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Compare the aims, methods and achievements of MLK and Malcolm X. Which man do you think was most successful at achieving civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s?
I would suggest that Martin Luther king was the more successful man in terms of achieving civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s. While this may seem a choice influenced by public image, I would suggest that there were issues with Malcolm X’s image and methodology that made it unlikely that he would ever be accepted (and thus, respected) by White America. I think that Martin Luther King, while viewed by some blacks with contempt for his relatively moderate attitude, genuinely evaluated the situation in which he was operating and suited his modus operandi to make it as beneficial as possible. As a result of this, I think that Martin Luther King made it easier for himself to achieve his aims of bringing about equality for African-Americans in the 1960s in America. I will, however, examine in greater detail the differences in the methodology of the men later on.
Put simply, Martin Luther King aimed to ensure that black people were equal in America in the 1960s. Inequality was made manifest through segregation, whether in the guise of schooling, buses, or ‘whites only’ benches. This stemmed mostly from King’s childhood and experiences as a young adult, one of which led to him being threatened with a gun for demanding service in a segregated restaurant. King’s aims were not all this simple, however. First, he had to factor in the point that he would need to reach the greatest number of people possible with his message, and make them receptive to it. I would suggest that this was a battle between the fight for civil rights and the dangers of playing ‘Uncle Tom’ to Washington politicians. While King did liaise with President Kennedy, I would suggest that this was an accomplishment of King’s rather than one of his aims.
This is because King’s main objective, I feel, was to influence Washington into passing civil rights laws, and talking with the Kennedy brothers was only a means to this end. Second, King aimed to influence politicians through grassroots movements rather than the dealings of ‘smoke-filled rooms’. I think that this can be observed in King choosing to demonstrate the plight of African-Americans through initiatives such as the 1961 freedom rides and the 1963 March on Washington. I would suggest that these activities exhibit essential differences in the aims of King and Malcolm X- that is to say that whilst X’s objectives were dependent on black on white hostility, King’s were rooted in egalitarianism. I would suggest that this made King more accessible, and thus helped his plight through the participation of many moderate blacks and white student activists.
King’s methods were ones designed to capture the attention of Kennedy, and later Johnson, but whilst exercising caution and maximising participation. However, I think that King was not so much a true crusader as a brand for the Civil Rights Movement. As the US today is personified by its President, I think that the CRM needed an effective, moderate face that was not too black for White America. I would suggest that this is one of the few instances in which one could justify a comparison between Martin Luther King and current US President Barack Obama. For example, in the instance of the 1963 North Carolina sit-ins organised by the SNCC, King was effectively chosen as the face of the movement, a movement that was in fact initiated by educated students desperate for change. As this movement led to the desegregation of Atlanta’s schools, one could argue that King was in fact not the true leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but more like Orwell’s poster of Big Brother: omnipresent; benevolent- a brand. One method used by King was the use of non-violent protest.
Utilised in its earliest form in the Montgomery bus boycotts, I think that non-violent protest was the most effective manner with which black and civil rights activists could champion their cause. This is because non-violent protest did not provide white America with the ammunition to vilify Civil Rights activists (though many tried). This is because non-violent protest raised awareness while making it hard for police to use violence to disperse protesters. Also, I believe that such mass action made it difficult for politicians to ignore the plight of African-American people in the 1960s. While the NAACP may have taken on the Supreme Court through litigation, I think that if they had failed there would be no attention paid to the case. It would have been, I feel, business as usual.
But the mass action used in initiatives such as the March on Washington in 1963 made black issues impossible to ignore, and helped black people experience solidarity and ubiquity in their anonymity and numbers. King himself proclaimed: “The Negro is shedding his fear”, and while this is something King was worried about, I think that this is something that was in fact brought about by King. Black people in America could now see that it was acceptable to feel insulted; angry and bitter about the injustices of slavery. Because of this, I would suggest that Martin Luther King succeeded in his aims as I would suggest it was his methodology of mass action that inspired black people to rise up, and the White House (and people) to sit up and listen. However, there was to be another character with what some today would consider a more direct influence on the position of black people in 1960s America.
