The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X may have had different takes on the philosophy of nonviolence, but they shared a number of similarities. As they aged, both men adopted a global consciousness that linked them together ideologically. Their personal lives also mirrored each other. Not only did their fathers have much in common but their wives did as well. Perhaps this is why Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz eventually became friends.
By focusing on the common ground between Martin and Malcolm, it's easier to understand why both men's contributions to society were so important.
Born to Baptist Ministers
Malcolm X may be well known for his involvement in the Nation of Islam (and later traditional Islam), but his father, Earl Little, was a Baptist minister. Little was active in the United Negro Improvement Association and a supporter of black nationalist Marcus Garvey. Due to his activism, white supremacists tormented Little and were strongly suspected in his killing when Malcolm was six.
King's father, Martin Luther King Sr., was a Baptist minister and activist as well. In addition to serving as head of the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King Sr. led the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP and the Civic and Political League. Unlike Earl Little, however, King Sr. lived until the age of 84.
Married Educated Women
During a time when it was uncommon for African-Americans or the public generally to attend college, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. married educated women. Taken in by a middle-class couple after her biological mother reportedly abused her, Malcolm's future wife, Betty Shabazz, had a bright life ahead of her. She attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and the Brooklyn State College School of Nursing in New York City after that.
Coretta Scott King was similarly academically inclined. After graduating at the top of her high school class, she pursued higher education at Antioch College in Ohio and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Both women mainly served as homemakers while their husbands were alive but branched out into civil rights work after becoming “movement widows.”
Adopted a Global Consciousness Before Death
Although Martin Luther King Jr. was known as a civil rights leader and Malcolm X as a black radical, both men became advocates for oppressed people across the globe. King, for example, discussed how the Vietnamese people had experienced colonization and oppression when he expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War.
“The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China,” King remarked in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in 1967. “They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.”
Three years earlier in his speech “Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X discussed the importance of expanding civil rights activism to human rights activism.
“Whenever you are in a civil rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam,” he said. “No one from the outside world can speak out on your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil rights struggle. Civil rights come within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States.”
Killed at the Same Age
While Malcolm X was older than Martin Luther King-he was born May 19, 1925, and King was born Jan. 15, 1929-both were assassinated at the same age. Malcolm X was 39 when members of the Nation of Islam gunned him down on Feb. 21, 1965, as he gave a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. King was 39 when James Earl Ray gunned him down on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King was in town to support striking African-American sanitation workers.
Families Unhappy With Murder Cases
The families of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were dissatisfied with how authorities handled the murders of the activists. Coretta Scott King did not believe that James Earl Ray was responsible for King's death and wanted him exonerated.
Betty Shabazz long held Louis Farrakhan and other leaders in the Nation of Islam responsible for Malcolm X's death, though Farrakhan has denied involvement in Malcolm's murder. Two of the three men convicted of the crime, Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Kahlil Islam, also denied playing roles in Malcolm's assassination. The one man convicted of the murder who did confess, Thomas Hagan, agrees that Aziz and Islam are innocent. He said he acted with two other men to execute Malcolm X.