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Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Differences and the Role of the Media

A Comparative Study

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2013 35 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur



1. Introduction

2. Life and Thought
2.1 Martin Luther King, Jr
2.2 Malcolm X

3. Non-violence and Self-defence
3.1 Martin Luther King, Jr
3.2 Malcolm X

4. Shifts
4.1 Martin Luther King, Jr
4.2 Malcolm X

5 The Role of the Media
5.1. Martin Luther King, Jr
5.2 Malcolm X

6 Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two of the most important leaders in the black freedom movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Their contributions are highly valued until today, although people’s opinions on the two leaders vary: some support the one and disapprove of the other. Furthermore, during their lifetime and even after their death, both were perceived as having followed two different ideologies. Their differing opinions on violence and non-violence, integration and separatism were regarded as preventing the two from moving closer to each other. Therefore, people regarded and portrayed them as adversaries since their images arouse controversial feelings, admiration and disapproval, among black and white people. On the bright side, Martin Luther King, Jr. the well-educated, peaceful promoter of love and hope in contradistinction to Malcolm X, on the dark side, the autodidact, radical Black Muslim extremist. Apparently this seemed to be the two poles in public imagination which the American mass media had contributed to. Where might these different images come from, are they justified and what impact did the media play in the process of creating these public images? In order to address these questions, this work is going to examine the two men’s life, thought, and work in more detail. Chapter 2 is going to focus on their upbringing, family life and ideology. Their opinions on violence and non-violence as a means of achieving one’s aims will be explored in chapter 3. Chapter 4 is devoted to their shifts towards new directions and breaks with former positions. The role and influence of the media in shaping the image and perception of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. will be examined in chapter 5. The aim of this work is to investigate if there were differences between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. that would justify the portrayal as adversaries or if these differences were merely due to the influence of the media and it’s depiction of the two men.

2. Life and Thought

The work will begin by examining the life and thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. This includes the origin, upbringing, education and religion as well as the ideology they followed and represented. These incidents and factors will be explored in order to find out what might have had an impact on the two men with regard to their later life.

2.1 Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circumstances. It is quite easy for me to lean more toward optimism than pessimism about human nature mainly because of my childhood experiences. (qtd. Cone 23)

This quote hints at the reasons for Martin Luther King’s optimistic view on society rooted in his upbringing which will be examined in more detail in the following paragraphs. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into a black middle-class family in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15th, 1929 (Cone 20). He was the first son and second child born to Reverend Martin Luther King, Senior and his wife. Both, his father and grandfather were prominent and well respected Baptist preachers in Atlanta who served as powerful examples for Martin Luther King, Jr. (Cone 22). Although Lenwood G. Davis, Professor of history at Winston-Salem State University, North Carolina, describes Atlanta as a city “different from most southern cities” with a number of Negroes who were respected by whites and vice versa, segregation and racism were prevalent nevertheless (11). Little Martin was totally unaware of the “race problem” until the age of six when a father of his friend told him, he could not play with his white son anymore because he was “colored” (Cone 23). This encounter Martin King never forgot and when speaking about this incident later, he said, he had been shocked and “determined to hate every white person” (King, Stride Toward Freedom 18). His parents tried to assure him of his worth and encouraged him not to feel inferior towards white people: “You are as good as anyone else, and don’t you forget it.” (Bennett 19). After trying to calm King, they reminded him of the Christian values they had taught him. Still Martin King could not understand how he was supposed to love people who hated him and said: “This was a great question in my mind for a number of years.” (King, Stride Toward Freedom 18-9). Furthermore, growing up in Atlanta during the 1930s and 1940s made Martin King face several restrictions, such as not being allowed to use the swimming pool or attending the socalled “white schools” due to his segregated environment. In earlier days, racial segregation had had a negative impact on his attitude toward white people. When he encountered white people working for an abolition of racism, however, it diminished his resentment.

The wholesome relations we had in this group convinced me that we have many white persons as allies, particularly among the younger generation [...] I had been ready to resent the whole white race, but as I got to see more whites, my resentment softened and a spirit of cooperation took its place. (Oates 20) Martin King felt a certain kind of bitterness and anger towards white people after having encountered racism, but these feelings vanished due to his parents’ encouragement and King’s discovery of white people speaking out for equality between blacks and whites. Especially when entering College Martin King came into contact with the white students “through working in interracial organizations” and that was the time when he began to conquer his “anti-white feeling” (Cone 26). Therefore, Martin Luther King, Jr. did not always have an attitude of solidarity towards white people, contrary to his common reputation. Church had always played an important role in King’s life. At the age of five he joined

Ebenezer church which Cone described as “the second home” and “a place where blacks could be free of white folks, [...] free of everything that demeaned and humiliated them” (25).

