When Malcolm X met Martin Luther King Jr at the Capitol Hill in 1964, publicly-sanctioned politeness was in full effect. Each man said to the other it was “good to see you”, and maybe, they meant it.
But it was the only time the two men would appear together in public – a fact that has become a searing reminder of how differently Malcolm and King thought black people could overcome mountainous odds.
Rarely has there existed two men who want a similar social good but via the most contrasting ways.
Malcolm, an autodidact who had to scrape his way to enlightenment, was a man hardened by the streets. His fight with America was personal because the worst America could unleash on a black citizen was visited particularly on Malcolm’s family.
Malcolm’s father had died when he was six, reportedly killed by white supremacists. His mother would be denied an insurance benefit because the insurers believed Malcolm’s father had committed suicide.
And there is something pain does to a man. If it does not break him, pain brings out either a monster or something not totally different.
He was justifiably angry, something his contemporary James Baldwin often sympathised with. Malcolm’s “any means necessary” mantra was therefore in his perspective, the only card America dealt him.
On the face of it, Malcolm had a harder time growing up than King. But that is not to say King was not essentially a black man in America.
His father had been a Baptist preacher. Martin Luther King Sr. was a strict disciplinarian who had once said he would “make something of him (MLK Jr.) even if he had to beat him to death.”
King himself would later concede that his father’s near-draconian parentage was partly rooted in black fear of failure in a white world.
But he was proud of his father because he even gained from Sr. the earliest examples of standing up to the system. Whether it was refusing to listen to a police officer who had called him a “boy” or leaving the shop when an assistant asked them to go to the back of the line, Sr. was the model Jr. had.
At 26, MLK had left Boston University with a Ph.D. in systematic theology in 1955. By contrast, Malcolm, four years King’s senior, was on parole at age 26.
Consequentially, they were chiefly the results of the opportunities they had, even if you believe we are, in some way, the sum of our choices.
So, could Malcolm have been a milder protester of the subjugation of black people? Could he have asked for a community of all instead of black separatism?
Could he have been more like the beloved MLK?
“You don’t integrate with a sinking ship,” Malcolm once said. His sharp tongue cutting to the point but his argument worthy of note.
For him, America was a country built on the subjugation but also the exclusion of black people from enjoying dignity. Fundamentally, America was a Hegelian dialectic that needed metaphoric whipping boys and white people had decided that black people had to be whipped.
Malcolm did not see such structures persisting and America was bound to destroy itself if it insists on racist institutionalism.
He did not see the rainbow future King saw.
And so when Malcolm sat down with Kenneth Clark in 1963 and was asked about the nonviolence message of King, he bashed the Baptist preacher. Malcolm believed King was asking black people to be “defenseless in the face of one of the most cruel beasts that has ever taken a people into captivity.”
For that, King was a “20th century or modern Uncle Tom. Or a religious Uncle Tom”, asking black people to love their enemies.
It is much murkier to discuss whether Malcolm had a point calling King what he did. On one hand, King did profess love for his enemies who wanted him dead.
On the other, however, King was a black southerner who was very familiar with the need to own guns.
As Dara Mathis wrote for The Atlantic last year, King’s “nonviolent resistance never meant private abandonment of self-defense or even complete conversion to pacifism. And it certainly did not commit future activists to nonviolence or love by association.”
But by all accounts of history, King was not a man who championed fire for fire.
This does not make King necessarily a better man and Malcolm, evil. To cast away nuances and proceed to moral absolutism is hurtful to what both men wanted.
It is rather more interesting that we speak barely of the fact that Malcolm’s right to revolt is guaranteed by the American constitution when a government was not working in the interest of the people. The question then becomes, which people can revolt?
Malcolm was quite prophetic in his analyses of how America’s white people would come to love King.
But if you were made of the struggles that created Malcolm and his X, any means could be a necessary option to free yourself.