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 the George Floyd protests.

Abdullah Ayasun
11 min readJul 6, 2020
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 a 47-old Minneapolis resident for eight consecutive minutes animated a newfound 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.

King and George Floyd Protests



Abdullah Ayasun

New York-based journalist and writer. Columbia School of Journalism. 2023 White House Correspondents' Association Scholar. Twitter: @abyasun