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African American Leaders

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African American Leaders: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X

This paper focuses on two historical personalities: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. First of all, it should be explained why these two figures were chosen for this paper. After all, history is full of those whom people can tell much about and who require attention. In addition, there are people who have left a significant mark in history. Choosing Martin Luther King is associated with profound sympathy for this man. In the opinions of many people, he was a really brave man who, only with the help of his faith, was able to bring people together for a noble purpose. On the other hand, Malcolm X became a symbol of perseverance as, from the first day of his struggle, he gave himself entirely to the people and did not put aside his beliefs while experiencing a deep change from radical left thoughts to more democratic and humanistic views. Speaking about their contribution to history, one should mention that they have ensured the success of policies regarding ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, during their time provided the basis for the future.

Martin Luther King

Probably the most important thing that King achieved, and few dare to challenge this fact, is paving the way and taking the last step towards the establishment of true racial equality and tolerance in the United States in the form one can see it today. At the very beginning of this long struggle was Abraham Lincoln, the man who brought about the abolition of slavery, defeating the southern states which were for the preservation of peace. Lincoln was victorious and slavery was eliminated, but in the minds of the white population of America, the idea that a black person is subservient to a white one is still living. At the time of release, African Americans still were not fully aware of how this decision would change the world as a whole.

African Americans became free in the 60s of the XX century when Martin Luther King made a very important and decisive step to overcome the last vestiges of oppression of black people. This step meant to prove that African Americans were ready to become a part of the truly free US population and that henceforth they would not tolerate any more oppression. The second most important merit of King was the method of zero resistance. Almost certainly, such discontent rousing under any other circumstances would have escalated into a war between people of different skin colors. However, King was able to channel the energy of his followers in the right direction and save a huge number of people that would die otherwise. King was a deeply religious man, and, therefore, it is necessary to talk about how much Christianity affected him. King himself was a follower of Gandhi and actively used his ideas, but this did not preclude his merits. (Anti-Defamation League, 2014, p. 6) One of the many merits that really need to be assessed in terms of historical importance is the amazing mix of ideas of non-violence and the Christian religion. In addition, it is worth noting that at the time when the patience of the black population finally ran out, they have a choice of which way to resist.

Many saw only the path of violence. In fact, it is understandable that after years of oppression and racism, the black population was ready to respond and to direct the power of all their hatred and resentment of racial aggression at taking revenge on white people. This way was promoted by the organization “Black Panther”, which belonged to radical racism. The movement was completely opposite to the movement of Dr. King. The main ideological representative of the “Black Panthers” was Malcolm X, who was a great orator and drew many African Americans to his side, just as Martin Luther King did. In fact, King and Malcolm X wanted the same thing – respect for their race. They were not chasing anything more than justice. They simply chose different paths. However, Malcolm X later realized that he was wrong to choose his path. After the Hajj, Malcolm understood that the black racist ideas were wrong and he denied them. It is worth noting one amazing piece of information: at the end of his path, Malcolm X renounced racism for religion, while King chose the way of religion from the very start.

The struggle of black Americans during the civil rights movement went in the other direction than those in India or Africa. In the US, the situation was different: here the oppressor and the oppressed were citizens of the same country. Therefore, the true liberation of black Americans could only be based on integration. The strategy of the non-violence of King was based on the belief in the possibility of fraternity and peaceful resistance. Fears of supporters of nonviolent struggle were confirmed during the hot summer of 1967, when many US cities erupted with natural race riots, culminating with carnage riots in Newark and Detroit. (Anti-Defamation League, 2014, p. 4) The bloody clashes in the streets, riots, fires in the black ghetto, dozens of dead and hundreds of injured were the result of the riots that have demonstrated the ineffectiveness and harmfulness of black nationalist slogans. The events of summer 1967 once again confirmed that it was a constructive nonviolent doctrine that worked best to resolve racial and social conflicts. In the South, people were paralyzed by segregationists’ desire and the intention to crush the blacks. Direct nonviolent action gave African Americans the opportunity to go to the streets with other people to protest. (Richardson, 2007, p. 7) That is why a decade of protest in the South had fewer casualties than ten days of riots in the North.

