Even though Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were two of the most influential Black leaders of the 1960s American civil rights movement, they only met one time, and it was brief. Their different approaches to the Civil Rights Movement may have been the reason they never met as often as anyone would have thought.
King believed in non-violent, civil disobedience as the means to attack racial prejudice in America. But Malcolm X criticized this approach, arguing that King’s actions were too pleasing to White Americans. Although the civil rights leaders did not see eye to eye, their brief meeting on March 26, 1964, in Washington D.C. may have begun something positive between the two. Unfortunately, within a few years, the two men would be assassinated.
Both leaders were born in the 1920s and their fathers were politically active preacher fathers. But while King grew up in a comfortable middle-class home in Georgia, Malcolm X faced poverty and violence growing up. Malcolm X’s father, a supporter of Marcus Garvey, died when he was still a child and his mother was institutionalized several years later.
And so even though Malcolm X was very intelligent, he dropped out of school and started engaging in criminal activity. It was while serving a ten-year sentence in prison for burglary that Malcolm X decided to continue his education. It was also at this time that he was introduced to the teachings of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and urged to convert to the Muslim faith. By the time he was released, he had become one of the most prominent disciples of Elijah Muhammad, the group’s leader.
Malcolm X would start criticizing King’s approach to ending racial discrimination. He even referred to King as “a 20-century Uncle Tom” and accused him of teaching Black Americans to be “defenseless in the face of one of the most cruel beasts that has ever taken a people into captivity.”
What Malcolm X wanted was a more militant approach, achieving equal rights for Black people by “any means necessary.”
To King, Malcolm X was too militant and radical, adding that Malcolm X’s approach was dangerous. “Urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as [Malcolm X] has done, can reap nothing but grief,” King said.
In spite of their differences, Malcolm X tried to meet King in July 1963. He sent a letter to King inviting him to join a rally in Harlem. In the letter, Malcolm X called for a united front against white oppression in the country. He wrote: “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 X asked King to send a representative to the rally if he could not attend. But King did not respond to the invitation and did not send a representative. Weeks later, on August 28, 1963, King would lead over 200,000 people in the March on Washington and deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. Malcolm X attended the march, but he called it “the Farce on Washington.”
“I observed that circus,” Malcolm X wrote. “Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing ‘We Shall Overcome. . .Suum Day. . .’ while tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against? Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily-pad park pools, with gospels and guitars and ‘I Have A Dream’ speeches? And the black masses in America were—and still are—having a nightmare.”
On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam, saying that the group was refusing to take a more active role in the fight for civil rights. Days later, on March 26, he would meet King on Capitol Hill. The two leaders had come there to attend the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that President John F. Kennedy proposed after appeals by King and others.
King was stepping out of a news conference when Malcolm X stepped forward to greet him.
“Well, Malcolm, good to see you,” King said.
“Good to see you,” Malcolm X replied.
The two men walked down the Senate hall together and as cameras clicked away, Malcolm X told King: “I’m throwing myself into the heart of the civil rights struggle.”
That was the end of the historic meeting between the two iconic leaders. In April that year, Malcolm X visited North Africa and the Middle East, and these visits helped change his views on race in America. He began softening his stance. In February 1965, he went to Selma, where he met privately with King’s wife Coretta Scott King, expressing an interest in working more closely with the nonviolent movement. King had been arrested days earlier while leading a protest march in Selma and was in jail at the time Malcolm X visited so the two couldn’t meet.
Weeks later, Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam, while delivering a speech in New York’s Audubon Ballroom. He was just 39.
“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 a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem,” King wrote in a telegram to Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow.
Three years later, on April 4, 1968, King, who had become more militant in his views, was assassinated in Memphis. He also died at the age of 39.