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Meeting in the Middle: The Forgotten Relationship of Malcolm X and MLK Jr.

Written by Hassam Munir

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. lived very different lives and couldn’t build a working relationship with each other ― until Malcolm embraced Islam.

The Encounter

If there are two outstanding leaders of a popular movement working for the same cause at the same time, you’d assume that they’d probably come across each other often. But the two most prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s-60s, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, only met each other once, and even then it was almost by accident. It was on March 26, 1964, in Washington, D.C. Malcolm had come to the US Senate to attend a debate about civil rights. After it was over, he slipped into the back row of a nearby news conference of Martin Luther King Jr. At the end of it, Martin left through one door, and Malcolm quickly slipped out of another one and stopped King in his path. “Well, Malcolm,” said King, “good to see you.” “Good to see you,” Malcolm replied, and reporters started to gather around them as they shook hands and started to take pictures. King was visibly surprised by the encounter, but Malcolm grinned as he turned to his fellow civil rights activist and teasingly said, “Now you’re going to get investigated.” [1] Then they parted ways, and they never met each other again.

Growing Up

The tensions between the two men, which become clear in this encounter, had their roots in life experiences from long before either of them became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Martin was born in 1929, four years after Malcolm. Both were the sons of politically active Baptist preachers, so from an early age both were exposed to active resistance to the racism prevalent in American society at a time. And although both suffered from racist bigotry and discrimination as children, Malcolm’s childhood was clearly far more traumatic than Martin’s. The relationships in Malcolm’s family were not very positively charged. Martin, by contrast, admitted later on in life that his lifelong optimism about human nature was due to growing up “in a family where love was central.”

In 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, Malcolm’s father was killed in an accident, though Malcolm believed he was murdered by a white supremacist group that had threatened their family in the past. The downward spiral was only beginning for Malcolm’s family. They now had to survive on government aid and charity, which hurt Malcolm’s pride. A short time after his father’s death, Malcolm’s mother was abandoned by her lover (and possibly soon-to-be husband) after the man realized that she was pregnant. By the end of the 1930s, when Malcolm was only a teenager, his mother had been admitted to a mental asylum. Malcolm’s custody was taken up by the courts and he was sent him to live in many different foster homes (specifically with white foster parents) and attend mostly-white reform schools as he grew up. Martin, by stark contrast, fared well throughout the Great Depression as the son a prosperous religious leader. His father was an anti-racism activist, and this meant that Martin, too, suffered accordingly at the hands of racists, even to the point that Martin almost attempted suicide at one point. But, in his own words, he “never experienced the feeling of not having the basic necessities” and, if there ever was trouble, he could “always call Daddy.” [2]

As a young man, Malcolm went to mostly-white schools in Michigan, and hence he interacted mostly with white teachers and classmates. At this stage he didn’t get much of a chance to interact with the black community that he was part of. This led to the development of an inferiority complex and Malcolm later wrote that, in that period of his life, he “was trying so hard, in every way I could, to be white.” [3] Martin, meanwhile, went to mostly-black schools in Alabama, and even at the young age of 15 he didn’t hesitate to stand up and deliver a short speech about how proud he was of his blackness.

As he became an adult, Malcolm became involved in drug use and criminal activity, and he developed a resistance of resisting all authority – which quickly landed him in jail. While in prison he joined the Nation of Islam (NOI), finding a father figure in Elijah Muhammad. The specificity of the NOI left Malcolm unexposed and uninterested in the much broader subjects of black history and culture, and, more recently, the Civil Rights Movement. In short, Malcolm’s field of vision was field of vision was narrowed. But after such a traumatic childhood, he enjoyed his place in the NOI, as it gave him a sense of belonging and purpose. Martin, by contrast, not only attended university but also found much more positively inspiring role models than Elijah Muhammed to look up to as he joined the struggle for civil rights, in which Malcolm had a slight headstart. But Martin had other advantages in this inadvertent race, such as the fact that he was a Baptist leader, and Baptism was the most common religious affiliation of African-Americans at the time. By the 1950s, Malcolm had risen in the ranks of the NOI and become the most active advocate of its black supremacist knock-off of Islam. But by then Martin was the most popular leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the country. And it was probably at this point, in the mid-1950s, that Malcolm and Martin first became aware of each other.

