Specters of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Haunt US During George Floyd Protests

The philosophical clash between two titanic figures — Malcolm X and Martin Luther King — over the nature of social change for the black rights movement recurred during George Floyd protests.

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Protesters gather in Washington, D.C., to demand justice for George Floyd in this June photo. (Photo Credit: USA Today)

As George Floyd protests have already reshaped the current course of racial politics in the U.S. political landscape, what kind of political message more resonated with the protesters appears as a vexing question with a nod to the two iconic figures of the 1960s — Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Two leaders, both victims of assassinations, have perpetually dogged the debate within the black rights movement over subscribing to which path — an unyielding resistance (by any means necessary) to the systematic racism and structural inequality (espoused by Malcolm) or upholding the mantra of peaceful protest and civil disobedience (embraced by King Jr.), since the 1960s.

The specter of the two leaders haunted the U.S. society again as the country was roiled by monthlong protests across the nation in public condemnation of the police brutality against black people after the tragic death of George Floyd. The memorable scene of a police officer keeping his knee on the neck of 47-old Minneapolis resident for eight consecutive minutes animated a newfound of social protest that was as strong and widespread as the protests in the late 1960s when the U.S. was bitterly divided over the Vietnam War and racial issues. The historical analogy between then and now was the default position of many commentators as they wrestled to situate the current George Floyd protests in the continuum of American political context from a historical perspective.

But which black leader was more appealing to today’s disgruntled and reinvigorated protesters? Well, there is no easy answer as many protesters in the streets and academia quoted Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in equal measure, leaving the jury on hold for a final judgment. There were references to both figures.

Appalled by the burning and rioting in her city by some fringe elements sneaked into the ranks of the peaceful protesters, Atlanta’s female mayor cited Martin Luther King Jr. to induce calm and common sense.

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Protesters burn a police vehicle in Atlanta. (Photo Credit: Associated Press)

“What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said at a press conference in early June. “This is chaos.” Her berating of looters is driven by a sense of deep dismay after the chaotic scenes of looting.

What does King Jr.’s legacy say about today's politics? The reaction to the Floyd protests by a bulk of remaining former civil rights activists and the historians of the era is a mixed sense of wonder and excitement. There is caution sparked by the unjustifiable acts of vandalism and looting as well.

Yet, many could not resist the temptation to see parallels in terms of organization, resoluteness and dedication in a quest for comprehensive reform in how law enforcement treats its black citizens. The difference is more of a degree than substance.

In remarks to The New York Times, Andrew Young, 88, a former mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the U.N., cited social media as the major difference between the 1960s and today’s protests.

“… it took three to four months for them in Birmingham,” he vividly remembers, “to organize.” But the lack of advanced technology could sometimes be a blessing given the depth of contemplation and pondering before taking any action those days.

Even though King Jr. was not much quoted during Floyd protests, the presence of his specter was impossible to ignore. It was his march from Alabama to Washington, D.C. and his seminal ‘American Dream speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial to a gathering of 250,000 faithful on the National Mall in 1963 that signified the high-water mark of the civil rights movement then and thereafter. Ever since, King has been, in the American context, associated with the gospel of peaceful civic disobedience first launched by Gandhi in India against the British colonialism.

Regardless of the question of how much today’s protests resemble the King-led civil rights movement, it was the continuity in the idea of permanent activism that transcends beyond generations and political context. Then and now, King’s living aura continues, at every turn of a new protest, to generate hope and inspiration for new generations.

What differentiates King from Malcolm X was his unswerving commitment to the idea of peaceful coexistence with whites in a de-segregated society. He had a dream, while Malcolm’s vision of America predicated on a nightmare and deep-seated pessimism over the prospect of peaceful mutual living.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

In a memorable speech delivered in 1963, King laid out the contours of his dream about America:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississipi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice…” (Martin Luther King Jr., 1963)

Forty-six years later, a black politician became a president in the U.S. It was a pointed confirmation of King’s dream (about the black emancipation and peaceful reconciliation between whites and blacks).

