Malcolm X or Martin Luther? – The best way to resist Racism
In light of the barbaric and graphic murder of George Floyd by four racial supremacist police thugs, I thought I would share with you the information which I presented at a forum calling for race equality last summer. The overall theme of the series of talks held over 4 weekends was – “Are we moving forwards, backwards or standing still? 70 years of the Caribbean Diaspora since Empire Windrush?”
I hope readers will find this information to be informative and it will challenge them to take a stand against racism, which is undoubtedly the most dangerous virus facing us today.
First of all, I will comment briefly about the significance of the year 1968 for blacks in the United States and in the United Kingdom, before going on to look at Martin Luther Jnr and Malcolm X’s approach to tackling racism in the United States.
I will conclude by highlighting some lessons from the Civil Rights Movement for us in the UK and share some of my personal thoughts on how best to resist racism.
The Significance of 1968
In the struggle to gain race equality, this year was significant in both the US and the UK.
In the United States:
April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray is convicted of his murder in 1969.
April 11, 1968: President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, providing equal housing opportunity and constitutional rights to every American regardless of race, religion or national origin. This Act expanded on the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The civil rights movement was an organized effort by black Americans to end racial discrimination and gain equal rights under the law. It began in the late 1940s and formally ended in 1968.
Meanwhile in the United Kingdom:
October 25, 1968: The Race Relations Act was passed in the United Kingdom. The Act made it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins in Great Britain (although not in Northern Ireland, which had its own Parliament at the time). It also created the Community Relations Commission to promote “harmonious community relations”.
The Bill which introduced the Act was the focus of one of Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech, delivered to the West Midlands Conservative Association on 20 April 1968. Powell was sacked from Ted Heath’s shadow Cabinet the following day.
April 30, 1963 (the date of the Bristol Bus Riots): The passing of the 1968 Race Relations Act was influenced by the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963. The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 arose from the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ Black or Asian bus crews in the city of Bristol. In common with other British cities at the time, there was widespread racial discrimination in housing and employment at that time against “black people”. Led by youth worker Paul Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council, the boycott of the company’s buses by Bristolians lasted for four months until the company backed down and overturned their discriminative colour bar policy.
Martin Luther Jr v Malcolm X: A common struggle to fight racism
Both civil rights leaders devoted their lives to fighting institutionalised racism in the US and to achieve racial equality for black people. Although slavery was abolished in the US in 1865, slave practices remained deeply entrenched. The Southern states had Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation or Apartheid. It is well-known that until July 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed, blacks in America were not allowed to do a lot of things which are now taken for granted. For example, they did not have the right to enter certain public places or occupy seats on public transport if they were needed by whites. Racial segregation also existed in schools.
King was born on 15 January 1929 and was active from 1955 until his assassination in 1968.
Malcolm X was born in 1925 and was active from 1952 until his assassination in 1965. His activism spanned a shorter period than Martin Luther partly because he was imprisoned between 1946 and early 1952 for larceny.
A broadly similar vision
They were both respected leaders of the American Civil Rights movement, struggling for racial equality and freedom.
King’s vision was to see a truly united America where everyone had equal rights regardless of the colour of their skin. He wanted to see a “racially integrated” America. This vision is evident in his famous speech made in 1963 – I had a dream.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Malcolm X wanted to see an end to black racism, but he did not believe in racial integration. He advocated “black supremacy” and preached the supremacy of blacks over whites. He promoted a segregationist approach that sought to instil in blacks a pride in their African heritage. His vision was to establish an independent black nation.
Malcolm X promoted the Nation of Islam’s teachings and taught that:
• black people are the original people of the world;
• white people are “devils”;
• blacks are superior to whites; and
• the demise of the white race is imminent.
Two different approaches to bring about change
Although fully committed to the cause of racial equality, both men had different philosophies and beliefs about what method was effective for achieving meaningful change. Their contrasting philosophy may be summarised as – Turning the other Cheek v An Eye for an Eye.
King advocated peaceful action and passive resistance to achieve equal civil rights.
In contrast, Malcolm X believed in attaining equal rights by self-defence and any means necessary.
King observed non-violent protest had worked well for Gandhi during the Indian independence struggle (India became independent in 1947). You’ll remember Gandhi’s famous words “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. King was also influenced by his Christian beliefs. He promoted Jesus’ teaching of “turning the other cheek.”
Malcolm, on the other hand, was inspired by Marcus Garvey and the Nation of Islam – a black Muslim movement which violently rejected white America and its Christian values.
Violence v Peace Struggle: King was working to take down signs that prevented black people from riding buses where they wanted to, and to ride in trains, public transportation, preventing them from voting, and all of those things that black people were prevented from doing in the south.
In contrast, Malcolm did not think this was enough. In the north, blacks always could vote, but they still did not have any economic, social or political power. For Malcolm X, Blacks should be prepared to use any means necessary to achieve social justice. One of his best known quotes is: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone. But if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”
This is how one eminent black historian and theologian summarises their contrasting methods:
“Malcolm comes from a black nationalist tradition that does not believe that you can get your freedom, your self-respect, your dignity by simply letting somebody beat up on you, and you do not try to defend yourself. That’s why Malcolm emphasised self-defence. But King emphasised non-violence because if blacks had responded, tried to defend themselves, that would have brought the police department down on those demonstrators and whites would have loved to have the chance to kill black people indiscriminately. So King and Malcolm had that tension,” James H. Cone
Use of the Media and building Collaborations
King used the media to highlight the issues faced by blacks. TV was young in the United States and King intuitively understood how to use the medium to highlight a non-violent black protest movement against white racist aggression. He also sought support from white liberals and Christians.
