Martin and Malcolm, Two 20th Century Giants

Article excerpt

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) and Malcolm "X" Little (1925-1965), both giants of present day African-American history, have entered the American public mind so deeply that it is impossible to think long about one without evoking memories of the other. When reviewed together their lives reveal a series of most illuminating contrasts involving family, class, education, leadership, public image and social impact. The coincidences associated with their deaths, however, have formal similarity. Both lived only 39 years. Each died by assassins' bullets. Yet they live in contemporary memories, Martin by a formal, national holiday and Malcolm in informal "X's" on the garb of ordinary folks throughout the nation. These two have shared the same Tee-shirts: "Martin, Malcolm, Me." Scholars are still producing books about them.

The contrasts in the lives of these men begin with their births. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into Atlanta, Georgia's clerical middle-class. The son of the Reverend Earl Little of Reynolds, Georgia, Malcolm X, was born in near-poverty in Omaha, Nebraska, and was named Malcolm Little. King "prepped" Morehouse College at age 15. Malcolm X "prepped" as a Roxbury, Massachusetts,' hustler at the same age. As adults, Martin was university trained and Malcolm matriculated in prison. Kings mentor was the renowned Benjamin Elijah Mays, then minister/ president of Morehouse College; Malcolm's mentor was Elijah Mohammed, founder/leader of the Nation of Islam. Martin founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and Malcolm ruled the Temple between 1953 and 1964. Masters of the podium, these men were spellbinding orators, Martin specializing in universal moral and spiritual truths; Malcolm bluntly and brilliantly addressing America's ugliest social and political realities. Alike in their commitment to full Black liberation, they dramatically differed in their methods. Whereas Dr. King believed in the non-violent elimination of racism through moral suasion, Malcolm X, doubting this, argued that attaining Black liberation was justified "by any means necessary." The national media highlighted the philosophical differences between them, Martin racially inclusive and conciliatory; Malcolm a racial separatist. The August 28, 1963 March on Washington was planned to prod a reluctant Congress to enact a comprehensive civil rights bill. Of the March itself Malcolm said although "I don't agree with it, but I am going to be there, brother, cause that's where I belong. …