The Fox and the Hedgehog: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X’s Conflicting Visions


America’s systemic racial discrimination persisted from the time of the first brought African to the Jamestown’s Colony in 1619 to a century after the Emancipation Declaration in 1863, when Afro-Americans still lived as second-class citizens under segregation. Today, race is a tilling shadow which dominates American political discourse. The current rise of identity politics – which complements the postmodernist turn in the sixties centered on covert “structural oppression” – has caused a resurgence of black nationalism, notably seen in the Black Lives Matter movement.

In this context, it is valuable to explore the dissimilar social visions and strategic aims of iconic Civil Rights activists Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Here, I contrast Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”, which captures their distinctive doctrines.

Malcolm X and Dr. King meet for the first and only time at a Senate press conference, March 1964

The political establishment have for the last decades favored King’s philosophy of multiethnic inclusion. Barack Obama personifies this ideology, although, paradoxically, King’s optimism seems to have steadily diminished under his regimen. The failure of King’s vision to materialize itself, economically and culturally, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Acts arguably exposes the failure of identity politics and its specific welfare and affirmative action programs. For many black Americans, nonetheless, their social stagnation validates Malcolm X’s conflict perspective, as opposed to King’s belief in social harmony.

Today, politically charged racial discourse mainly emphasizes systemic white oppression, hence, stagnation in black communities is being ascribed to structural suppression instead of cultural shortfalls. This help explain the popular revival of Malcolm X’s black nationalism. Compared to King’s intellectual alignment to America’s historic and Constitutional ideals, however, Malcolm X’s black nationalism appears determined to tear down the social fabric instead of constructing bridges.

The Civil Rights Movement, at heart, represents the egalitarian wave in the sixties; among the boomers’ leisure and struggles, this was the most successful postwar social movement. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “The Ballot or the Bullet” were published in the midst of the civil rights battle by the two most central strategic and ideological activists. Although both shared a sense of situational immediateness, the circumstances of King’s letter and Malcolm X’s speech differed, alongside their ideological paradigms.

In April 1963, King wrote the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as an open letter to his “fellow clergymen” after being imprisoned for organizing civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He addressed eight white Alabama clergymen who had published a newspaper statement called “A call for Unity” after King’s arrest. Here the clergymen expressed understanding for existing racial injustice, but they criticized King’s active methods to influence racial public policies, deeming them “unwise”. In his responsive letter, King maintains his strategy of nonviolent and persistent activism. He never deviates from the creed that human action, and accordingly civil rights activism, is in accordance with God’s “natural law” .

Precisely one year later, April 3, 1964, Malcolm X held his vigorous speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”. 1964 was the year of the presidential election between Southern progressive Lyndon B. Johnson and conservative Barry Goldwater. Accordingly, Malcolm X’s speech is marked by a notion of a decisive moment for blacks in America, as he emphasized the option of taking up arms if abrupt policy changes were stalled. Malcolm X, in his typical political agnostic fashion, advocated collective black unity and action as the only means of achieving any electoral success.

The present *now* is an essential factor for both King and Malcolm X, who maintained the intolerable nature of sitting idly by waiting for reform. King responded directly to the clergymen who had stated that his actions were “untimely”; a great fallacy, according to King, is to believe that time automatically improves black conditions. The primary reason for this, he states, is that people do not give up their privileges voluntarily, and consequently, “wait” predictably means “never”. Malcolm X had an even grimmer assessment of racial developments; he deemed the racial situation to be worse than it had been a decade earlier, when Supreme Court essentially ruled that state segregation was illegal in Brown v. Board of Education. He also maintained considerably deeper mistrust in government on principle because they had “failed the Negro”.

King and Malcolm X shared the conviction that change in racial structure was imminently indispensable. However, they held a profoundly dissimilar ethical core, as well as different social visions. King’s moral philosophy corresponds with the individualist foundations of the Declaration of Independence and overall elements in American cultural and intellectual heritage. His principled stand on individual liberty and equality before the law, as well as his professed Judeo-Christian morality, are frequently associated with “Americanism”. King’s main ambition was to expand these rights to all the members of society; only then could America realize its self-declared principled basis. Malcolm X, on the other hand, essentially regarded whites, in general, as accomplices in a racial tyranny. Since he considered being black a permanent state of oppression, he found it implausible how they could tranquilly coexist with whites. He even rejected that blacks were Americans; instead, they were African captives in a foreign land.