Malcolm X approached the Civil rights struggle in America in the 1960s in a very different manner to King indeed, and I would suggest that in spite of his iconographic status, he largely failed in his aims. X aimed to rail against the whole idea of demanding Civil Rights, suggesting that black and white men could never be truly equal. X regarded black people as Africans ‘who just happened to be in America’, and as such X took up a position described by Cornell as ‘The basic aim… to counter white supremacy,’ better known as Black Power. X advocated violence, and I would suggest that this was to result in a short term failure for X. This is because X’s white rivals, segregationalists and racists, would now find a legitimate excuse to be opposed to black people- violence reminiscent of a modern day terrorist group. I would draw parallels with terrorism because terrorist groups are not ‘evil’- they merely seek to advance an aim through violence, and are despised by the majority for it.
Malcolm X’s methodology, I feel, caused short-term failure, yet it would be unwise to dismiss his efforts out of hand. In the late 1960s disaffected black youths flocked to Malcolm X because they felt King was playing ‘Uncle Tom’ (especially following King’s poorly judged discussions with Chicago’s Mayor Daley in 1966 that resulted in King appearing naive and ineffectual), and I think that this was the central tenet of X’s early philosophy- that of the ‘angry young man’. I think that X’s involvement with the Nation of Islam also helped X’s relations with disenchanted blacks, his rebellious and extremist views being ones that the frustrated and the angry could latch on to.
However, I would suggest that the Nation of Islam was poor with regards to black/white relations and thus Malcolm X actually achieved little towards the real accomplishment of black Civil Rights (though I do indeed believe that X inspired a host of activists who may not have otherwise campaigned for them). In addition, I think X’s anti-integrationalist stance would do little to affect any sort of white-dominated legislation for the better. Indeed, X-inspired groups such as the Black Panthers were labelled as dangerous by the US government, particularly due to their McCarthyist-frightening beliefs, but also due to their advocacy of violence and separatism. One could draw parallels to Rastafarianism’s call of ‘back to Africa’ that I think equally alienated White contemporaries, who were- like it or not- the Kennedys; the Mayor Daleys, the Bull Connors- the people in power. I think this central lack of appeal to the white man was what made Malcolm X, in my eyes, largely a failure. I also think it regrettable that this appeal needed to have occurred, but it was truly required in this case.
The methods used by Malcolm X, I feel, were in reality not so far removed from King’s as hypothesised by some. I would suggest that both King and X had relatively non-violent campaigns. While X advocated black supremacy, he in reality did similar things to King: suggested blacks join voter rolls; participated in sit-ins. Whilst the Black Panthers were inspired by X, I think he was always more of an orator than an activist, and that his easily attacked espousals of violence and his belief in the Doctrine of Yakub (which suggested that an ancient black scientist named Yakub created white men, and slavery was Allah’s punishment for this) made him likely to fail in affecting mainstream white society. I would contend that a policy of non-violence was to prove crucial in the 1960s, and that a period of education of white America such as that seen in the cultural expansion of the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance was important in the meeting of the target of Civil Rights.
To conclude, I would suggest that while both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had flaws which, ultimately, crippled the growth of the Civil Rights Movement, they both contributed in significantly different ways to the fight for black Civil Rights. While I would contend that the theological and occasionally violence beliefs of Malcolm X made him seem unacceptable to white America, I think that his effective martyrdom resulted in disaffected black youths returning to political activism after they felt shunned by what they perceived to be ‘Uncle Tom’ behaviours on the part of King. One could, I feel, successfully argue that X’s increased appeal also came from his ‘everyman’ upbringing in Harlem, and that black youths could not truly identify with a Southern minister.
In addition,one could argue that King’s campaign depended on violence as much as X’s. If King’s activists and followers were not viciously suppressed, I doubt that moderate America would have eventually got round to championing their cause, evidenced by the fact that approximately a quarter of participants in the ‘March on Washington’ 1963 were white. However, I would suggest that King’s populism was to raise a number of black activists and student dissenters that would result in white America being cowed by the influence of millions of African-Americans, and, finally, result in the Civil Rights that black America had been fighting for.