In Washington, King continued his political work with a group of senators sympathetic to his ideas. He opened historic collaborations with the white community – joining the debate on the civil rights draft bill initiated by President John F Kennedy – that culminated in the March on Washington in 1963 and the signing of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964.
Factors that shaped their approach
As we would expect, their approach was influenced by their upbringing (including religion), their personal experience, the organisations they belonged to and their personal gifts.
Religion – Both men were deeply religious, but followed different religions and paths. King was a devout Christian. As a Christian minister, King’s main influence was Jesus Christ and the Christian gospels, which he would almost always quote in his religious meetings, speeches at church, and in public discourses. King’s faith was strongly based in Jesus’ commandment of loving your neighbour as yourself, loving God above all, and loving your enemies, praying for them and blessing them. His nonviolent thought was also based in the injunction to turn the other cheek in the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ teaching of putting the sword back into its place (Matthew 26:52).
King was also inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and his success with nonviolent activism, and as a theology student, King described Gandhi as being one of the “individuals who greatly reveal the working of the Spirit of God.”
King’s prominence grew when he led a successful protest on December 1, 1955, against the treatment of Rosa Parks. Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a city bus. This led to the Montgomery bus boycott, which was led by King. The boycott lasted for 385 days and the situation became so tense that King’s house was bombed. He was arrested during this campaign but the District Court ruled that racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses should be ended. (A similar incident occurred 9 months earlier when Claudette Colvin—a fifteen-year-old black schoolgirl in Montgomery—refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in violation of Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation. King decided to wait for a better case to pursue because the incident involved a minor).
In contrast, Malcolm was influenced by the Nation of Islam’s teachings. As a young adult, he became involved in a life of crime and violence for which he was jailed for several years. While in prison he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X. Under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam made inroads into black communities in the urban North by advocating a programme of self-help, black separatism, and black nationalism.
Their Legacy to the US
King was fatally shot on 4 April 1968. Malcolm suffered a similar fate a few years earlier when he was assassinated in 1965 by three Nation of Islam members.
King’s main legacy was to secure progress on civil rights in the U.S. Just days after King’s assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Title 8 of the Act, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibited discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions on the basis of race, religion, or national origin (later expanded to include sex, familial status, and disability). This legislation was seen as a tribute to King’s struggle in his final years to combat residential discrimination in the U.S.
But the post-1968 period shows equality laws and constitutional successes were not enough to achieve justice and freedom for blacks. Today black Americans continue to be subjected to discrimination and terror as they attempt to live out their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Many live in poverty and undergo police brutality with no fair legal recourse.
Some Lessons for the UK black struggle
Lesson 1 – Legislations and other formalities such as a designated “race awareness day” are not sufficient to eradicate institutionalised racism.
Despite passing Civil Rights legislations in the US for over 50 years and annual Martin Luther Day racism in America is still deeply embedded throughout the society. We have seen from police brutality of black people that “black lives do not matter”.
To a large extent, the same can also be said about the UK. After many decades of equal opportunities legislations, racial discrimination remains entrenched in the labour market, housing sector, education, legal system and all areas of social policy.
Legislations, granting of titles such as OBEs and MBEs, and other formalities such as Windrush Day and Stephen Lawrence Day are empty symbols – they are masks used to disguise racism.
Lesson 2 – Importance of Self-identity and a SOUND Education. We need to accept ourselves and be proud of our rich heritage. This does not mean we should preach black supremacy as Malcolm X did. However, our children should be taught they are not inferior to anyone. Parents and black elders should take more responsibility for educating their children and teach them our history. We cannot leave this to schools with their Eurocentric history books and education system.
Lesson 3 – We need to stand UNITED as a people and fight until they kill us or until God calls us home.
Both Martin and Malcolm would turn in their grave at the present wave of black on black crime/stabbings. Instead of undermining and killing each other, we should put our energy into tackling and uprooting racism from our society.
There are those who believe this goal is unattainable – that racism will always exist. So long as people have different physical characteristics, racism will persist. However, we should always remember that God made everyone equal and that racism is a man-made ideology borne out of fear and ignorance.
Lesson 4 – In fighting racism we should not rely on a single approach.
We should use both the Martin Luther and the Malcolm X’s strategy depending on what is appropriate and effective in the given circumstances.
There are times when we need the peaceful/conciliatory approach and there are times when we need to use violent protests. For example, Dianne Abbot’s and Meghan Markle’s experience – people express their dismay in the “softly, softly approach” but the racial onslaught persists without the police taking any action. In contrast, positive change did result from the various race riots we have witnessed over the years in the UK, especially those in the 1980s.
If our people had not fought back when they came here in the 1950s and 1960s we would be trampled on by the Teddy Boys and other racist mobs. We would not have gained the reputation we have today as people who should not be messed about with.
The Church is not the answer – Racism is deeply ingrained in the Church. They are former Slave-owners.
Both Martin Luther Jr and Malcolm X were great orators
I will close with a few of their more instructive quotes which we as a race need to keep at the forefront of our minds at all times.
Buy a copy of When God Calls: Listening, Hearing and Responding by Dianne Sealy-Skerritt (published by February 2018, PB £14.99, HB £19.99). Also available in Kindle format at £9.99.
This book will help you to find your call and teach you to listen, hear and respond to God’s instructions as you pursue your call.