Early Activism

Their disagreements started off right then and there. In 1957, representatives of the Nation of Islam, including Malcolm, tried to meet with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was led by Martin. Malcolm and the NOI were rejected, and from that point on Malcolm repeatedly tried to meet with Martin, and Martin repeatedly ignored him. In 1960, Martin rejected two offers from Malcolm, the first to a debate-type event and the second to speak at a rally that Malcolm had organized in New York City. In the invitation to the rally, Malcolm had reminded Martin (and other leaders he sent it to) that, “If capitalistic Kennedy and communistic Khrushchev can find something in common on which to form a United Front despite their tremendous ideological differences, it is a disgrace for Negro leaders not to be able to submerge our ‘minor’ differences in order to seek a common solution to a common problem posed by a common enemy.” Malcolm further assured Martin that, despite their differences, he would personally “moderate the meeting and guarantee order and courtesy for all speakers.” [4] Martin did not even reply.

At this point Malcolm reacted calmly to being ignored, constantly reminding the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement to set aside their “petty differences” and “to reason together to keep open minds.” Nonetheless, Malcolm refused to harshly criticize Martin, and instead called him “a spokesman and fellow leader of our people” and added that, even though Martin and others had neglected the Black Muslim Movement (i.e. the NOI), “still they were black people, still they were our kind, and I would be most foolish to let the white man maneuver me against the Civil Rights Movement.” [5]

Nevertheless, Malcolm was starting to get frustrated, and the media didn’t waste a minute in taking advantage of the rift emerging between the two popular leaders. The differences between Martin and Malcolm were presented as a struggle between “the forces of light versus the forces of darkness, with the future course of black protest at stake.” [6] But this was media sensationalism, and the real differences between Malcolm and Martin were about the specific approach that would be most effective in achieving their shared dream. In 1963, Martin wrote in a letter from prison that African-Americans should “emulate neither the ‘do-nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist,” perhaps pointing a finger directly at the NOI and at Malcolm. Instead, he asserted, “there is a more excellent way of love and non-violent protest.” [7]

Malcolm must not have been immediately available for commentary on this, because he had become involved in his own internal struggles in the NOI. Malcolm had become frustrated with the NOI’s isolationist policy of not allowing its members to take part in the broader Civil Rights Movement, particularly in politics and protests. “Those Muslims talk tough,” he said, “but they never do anything, unless someone bothers Muslims.” [8] As Malcolm moved slowly moved towards his independence from the NOI, he started trying to get Martin’s attention in a different way – by attacking his ways. Nor could Martin continue to ignore his fiercest black critic, who was becoming increasingly popular among politically-active black youth.

So Martin replied, and his reply suggests that he understood that the development of Malcolm’s opinions was not spontaneous but had been shaped by a bitter lifelong struggle to find his way. “Malcolm was clearly a product of the hate and violence invested in the Negro’s blighted existence in this nation,” Martin observed. “He, like so many of our number, was a victim of the despair inevitably deriving from the conditions of oppression, poverty and injustice which engulf the masses of our race. In his youth, there was no hope, no preaching, teaching or movements of nonviolence… and yet he possessed a native intelligence and drive which demanded an outlet and means of expression.” Malcolm was “very articulate” and had “some of the answers,” admitted Martin, but any “extremist leaders who preach revolution” were to be condemned. On a personal note, Martin added that he had “often wished that he [i.e. Malcolm] would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem.” [9]

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The Post-Hajj Malcolm        

Malcolm, meanwhile, was done with the NOI. Jealous of Malcolm’s growing popularity both inside and outside the NOI, Elijah Muhammed suspended him from service in late 1963. Only a few months later, in early 1964, Malcolm made his famous hajj, or Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah. He returned a changed man – no longer a member of the NOI, no longer a black supremacist, and now truly a Muslim and more open to working together with Martin and other leaders he had previously criticized. Martin saw this as “a propitious sign that this proud and brilliant man seemed to be moving away from racism.” [10] Malcolm formed his Organization of Afro-American Unity and over the course of 1964 he tried to make it as inclusive of as many African-Americans as possible, particularly those taking part in the Civil Rights Movement. An example of his initiative during this time can be seen in his impromptu meeting with Martin in Washington, D.C., which was mentioned above.

