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How far was malcolm x the most significant black campaigner for civil rights in america?

“Malcolm was intelligent, logical and eloquent. He experienced racism and was aware of it. Prejudice, racism and discrimination hurt him. His reactions to his experience changed his outlook and his behaviour. These things changed his life. And his life changed us.” Historian Horace Coleman argued, in 1994, that Malcolm X was one of the most significant Black campaigners for Civil Rights in America between 1863 and 1968. Indeed, Malcolm X could b0e argued as the most significant Black Civil Rights campaigner in America between 1863 and 1968 to a high extent, through his widespread popularity, liberal rhetoric and magnetic charisma, which was demonstrated in his ability to increase the Nation Of Islam’s (NOI) -an African-American religious and political movement- membership from 1″,200 to 50″,000 during his time as leader, from the 1950s to the early 1960s. However, it could be argued that Malcolm X was not the most significant Black campaigner for Civil Rights in America between 1863 and 1968, through the influence of other campaigners for Black Civil Rights, such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King. In addition, Malcolm’s sometimes violent rhetoric could be argued as being more detrimental to Malcolm’s campaign, suggesting he was not the most significant Black Civil Rights campaigner between 1863 and 1968.

On the one hand, it could be said that Malcolm X was the most significant Black campaigner for Civil Rights in America between 1863 and 1968. For example, the scope of Malcolm’s influence throughout the USA could be argued as a reason why Malcolm X was the most significant campaigner during this period. Malcolm was a popular spokesman, who frequently appeared in the media. As John White put it; “A frequent guest on TV and radio shows, Malcolm, by 1964, was the second most requested speaker on college campuses- the first being Barry Goldwater.” This source suggests that Malcolm was popular, especially amongst the younger generation on the ‘college campuses’. In 1964, around 4″,000″,000 young Americans went to college – the majority of which were white. As a result, Malcolm can be said to be the most significant black campaigner for Civil Rights, as he was a great influence on many American college students during the early 1960s. The author of this source, John White, is a lecturer of American History at the University of Hull, meaning that the source’s value is high as it has been produced by an academic who specialises in the field of which the source is concerned. Historian John White has written extensively on the topic of the Civil Rights struggle, particularly in America. He has also dedicated a whole work to the study of Martin Luther King’s impact on the quest for civil rights, suggesting that he is well-informed on the topic – this means that this source is likely to be highly valid. In addition, his research into other such campaigners suggests that his conclusions will be objective, as he has considered a range of influences and factors which would impact on Malcolm’s status of being ‘the second most requested guest speaker’ on the radio of universities. White, writing in 1990, may have been influenced by the 1980 Miami Riots, which were instigated after a Black man was killed by four white police officers. However, Malcolm’s popularity was not limited solely to American scholars, as White’s argument leads one to conclude. The Hinton Johnson incident of 1957, for example, clearly demonstrates the influence Malcolm had over members of New York’s Black community before he had entered the public eye. In April 1957, Johnson, a member of the NOI, saw policemen beating a Black man in Harlem. When he tried to intervene, he was himself beaten and arrested. Hearing of the events, Malcolm went to the police station, and a small crowd appeared. By the time Malcolm had arranged an ambulance for Johnson, a crowd of 4″,000 had gathered. After making bail arrangements for his fellow NOI member, Malcolm stepped outside and made a small hand gesture; after which the crowd silently dispersed. A policeman later said of Malcolm: “No man should have that much power.” Therefore, as a result of his immense popularity and influence, it could be said that Malcolm X was the most significant Black campaigner for Civil Rights in America.

