During the civil rights movement, there was much protest, power movements and political turmoil; however, no two people became bigger spokespersons for their peaceful and violent proclamations other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively. Many commentators have attempted to portray the historical backdrop for these two men, and analyzed and discussed herein are their language tactics, their political agendas, their biases and emotions.
Firstly, Dr. King in his letter from the Birmingham Jail was a demand for peaceful protest reflecting on the violent reactions of the African Americans to the racial prejudice of the whites. Much of the language tactics used were a mix of sincere pleas and outright stipulations, with frequent reference to Biblical examples and his personal situation.
Although his accusers were some of his own African American counterparts, he often reflected that it was the fault of every African American that segregation still prevailed. Dr. King expresses this when he says that “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair (King, p.3).”
Though Dr. King was very balanced in what approach African Americans should take towards the white population, Malcolm X was far more direct. Not only did he mention that white men had to be fought, he also mentioned that African Americans were to defend themselves against white men in any way possible. “The only thing I’ve ever said is that in areas where the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of the Negroes, it’s time for Negroes to defend themselves (X, 4).”
Both speeches as presented above show that much of the politics and agendas taken by the two men were opposite in nature. Dr. King espoused the values of the African American people to peacefully make change occur, while Malcolm X urged African Americans to defend themselves and take a stand against the white people, even by means of violence. Such agendas, if given the title, were of non-violence and violence, respectively. However, both men criticized the lack of support from the government to dissipate segregation and encourage civil rights for all men, especially African Americans.
If Dr. King had a bias towards anyone, it may have been his fellow African Americans. The discontent with the lack of action and also the criticism he had received showed through in his letter. From the outset, he said “your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try and answer your statements (King, p.1).” This shows that much of the letter addressed the problems they were facing and how to respond to them, rather than focusing on the faults of the white population.
Malcolm X, on the other hand, clearly had a bias towards the white people, and stated that he knew the time had come for confrontation. He used the speech to stir up the African Americans for violent causes. Speaking at the beginning of his speech, he said “I myself am a minister, not a Christian minister, but a Muslim minister; and I believe in action on all fronts by whatever means necessary (X, p.1).” This reflects the fact that as his religion provided and allowed for action against those who opposed them, he could use it as a platform to act against white people, as well as encouraging other African Americans to do the same.
Finally, emotion was the driver for protest by the African American people towards segregation. Dr. King used persuasive emotion to encourage African Americans to non-violent action: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly (King, p.1)”.
Similarly, Malcolm X also encouraged African Americans to action, but of the violent kind. It was this action that led the black power movement forward. He said “If it’s necessary to form a black nationalist army, we’ll form a black nationalist army. It’ll be the ballot or the bullet. It’ll be liberty or it’ll be death (X, p. 3)”. This was the type of emotion that fuelled the African Americans to hate the white people, and so bring about a violent movement to take them down, with serious repercussions.
In summary, both Dr. King and Malcolm X used the power of words to convince the African American people to act against segregation and for civil rights. However, their methods were quite different, and different bias and emotion formed the foundation for their agendas, if any. The non-violent and violent persuasive arguments used by each man, respectively, had an impact on the African American people, the nation, and ultimately, the world.
King, Martin Luther Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail. April 16, 1963.
X, Malcolm. Ballot or Bullet. April 3, 1964.