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Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

OPINION: What white people can learn from Malcolm X

How many times has your activism been conditional?
Sascha Harvey

When thinking of influential figures in the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. probably comes to mind. Malcolm X, too, but to a lesser extent. Because, from what we’ve been taught, Malcolm X actually slowed the progress, right? 

But not really. Although Martin Luther King Jr. was the face of the movement for many, both his ideas and Malcolm X’s influenced the other’s before practically converging. 

While King Jr. is known for his pacifism, Malcolm X is often summed up in one belief: for Black Americans to defend themselves against white people “by any means necessary.” This controversial belief easily pushed him past the level of digestible activism for white people, a behavior that is repeated time and time again. For many white liberals, racial sympathy only goes so far.

As much as white people have been able to learn from Martin Luther King Jr., we have much to learn from Malcolm X as well, particularly in instances where peace has proven time and time again to be ineffective. 

King Jr. was the face of the Black rights movement that white people could get behind, but Malcolm X was a strong proponent of self-advocacy within the Black community. The right to vote and exist was an easier plight for white people to advocate for as opposed to Malcolm X’s idea of Black self-reliance. When have we seen that in recent years? 

A decades-long debate

Rather than integration, Malcolm X believed in separation and wholeheartedly disagreed with Martin Luther King Jr. The two’s conflicting views mirrored those of pacifist Booker T. Washington and Black economic separatist W.E.B. Du Bois. 

Washington famously proposed the Atlanta Compromise in 1895, in which he proposed that African Americans focus on achieving economic milestones as opposed to political freedoms. Through economic growth, he said, equality could be achieved, and bargaining for civil rights would be counterproductive. 

Conversely, Du Bois said that African Americans needed to educate themselves. He saw no merit in a compromise, theorizing that ceasing demands for rights further established the notion of Black people as “second-class citizens.” His efforts led to the creation of the NAACP, where he served as director of publicity.

Their conflict steepened until 1903, when Du Bois criticized Washington’s approach in “The Souls of Black Folk” after they each released an article making their case. Du Bois died in Ghana as a naturalized citizen, a practice emphasized in pan-Africanism, one day before King Jr.’s March on Washington in August of 1963. 

Segregation vs. separation

Similarly to the perception of King Jr. and Malcolm X, white people favored the ideas of Washington and found Du Bois to be too radical. Unlike Washington and Du Bois, though, Malcolm X invited King Jr. to collaborate numerous times throughout his activism.

After King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963, Malcolm X said, “Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing ‘We Shall Overcome’ … while tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against?”

As Malcolm X said in a 1963 speech at the University of California, Berkeley, the integration of Black and white people only caused more segregation: “When you tried to integrate the white community in search of better housing, the whites there fled to the suburbs. And the community that you thought would be integrated soon deteriorated into another all-Black slum.”

Malcolm X attributed the idea of Black separation to Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam (also known as the Lost-Found Nation of Islam or Black Muslims). Muhammad believed that Black people were Allah’s chosen people and should live separately from America in a nation guided by Islam. His ideas gained traction after he referred to white people as “blue-eyed devils.”

After Malcolm X’s acceptance into the Nation of Islam, he dropped his original slave surname in favor of “X,” a radical move even by today’s standards. He served as minister of Mosque No. 7 in Harlem and then as the national spokesman for the organization. 

“The present proposed civil rights legislation will give the present administration dictatorial powers and make America a legal police state, but still won’t solve the race problem,” Malcolm X said in his 1963 speech. “But the only permanent solution is complete separation or some land of our own in a country of our own. All other courses will lead to violence and bloodshed. It will lead to the destruction of America, and it will also lead to the destruction of our people who fall for it.”


Peniel Joseph, author of “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.,” found that both King Jr. and Malcolm X served different roles in the struggle for civil rights. “Malcolm is Black America’s prosecuting attorney. He’s prosecuting white America for a series of crimes against Black humanity that date back to racial slavery,” Joseph said. “Dr. King is Black America’s defense attorney — but he’s very interesting: He defends both sides of the color line.”

Whereas King Jr. assured Black people that white people were not the enemy, Malcolm X said the exact opposite. He vouched that the only way Black people would ever be free was to return to Africa. He said that the struggle for freedom in African nations was inextricably tied to the freedom of African Americans. 

“Twenty million ex-slaves must be permanently separated from our former slavemaster and placed on some land that we can call our own,” Malcolm X said in 1963. “Then we can create our own jobs. Control our own economy. Solve our own problems instead of waiting on the American white man to solve our problems for us.”

Though the common narrative pits the two activists as opposing forces in the long fight for Black rights, King Jr.’s wife, Coretta Scott King, found their relationship much more nuanced.

“I think they respected each other. Martin had the greatest respect for Malcolm and he agreed with him … in terms of the feeling of racial pride and the fact that Black people should believe in themselves and see themselves as lovable and beautiful,” Coretta said. ”The fact that Martin had had a strong feeling of connectedness to Africa and so did Malcolm.” 

