On 8 March 1964, Malcolm X decided to leave the Nation of Islam. In May of that same year, Malcolm traveled to West Africa, making a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of Muslims. On 28 June, Malcolm founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, Manhattan. Especially noteworthy in his speech is his affirmation of the rights of African-Americans to be recognized and treated as human beings, saying,
“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”1
Malcolm was and still is correct: African-Americans have the fundamental human right to be treated as human beings or human persons (along with all other humans beings, regardless their race or skin-color). Malcolm eloquently and forcefully affirms that right! Elsewhere, Malcolm emphasizes the same point, stating his reason for forming the Organization of Afro-American Unity:
“So we have formed an organization known as the Organization of Afro-American Unity which has the same aim and objective – to fight whoever gets in our way, to bring about the complete independence of people of African descent here in the Western Hemisphere, and first here in the United States, and bring about the freedom of these people by any means necessary.”2
He stresses his point still again, saying,
“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.”3
On moral grounds, though, one may challenge Malcolm’s phrase “by any means necessary.” The reason is he teaches that the end, which is the recognition of the human right of African-Americans to be treated as human persons, justifies the means. But “by any means necessary?” Malcolm’s moral argument is that as long as the end or result is good, use “any means” to achieve it.
However, what if the “means” or the moral acts themselves are wrong? What about destroying private property, which is human right, to achieve that end? What about looting or stealing someone else’s possessions, another human right, to achieve that end? What about directly killing other human beings – that is still another human right, an innocent human being’s right to life — to achieve that end? What about destroying American cities to achieve that end? What about killing, say, bystanders, such as innocent women and children, to achieve that end?
Paying back evil for evil is still evil and, therefore, it is not right. Hating those who hate is still hating and, as such, it is wrong. Harming those who inflict harm is still harming; thus, it is wrong. To kill a killer is still killing. It is an “eye for an eye,” which still removes an eye, making both moral acts wrong and, therefore, both persons morally “blind.”
While African-Americans have every right to be angry at police brutality and the murdering of Black American citizens, that anger must be properly channeled in non-violent, peaceful, public protests. That is Dr. King’s point in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.4
For King, there are two radically different kinds of public protests. The first results from repressed anger, leading to the destruction of property and human lives, resulting in a chaotic or disordered society. The second, while issuing from repressed anger, is creatively channeled by a disciplined, conscious decision to act out of love, choosing to protest peacefully, calling attention to the injustices suffered by Black Americans.5
Non-violence, according to King, is not non-resistance. African-Americans must resist the brutality and the “targeting” of Black citizens by police. But how is that resistance to be applied in public? Contrary to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. teaches that non-violence in public protests “demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”6 Again, he writes, “it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends.”7
The “power” of Dr. King’s doctrine of public, non-violent, peaceful protests is that it works! It can be applied to “the real world” in which people live; and it was, ultimately resulting in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King changed American history for the better and he did it without hurting anyone. He never resorted to firing a gun. He neither destroyed anything nor killed anyone to bring about his doctrine of constructive, social change.
Malcolm X and Dr. King agree on the end or aim of public protests for the advancement of civil rights. Sometimes, however, the two leaders disagree over the means of achieving those rights. For King, the means of public protest must be right in order to achieve the right end, say, the elimination of police brutality and killings of Black Americans or African-Americans.
1. Malcolm X. 28 June 1964. Speech at the Founding Rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Black Past. [Web:] https://www.blackpast.org/…/1964-malcolm-x-s-speech…/ [Date of access: 25 April 2021].
4. Martin Luther King, Jr. 16 April 1963. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” African Studies Center – University of Pennsylvania. [Web:] https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Artic…/Letter_Birmingham.html [Date of access: 25 April 2021].
6. Ibid. Italics are mine.