Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Chapter 25: Malcolm X

Main content start
Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race. While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problems, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.

  • March 28, 1964 After press conference at U.S. Senate, King has brief encounter with Malcolm X
  • February 5, 1965 Coretta Scott King meets with Malcolm X in Selma, Alabama
  • February 21 Malcolm X is assassinated in Harlem

I met Malcolm X once in Washington, but circumstances didn't enable me to talk with him for more than a minute. 

He is very articulate, but I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views-at least insofar as I understand where he now stands. I don't want to sound self-righteous, or absolutist, or that I think I have the only truth, the only way. Maybe he does have some of the answers. I know that I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem. And, in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.

In the event of a violent revolution, we would be sorely outnumbered. And when it was all over, the Negro would face the same unchanged conditions, the same squalor and deprivation-the only difference being that his bitterness would be even more intense, his disenchantment even more abject. Thus, in purely practical as well as moral terms, the American Negro has no rational alternative to nonviolence. 

When they threw eggs at me in New York, I think that was really a result of the Black Nationalist groups. They had heard all of these things about my being soft, my talking about love, and they transferred that bitterness toward the white man to me. They began to feel that I was saying to love this person that they had such a bitter attitude toward. In fact, Malcolm X had a meeting the day before, and he talked about me a great deal and told them that I would be there the next night and said, "You ought to go over there and let old King know what you think about him." And he had said a great deal about nonviolence, criticizing nonviolence, and saying that I approved of Negro men and women being bitten by dogs and the firehoses. So I think this kind of response grew out of all of the talk about my being a sort of polished Uncle Tom. 

My feeling has always been that they have never understood what I was saying. They did not see that there's a great deal of difference between nonresistance to evil and nonviolent resistance. Certainly I'm not saying that you sit down and patiently accept injustice. I'm talking about a very strong force, where you stand up with all your might against an evil system, and you're not a coward. You are resisting, but you come to see that tactically as well as morally it is better to be nonviolent. Even if one didn't want to deal with the moral question, it would just be impractical for the Negro to talk about making his struggle violent. 

But I think one must understand that Malcolm X was a victim of the despair that came into being as a result of a society that gives so many Negroes the nagging sense of "nobody-ness." Just as one condemns the philosophy, which I did constantly, one must be as vigorous in condemning the continued existence in our society of the conditions of racist injustice, depression, and man's inhumanity to man.

A product of the hate and violence

The ghastly nightmare of violence and counter-violence is one of the most tragic blots to occur on the pages of the Negro's history in this country. In many ways, however, it is typical of the misplacement of aggressions which has occurred throughout the frustrated circumstances of our existence. 

How often have the frustrations of second-class citizenship and humiliating status led us into blind outrage against each other and the real cause and course of our dilemma been ignored? It is sadly ironic that those who so clearly pointed to the white world as the seed of evil should now spend their energies in their own destruction. 

Malcolm X came to the fore as a public figure partially as a result of a TV documentary entitled "The Hate That Hate Produced." That title points clearly to the nature of Malcolm's life and death. He was clearly a product of the hate and violence invested in the Negro's blighted existence in this nation. He, like so many of our number, was a victim of the despair that inevitably derives from the conditions of oppression, poverty, and injustice which engulf the masses of our race. But in his youth, there was no hope, no preaching, teaching, or movements of nonviolence. He was too young for the Garvey Movement, too poor to be a Communist-for the Communists geared their work to Negro intellectuals and labor without realizing that the masses of Negroes were unrelated to either-and yet he possessed a native intelligence and drive which demanded an outlet and means of expression. He turned first to the underworld, but this did not fulfill the quest for meaning which grips young minds. It was a testimony to Malcolm's personal depth and integrity that he could not become an underworld czar, but turned again and again to religion for meaning and destiny. Malcolm was still turning and growing at the time of his brutal and meaningless assassination.

I was in jail when he was in Selma, Alabama. I couldn't block his coming, but my philosophy was so antithetical to the philosophy Malcolm X that I would never have invited Malcolm X to come Selma when we were in the midst of a nonviolent demonstration. This says nothing about the personal respect I had for him.

During his visit to Selma, he spoke at length to my wife Coretta for 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 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 for a program through which he could channel his talents.

But history would not have it so. A man who lived under the torment of knowledge of the rape of his grandmother and murder of his father under the conditions of the present social order, does not readily accept that social order or seek to integrate into it. And so Malcolm was forced to live and die as an outsider, a victim of the violence that spawned him, and which he courted through his brief but promising life.

The assassination of Malcolm X was an unfortunate tragedy. Let us learn from this tragic nightmare that violence and hate only breed violence and hate, and that Jesus' word still goes out to every potential Peter, "Put up thy sword." Certainly we will continue to disagree, but we must disagree without becoming violently disagree-. able. We will still suffer the temptation to bitterness, but we must learn that hate is too great a burden to bear for a people moving on toward their date with destiny.

The American Negro cannot afford to destroy its leadership :;k Men of talent are too scarce to be destroyed by envy, greed, and.. tribal rivalry before they reach their full maturity. Like the murder of Patrice Lamumba in the Congo, the murder of Malcolm X deprived the world of a potentially great leader. I could not agree with either of these men, but I could see in them a capacity for leadership which I could respect and which was only beginning to mature judgment and statesmanship.

I think it is even more unfortunate that this great tragedy occurred at a time when Malcolm X was reevaluating his own philosophical presuppositions and moving toward a greater understanding of the nonviolent movement and toward more tolerance of white people generally. 

I think there is a lesson that we can all learn from this: that violence is impractical and that now, more than ever before, we must pursue the course of nonviolence to achieve a reign of justice and a rule of love in our society, and that hatred and violence must be cast into the unending limbo if we are to survive. 

In a real sense, the growth of black nationalism was symptomatic of the deeper unrest, discontent, and frustration of many Negroes because of the continued existence of racial discrimination. Black nationalism was a way out of that dilemma. It was based on an unrealistic and sectional perspective that I condemned both publicly and privately. It substituted the tyranny of black supremacy for the tyranny of white supremacy. I always contended that we as a race must not seek to rise from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, but to create a moral balance in society where democracy and brotherhood would be a reality for all men.

NEXT: Chapter 26: Selma