In early February 1965, Malcolm was invited by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to come to Selma, Alabama – Martin’s own hometown and stronghold – to attend a conference. He came and gave a pretty fiery speech attacking Martin, after reminding some anxious organizers who tried to advise him on what to say that “nobody puts words into my mouth.” [11] His speech particularly upset the SCLC representatives there and reached the ears of Martin himself, who was in jail at the time, who later remembered that “some pretty passionate things against me.” But after the conference Malcolm met Martin’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and assured her that, “I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking that I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is [to Martin’s nonviolent approach], perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.” [12]

The Assassinations

Unfortunately, neither did Malcolm get a chance to prove his newfound sincerity, nor did Martin get a chance to accept Malcolm’s support. On February 21, 1965, just a few weeks after Malcolm’s speech in Selma, he was assassinated. Martin was visibly disturbed by the news. He chose not to attend Malcolm’s funeral, but he did publicly comment that he would “certainly extend my sympathy to his wife and to his family and, as I said, this has come as a great shock to so many of us, and although we had constant disagreements, I had a deep affection for Malcolm X and I am very sorry about this whole thing.” [13] Martin also offered his condolences to Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, in a telegram:

“I was certainly saddened by the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband. While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race. While I know that this is a difficult hour for you, I am sure that God will give you the strength to endure. I will certainly be remembering you in my prayers and please know that you have my deepest sympathy. Always consider me a friend and if I can do anything to ease the heavy load that you are forced to carry at this time, please feel free to call on me.” [14]

Nor, it seems, was Martin offering mere lip service, because ‘out of sight, out of mind’ didn’t hold true. “It is even more unfortunate,” he said, “that this great tragedy occurred at a time when Malcolm X was re-evaluating his own philosophical presuppositions and moving toward a greater understanding of the nonviolent movement and toward more tolerance of white people, generally.” [15] Elsewhere, Martin added that Malcolm’s death deprived “the world of a potentially great leader.” [16] And Martin’s wife Coretta King later recalled that:

“The death of Malcolm X affected me profoundly. Perhaps that was because I had just met him [at Selma], and perhaps it was because I had begun to understand him better. Martin and I had reassessed our feelings toward him. We realized that since he had been to Makkah and had broken with Elijah Muhammad, he was moving away from hatred toward internationalism and against exploitation. In a strange way, the same racist attitude which killed others who were working for peaceful change also killed Malcolm X… I said to Martin, ‘What a waste! What a pity that this man who was so talented and such an articulate spokesman for black people should have to die just as he was reaching for something of real value.’ Martin believed that Malcolm X was a brilliant young man who had been misdirected.”

The Civil Rights Movement had to move on, but interestingly, even as Malcolm had been slowly moving closer to Martin’s nonviolent and integrationist approach before his assassination in 1965, so too did Martin start to slowly move towards Malcolm’s approach of active self-defence and rebellion. In fact, by the time of his own assassination in 1968, Martin was writing that he was not saddened by the rebellion of African-Americans against racist authority because “without this magnificent ferment among Negroes, the old evasions and procrastinations would have continued indefinitely.” [17] Many scholars, such as James Baldwin, assert that “by the time each met his death, there was practically no difference between them.” [18]

