do not want. On the contrary, Martin Luther King had a pessimistic view regarding White Americans and race relations (, 1963). Martin Luther maintained that injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere. In this regard, Martin Luther held the position that the racial issue that Blacks faced in America is a national problem rather than a sectional issue; as a result, the solution to the racial problem in the United States could only be found if every American considered himself/herself to be confronted with the problem. Essentially, racial injustice was America’s problem and not Black’s problem (The King Research and Education Institute, 1967).

Strategic Approaches

There are notable differences between the strategic approaches adopted by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King with respect to the civil rights movement. Malcolm X was of the view that African Americans were supposed to break free from white dominance “by any means possible” (Malcolm, 1964a). Malcolm X adopted an extremist position in his strategic approaches to fighting for the rights of African Americans. Malcolm argued that self-preservation is the first law of nature; as a result, African Americans had the right to defend themselves. Malcolm cited that the Constitution of the United States confirms every person’s right to have firearms; thus, he argued that African Americans ought not to surrender any right that the Constitution guarantees. It is evident from Malcolm X’s views that he adopted a radical civil rights movement. Malcolm X maintained that, without violence, African Americans will continue being defenseless against White Americans (Malcolm, 1964a). As a result, in aspects that the government had failed or was reluctant to protect the property and lives of African Americans, Blacks had the right to use whatever means necessary to protect themselves and their property. In addition, Malcolm X dismissed civil rights movement tactics mainly based on morality. These tactics are founded on grounds that they can only be successful when one is dealing with a moral system or moral people. Malcolm X argued that a system or a man that opposes another person because of color does not met the criteria of being moral (Malcolm, 1965).

On the other hand, Martin Luther advocated for a non-violent approach towards civil rights movement. He drew his inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, who succeeded with non-violent activism. For Martin Luther, the goals of the civil rights could be achieved nonviolently through the use of symbolic demonstrations that do not involve the use of violence. According to Information Clearing House (2012), Martin Luther King used Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings as well as Christian teachings and his xenophobia for racial injustice to shape his civil rights movement. In addition, Martin Luther was against the idea of organizing a civil rights movement around the notion of self-defense on grounds that it is difficult to differentiate aggressive violence and defensive violence (The King Research and Education Institute, 1967). Martin Luther King asserted that violent warfare is usually characterized by thousands of casualties. As a result, he advised that any person considering the use of violent resistance should first make an honest evaluation regarding the likelihood of casualties to an underrepresented population, provoking a wealthy and well-armed majority having a fanatical right wing that would enjoy killing thousands of African Americans (Information Clearing House, 2012).


From the discussion above, it can be concluded that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X represented polar opposites. While Malcolm X advocated for radical and violent approach to civil rights movement, Martin Luther advocated for an integrationist non-violent approach. Malcolm X had the goal of Black separatism whereas Martin Luther wanted social integration; Malcolm X perceived racial injustice as a problem caused by White Americans and affecting only Blacks whereas Martin Luther perceived racial injustice to be everyone’s problem including Whites. Lastly, it is important to mention that Malcolm X advocated for violent resistance whereas Martin Luther stood for a non-violent resistance.


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Malcolm, X. (n.d.). Message to the grass roots. (1963). Letter from Birmingham city jail.
The King Research and Education Institute. (1967). Where do we go from here.