As the nation’s most visible proponent of Black Nationalism, Malcolm X’s challenge to the multiracial, nonviolent approach of Martin Luther King, Jr., helped set the tone for the ideological and tactical conflicts that took place within the black freedom struggle of the 1960s. Given Malcolm X’s abrasive criticism of King and his advocacy of racial separatism, it is not surprising that King rejected the occasional overtures from one of his fiercest critics. However, after Malcolm’s assassination in 1965, King wrote to his widow, Betty Shabazz: “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 the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem” (King, 26 February 1965).
Malcolm Little was born to Louise and Earl Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on 19 May 1925. His father died when he was six years old—the victim, he believed, of a white racist group. Following his father’s death, Malcolm recalled, “Some kind of psychological deterioration hit our family circle and began to eat away our pride” (Malcolm X, Autobiography, 14). By the end of the 1930s Malcolm’s mother had been institutionalized, and he became a ward of the court to be raised by white guardians in various reform schools and foster homes.
Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) while serving a prison term in Massachusetts on burglary charges. Shortly after his release in 1952, he moved to Chicago and became a minister under Elijah Muhammad, abandoning his “slave name,” and becoming Malcolm X (Malcolm X, “We Are Rising”). By the late 1950s, Malcolm had become the NOI’s leading spokesman.
Although Malcolm rejected King’s message of nonviolence, he respected King as a “fellow-leader of our people,” sending King NOI articles as early as 1957 and inviting him to participate in mass meetings throughout the early 1960s (Papers 5:491). Although Malcolm was particularly interested that King hear Elijah Muhammad’s message, he also sought to create an open forum for black leaders to explore solutions to the “race problem” (Malcolm X, 31 July 1963). King never accepted Malcolm’s invitations, however, leaving communication with him to his secretary, Maude Ballou.
Despite his repeated overtures to King, Malcolm did not refrain from criticizing him publicly. “The only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy,” Malcolm told an audience in 1963, “is the Negro revolution … That’s no revolution” (Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots,” 9).
In the spring of 1964, Malcolm broke away from the NOI and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. When he returned he began following a course that paralleled King’s—combining religious leadership and political action. Although King told reporters that Malcolm’s separation from Elijah Muhammad “holds no particular significance to the present civil rights efforts,” he argued that if “tangible gains are not made soon all across the country, we must honestly face the prospect that some Negroes might be tempted to accept some oblique path [such] as that Malcolm X proposes” (King, 16 March 1964).
Ten days later, during the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, King and Malcolm met for the first and only time. After holding a press conference in the Capitol on the proceedings, King encountered Malcolm in the hallway. As King recalled in a 3 April letter, “At the end of the conference, he came and spoke to me, and I readily shook his hand.” King defended shaking the hand of an adversary by saying that “my position is that of kindness and reconciliation” (King, 3 April 1965).
Malcolm’s primary concern during the remainder of 1964 was to establish ties with the black activists he saw as more militant than King. He met with a number of workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), including SNCC chairman John Lewis and Mississippi organizer Fannie Lou Hamer. Malcolm saw his newly created Organization of African American Unity (OAAU) as a potential source of ideological guidance for the more militant veterans of the southern civil rights movement. At the same time, he looked to the southern struggle for inspiration in his effort to revitalize the Black Nationalist movement.
In January 1965, he revealed in an interview that the OAAU would “support fully and without compromise any action by any group that is designed to get meaningful immediate results” (Malcolm X, Two Speeches, 31). Malcolm urged civil rights groups to unite, telling a gathering at a symposium sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality: “We want freedom now, but we’re not going to get it saying ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We've got to fight to overcome” (Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks, 38).
In early 1965, while King was jailed in Selma, Alabama, Malcolm traveled to Selma, where he had a private meeting with Coretta Scott King. “I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult,” he assured Coretta. “I really did come thinking that I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King” (Scott King, 256).
On 21 February 1965, just a few weeks after his visit to Selma, Malcolm X was assassinated. King called his murder a “great tragedy” and expressed his regret that it “occurred at a time when Malcolm X was … moving toward a greater understanding of the nonviolent movement” (King, 24 February 1965). He asserted that Malcolm’s murder deprived “the world of a potentially great leader” (King, “The Nightmare of Violence”). Malcolm’s death signaled the beginning of bitter battles involving proponents of the ideological alternatives the two men represented.
Maude L. Ballou to Malcolm X, 1 February 1957, in Papers 4:117.
Goldman, Death and Life of Malcolm X, 1973.
King, “The Nightmare of Violence,” New York Amsterdam News, 13 March 1965.
King, Press conference on Malcolm X’s assassination, 24 February 1965, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, Statement on Malcolm X’s break with Elijah Muhammad, 16 March 1964, MCMLK-RWWL.
King to Abram Eisenman, 3 April 1964, MLKJP-GAMK.
King to Shabazz, 26 February 1965, MCMLK-RWWL.
(Scott) King, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., 1969.
Malcolm X, Interview by Harry Ring over Station WBAI-FM in New York, in Two Speeches by Malcolm X, 1965.
Malcolm X, “Message to the Grassroots,” in Malcolm X Speaks, ed. George Breitman, 1965.
Malcolm X, “We Are Rising From the Dead Since We Heard Messenger Muhammad Speak,” Pittsburgh Courier, 15 December 1956.
Malcolm X to King, 21 July 1960, in Papers 5:491.
Malcolm X to King, 31 July 1963, MCMLK-RWWL.
Malcolm X with Haley, Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1965.