Naturally, the enduring power of King’s historic speech still resonates decades after it was first delivered. In 2013, Michiko Kakutani from the New York Times reflected on the 50th anniversary of the speech to dissect its worldwide impact:

“Fifty years later, the four words “I have a dream” have become shorthand for Dr. King’s commitment to freedom, social justice and nonviolence, inspiring activists from Tiananmen Square to Soweto, Eastern Europe to the West Bank.”

“No Justice, No Peace” has become the defining slogan of the protesters across the nation after the killing of George Floyd. If anything, it is this message that came closer to the essence of Malcolm’s trademark strategy to accomplish the rights of the black people ‘by any means necessary.’ His unapologetic stance, in stark contrast to King’s peaceful achievement of the desegregation in American society, earned Malcolm his idiosyncratic identity.

Malcolm X delivers his seminal speech in 1964.

That’s our motto. We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary… (Malcolm X, 1964)

The authorities in Minneapolis initially did not take any legal or disciplinary action against the police officers who involved in the death of George Floyd. But the nationwide protests eventually swayed the reluctant authorities, leading to the arrests of all of the four officers who were responsible for Floyd’s tragic death. Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee on the neck of Floyd, faces the charges of second-degree murder and third-degree manslaughter, while the remaining three officers are accused of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

A short New York Times documentary reconstructs the last moments of George Floyd.

Beyond just securing the trial of officers, the chief objectives of the protesters were a broad overhaul of the law enforcement, putting a stop to the mistreatment of black citizens, and removal of the subtle but systematic racism at the institutional level through a set of substantial reforms.

In a record chart of the changes that have so far taken place since Floyd’s death, Business Insider documented that the monthlong protests saw some remarkable accomplishments on several fronts.

Several police departments announced comprehensive reforms; “officials in Washington, D.C., and states including California, Nevada, and Texas,” have banned chokeholds; Minneapolis vowed to disband the police department; former police killings of suspects or protesters are being re-investigated; editors have been resigned, and several statues were toppled across the South.

Malcolm X’s ghost has never dissipated since his death; even after Obama’s election to the White House, something that was regarded to be the realization of King’s dream, and the apogee of the black rights movement.

Yet, every new occasion of police brutality against black citizens, the current gaping income inequality between the white and black population, the disproportionately high rate of black incarceration in a seemingly flawed criminal justice system serve as a poignant reminder against the self-perpetuating progressive view of America as a post-racial society. George Floyd’s case offers a painful reckoning over the shortcomings of the American dream 57 years after King’s speech and only several years after the end of the Obama presidency.

It is at this moment, Malcolm X’s prescient warning enters the story. It is not King but Malcolm whose views ring more pertinent today. While King cultivated a dream, Malcolm harbored a nightmare. Though the America of today is far from a nightmare (or a carnage as depicted by President Trump), it certainly falls short of an ideal dream.

But what kind of a man Malcolm X was? The answer is no easy as the man under consideration defies any simple classification. But he is no King, for sure.

Historians and media, not without reason, tend to place King and X on the opposing ends of the spectrum regarding the civil rights movement. Unlike King who had a Ph.D. from Boston University, X had no more than a rudimentary education until 8th grade. But he was a prolific orator, a tenacious polemicist and an inspiring leader whose influence empowered a resilient generation of black youth in the poor ghettos of the (de facto) segregated North.

King’s nonviolent methodology was written off by Malcolm as an appeasement to whites. He initially saw offering an olive branch to whites for national reconciliation as a sellout of blacks as long as the oppression and police brutality remained in place. “The Ballot or Bullet” was Malcolm’s another famous phrase when he denounced the electoral politics as re-affirmation of white supremacy through the flawed mechanism of democracy.

“We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognized as citizens until we are first recognized as humans,” Malcolm X once said in 1964.