Stepping Into Tomorrow

At the end of the day, however, the majority of the members of the Civil Rights Movement remained unaware of the relationship between Malcolm and Martin, not to mention journalists and even scholars. They did remember the animosity between the two men, and the next generation of young black activists were presented with the choice between Malcolm’s way and Martin’s way. But a few voices did point out the ways in which the two leaders complemented each other’s efforts not despite their differences, but because of them. Specifically, Malcolm was seen as paving the way for Martin to succeed – exactly what the post-Hajj Malcolm had promised Martin’s wife at Selma. Collin Morris, for example, said that “I am not denying passive resistance its due place in the freedom struggle, or belittling the contribution to it of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Both have a secure place in history. I merely want to show that however much the disciples of passive resistance detest violence, they are politically impotent without it. American Negroes needed both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, just as India had to have both Gandhi and Nehru.” [19]

Two of the people who saw Martin’s and Malcolm’s relationship for what it truly was were their daughters, Yolanda King and Attallah Shabazz. In 1983, these two young women, who believed that they were “destined to come together,” formed a theatre group which carried “their fathers’ voices to schools, churches and community centers across the country” through their play, Stepping Into Tomorrow.  “When my father was in jail,” remembered Yolanda, “Malcolm sent him a telegram. When Malcolm was killed, Daddy sent Attallah’s mother a telegram. Nobody knows about that. All they hear is, ‘Well, Dr. King said dee-de-dee and Malcolm said dah-de-dah.’ So that must mean they are completely opposed and don’t like each other, which was not the case.” Attallah added that “if they [i.e. Malcolm and Martin] had lived just five more years together, that’s all our families and this country would have needed.” [20]

The relationship between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr needs to be revisited today, on the 60th anniversary of Malcolm’s assassination (in 2015), because structural racism persists in the United States, and it is just one of the many injustices that continue to plague the human community everywhere. One of the main obstacles to tackling any of these injustices is to resolve the endless debate on the right way to react and resist. The lesson Martin and Malcolm taught is really very simple, yet so easily forgotten or ignored: there is always more than one way to go, and as long as the way is tread with sincerity, the way must be tried. Martin and Malcolm had many differences between them, but as far as anyone can tell, one thing they definitely had in common was their sincerity, their genuinely good intentions. Their different ways of resisting racism were informed by their different personal experiences in life, but because of their sincerity, the ended up almost inadvertently supporting each other as they struggled to achieve their shared dream.


 

References

[1] Peter Goldman, The Death and Life of Malcolm X (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), p. 95

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. “An Autobiography of Religious Developments,” in Clayborne Carson, et. al., eds., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume 1: Called to Serve, January 1929-1951, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 360.

[3] Alex Haley, with Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), p. 31

[4] Clayborne Carson, “The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X,” p. 24

[5] Haley, with Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, p. 269

[6] Goldman, The Death and Life of Malcolm X, p. 74

[7] Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998), p. 197

[8] Haley, with Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, p. 291

[9] Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., pp. 265-267

[10] Stephan Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1982), p. 341

[11] Alvin Adams, “Malcolm X ‘Seemed Sincere’ About Helping Cause: Mr. King,” (March 11, 1965), p. 30; Stephan Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1982), p. 341; and Coretta Scott King, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Avon Books, 1969), pp. 259-260

[12] Carson, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 268

[13] Transcript of a Press Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Los Angeles, California (February 24, 1965), pp. 1-2 and 6.

[14] “A Telegram from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Mrs. Malcolm X,” Faith Temple Church in Harlem, New York City, New York (February 26, 1965).

[15] “Transcript of a Press Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Los Angeles, California, p. 6; and “King and Roy: On Malcolm’s Death,” New York Amsterdam News (February 27, 1965), p. 27

[16] Carson, “The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X,” p. 25

[17] Ibid, p. 26

[18] James Baldwin, “Malcolm and Martin,” Esquire, LXXVII (April, 1972), pp. 94 and 201

[19] Colin Morris, Unyoung, Uncolored, Unpoor (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969), pp. 90-91

[20] The Daughters of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Team Up to Bring a Play of Hope to Kids,” People Weekly, Vol. 20, No. 10 (September 5, 1983), p. 104

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About the author

Hassam Munir

Hassam is a university student, blogger, and independent researcher of Islamic history based in Toronto, Canada. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of iHistory. He enjoys looking at the past from fresh and diverse perspectives. His work has also been featured in other outlets, including The Link Canada, Mvslim, and Excalibur.

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