Summary | MLK | Malcolm X
Non-Mainstream Heroes | Unknown Hero
When four young men walked into a Memphis Woolworth's, sat down at the lunch counter and refused to leave until they were served, the Civil Rights movement as we know it today was born. A wave of protests quickly sprang up throughout the South, led primarily by the black southern church leadership. Because of his charisma and eloquence, Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as the voice of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
While King organized and mobilized students, sharecroppers and ordinary citizens to rally to the cause of racial harmony, other anxious organizers began to move away from King's message of non-violence. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) quickly stepped up pressure on the SCLC. While King kept the protest and marches non-violent -- at least on his end -- whites and blacks alike were beginning to lose patience with the constant barrage of protests that seemed to net no actual gains.
In the north, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam began to offer a different voice. With a message diametrically opposed to King's, Malcolm's catch phrase of equality, "By any means necessary" soon became a rallying cry for those disenchanted with King.
Malcolm's populist rhetoric that blacks and whites could never live in the same country together quickly drew a large national following. Soon the Nation boasted the largest minority religion in America.
After Malcolm was assassinated in New York City, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale picked up on Malcolm's ideas and moved the civil rights movement to California with their formation of the Black Panthers.
While neither man lived to see the fruits of his labor, the effects of their efforts still reverberate today.
Martin Luther King (1929-1968)
From a very early age, King was a rebel. Although he admired and loved his father, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist, he questioned literal translations of scripture. Instead, he saw the Church as a social force, a way to transform the lives of African-Americans.
Most of King's great success in the Civil Rights movement came in the waning years of the fifties with the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But it was the sixties sit-in protests throughout the South and the Freedom rides that truly brought King to an increasingly sympathetic national audience.
After a falling out with more militant students involved in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, King and his top aides retreated. When they reemerged on the national scene, they brought together 250,000 protesters to the steps of the federal government where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. While lasting only a few minutes, the speech has become the defining moment in time when the country -- threatening to be torn apart by social and political upheaval -- took a collective deep breath from the chaos that was sweeping the land.
Slowly, Congress began passing legislation that would in theory allow African-Americans the basic right to live and vote with their white neighbors. But after the March on Washington in 1963, King began to fall out of favor with both the white liberals and the more aggressive African-American youths who would no longer stand for slow change. On April 4, 1968, King was gunned down in Memphis while attempting to help organize a garbage workers strike.
Malcolm X (1925-1965)  (return to top)
Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm was exposed to the teaching of Marcus Garvey by his father, Earl. Six years after he was born, Earl moved his family up to Lansing, Michigan hoping to find a better life for his family. Instead, he was taken from his house one evening allegedly by Ku Klux Klan members. When he was found the next day, he was dead, nearly cut in half by the rails of a trolley car.
The years that followed were tough on Malcolm. His mother slowly deteriorated emotionally and eventually, Malcolm was sent to Roxbury to live with his aunt. He fell into a life of crime, and went to prison. In prison, he was exposed to The Nation of Islam, a sect of Islam that was started by Elijah Muhammed, the supposed prophet of Allah. When Malcolm emerged from prison, he dropped his slave name Little and took the Nation's symbolic X as his last name, signifying his loss of identity.
He quickly rose to the forefront of the African-American organization, becoming its spokesman. His quote, "By Any Means Necessary," became the mantra for not only young, southern activists, but also for the soon-to-be-formed Black Panthers in California. After helping the Nation grow, Malcolm and Elijah split and Malcolm was ousted from group.
He immediately set about rectifying his views with true Islam and to that end, he took a trip to Mecca where he transformed his public image to accommodate the wider audience -- including whites -- that he now spoke to. His tenure didn't last long. In 1965, less than two years after leaving the Nation and forming the Organization for Afro-American Unity, Malcolm was gunned down while giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. Though Malcolm was killed as he entered a new phase in his public life, the legacy of his words has long outlived those who condemned him while he lived.