The profusion of Malcolm X’s often contradictory public remarks equally befuddled many of his followers; creating a fuss about his legacy claimed by radical militants (Black Panther in the 1960s), contemporary activists (Black Lives Matter movement in the 2010s) and lettered academic people alike. His charisma, his unyielding stubbornness, and his invocation of (any means necessary) to break free of the white man’s yoke and his memorable lines of much-quoted remarks present portraits of many personalities merged in one man.

Malcolm X’s reputation as a marginal radical has evolved into a more benign, visionary figure with an appeal to today’s youth after rehabilitation by Alex Haley’s iconic (auto)biography (published soon after Malcolm was assassinated in 1965) and other studies followed in the intervening decades. Malcolm later abandoned his unyielding anti-White stance after his pilgrimage to Mecca. He broadened his program following his split with Elijah Mohammad’s Nation Islam and adopted a pan-Africanist stance with the flavor of Third World socialism in the mold of Frantz Fanon.

In this reconfiguration of his worldview, Malcolm went beyond defining the struggle for black emancipation as a mere racial conflict.

“We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of the rebellion against the oppression and colonialism which has characterized this era,” he said. “It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of black against white, or as purely an American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the pressed against the oppressors, the exploited against the exploiters.” (Jacobin, 2016)

It was Malcolm X’s active engagement with politics and his growing reputation that eventually sealed his breakaway from Elijah Mohammad in 1964. A year later, he was shot by gunmen suspected to be related to Nation Islam. The murder remains a cold case and has never been thoroughly resolved even decades after the shooting.

One indispensable contribution of Malcolm X to the black community was the unapologetic embrace of his black identity.

“In death, Malcolm became exalted as the avatar of a Black Power movement that argued, paradoxically to its critics, that the key to forging an anti-racist world rested on a radical embrace of racial identity. Malcolm, lacking credit for the type of signature policy victories associated with King, became revered for teaching “Negroes” to love their black selves.” (Professor Peniel E. Joseph, Washington Post)

George Floyd protests evolved along the lines of this old debate oscillating between the allure of these two iconic figures — King and X. It must be kept in mind that Malcolm X went through political maturity, refusing to target King, no matter what his personal differences and however divergent their views on the paths to be taken in their longstanding quest for black rights. And toward the end of his life, Malcolm developed a rapprochement with King; he even came closer to King’s position, viewing his nonviolent method as the only path to achieve greater social rights for blacks in the U.S. and around the world.

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Martin Luther King Jr. (L) and Malcolm X are seen together — in their only meeting — in Capitol Hill in 1964. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

When King was imprisoned in Alabama, Malcolm visited his wife to offer his endorsement and support for the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). When Malcolm died, King said the following:

“I think it is even more unfortunate that [Malcolm X’s murder] occurred at a time when [he] was reevaluating his own philosophical presuppositions and moving toward a greater understanding of the nonviolent movement and toward more tolerance of white people in general.”

Many saw Obama’s election as the repudiation of Malcolm’s vision of America and the confirmation of King Jr.’s dream. But this reductionist reading is too simplified and rests on a false dichotomy. The truth is more complicated.

“Barack Obama is the president. But it’s Malcolm X’s America,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in Atlantic in 2011.

President Obama himself spoke of Malcolm X in glowing terms. In 1995, he described Malcolm’s influence over him in a profoundly positive way:

“His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life.”

Today’s America contains clashing elements that attest to the vision, appeal, prescience and confirmation of both Malcolm and King sometimes in equal measure as the ever-shifting political context recurringly elevates one over the other, based on the spirits and demands of the times.

In a cogent analysis about this decades-old debate (whether King or X), Jelanie Cobb of the New Yorker eloquently put it:

The Obama Presidency has thus far validated both our hopes and our fears and given duelling legitimacy to optimism and cynicism simultaneously. It has pitted the audacity of hope against the recalcitrance of memory. If his election validated the ideals of King, what has happened since then lends credence to Malcolm X. (Barack X, New Yorker, 2012)

What happened since 2012 has been a pointed vindication of Malcolm X, his warnings and historical prophecy as the recent Goerge Floyd protests have revealed the enduring power of his legacy beyond the bounds of his time and place in the American society.

Written by

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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