To Forgive or Not Forgive: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Malcolm X

One’s worldview shapes, to a large extent, how one might to choose to respond to situations of social injustice. That is to say, one’s historical background and culture influences how one may respond to injustice. Perhaps one might submit, or respond in an unforgiving retaliatory manner, or instead, animate a response aimed toward achieving social justice. In the U.S, during the time period of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960’s, two African-American leaders exhibited these different responses to injustice in their speech, in their writing, and in their style of social activism. These different ways of responding to injustice are perhaps related to these men’s different histories.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were two of the most prominent Civil Rights activists during the 1960s. They had a great deal in common. They were both African-Americans, sons of Baptist ministers, and they both worked to improve the lives of African-Americans by advocating for racial equality and freedom. From there, their similarities depart.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born to a “respected Baptist minister” and raised in a “prosperous but segregated neighborhood” where his “loving father taught him the value of hard work” and instilled in him “a strong faith in God (Ladenburg, n.d.).” For the most part, King was kept sheltered from racial discrimination ((Ladenburg, n.d.). He excelled in school, and went on to earn a PhD in theology (Ladenburg, n.d.). Comparatively speaking, King was privileged.

Malcolm X had very different life circumstances. He was born to a Baptist minister, an organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement, who was murdered it is believed, by White supremacists, when Malcolm was only six years of age (Ladenburg, n.d.). His mother was institutionalized a few years later, leaving Malcolm as an orphan to be raised in foster care (Malcolm X, n.d.). Malcolm “had known the traumas of a broken family and an incomplete and inferior formal education” and he “spent his early youth not at theological college but on the streets” finally landing in prison for burglary (Ling, 1993.).” There he learned of Elijah Muhammad’s Civil Rights message (Ling, 1993.).

In June of 1963, Malcolm X, now out of prison and a leading spokesman of Elijah Mohammad’s Nation of Islam, gave a speech titled, The Black Revolution (n.d.). In this speech he asserted that Dr. King’s approach to racial inequality was not an effective approach to the problems faced by the majority of People of Color. He advocated, instead, for a revolution where “so-called Negros” would live separate lives in a land away from the “White devils” as he called them (The Black Revolution, n.d.). Malcolm X did not believe that forgiveness and reconciliation between the races was possible.

The approach that Malcolm X used was much like what Thomas Paine used in his propaganda speech, Common Sense (n.d.). Paine advocated for revolt in order for the American colonies to achieve their independence from the British Crown. Some of Malcolm X’s tactics were to ‘dehumanize the enemy’ by naming them “goats” and “wolves” and “devils (The Black Revolution, n.d.).” He named the revolution that he envisioned as “part of God’s plan (The Black Revolution, n.d.).” He provided snippets of Bible quotes (without reference to their historical or cultural significance) as ‘proof’ to his claims of divine inspiration. His goal was to stir emotions and to incite his followers into action, perhaps even violent action, as the means of achieving separation away from the domination of those in power.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to addressing prejudice and racism was quite different. King was an advocate of a specific type of social change, that which is known as nonviolence. Nonviolence is a rough translation of the term satyagraha, the method which Gandhi successfully used to obtain India’s independence from the rule of Great Britain in the year 1947 (Nonviolence Introduction, n.d.). This method involves such methods as ‘constructive proramme’, which is the building of more just structures and systems to replace the unjust ones. Additionally, activists might engage in tactics that could embarrass their opponent into better actions. Furthermore, unlike a violent revolution, nonviolence also involves attempting to build positive relationship with the oppressor. Gandhi believed that a dedicated adherent to satyagraha (or nonviolence), “who worked to uphold a just cause will inevitably reach the heart of the oppressor by taking authentic action to represent truth (Satyagraha, n.d.).” Gandhi’s method was effective in gaining independence for India. Dr. King was using this very same approach to advance social change in the U.S.

This method of nonviolent social change mirrors the principles discussed by theologian Walter Wink in his book, The Powers that Be (1998). In this book, Wink described common responses to injustice as either ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ responses. He asserted that Jesus’ parables taught a third way to achieve social change that was neither to fight nor to flee. This was what Wink also called nonviolence. According to Wink, nonviolence includes such actions as seizing the moral initiative, finding creative alternatives to violence, asserting one’s own humanity and dignity as a person, refusing to submit or accept an inferior position, exposing the injustice of the system, and shaming the oppressor into repentance (Jesus Third Way, n.d.). In The Powers that Be, Wink walked his readers through the parables, providing historical and cultural context in order to bring to life those not-often-understood messages. King understood Biblical messages in much the very same way that Wink did.

King, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (n.d.), noted his “constructive work” referring to it as a “nonviolent direct-action program.” He said that it was his intention to stand between the two current options of complacency and hatred with a “more excellent way, of love and nonviolent protest (Letters from Birmingham Jail, n.d.).” By this, he meant that he wanted to pull the disparate communities together – the White community and the community of People of Color, plus the community that was complacent and the community that wanted to fight. He recognized the “interrelatedness of all communities and states” which were “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality (Letters from Birmingham Jail, n.d.).” It was his goal to repair the broken relationships for the benefit of all.

To do this, he seized the moral initiative by calling out and naming bad actions. He looked for creative alternatives by calling for people to “look at underlying causes” of injustice (Letters from Birmingham, n.d.). He exposed the injustice of the system by naming unjust laws and calling attention to a discriminating police force. Furthermore, he wrote that he was disappointed with White church complacency in racial matters with the goal of shaming the oppressor into repentance (Letters from Birmingham, n.d.). King was teaching people how to assert one’s own humanity and dignity as a person by refusing to submit or accept an inferior position.

King would not resort to destructive violence because in doing so, he knew that would precipitate further violence, thereby making peace and justice even less likely. Therefore, he maintained a goal of building community through reconciliation instead.

As a biblical scholar, King had spent as many years studying the Bible as Malcolm X had spent in prison (Ling, 1993.). This difference in life experience had a profound effect on these two men’s different interpretations of Biblical passages, and likewise their different approach in working to advance social change. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. used a peaceful approach while Malcolm X used angry hate-filled rhetoric in a separatist approach. These approaches were different because of these men’s different ways of understanding their world. When Malcolm X travelled to Mecca, he saw ‘the races’ mixing in community in a positive way and this was a new experience for Malcolm X and it gave him hope (MalcolmX.com, n.d.). When he returned to the United States, he began to work with King, instead of rallying against nonviolent methods.

These very different life experiences – one of relative privilege, and the other of relative disadvantage, influenced how these two men responded to social injustice. King, who was highly educated and privileged and had resources of social and cultural capital, wanted to maintain and improve relationship with his oppressors. Malcolm X, with little education and little cultural and social capital, also leaned on his own knowledge – and that was the knowledge that White people were prejudiced oppressors of People of Color. Because Malcolm X received very little benefit from the current system, he wanted to begin a revolution to separate from his oppressors. King seemed to be more forgiving of his oppressors than Malcolm X. This is perhaps because King, as a highly educated man, received a much larger benefit from the systems that were in place, than did Malcolm X. Malcolm X’s apparent initial position of ‘un-forgiveness’ was perhaps a response to receiving very little gain from the unjust system, and little hope that he ever would.

In the example of the lives these two great leaders of the U.S. 1960’s Civil Rights movement, it is clear to see how one’s worldview shapes how one may respond to injustice. One’s individual and collective history and one’s culture shapes one’s decisions. Additionally, different life experiences, including one’s position of privilege or disadvantage may influence how a person might respond to social injustice. In the event of oppression, poverty, and lack of education, and reason for little hope, it is likely that the result may be complacency and acceptance or else a position of un-forgiveness characterized by anger, hatred and a desire for a violent revolution. If instead, hope is present, and leadership is grounded in an education of effective nonviolent principles and methods, change may take place without need for revolt or violence.

References:

Ladenburg, T. (n.d.). 1960’s chapter 6: Martin luther king & malcolm X on violence and integration. Digital history: Using new technologies to enhance teaching and research [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/teachers/lesson_plans/pdfs/unit11_6.pdf

Jesus Third Way by Walter Wink. (n.d.). Jesus third way by walter wink. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.cpt.org/files/BN%20-%20Jesus’%20Third%20Way.pdf

King, M. L. (n.d.). Letter from birmingham jail. The atlantic monthly [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.uscrossier.org/pullias/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/king.pdf

Ling, P. (1993). More Malcolm’s year than Martin’s. History Today, 43(4), 13.

Malcolm X (1925-1965). (n.d.). Malcolm X (1925-1965). [Web page] Retrieved from http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_malcolm_x_1925_1965

MalcolmX.com. (n.d.). MalcolmX.Com. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.malcolmx.com/about/bio.html

Nonviolence introduction. (n.d.) The metta center for nonviolence [Web page]. Retrieved from http://mettacenter.org/nonviolence/introduction

Paine, T. (n.d.). Common sense. The writings of Thomas Paine. Retrieved from Google: http://www.calhum.org/files/uploads/program_related/TD-Thomas-Paine-Common-Sense.pdf

Satyagraha. (n.d.). Satyagraha. [Web page] Retrieved from http://mettacenter.org/definitions/gloss-concepts/satyagraha

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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One thought on “To Forgive or Not Forgive: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Malcolm X

  1. The interesting part for me is how Malcolm X became more nonviolent in his militancy and Dr. King became more militant in his nonviolence. Malcolm X’s trip to Mecca seemed to be the turning point for a spiritual awakening. At some point, both realized they were speaking of the same oppressor, just using different parts of their brain to get there.

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