Lesson 2: Black Separatism or the Beloved Community? Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

"You don't integrate with a sinking ship." This was Malcolm X's curt explanation of why he did not favor integration of blacks with whites in the United States. As the chief spokesman of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim organization led by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X argued that America was too racist in its institutions and people to offer hope to blacks. The solution proposed by the Nation of Islam was a separate nation for blacks to develop themselves apart from what they considered to be a corrupt white nation destined for divine destruction.

In contrast with Malcolm X's black separatism, Martin Luther King, Jr. offered what he considered "the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest" as a means of building an integrated community of blacks and whites in America. He rejected what he called "the hatred and despair of the black nationalist," believing that the fate of black Americans was "tied up with America's destiny." Despite the enslavement and segregation of blacks throughout American history, King had faith that "the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God" could reform white America through the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.

This lesson will contrast the respective aims and means of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. to evaluate the possibilities for black American progress in the 1960s.

Guiding Questions

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 why Malcolm X believed black Americans needed a nation of their own—separate from the United States—to improve themselves.

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.

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

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

Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each activist's argument, and judge which approach better secures civil rights for black Americans.