King encountered the spirituality of the black church which became a “sustaining force of his life” (Cone 25). In summer 1947, Martin Luther King, Jr. felt an inner urge calling him to serve humanity and therefore decided to enter the ministry which seemed to be the most appropriate vocation for King in his fight for an integration of Negroes into society (Cone 27). After finishing his studies at Morehouse College, he managed to gain a scholarship and started his studies of Theology, in June 1948, at Crozer Seminar in Chester, Pennsylvania (Waldschmidt-Nelson 47). Apart from several racial incidents, King had to cope with, he became quite popular in the Crozer community and was “elected president of the student body” (Cone 27). The social and intellectual environment at Crozer and the surrounding area reinforced King’s optimism that intelligent blacks and whites could work together in order to eliminate racism and achieve an integration of blacks into society (King, Stride toward Freedom 91). Furthermore, in several classes King heard about Mahatma Gandhi’s successful nonviolent movement in India which deeply moved him, although this issue remained academic until the Montgomery bus boycott (Cone 28-9).

His social and academic success at Crozer, which he finished as top of the form, affected his belief and life (Waldschmidt-Nelson 48). Martin King gained acceptance among white people through his educational success which contributed to the integrationist view his father had set an example of. The foundation of this ideology is the belief in whites changing their view about blacks and being willing to accept them as equal citizens if blacks prove successful in education, morality, and business (Cone 31). Martin King who inherited this tradition of leadership was convinced if other Negroes were given the opportunities for a similar social and educational development they could bring about a change (Cone 21). Martin Luther King’s childhood was affected by racism, but through experiences of white support and his belief in integrationism, he adopted a friendly attitude towards whites and appreciated their contribution.

2.2 Malcolm X

People are always speculating - why am I as I am? To understand that of any person, his whole life, from birth, must be reviewed. All our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient I think that an objective reader may see how in the society to which I was exposed as a black youth here in America, for me to wind up in a prison was really just about inevitable. (Haley, Malcolm X 150)

This excerpt points at the importance of examining the upbringing of people in relation to their actions and positions in life and work. Malcolm X’s life, in contrast, was not as privileged as King’s in terms of family life, social environment and education for example. While King’s origin lies in the southern middle class, Malcolm Little was born into a rather poor northern black family in Omaha, Nebraska, on 19 May 1925 ( Haley, Malcolm X 1). Malcolm X’s father was a Baptist preacher like King’s and involved in the struggle for justice as well, although, the former was not as influential as King Senior. As Martin had been affected by the integrationist activity of his father, Malcolm was influenced by the nationalist work of his (Haley, Malcolm X 1, 6).

There are major differences in the two men’s experiences during childhood. According to Cone, King’s life only represented the bright American side of the African-American life, “the Dream”, while Malcolm X’s rather represented the dark African side which he called the “nightmare” in his autobiography (Cone 42; Haley, Malcolm X 3, 37). Malcolm X referring to his life as a “nightmare” can be ascribed to several incidents. In 1925, when Malcolm’s mother was pregnant, the Little family was terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan, because of his father being a follower of Marcus Garvey, an organizer of the Universal Negro Improvement, and a member of the “Back to Africa Movement” who “did not hide his sentiments” (Boesak 13-4). After they had moved to Michigan, little Malcolm endured the burning of his house by a “white hate group, called the Black Legionnaires” in Lansing, 1929 which is described by Malcolm X as his “earliest vivid memory” and another nightmare (Cone 42; Haley, Malcolm X 3). “The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned down to the ground” ( Haley, Malcolm X 3). Malcolm X had difficulties to cope with these experiences of white brutality and racism. In addition to the violence exerted on his family by other groups, Malcolm X had to cope with violence at home. During Malcolm X’s upbringing he constantly had to bear the domestic violence of his mother and father (Cone 43). This might also have been a factor shaping Malcolm X’s character.

Furthermore, his father’s death had severe consequences for the Little Family.

Henceforth they were dependent on public relief and, in addition, Mrs Little had to cope with humiliating implications that she was mentally incompetent to care for her children. Malcolm was only twelve years old, when his mother suffered from a mental breakdown and the family was divided, turning the eight children into “state children” (Cone 44). Witnessing the brutality befalling his family affected Malcolm X’s opinion on America’s society and their attitude towards black people. Malcolm X accused the American system of having destroyed his family and being responsible for his family’s disintegration.

I truly believe that if ever a state agency destroyed a family, it destroyed ours. [. . .] I knew I wouldn’t be back to see my mother again because it could make me a very vicious and dangerous person - knowing how they had looked at us as numbers and as a case in their book, not as human beings. [. . .] Hence I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight. (Haley, Malcolm X 22)



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Martin Luther King Malcom X

Titel: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Differences and the Role of the Media