In 1967, after the summer riots in 128 cities in the US, Martin Luther King put forward the idea of mass civil disobedience to show America the whole effect of the economic problems on the poor and to push the government to take concrete steps in this direction. Campaigns of civil disobedience on a national scale would undoubtedly be more effective than an uprising in a ghetto taking advantage of guerilla tactics. They could have been longer and more costly to society, and it did not carry a destructive potential. In addition, it would be much more difficult for the government to suppress their superior strength. The idea of mass civil disobedience was concretized in the careful preparation of the “poor people’s march” on Washington, demanding the adoption by Congress of the economic rights of the act, which was to ensure that all poor Americans – black and white – work and receive a living wage. (Pierre, 2014, p. 6)

However, Martin Luther King had never had the chance to lead the “march of the poor” to the US capital. In late March 1968, he arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, to organize a demonstration of solidarity in support of striking local black scavengers, demanding salary bonuses on par with white colleagues and recognition of their union by the authorities. An assassin’s bullet cut short the journey of this great person’s life. He was a “drummer of justice” who selflessly sought to change America and dreamt of the day when black and white Americans would sit down at the table of brotherhood.

Assessing the experience of non-violent American civil rights movement of 60-ies., it should be noted that its leaders considered the main aspect of the fight to be not racial, but social. For twelve years, Martin Luther King organized purposeful activities of the movement, which ensured legislative, formal equality for black Americans. Social and political problems of segregation were solved due to his actions. (Anti-Defamation League, 2014, p. 2) Thanks to Martin Luther King and his associates, the black non-violent movement was based on organized disciplined mass protests. Direct action in the form of marches, boycotts, and demonstrations resulted in the movement of the black South, which awakened his political consciousness. He was armed with his courage and the most effective method of struggle – nonviolence. This awoke self-esteem, pride, and self-confidence in black Americans. They saw the American society with different eyes than fellow citizens. Leaders of the movement taught its participants to seek to institutionalize their protest, learn to find political allies in the trade unions, the public, and other organizations. During protests, black Americans initially sought the enactment of laws to ensure their interests are represented and then demanded the execution of these laws by local authorities.

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A distinctive feature of this period, the non-violent struggle for civil rights, was the fact that all the protest campaigns started at the local level. The situation caused the creation of a “creative tension”. This, in turn, attracted the attention of the public and the media at the national and international levels. Actions of solidarity with the protesters unfolded across the country and put pressure on the government, which could no longer ignore problems of the black community and was forced to take certain measures to solve them. The truth about the power of nonviolence and effectiveness in the struggle for social change in the middle of this century demonstrated black America to the entire world. Gandhi’s assumption of the role of black Americans in the promotion of non-violence doctrine has only confirmed the story.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X, in contrast to Martin Luther King, was not a priest. The activities of this man, however, were also very effective. The educational background of Malcolm X was minimal. However, he was a very effective and successful public speaker. The first amendment to the US Constitution mentions freedom of speech, and black people could express their will openly. This right was actively used by Malcolm X. He was absolutely not similar in any way to Martin Luther King. However, he also fought for the rights of black Americans.

“Nation of Islam”, also known as “Black Muslims”, was a Muslim sect led by Malcolm X. It was founded by Elijah Muhammad. It is not known who he was. Involvement with the likes of Malcolm X was a big success to “Muslims”. Thanks to him, “Nation of Islam” gained considerable popularity among the black citizens of the United States. Their policy was to contrast the black and white racism. This peculiar doctrine fell into fertile soil. The non-violent resistance movement, described in the previous chapter, was still in its infancy, as not all the blacks were ready to follow King. “Black Muslims” appeared at an opportune moment, embittered by the racist treatment, harassment of black American citizens, and willing to listen to a person from a neighboring street like Malcolm X. (DeYoung, 2007, p. 3)

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It came to them in simple terms from the teachings of Elijah Muhammad that he was clear and close to the problems of blacks. If we consider the problem in a more global perspective, the subsequent economic measures are taken by the “Nation of Islam” were not able to undermine the economy of the United States, because this call expressed frustration and discontent of the middle-class blacks, owning in the best cases to small shops in the old districts and ghettos. In sum, his “black middle class” was no more than a single percent of the economically active workers. Moreover, it was not presented amongst the defining economic blocks at the time were Rockefeller and Ford. Summing up the doctrine of “black Muslims” with respect to its economic policy, one should note that limiting their attacks outside an imposed black business on white supremacists. It limited their ability to compete in the market and contributed to white businesses. Despite the external radicalism of this theory, its reaction background is obvious. It is impossible for an entire racial group to become entrepreneurs. This idea of ??”black businesses” simply satisfied a small layer of blacks – the middle class.

