Often remembered as polar opposites, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King actually shared a great deal as fighters against white supremacy in the United States and beyond.
"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."
Martin Luther King sent this message to Malcolm X’s wife upon learning he'd been assassinated in Harlem, fifty-five years ago on Friday, on 21st February 1965.
The two men are too often remembered as antagonists and opposites in the racial politics of the 1950s and '60s.
Born out of non-violent activism like that of Rosa Parks, Dr King’s philosophy is usually contrasted with Malcolm X’s principle of black people’s right to self-defense.
United by a Civil Rights struggle
And King’s reformism is always pitted against X’s revolutionism, and so on.
But there was more that united these two icons than divided them.
After breaking with the Nation of Islam in 1964 to pursue black liberation as an independent Muslim American, Malcolm X abandoned the Nation’s policy of non-cooperation with the civil rights movement and reached out to other black leaders like Dr King.
On 26 th March 1964, the two men met (and shared a laugh!) for the first and only time while in D.C. for the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Bill.
Without totally agreeing with the methods of Dr King, Malcolm X recognized the value of his work to win the democratic rights of black Americans.
Though King would come to it later, the two men also shared an opposition to US imperialism abroad.
Malcolm X and MLK: coming together
Embracing a global, anti-colonial vision, Malcolm X saw the struggle of African Americans against domestic racism as linked to the struggle of Third World nations against Western domination.
As to their visions for a liberated society, Malcolm X and Dr King’s were looking more and more alike by the late-1960s.
Both men wanted to band together to create change. As King said in his 'I've Been to the Mountaintop' speech:
"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
King and X gravitated towards a socialistic line of argument which stressed the inadequacy of political egalitarianism without some measure of social equality to go with it.
When asked by a reporter what he thought of socialism, Malcolm X asked back whether socialism would help black Americans. "Yes", the journalist supposed, to which X replied, "then I’m for it".
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, of course, shared one final, tragic likeness.
An end shared by tragedy
In the space of two years, both men were murdered.
They became two more victims of the reactionary political violence which left the 1960s a graveyard of freedom fighters.
There were, to the very end, significant ideological differences between Malcolm X and Dr King.
But the fundamental divide in the post-war politics of race in the US was not between these two radicals, it was between white supremacism on the one hand, and those who stood up to it on the other.
And in this fight, X and King were playing for the same team.
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