Another way in which it could be argued that Malcolm X was the most significant Black Civil Rights campaigner is through his impact on others. For instance, despite their massive ideological differences, Martin Luther King said of Malcolm X; “He is very articulate … Maybe he does have some of the answer”. King and Malcolm were notorious ideological opponents; King described Malcolm’s anti-White rhetoric a form of Black Racism, and Malcolm labelled King “A chump”. However, despite their different approaches to fighting for Black Civil Rights, the two great activists viewed each other with respect for their methods – in a letter to Malcolm’s widow, after his assassination, King wrote: “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.” As a result of Martin Luther King’s great respect for Malcolm and his methods, it could be argued that Malcolm X was the most significant Black campaigner for Civil Rights in America. However, Malcolm’s influence didn’t just extend to other activists ; Malcolm befriended and inspired the young Cassius Clay to join the NOI – Clay would later become Muhammed Ali, one of the greatest boxers of the 20th Century. Under Malcolm’s influence, he changed his ‘slave name’ of Clay to Ali, just as Malcolm himself had rejected his surname of ‘Little’ in favour of an X, to show his real name had been lost. Ali also went on, in 1966, to reject the draft for the Viet Nam War citing his Muslim faith, subsequently leading to his arrest and conviction for evading the draft. His fame as a sporting champion and his emphasis on pacifism made Ali an icon for the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, bringing the struggle for Civil Rights further into the public consciousness. As a result, it could be argued that Malcolm X was the most significant black civil rights campaigner between 1863 and 1968, as even after his death, those he had mentored and inspired were continuing his legacy and pursuing his aims.

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Another way in which it could be argued that Malcolm X was the most significant Black campaigner for Civil Rights in America is through newspaper reports of Malcolm, especially following his assassination by three members of the NOI in 1965. For instance, the headline ‘MALCOLM X MURDERED’ made it onto the front page of the New York Daily News on February 22nd 1965, as seen in Source One. The source also features a large image of the injured Malcolm being carried away from the scene. This suggests that Malcolm X was incredibly significant and of great interest to the American public, if news of his assassination made it to the front page of the USA’s media. In addition, the article noted that; “Two men were taken by force from a howling mob of Malcolm’s followers who were pummelling them on the street after the assassination.” , suggesting that the assassination of Malcolm X deeply hurt and angered many who were present at the shooting. However, it must be borne in mind that this source, despite being produced in the days following Malcolm’s assassination, is a newspaper article, and as a result it is possible that the report may have been sensationalised in order to sell more copies – the primary purpose of newspaper companies. As a result, the reliability and objectivity of this source could be questioned in that the newspaper may have exaggerated the influence of Malcolm X in order to sell more papers. As can be seen from this news article, and other media coverage of the Civil Rights campaigner’s death, the popularity that Malcolm had amassed both prior to and immediately following his death suggests that Malcolm X was the most significant black civil rights campaigner in America between 1863 and 1968.

Another way in which Malcolm X could be seen to be the most significant Black Civil Rights campaigner between 1863 and 1968 could be through the awareness of his campaign he generated through extensive media campaigns focussed on his cause. For instance, an example of this can be seen from Source Two. In this image, Malcolm X is delivering his ‘Ballot or the Bullet’ speech in 1964. It can be seen within this photograph that there is the presence of a large crowd listening to the speech, and TV cameras filming the proceedings. As this is a photograph taken as the events of the speech were unfolding, it could be said that this source provides a fairly accurate report of the event, and as its format is a photograph it is likely that the source is not subjective. The speech was made following the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, proposed by Kennedy and continued by Johnson, which made discrimination based on gender or race illegal. The bill had been rejected by Southern Democrats which could explain why Malcolm had such a great crowd, as shown in the source, as it urged African-Americans to prevent the US government from restricting Black civil rights . This also gives insight into public feeling at this time, and the growing dissent with the US government’s domestic policies following the attempted passing of the 1964 Bill. As a result, from this source, it can be inferred that Malcolm and his rhetoric were of great significance to the American public, particularly in the wake of the Southern Democrats’ rejection of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964. In addition, the presence of the Television cameras in the source also suggest that Malcolm’s message also held relevance to overseas audiences. As a result of Malcolm’s message being broadcast across the USA, and overseas, it could be said that between 1863 and 1968, Malcolm X was the most significant Black civil rights campaigner, as few Civil Rights campaigners achieved this. In addition, it could also be argued that Malcolm X was the most significant Black Civil Rights campaigner between 1863 and 1968 due to other extensive media coverage of his campaigns. Furthermore, in July 1959, a TV Serial titled ‘THE HATE THAT HATE PRODUCED’ (Source Three) documenting the campaigns of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam aired on Channel 13. It was incredibly popular, and led to heightened public interest and awareness of the civil rights struggle. An excerpt from the script transcript can be found in the Appendix (Source Two). However, this source’s reliability is questionable as it paints Malcolm in a bad light – describing him as a “dope peddler” and having served time in prison from the outset, immediately negatively portraying Malcolm X to its majority-white viewers. This source has a high likelihood of being subjective due to its negative descriptions of Malcolm, and has been described as “blatantly one-sided” by Peniel E. Joseph (Waiting ‘Till The Midnight Hour, 2006). Therefore, this source is not useful for an objective account of Malcolm X’s influence as a Civil Rights activist. Despite a negative portrayal of Malcolm and the Nation of Islam, the TV serial did generate interest in Malcolm’s message, and a greater awareness of the Black Civil Rights struggle. In addition, Malcolm’s autobiography was published just after his assassination in 1965, and had sold six million copies by 1977 . Therefore, even after his death, Malcolm’s message was being heard and read by millions. As a result, it could be argued through these sources that Malcolm X was the most significant Black civil rights campaigner in America between 1863 and 1968 due the great

