On May 19, 1925, a boy named Malcolm Little was born. His father would eventually be murdered by a white supremacist organization called the Black Legion. His mother would later suffer a nervous breakdown following her husband’s murder, thus causing Little to be sent into the foster care system.
After getting into drug dealing and spending some time in prison, Little would then discover the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist group that identified white people as the devil. It was then that Malcolm Little, the boy from Omaha, Nebraska became Malcolm X, a controversial Civil Rights Movement figure, who has been accused of preaching violence.
When it comes to the understanding of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often seen as the pioneer with his “I Have a Dream” speech, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his tragic, yet ironic, assassination at the hands of a white man.
King, however, and even his predecessor Medgar Evers—the first state field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi who focused much of his activism on voter-registration efforts and economic boycotts, also to be assassinated in the 1960s—were not the only activists to desire and promote racial change and equality for the Black community; they are just the ones America remembers most, or perhaps who we want to remember.
This, in part, could be due to Malcolm X’s rather extreme views when it came to equal rights for Black Americans. While King and Evers were proponents of racial integration and joint equality, X often criticized and challenged the nonviolent approaches that helped set the tone for the ideological and tactical conflicts of the Black freedom struggle in the 1960s.
Yes, King was a pivotal figure in the continuing struggle for equal rights among Black Americans, no one can deny that. We have a federal holiday in his name after all; but King, being a proponent of peace and civility among the American people, only represents the picture-perfect aspect of the civil rights movement. Malcolm X, represents the reality and ugliness of racism in this country that we’re still trying so hard to ignore.
Today, 60 years after the assassinations of these three men, we still see acts of racism course through the veins of this nation—often now caught in video clips that travel to all corners of the globe via social media. Following the heinous deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Philadelphia’s own Walter Wallace that occurred in 2020, some of X’s ideals and messages have made a resurgence.
Much of X’s unpopularity came from his “by any means necessary” approach to achieving equality for Blacks. His messages represented the devil to King’s angel approach or Judas versus Jesus, so to speak.
“When a person places the proper value on freedom, there is nothing under the sun that he will not do to acquire that freedom. Whenever you hear a man saying he wants freedom, but in the next breath he is going to tell you what he won’t do to get it, or what he doesn’t believe in doing in order to get it, he doesn’t believe in freedom,” said X in 1965.
In other words, when it comes to the pursuance of freedom, the ends justify the means.
While I believe it is most people’s intention to act with love and compassion towards others, as in King’s I Have a Dream speech where he states, “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” the less optimistic side feels disgruntled when I talk with people about the protests and riots that have and are still ensuing.
More often than not I hear comments like, “More people would listen if there wasn’t rioting,” or “Why would you destroy your own city? That doesn’t make any sense,” and “Martin Luther King, Jr. never destroyed property.”
You’re right. Martin Luther King Jr., a man of peace, a man of love, a man of faith, prided himself on never fighting fire with fire, and yet he was brutally killed anyway. It’s easy to say violence is never the answer when you’re not threatened with it based on the color of your skin for the entirety of your life.
This is not to say that we should aimlessly destroy businesses and community staples when things don’t go our way. That’s not what I’m saying at all. But if a business gets looted or a statue falls in the course of a march or protest that has to do with whether Black people live through a “routine” traffic stop or if they make it home to their families at night, then maybe the ends do justify the means.
In contrast to the civil rights movement of the 60s, current protesters and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement have actively decided to promote their message without a figurehead. Instead of designating one leader with one agenda, like Evers with getting African Americans to participate in voting, there’s a group of people with a set of shared values and local connections in various communities who are all working together with one main goal in mind: ending police brutality among minority populations.
With the new year upon us, and MLK Jr. Day just a fortnight away, may we continue to remember the great strides that King , X, Evers—and even those whose names have not gone down in history—made for Black people and other minority groups, but not forget that we, as the current torch holders, the masses supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, still have a long way to go.