Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the most influential Black leaders in recent American history, are often considered polar opposites, with competing platforms and conflicting philosophies on the quest for freedom and equality. One was a Baptist Christian while the other was a member of the Nation of Islam, a Black separatist group; one held a strong belief in integration while the other was an unabashed segregationist; one was a moderate Southerner known for his doctrine of nonviolent resistance, while the other was a militant brother from Harlem known for his patented “by any means necessary” course of action for the American Negro.
Despite Malcolm’s and Martin’s differences, could there have been a chance that they were more alike than different? Could the two have strategized together to obtain a common goal? Though the two ministers were regarded as the prominent antithetical personalities of the Civil Rights Movement who appeared to have warring ideologies, Malcom and Martin were strikingly similar, and eventually grew to be two men with one voice and one purpose.
Some scholars have even argued that Malcolm X prepared the way for Martin Luther King’s rebellion.
One scholar in particular named Lewis V. Baldwin made a compelling argument in his essay, “Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.: What They Thought About Each Other,” in which he contended that “despite their differences, organizationally and ideologically, Malcolm and Martin displayed a genuine love and respect for each other which is seldom mentioned in the literature about both men.”
When King and X rose to celebrity status in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Muslim leader made numerous attempts to meet with King, but went ignored every time, as King made it abundantly clear that he and his people wanted nothing to do with the Black Muslims. This infuriated X to a degree, and might have contributed to the attitude he had toward King early on.
However, as time progressed and both civil rights leaders matured, respect between the two grew increasingly. There’s only one time, according to Baldwin, when King and X met face-to-face, which was following civil rights filibuster in the U.S. Senate in Washington on March 26, 1964.
In the 1964 meeting, the two men were said to have kindly greeted each other, which – in the words of scholar David L. Lewis – “had significant implications for the civil rights movement because Malcolm and Martin expressed a unity of purpose on a pressing issue facing black America for the first time” because King and X pledged concerted efforts to pressure Congress into passing civil rights legislation that was pending.
“He would have acknowledged without hesitation that he had nothing against Malcolm personally – that their differences were merely philosophical and political in nature. Even in cases where the two men strongly differed, an atmosphere of mutual respect and admiration was evident,” wrote Baldwin in his 1986 article.
Baldwin, an esteemed historian and author, is a long-time professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt. He found it necessary to reemphasize King’s and X’s comradery:
“Strangely enough, beneath all of the fiery rhetoric and name-calling, Malcolm and Martin demonstrated a great deal of respect, affection, and concern for each other. Malcolm regarded Martin as a black brother and a fellow struggler in the cause of freedom for black people, and he was genuinely moved and angered by the physical and verbal abuses visited upon him in parts of the South.”
Furthermore, Baldwin cited Coretta Scott King in his research. She knew quite a bit about her husband’s and Malcolm’s relationship evidenced by her profound words on their bond.
“They had talked together on occasion and had discussed their philosophies in a friendly way. At the same time, I know that, though he never said so publicly, Malcolm X had deep respect for Martin. He recognized that Martin was unique, not alone in talent or eloquence, but in fearlessness and courage. Malcolm admired manhood and he knew how supremely Martin exemplified it,” Coretta said.
“Martin, too, admired Malcolm’s manhood, dignity, and self-respect,” wrote Baldwin, “and they both shared ‘a fierce desire that the black American reclaim his racial pride, his joy in himself and his race – in a physical, a cultural, and a spiritual rebirth.’”
According to Baldwin, Martin knew that Malcolm and the Black Muslims had given countless Black Americans a newfound confidence in their potential to be creative and productive.
In stark contrast to his public denouncement of the Black separatist group in 1960, King pointed to the Black Muslims’ high moral standards as an ideal for which all Blacks might strive.
“While I strongly disagree with their separatist black supremacy philosophy, I have nothing but admiration for what our Muslim brothers have done to rehabilitate ex-convicts, dope addicts and men and women who, through despair and self-hatred, have sunk to moral degeneracy. This must be attempted on a much larger scale, and without the negative overtones that accompany Black Muslimism,” King said.
Moreover, Baldwin cited King’s words shortly after Malcolm’s death, which was intended to dispel any myth of the two being adversaries, and elucidated the strong possibility that the Black leaders worked together rather than against each other.
“In his recent visit to Selma, he spoke at length to my wife Coretta about his personal struggles and expressed an interest in working more closely with the nonviolent movement, but he was not yet able to renounce violence and overcome the bitterness which life had invested in him. There were also indications of an interest in politics as a way of dealing with the problems of the Negro. All of these were signs of a man of passion and zeal seeking a program through which he could channel his talents…. But history would not have it so,” said King shortly after X’s death.
It is widely held that Malcolm’s death took place at a time when he and Martin King were coming closer together personally and ideologically, wrote Baldwin in addition. James Baldwin, another well-known Black scholar and writer of the Civil Rights Movement, contended, “By the time each met his death, there was practically no difference between them.”
In his detailed and well-thought-out article, [Lewis] Baldwin convincingly concluded, “As they moved closer together on these matters, their perceptions of each other began to take on a more positive tone. Malcolm no longer denounced Martin publicly as an “Uncle Tom,” and Martin began to consider the possibility of meeting with Malcolm to discuss matters of a civil rights nature, knowing that his movement in the North could not be successful without drawing on Malcolm’s insight and the support he had from blacks in the ghettoes. Each man came to realize that the other was not afraid even to face death for the cause of equal rights and social justice.”