Three decades after their deaths, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King still symbolize opposing ideological positions that divide blacks. Their clashes set the tone for internecine battles that have continued to disrupt black communities.
Which path to social justice is correct? By any means necessary? Or only through nonviolence? Integration or separation?
Spike Lee raised the issue of the contrast between the two men at the end of his film "Do the Right Thing." A photograph of the two looms silently on the screen.
But was the split between them inevitable? How incompatible were their ideas, really? Must blacks choose between their ideological legacies? Or is it possible that Malcolm X and King would have resolved their differences had they not been assassinated?
Years after their deaths, these questions continue to be relevant. As we enter the next millennium, with many black people still impoverished and the basic notion of black equality still debatable in the United States, there remains much to be learned from the relationship of these two extraordinary men.
There has been much speculation about what Malcolm X or King would have done had they lived longer, but what about the relationship they had while alive? Although the two men met only briefly, there is considerable evidence regarding their attitudes toward each other and, more significant, how those attitudes changed over time.
On July 31, 1963, less than a month before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Malcolm X invited King and other national civil rights leaders to speak at a Muslim rally in Harlem. Although as the minister of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X assured the civil rights leaders that he would "moderate the meeting and guarantee order and courtesy for all speakers," none of the invited leaders accepted his invitation.
King did not even respond. In the midst of preparations for the Washington march, his staff may not have even brought the invitation to his attention.
Although Malcolm X had begun writing to King in 1957, he received only perfunctory replies from the civil rights leader's office. To what extent did these rebuffs add to the intensity of Malcolm X's criticisms of King's nonviolent approach?
Although some of the differences between the two surely were based on deeply held religious and political convictions, there also were common aspects of their lives that might have enabled them to resolve their differences.
Both were sons of politically active Baptist ministers who saw religion as a tool for social transformation. Both were well-informed about the relationship between the black freedom struggle and Third World liberation movements, and both were men of integrity and courage.
Yet King also was a privileged insider within the largest black denomination, while Malcolm X was a member of a small Islamic group that was isolated from the black religious mainstream. Malcolm X was not invited to the March on Washington, and he may have been bitter over being ignored by King and excluded from the inner circles of national black leadership.
Soon after the march, Malcolm X delivered one of his strongest speeches against national civil rights leaders, who he said had allowed themselves to be "used against the Negro revolution."
In his "Message to the Grass Roots" speech, delivered in Detroit on Nov. 10, 1963, he charged that the march's white financial backers had manipulated black leaders, thereby transforming a potentially militant mass protest into a "picnic, a circus."
Given Malcolm X's verbal hostility and his advocacy of racial separatism, it was not surprising that King rejected the occasional overtures from his fiercest black critic. He may have thought he had little to gain and much to lose from any association with the Nation of Islam.
Nevertheless, King …