There were practically no channels through which African-Americans could be heard. This void was filled by various religious sects. The “Nation of Islam” was one of them. Malcolm X, who converted to Islam in prison and remained Muslim until his death in 1965, was the most politically minded minister Elijah Muhammad. It was he who persuaded a young, promising boxer Cassius Clay, who entered the “Nation of Islam” under the name of Muhammad Ali, to convert to Islam. Despite the fact that “Black Muslims” was a religious sect, that was not the deciding factor for Malcolm X.

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Of course, he was decisive, but Malcolm X primarily fought for the rights of African Americans. It is unlikely that other ministers of Elijah Muhammad traveled around the country giving speeches, demanding the same rights as whites for his people. Malcolm X as a gifted orator was able to convince others. His policy was in an entirely different place with respect to the policy of Martin Luther King. (DeYoung, 2007, p. 2) That is what prevented the two charismatic leaders of the black movement from consolidating into something so powerful that African Americans could achieve the desired many times faster. Malcolm X often performed diatribes against not only the system but those who obeyed it. His critical arrows flew and addressed the nonviolent resistance of fighters. He thought they were weak and spineless hypocrites.

“Nation of Islam” itself was not a political organization. They did not speak against Democrats or against Republicans, but they equally did not express support for the above-mentioned parties. Elijah Muhammad was troubled by the extreme politicization of its leader Malcolm X. “Nation of Islam” appreciated the policy of abstention from politics. In the end, it was a kind of a straitjacket for Malcolm. His social activities went far beyond the organization. By the early ’60s, “Nation of Islam” became famous for the fact that they did “a lot of talking, but did not do anything. (Ladenburg, n.d. p. 4) This inaction was killing the person who considered that it was his duty to lead the masses of the black population of the United States. The organization crawled with rumors that Malcolm X was going to replace Elijah Muhammad. Of course, the relationship between these people was far from the one that Malcolm enjoyed when he first entered the “Nation of Islam”. In 1963, Elijah Muhammad appointed him as a “high priest.” De jure, he became the second man in the organization, but de facto he was the first.

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Malcolm X continued firing critical arrows against the “Nation of Islam”, trying to undermine what he could not achieve by being a member of the “Black Muslims”. He wanted to create a genuine organization of resistance to the oppression of blacks. In the eyes of the American ruling circles, Malcolm X became a very dangerous man. (McLaughlin, 2012, p. 5) If his tragic death did not occur on February 21, 1965, by the hands of one of the members of the “Nation of Islam”, Malcolm might have made them rethink the essence of the struggle of African Americans for their rights, He also wanted to build the organization’s ability to consolidate the blacks from California to Maine.


To summarize, we can say that after Martin Luther King the world has changed. King used his faith to teach mankind. He proved that not everything in this world should be achieved by force, because love, in the way it was understood by Dr. King, can change much. The Nobel Prize is just a small part of how mankind should have thanked him. Thanks to his efforts, the US is now considered to be a country with the most advanced level of democracy. Blacks really are like white people, women are equal to men. Equal treatment of all is what King wanted. Most probably, King did not even suspect that in a few decades after his death the US president will be black, but he would be glad of it. Not just because a person of the same skin color became president, but because Americans were able to make their choice, regardless of race. And it’s all thanks to him. Malcolm X was a true revolutionary, who unfortunately was not able to build a strong association with all the blacks in the US system. Contrary to the opinion of many, Malcolm X never was a socialist and did not refer to himself as such. On the basis of his statements, it was clear that he tried to accept anti-capitalist positions, and the negative attitude towards socialism he initially had changed. Malcolm X was a person that was never afraid to speak out against injustice without apprehension that he might make enemies not only among racists and the “Nation of Islam”, but also among the US ruling elite. Even though there were some limitations to his ideas, Malcolm X is one of the most uncompromising fighters for the rights of the United States of America’s black population.

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