To what extent were Malcolm X and the subsequent Black Power Movement the 'Evil Twin' of the Civil Rights Movement in the late twentieth century in the United States of America?

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Matthew Budd

To what extent were Malcolm X and the subsequent Black Power Movement the ‘Evil Twin’ of the Civil Rights Movement in the late twentieth century in the United States of America?

Malcolm X and the subsequent Black Power Movement (BPM) stemmed from the nationalist African American population and so took a different stance in their fight for Civil Rights than other leaders such as Martin Luther King (King). With this distinction, has come a historical debate into whether Malcolm X and the BPM aided or hindered the Civil Rights Movement (CRM); something that has been debated between historians such as Sitkoff and Cook. The purpose of this study is to decide whether Malcolm X and the BPM are indeed the ‘evil twin’ of the CRM or whether this title is unjust.

        Malcolm X was a black nationalist and a member of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X, through his father, garnered the beliefs of Marcus Garvey and his ‘Back to Africa’ campaign. He also believed in militancy as a method to attain black independence through the notion; ‘fight violence with violence’. He believed that rather than allowing the continual persecution of African Americans by whites, it was rational for African Americans to defend themselves with as much force as was necessary as advocated in his ‘by any means necessary’ speech. This caused much tension between the two distinct civil rights movements because it contrasted with the methods of nonviolence and integration advocated by other Civil Rights leaders such as King and the SCLC.

        The BPM can lend much of its ideologies to the early ideas of Malcolm X and his militant approach.  Black Power grew from the unrest in Northern cities that had not been tackled by other Civil Rights leaders – only Southern, de facto segregation was an aim. King, a Southerner himself, had been involved in Civil Rights issues, primarily in the South, such as removing racial discrimination in states such as Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi in instances such as the Freedom Rides  and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

“Although the CRM of 1954-65 effected change in the South, it did nothing for the problems in the North, Midwest and West.” The squalid living conditions in the Ghettos of cities such as New York that resulted from economic hardship were a key issue for the ensuing movement and their improvement made up a great part of the movement’s agenda. A notable statistic is that although African Americans constituted around 10% of the population, almost a third of all those living below the poverty line were African Americans.

        The first reason that may cause the analogy of an ‘evil twin’ to be associated with Malcolm X is his promotion of separatism at a time of primarily integrationist thinking. However, Wyatt Tee Walker said “Given a Martin Luther King Jr., there had to be a Malcolm X.” The two halves of the Civil Rights Movement had to include an integrationist half and a separatist half. This approach could be seen as a backward step considering the gains that had already been achieved such as desegregation in schools and public transport in much of the South. The leadership of King was not for everybody. Malcolm X described King as an ‘Uncle Tom’; playing into the hands of the white man by only accepting limited gains in order to gain the favour of more conservative whites, and in doing so, not appreciating the problems of the black population as a whole.  Malcolm X promoted his views of separatism by describing the whites as an evil race that had oppressed African Americans for hundreds of years and were institutionally racist. Through this oppression, they had stripped African Americans of their rights, freedom and culture and the only way to escape from this oppression would be to be separate, not integrate. Malcolm X saw nothing but white hostility in the North where racial discrimination was not seen to be so prevalent. “Racial discrimination was less flagrant outside the South, but it was real and persuasive”. What King strived for in voting rights and legal equality was not what the majority of African Americans needed. For Malcolm X “it was an opportunity for these people to shape their own destiny.” Malcolm X’s aim in improving black pride and helping restore black culture can only be seen as a positive aspect of the CRM, certainly not an ‘evil’ contribution.

        Another aspect of Malcolm X’s vision was that in order to overcome the shackles of white oppression, African Americans needed to drop the nonviolent approach of leaders such as King because it was not improving the situation for the majority of African Americans; only those in the South who were directly affected by the new legislation. Kenneth Clark believed that the advocacy of nonviolent methods of protest were “unrealistic” and could place an “intolerable psychological burden upon...victims” of the violent oppression at the hands of white Americans. A strong criticism of Malcolm X has been that he incited violence but this was not his aim. He was against the ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy of King and, rather than using random acts of violence in order to achieve his aims to improve the African American situation, he advocated using violence as a means of protection and a means of self-defence; a view which evolved into the greater militancy of future groups such as the Black Panther Party who supported the right to bear arms in the streets. Malcolm X stated; “I have never advocated violence” and “It is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.” The problem with this stance was that it made white liberals who were previously sympathetic to the cause of African American Civil Rights anxious and gave the white racists more substance with which to fuel their racism. “There can be little doubt that the backlash was fanned by fears engendered by...radical black nationalists.” Malcolm X should not however be credited with turning normally pacific African Americans into violent activists. “Contrary to popular white opinion, most blacks shared Malcolm’s view regarding self-defence and not Martin’s view on nonviolence.” History has recorded instances of African Americans who rebelled in self-defence against white brutality such as the case of Nat Turner’s slave revolt and so Malcolm X was not the first person to advocate the use of violence in order to stave off brutality. Malcolm X should not be credited as evil since he did not promote the use of violence when one was not faced with violence, only when it was needed in the form of self defence. It is natural for one to defend oneself and this was a natural step forward in the progression of the Civil Rights Movement.

        Another criticism of Malcolm X is how he, whether intentionally or not, incited racial hatred towards the white population of America. This hatred of white Americans stemmed from Malcolm X’s involvement in the Nation of Islam which supported the belief that they were ‘blue eyed Devils’ and were the creation of an evil scientist with the intention to rule the black population. This hatred of the white race was not shared by other activists such as those in the SCLC and the NAACP; it was only seen to hinder the progress of the movement and the willingness of white Americans to accept change. “The continuing growth of black nationalist sentiment undermined the interracial complexion of the struggle and contributed hugely to the demise of inter-organisational cooperation during 1967 and 1968.”

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It has been suggested by Cone that the fact that Malcolm X “used vituperative language against whites did not mean that he hated whites or that he was trying to make blacks hate them. Rather his purpose was to wake up blacks to the need to love each other.” This hatred of the white race did not only extend to the race as a whole, but also to minority groups. The Nation of Islam had strong anti-Semitic tendencies which marginalised much support and also, to an extent, the alliance of Jewish Americans and African Americans was severely damaged as a result. ...

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Spelling, grammar and punctuation all sound besides the occassional typo (re-read!). A solid essay with good knowledge however a more concise structure would be advised.

With a lengthy essay such as this, one would expect detailed analysis and this is no exception. As is advised, evaluating the long and short-term impact of various factors whilst reaching a clear judgement on each proves effective. I would suggest a more concise essay structure which could be used in an examination however, with distinct 'mini' conclusions so to speak.

This candidate has answered the question no doubt, and has explored the role of Malcolm X and how he compares to other leaders in the movement (MLK, Marcus Garvey etc). However, to improve their response further, I would advise a more concise and structured response. For example, the word length is high and would be difficult to match in exam conditions.