Dr. King vs. Malcolm X

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The African American movement of the sixties was by far the most progressive step for racial equality in the history of the United States. But in this movement two extremes emerged that, while fighting for the same end, took very different approaches and audiences. On one end of the spectrum there was Dr. Martin Luther King with his passive and nonviolent approach to achieving equality. He spoke to white officials and middle class citizens, a relatively educated bunch who would rather live with injustice than start a war over it. On the other end of the spectrum there was Malcolm X, a leader of the Black Panthers, a black nationalists group, who promoted violent and immediate action to bring change. His speeches were directed towards the uneducated and afflicted. His language was simpler but far more volatile. Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Malcolm X’s “Ballots or Bullets” speech are prime examples of their differing rhetorical approaches to the racial injustice around them. Both pieces are calling for racial equality but their means of reaching it are quite different.

In King’s letter he is writing in response to the criticism of his fellow clergymen His immediate audience is the clergymen but his comments are also directed towards the American people and their actions, or lack there of, in the movement. He opens his letter by citing several of the respected organizations he runs or is involved with. From there, his letter continues with a logical but emotionally appealing argument showing the audience how unjust the laws are and the reasoning for his current actions. He even refers to several historic and biblical cases to support his stance. This calm, collected and intelligent argument presents him as force to be reckoned with. King is able to show he is rational human being who wants to discuss and find results to a problem that is prevalent throughout the nation. He can persuade the angry black man to calm down, the passive followers to take a stand and the high and mighty white men to step down and listen for a few minutes. He does not rant, rave or make threats to get his point across. He calmly gives a set of legal and moral reasons that change must come about and his reasoning behind their current action.

Malcolm X, in the other hand, is not trying to discuss his issue with his fellow community leaders. His main goal is to rally the masses behind his cause. He explains, “You can get a whole lot of small people and whip hell out of a whole lot of big people. They haven’t got anything to lose, and they have everything to gain.” His theory is there is strength in numbers and when a group is large enough and upset enough about a common cause, changes happen. Malcolm X is not worried about proving his credibility or impressing his audience with his vast knowledge. He wants to speak to the “average Joe” not the slow working and backwards thinking government. His diction is simple and volatile. Grammatical and logical errors are found throughout, but they are not what he is worried about. He is speaking in a language that his audience had been raised with and understands best. Malcolm X’s tone is often extreme and never comes near the calm and rational tone of King but for his specific audience it may be the optimum approach.

In King’s speech he is working towards equality between the races. He sees that separate is inherently not equal and therefore must end. He discusses why these changes must happen and why simply ignoring the issue is the worst possible state of mind. He explains that he has “tried to stand between [the] two force, saying that we need to emulate either the “do-nothings” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair or the black nationalist.” King wants to discuss the issues and work through it together, as a nation. He is willing to concede on several points while never bending on the truly important issues. His goal is not to condemn the entire white population but accept the faults and weaknesses of all races and work towards overcoming them.

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Malcolm X, on the other hand, has no hope for the white population. He does not encourage integration, rather demands retribution for the damages done. He believes it too late for these separate races to live in harmony. The damage has been done and there is no repairing or moving past it. Occasionally, he downplays his excessively bold statements with comments such as “it doesn’t mean we are anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression.” Indicating that he has nothing against white skin only white practices, but then later he contradicts himself on many occasions, making his true feelings evident. There are many instances where he says outright he is not for or against a specific issue or item but forever after hints at his actual stance. King wants to work with his oppressors while Malcolm X is disgusted with them and wants nothing but to be left alone.

Another major difference between King and Malcolm X is their use of logic versus passion. No one can deny they both feel strongly about their subjects. They are will to give their lives in the fight for this cause and that should be respected. There is a heavy dose of passion in both pieces and it adds to the power of the piece but an excess of this passion can do more harm than good. King is able to keep a level head throughout his letter. He is suffering the same amount of persecution as any equal rights leader. He has unjustly done jail time for his beliefs and suffered in countless other ways but he still keeps his temper and ability to reason. People listen to this intelligent and calm argument for equal rights for all. He passionately stands for what he believes in without losing control.

Malcolm X, on the other hand, has lost this ability. For the majority of the piece he sounds like he is in a rage. Generalizations run rampant and his logic is often either blatantly false or poorly presented. Had he audience been more eructated and not so abused by the system they would see the fallacies in his argument. This excessively passionate speech deters from the message he might have been able to pass along. The only audience he could pull in with this irate exclamation is the angry and uneducated. Though this may have been a partial goal of his, leading a army comprised of these type of people will not get far. It caused government agencies to more nervous than they already were. It bordered on inciting a riot, with plenty of support to back up the charges. Statements like “You’ve made me go insane, and I’m not responsible for what I do” or “If it’s necessary to form a black nationalist army, we’ll form a black nationalists army. It’ll be the ballot or the bullet. It’ll be liberty or death” are bound to cause more problems than solutions. If he had toned thing down he may have lost one or two of his bandwagon listeners but could have achieved much more in the end.

Both speeches had their positive traits and in the right time and place could serve a useful purpose. King used logic, reasoning and facts to support his stance but in the process may have lost the common man under this avalanche of information. References to over a dozen historical or biblical references can make anyone’s head spin. He tried to keep it simple but education was limited, especially to the African-American population. Through no fault of their of own, schooling was very limited as well as the professions they could use that education. While King did a very notable job considering the vast differences of understanding in his audience he still lost some in the confusion. Also, his somewhat passive tone would not result in immediate action. A lot of time will be wasted discussing, filibustering and deliberating in various community and government groups. For many people this was no longer a tolerable issue. Malcolm X, on the other hand, was in no way passive. He went to the opposite extreme. He demanded immediate action for equal rights. He was willing to go to whatever was necessary to get results. This willingness pulled many who were tired of waiting into his flock. He attracted an army of the angry and oppressed. He would not be able to draw the educated calm in as followers. His lack of logic and angry tone would push the more mild audiences away, leaving him a very difficult audience to lead.

Too much of the white world Malcolm X was an unstoppable threat. He promoted violence as a solution for a problem they simply wanted to ignore. His hate and lack of hope for the white population as a whole was foreboding to those who did not support him. While King did not make the white population comfortable, he did not scare them like Malcolm X did. He still had hope that all nationalities could live together in peace despite their rocky history. But as mentioned before King wanted to speak to both the white and black population. Malcolm X had given up all hope for the white race and only saw the colored world worth speaking to. It is these differences in beliefs that created the great separation between their styles even though they were both fighting for racial equality.



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