Competing Voices of the Civil Rights Movement

When most people think of the Civil Rights Movement in America, they think of Martin Luther King, Jr. Delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize the following year secured his fame as the voice of non-violent, mass protest in the 1960s. But "the Movement" achieved its greatest results—the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Ac—due to the competing strategies and agendas of diverse individuals. Even black Americans, the primary beneficiaries of this landmark legislation, did not agree on the tactics that should be used to secure the equal protection of their rights. This unit presents the views of several important black leaders who shaped the debate over how to achieve freedom and equality in a nation that had long denied a portion of the American citizenry the full protection of their rights.

Martin Luther King, Jr. first came to national prominence through his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56, which helped desegregate public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. A gifted preacher and committed pacifist, King thought that non-violent, direct action against racial segregation provided the best means of securing the full integration of blacks into the mainstream of American life. As he wrote in his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," "I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek."

The connection between means and ends was not lost on a competing voice in the debate over civil rights—Joseph H. Jackson. The president of the National Baptist Convention from 1953 to 1982, Jackson argued that black Americans could not afford to use methods that would "substitute panic and anarchy in the place of law and order." In particular, Jackson thought that civil disobedience undermined the very goal of the Civil Rights Movement—the full protection of the law for all citizens. More constructive, less provocative, means should be pursued by black Americans to promote progress in a nation with a majority-white population.

It was precisely the white population of America that Malcolm X took issue with in the years he served as chief spokesman for the Nation of Islam (sometimes referred to as the Black Muslims). Believing that blacks were God's chosen people, Malcolm X preached that they should separate from whites, who were destined for divine punishment because of their longstanding oppression of blacks. As he once remarked, "You don't integrate with a sinking ship." Whites had proven they were long on professing and short on practicing their ideals of equality and freedom, and so Malcolm X thought only a separate nation for blacks could provide the basis for their self-improvement and advancement as a people.

Upon completing this unit, students should have a better understanding of the diversity of voices that shaped the debate over civil rights in 1960s America.

Guiding Questions

Was King's nonviolent resistance to segregation laws, as opposed to working within the bounds of the law and courts, the best means of securing civil rights for black Americans in the 1960s?

 

Is the separate black nation proposed by Malcolm X a better or nobler goal than "the beloved community" of Martin Luther King, Jr.? What would Americans need to believe, and how would they need to act, in order to achieve Malcolm X's goal as opposed to King's goal?

Learning Objectives

Explain Martin Luther King, Jr.'s concept of nonviolent resistance and the role of civil disobedience within it.

Articulate the primary concerns of the Alabama clergymen who rejected King's intervention in Birmingham's racial conflicts in 1963.

Describe how King defended his nonviolent campaign to the Alabama clergymen.

Explain why the president of the National Baptist Convention, Joseph H. Jackson, thought King's protest methods were unproductive and un-American, and articulate the alternatives he recommended to secure civil rights for black Americans.

Evaluate the merits of the argument between King on one side of the debate, and the Alabama clergymen and Jackson on the other, and decide which view could better secure civil rights for black Americans.

Explain why Malcolm X believed black Americans needed a nation of their own-separate from the United States-to improve themselves, and why he thought integration was a false hope for blacks in America.

Articulate the reasons why Malcolm X thought integration was a false hope for blacks in America.

Explain why Malcolm X disagreed with both the goal and the method of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nonviolent protest strategy.

Give reasons for the hope Martin Luther King, Jr. had that America could be peacefully integrated.

 

Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments of both King and Malcolm X, and judge which approach better secures civil rights for black Americans.