King’s philosophy is primarily rights-oriented in that he sought deeper unity and judicial equality between all Americans. Malcolm X, in contrast, was predominantly result-oriented. He envisioned black autonomy in racially separated realms, through “any means necessary”. For several reasons, however, they shared a mutual discontent with the white community at large. Although King stated his thankfulness to “his white brothers” that took part in the civil rights struggle, he asserted that these were rare exceptions indeed. In general he revealed great disappointment with the white moderate, in particular, whom he believed served as the greatest obstacle to racial equality. Thus, King upheld the civil rights struggle as a dichotomist matter; people were either on the moral side by being an active opponent to the status quo, or they were a part of the oppressors by remaining passive to the demands of racial justice.

Correspondingly, early in his speech Malcolm X asserted that he was not “anti-white”. However, he consistently personifies the “the white man” by viewing repressive actions of whites as applicable to every white person. Conversely, the historical and contemporary suffering of colored people becomes the suffering of every black individual. Malcolm X conceivably formed the basis for his separatist views by seeing the 22 million blacks in America, at the time, as “victims of Americanism”. Malcolm X warned about trusting the whites, which he asserted were “not your friend” before his black audience. This was opposed to King who sought to create tension in the mind of whites precisely in order to make them sympathetic to blacks’ inferior situation and a part of the civil rights cause.

King’s creation of intellectual tension was, moreover, a part of his nonviolent strategy. In his letter, King openly stated that he would discuss his strategy, thus making it a meta-strategic text; his defense of his civil rights strategy is in itself a part of his strategy to influence the public. When he proclaimed that the rationale for direct actions originated from the failed negotiations with whites, he also sought support for the obvious reasons for why blacks themselves need to have a say in the civil rights process. Correspondingly, Malcolm X believed that the civil rights label “excluded” blacks, or, specifically, that the current civil rights process is exclusively controlled by whites in a conspiracy to keep blacks inferior. This was presumably the basis for his mistrust in government and politicians in general, and the Democratic Party in particular who controlled the Presidency and Congress at the time and still stalled civil rights progress.

King was concerned that violent outburst would follow if blacks were persistently treated as second-class citizens, and he specifically mentioned the Nation of Islam – Malcolm X’s religious cult – as an example of such unfortunate sentiments. Malcolm X, of course, promoted “the bullet” as a feasible option if deep policy changes failed to materialize, precisely the fear voiced by King. By analyzing the current racial situation, in addition to advocating an end to racial injustice, King sought to be regarded as a reasoned fox rather than an aggressive hedgehog. Isaiah Berlin considered the philosophers who viewed the world through one defining idea as hedgehogs and the philosophers who built their work on various ideas and influences as foxes, a suitable metaphor for Malcolm X and King, respectively. In this regard, King felt discontent with being labeled an “extremist” by the clergymen. King emphasized that he was principally advocating nonviolence and equality, in contrast to the Nation of Islam (Malcolm X). However, in moral issues such as segregation, King confessed that he rightly could be called an extremist – similarly as Jesus was an extremist for love.

While King sought intellectual overview, alongside being a principled activist, Malcolm X unambiguously voiced the perspective of a victim. According to King, the hatred and violent attitudes expressed by the Nation of Islam is the result of an inferiority complex originating from the existing segregated social structures. Malcolm X’s Black Nationalism should accordingly be viewed in conjunction with experiences of racism. Significantly, King’s letter is largely a theological text in the sense that he ascribed his moral beliefs and methods of realizing them to the biblical scripture and the Negro church. King correspondingly related the militant philosophy of Malcolm X to the repudiation of Christianity. Malcolm X recurrently sought to reduce the relevance of religious affiliation in the civil rights movement and to achieve unity amongst all black based on their mutual race, although he professedly held strong Muslim beliefs. King, as we had seen, believed desegregation (and civil rights in general) was crucial on a Biblical basis, and contrary to Malcolm X, he maintained that blacks would succeed precisely because “the goal of America is freedom”.

