Civil rights leaders did not necessarily agree with one another's methods and goals. Malcolm X was highly critical of Martin Luther King Jr.'s doctrine of passive resistance. Malcolm X believed that African Americans should defend themselves and their communities against white violence. He criticized other leaders for their focus on integration, contending that whites would never accept African Americans as equals. "It is not integration that Negroes in America want," he once said, "it is human dignity." Only by separating themselves from a scornful white society would African Americans find freedom.
By the early 1960s, Malcolm X had emerged as a significant voice among civil rights activists. Like Martin Luther King Jr., he attracted, organized, and motivated a large following. And like King, he also was a minister. Malcolm X was a member of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim group. In his role as minister, he spoke candidly about the harsh feelings that existed between African Americans and whites. He believed that African Americans should demand freedom and rights "by any means possible." Because of his militant views and his fiery rhetoric, some people thought he promoted violence. Many African Americans cheered Malcolm X for his differences from King, while many whites disliked his influence.
In a speech entitled "The Ballot or the Bullet," given in April of 1964, Malcolm X explained what it meant to be a Black Muslim: "It doesn't mean that we're anti-white, but it does mean we're anti-exploitation, we're anti-degradation, we're anti-oppression. And if the white man doesn't want us to be anti-him, let him stop oppressing and exploiting and degrading us." He warned white Americans to accept the demands of civil rights activists, or African Americans would use other means to secure their liberties. "If we don't do something real soon, I think you'll have to agree that we're going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet. It's one or the other in 1964. It isn't that time is running out - time has run out!"
The year 1964 marked a turning point in the life of Malcolm X. Several experiences changed him. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and visited several other nations in the Middle East and North Africa. When he returned to the United States, he explained that the Muslim world embraced people of all colors, and that "brotherhood existed at all levels and among all people." He continued: "[Considering] what the religion of Islam had done for those people over there despite their complexion differences . . . it would probably do America well to study the religion of Islam and perhaps it could drive some of the racism from this society as it has driven racism from the Muslim society."
The trip convinced him that American ideas about race were too narrow and that whites had a role in the struggle for racial equality. Disappointed in the Nation of Islam, he split from the organization and its leader, Elijah Muhammad. In the summer of 1964, Malcolm X founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular civil rights group. The OAAU supported African American colleges, registered black voters, and aimed to increase black participation in the political process. Malcolm X also used the OAAU to enlist support of a petition submitted to the United Nations documenting human rights abuses by the United States against African Americans.
Although his views transformed over time, Malcolm X remained unpopular with many people. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam because he had turned against them.
How did Malcolm X's pilgrimage to Mecca affect his understanding of race?
What comparison does Malcolm X make between his experiences in the U.S. and his pilgrimage to the Middle East?
Discuss what Malcolm X meant by the following statement: "As far as I am concerned, as long as that same respect and recognition is not shown toward every one of our people in this country, it doesn't exist for me."