MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., and Malcolm X were the two most important leaders of African-American youth in the 20th century. Black Americans chose them because of their unique perspectives on civil and human rights, integration and nationalism, and their dedication to the spiritual values of their faith communities--Christianity and Islam, respectively. Both shared a common vision in their ability to relate the social justice issues of black America to the moral integrity of the U.S. and the world. However, contemporary media tend to minimize the complex interactions between the ideas of King and Malcolm on global human rights by presenting the two men as polar opposites, whose views are frozen in time by the titles of two of their speeches, "I Have a Dream" and "By Any Means Necessary."
What is the political legacy of King and Malcolm X for young people in "hip hop America" today, when democracy and human fights are compromised by the war on terrorism, the Patriot Act, and racial profiling? First, young people must continue the endeavor to achieve global human rights because freedom and dignity are universal birthrights, created by God and not by government. Second, success and prosperity for the majority of black Americans in the 21st century only will be achieved by a strong coalition of Christians and Muslims who are dedicated to the values of democracy and social justice. King and Malcolm X never achieved such a coalition for the liberation of their people because they were too divided by their religious, political, and personal differences to have a meeting. Their failure to work together was one of the major political mistakes in the quest for freedom of African-Americans.
King was born in 1929 to a privileged family of black Baptist preachers in Atlanta, Ga., and became a minister as a teenager. His higher education--undergraduate work at Morehouse College and graduate studies at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University--culminated in 1953, when he received his doctorate in theology. Although King grew up in the segregated South in a period when the U.S. was a violently racist nation, his education provided him the opportunity to develop a fascinating religious and political perspective on nonviolence, which became a key to the civil rights demonstrations in the 1950s and 1960s.
His sources for nonviolent direct action included the New England philosopher Henry David Thoreau's "Essay on Civil Disobedience," presenting the idea that citizens have a moral right to resist an immoral system. King also studied German philosopher Georg Hegel's dialectical process, which discussed the possibility for change and growth through conflict and straggle. Mahatma Gandhi's Hindu method of nonviolent resistance that was successful in India's demonstrations against British colonialism in the 1930s was another source of inspiration and critical reflection.
Yet, the central spiritual thrust for his work was "agape," the Christian concept of divine redemptive love that King believed could transform the evil of segregation by countering racism with nonviolence. Agape was distinguished from "filio," or brotherly love, which is conditional, and "eros," love of the flesh and material things that decay. Agape focused on God's divine love expressed through freedom, dignity, and awareness of the universal interconnections between all human beings.
King wanted to raise the movement to a higher moral ground. He believed in initiating a struggle for the spiritual salvation of the U.S. It was vital to acknowledge "somebodyness"--that blacks, whites, and all Americans (rich, middle class, and poor) are born with rights of dignity and freedom since everyone is created in the image of God. The idea was to form a beloved multicultural community based on forgiveness, awareness of the interconnections of all citizens, and the acknowledgement of particular histories and policies of racism and oppression that must be addressed and repaired to heal the soul of the nation. …