Though pan-Africanism was central to Malcolm X’s views, King Jr. vouched for similar ideals as well. King Jr. embraced his African heritage and urged listeners to return to the African nations and assist in the development of their freedoms. 

Blurring lines

Malcolm X was firm on his beliefs but shifted to a new approach after a transformative trip to Saudi Arabia. After visiting Mecca in 1964, a pilgrimage many Muslims take throughout life, Malcolm X returned with a new name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity in June. 

The group had a moderate new ideology that identified racism as the “enemy of justice” instead of the white race. The organization pushed for Black people to become politically active, something Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for as well. 

This more moderate view gained popularity among the nonviolent movement, specifically the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). However, even the SNCC soon shifted from strict nonviolence to an overall movement of Black power following outrage at the slow rate of change in government. The “Nonviolent” was replaced with “National” in 1968. 

As the SNCC shifted toward Black self-reliance, white members left in hoards. The organization ceased to exist by 1973. Even more liberal white people at the time had a limit when it came to the self-determination of Black Americans. For many white people, a peaceful protest was already crossing a line, mirroring the response to Black Lives Matter’s protests in 2020. 

Throughout his life in nonviolence, King Jr. was protected by armed guards on many occasions, notably after his home was firebombed following the bus boycott. King Jr.’s adviser Bayard Rustin told him it was hypocritical to preach nonviolence if he wanted armed guards to fight against racial terror. So while King Jr. was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and preached peace above all, he, too, had forms of self-defense — self-defense that Malcolm X preached. 

Although the idea of peaceful coexistence between Black and white Americans sounds nice, wasn’t Malcolm X’s vision of integration closer to the truth? Despite his peaceful view, King Jr. endured an attempted assassination in 1958, his home being firebombed in 1956, and even being arrested in 1963 for his involvement in nonviolent protests. 

Malcolm X’s relations with the Nation of Islam were far from peaceful as well. He was suspended from the group in December 1963 after he claimed that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was “the chickens coming home to roost.” 

Tensions heightened after Malcolm X called out leader Muhammad for his sexual relations with minors until he announced his leave in March 1964. Malcolm X was threatened by members multiple times before ultimately being assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965. 

His death marked one of many turning points in the Civil Rights Movement, affecting far beyond his organizations. 

“After Malcolm’s assassination, one of the biggest ironies and transformations is that King becomes Black America’s prosecuting attorney,” Peniel Joseph said. 

King Jr. was ultimately assassinated on April 4, 1968, causing President Lyndon B. Johnson to declare a national day of mourning amidst huge urban riots. 

“If the two had lived, I am sure that at some point they would have come closer together and would have been a very strong force in the total struggle for liberation and self-determination of Black people in our society,” Coretta said in 1988. 

Then and now

Although the figures differed in their approaches, each made huge contributions to the civil rights movement and individually helped the self-determination of Black Americans. 

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” King Jr. famously said shortly before his death. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will … I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

By ignoring the merit in Malcolm X’s ideologies, we are ignoring an integral part of American history and crucial influencers in a time that continues to shape current culture. Civil rights were not gained in this country through law-abiding pacifists alone. 

When looking at the events of the era, it’s easy to compare current affairs, from global politics to corners of the Internet. Black Americans, fearing for their lives, protested the streets of America in 2020 — some peaceful, some not. And history doesn’t repeat itself but it certainly rhymes, with many white people struggling to come to terms with the mass organization of Black Americans fighting against police brutality. Conversely, some white people took the lead in these protests, speaking over Black voices.

In 2020 leading up to now, I’ve heard from countless white friends and family that “peaceful protests are fine, but violence is where I draw the line.” 

Of course, no one wants violence of any kind — not Washington T. Booker, not W.E.B. Du Bois, not me, and hopefully not you, either. But why is there the need for us to draw a line? Surely a line was crossed when George Floyd was murdered by police? Was a line crossed when Malcolm X was assassinated before he could even reach his 40th birthday? What about when 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured and lynched for a crime he did not commit?

As a white person, I’m not going to understand the struggles of being a Black person in America. I can and should be sympathetic, but racism will never be something I experience. America has come a long way, but I want to recommend every white person, myself included, to look inward and find the extent of our activism, and then push it further. 

As we survey the current state of the world around us, Malcolm X’s radicalism is a constant reminder that we still have steps to take to reach the “promised land.” And it starts within us.

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About the Contributor
Sascha Harvey
Sascha Harvey, Opinion Editor
Sascha Harvey is the opinon editor for The Sunflower. A junior majoring in graphic design, this is Harvey's third year on staff and second year as a section editor. He is originally from Arkansas but has no accent to speak of (unless you listen really hard). The graphic design major enjoys covering feature stories and local news. Harvey uses he/him pronouns.

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  • K

    KareemMar 8, 2024 at 11:37 am

    You can learn the truth of the nation of Islam here: noi.org