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Malcolm X: The Black Man White America Feared

Malcolm X, the Black man who frightened white America, was one of the most influential leaders of Black America when the Civil Rights Movement was just getting off the ground. His influence was, however, totally different from that of the other leader who was extremely pivotal during those turbulent days, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 
 
May 19 is Malcolm X’s birthday, and many people worldwide pay homage to him around this time. Malcolm X and Dr. King’s philosophical differences can best be examined through Dr. King’s dream and Malcolm’s nightmare. It was at the famous 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that King delivered the closing speech to the 250,000 attendees at the Lincoln Monument. 
 
In his most optimistic words about the future of the relationship between Black and white, he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…This will be the day when all God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.’”
 
Immediately following what was considered the greatest example of Black and white people coming together at the March, Malcolm struck back. Being careful not to criticize any of the speakers (probably at the orders of Elijah Muhammad), he called the march a “chump’s march” and a “farce.” In speaking with a reporter from the Amsterdam News, he exclaimed: 
“Now that the show is over, the Black masses are still without land, without jobs and without homes. Their Christian churches are still being bombed (a reference to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, two weeks after the March on Washington, D.C.) four innocent little girls murdered. So, what did the March on Washington accomplish? Nothing.” 
In reference to Dr. King’s speech, without mentioning his name, Malcolm, speaking at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 3, 1964, contrasted the dream to a nightmare when he said, “No, I am not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the victims of democracy, which is nothing more than hypocrisy…And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see an American dream: I see an American nightmare.”
 
Despite their differences in approach, these two men shared the same goal and recognized the common enemy in fulfilling their goal. Their approach is tied to their background and growing up in two different worlds within one culture. Dr. King was born to a well-established middle-class Christian family in the South – Atlanta, Georgia. His father was a minister of the prestigious Ebenezer Baptist Church and was one of the community’s leaders. After graduating from high school, Dr. King attended the prestigious Morehouse College, which bred Black leadership.
 
In contrast, Malcolm was raised in the North, born in Omaha, Nebraska, and moved early to Lansing, Michigan. His family was poor and struggled from day to day to survive. His father was an admirer of Marcus Garvey and was an organizer for the United Negro Improvement Association. 
 
Dr. King was influenced by the integrationist position of the Christian church, while Garvey’s nationalist/separatist movement influenced Malcolm. 
Whereas King grew up in a time and environment when Black folks offered only passive resistance to the ugliness of the white racists, Malcolm grew up in a different environment where Black people were more inclined to active resistance.
 
Their leadership journey was highly different. Malcolm X began his career as an assistant minister at Temple Number One in Detroit, Michigan. He had just been paroled from the Charlestown State Prison in 1952, at the same time Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began graduate school at Boston University. By 1954, Elijah Muhammad recognized Malcolm’s extreme value to the Nation of Islam. He appointed him the head minister at the most influential Temple Number Seven in Harlem, New York, which catapulted him into a visible spokesperson for the Nation. The very next year, Dr. King became Pastor of Dexter Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and his leadership in the now-famous Montgomery Bus Boycott would be his catalyst to leadership in the Civil Rights Movement in the South.
 
The media loved to play up what they perceived as irreconcilable differences between these two men. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech made him the darling of the white media, and Malcolm’s “I Have A Nightmare” speech fueled the media to paint him as a villain. Right up until his death, Malcolm was ostracized in the press. When he died, they unleashed a torrent attack on him. The New York Times referred to him as “an irresponsible demagogue…who turned true gifts to evil purpose,” and the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “the cause of Negro equality lost nothing valuable with Malcolm X’s passing because he was a destructive force.” 
 
Controversial opinion columnist Walter Winchell called him “a petty punk who pictured himself as a heroic figure,” and the Nation Magazine described him as “the highly intelligent, courageous leader of one segment of the Negro lunatic fringe.”
 
But the media was wrong. Malcolm X and Dr. King had a very cordial relationship, and after Malcolm broke from the Nation of Islam, their relationship continued to grow. They had one meeting on March 26, 1964, at the nation’s Capital in Washington, D.C., during the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Bill. If the two had not been assassinated three years apart, they would have become a source of power and leadership for the Black community. That is a fact that white America feared and Black America desperately needed.
 
Source: James H. Cone, Martin and Malcolm, copyright 2001, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, was a valuable source of information for this article.
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