In the debate over how to approach civil rights issues in order to improve America’s racial conditions, Malcolm X’s speech should, too, be considered a meta-strategic work. His hostile rhetoric might be regarded as a deliberate method of verbal fighting, thus, his declared violent possibility were presumably a strategy of persuading blacks to put pressure on the politicians – it was, after all, an election year. An obvious weakness in Malcolm X’s ideology is that he could easily be criticized for hypocrisy in his condemnation of white nationalism, when he is advocating a similar philosophy. His black nationalism was presumably an expression of the current racial situation. His predominant purpose, therefore, was not merely to change society’s laws and the whites perception of blacks, but to facilitate a self-governing society in which blacks are empowered and in control of their destiny.

An obvious treat to this goal was Malcolm X’s elements of extremism, which could result in greater reluctance to accept civil rights amongst the so-called white moderate. Alternatively, this could also backfire; his aggressive rhetoric could pressure whites into realizing the immorality of racism, and it could make politicians more eager to pass legislative reform, in fear of the consequences. Indeed, this is Malcolm X stated aim in the “Ballot or the Bullet”; if the 22 million potential black voters acted collectively they could achieve electoral success. It is important in this regard, however, not to be misled by opportunist politicians who, as stated by Malcolm X, come to black communities with false promises simply because it was an election year. He displayed deep mistrust in the “white liberals” in the Democratic Party who aligned themselves with the Dixiecrats, and this was an accusation he directed at Southerner Lyndon Johnson as well. Paradoxically, Malcolm X’s strategy could have found an ally in the conservative candidate Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in his statement that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”.

King worried that this aggressive approach could reduce prospects for civil rights precisely because it caused public fear. His civil rights strategy was undoubtedly more deliberate than that of Malcolm X, which is reflected in his four basic steps of nonviolent action highlighted in his letter. The first step is a factual determination of whether injustice exists, which, presumably, meant that he was primarily determined to winning the intellectual battle, in addition to the emotional aspect, which arguably stood stronger with Malcolm X. King’s racial egalitarianism and Malcolm X’s black nationalism might have been complimentary rather than exclusionary in achieving civil rights. Extreme fractions in coinciding causes might make the moderate elements seem more sensible to the outsiders – in this case the white majority. While people could easily dismiss the radicals as fanatics, it arguably made it more difficult to reject the coherently reasonable activists such as King.

King and Malcolm X both held an uncompromising moral position on racial injustice. As we have seen, however, their moral beliefs and political vision profoundly differed, and so did their strategic approach to segregation. In “The Ballot or the Bullet”, Malcolm X encouraged black collectivism in response to oppression inflicted by whites, and he defended violence as a means to achieve racial justice. King, on the other hand, showed his principled nonviolent stand in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, and he envisioned black integration in American society. This historical dispute over how to response to oppression represents a central intellectual and cultural issue in the black community at the time. King is significantly more associated with the civil rights movement than Malcolm X, and King’s principled efforts were undeniable successful. Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe that Malcolm X hostile approach might have been useful in pressuring public opinion and politicians by merit of his aggressive urgency.

King and Malcolm X’s dissimilar vision still divides the political moderates from the radicals, seen in recent year resurgence of Malcolm X’s distrust in whites and the authorities. The attentive reader would have seen clear overlaps with the anti-police and black oppression ideology incited by Black Lives Matter in particular. Indeed, while King’s ideology of racial harmony curtailed the radical fringe that preached division, it seems the momentum is now reversed. Blacks ultimately rose through the means of civil disobedience complemented by exemplary behavior. The current postmodernist quagmire of property destruction and empty slogans might surely restore Malcolm X’s ideals. But they will merely tear down the progress of brave men, and replace it with the bottomless confusion of the angry and assured adolescence.

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