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On the other hand, it could be said that Malcolm X was not the most significant Black civil rights campaigner between 1863 and 1968 through his militant rhetoric. It could be argued that instead of promoting black civil rights, Malcolm actually damaged the fight for equal rights. For example, Historian Riches argued that “when he was a disciple of Elijah Muhammed… his demand of segregation not only frightened and angered white conservatives, [it] had the same effect on white liberals.” Riches goes on to state that as a result of Malcolm’s “strong anti-Jewish attacks…the alliance of Jewish Americans and African Americans” was severely damaged. Historian Riches has written many academic books which are aimed specifically at undergraduates, which means that the source is written purely for educational purposes, rather than to put across his own opinion on Malcolm X. As a result of its purpose being to educate and inform, rather than to persuade, the source is more likely to be objective in its presentation of Malcolm X, meaning that the source is a valid one. He has written many books on the subject of the Civil Rights movement, suggesting that he has covered an extensive breadth of the field of the Civil Rights movement, meaning that his argument is likely to be well evidenced and thus supported. Writing in 1997, Riches would have been aware of US President Bill Clinton’s initiative to establish ‘racial harmony’ in the USA, and as a result Malcolm’s ideals of the segregation of White and Black people may not have been as popular at this period of time. Consequently, it could be argued that Malcolm was not the most significant civil rights campaigner within the context of 1863-1968, because his rhetoric could be seen to be exclusivist and militant, as argued by Riches. In addition, Martin Luther King said of his fellow civil rights advocate; “I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice… Urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.” Malcolm’s arguably extremist views, therefore, could suggest that he was not the most significant Civil Rights campaigner within the context of the years 1863-1968, but rather a campaigner with more peaceful means, such as Martin Luther King, or Booker T. Washington.

Another way in which it could be argued that Malcolm X was not the most significant Black campaigner for Civil Rights in America between 1863 and 1968 could be through the influence of Martin Luther King’s campaign, which could be seen as having a greater impact on the quest for Black Civil Rights in America. For instance, whilst he was a talented public orator, it could be said that Malcolm X’s rhetoric, whilst often militant, never included any feasible way to achieve Civil Rights in the USA. This attracted criticism from Martin Luther King, amongst others, who accused Malcolm X of “articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative”. Whilst Malcolm did deliver inspirational speeches such as his famed ‘Ballot or the Bullet’ speech in April 1964 , he did not organise mass demonstrations, rallies or marches like Martin Luther King. For instance, King helped organise the 1963 March on Washington, in which between 200″,000 and 300″,000 people participated , and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his non-violent, peaceful means – a stark contrast from Malcolm’s more aggressive rhetoric. Malcolm was spiteful of King’s efforts, describing the march as ‘The Farce on Washington’ . Therefore, when drawing parallels between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, it could be said that King was the more significant activist between 1863 and 1968, as his campaigns were on a greater scale and reached a greater number of people than Malcolm X.

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It could also be argued that whilst Malcolm X may have been a significant black civil rights campaigner during the 1960s, it could be said that his campaigner predecessors, such as Frederick Douglass (c.1818 – 1895) , were more important. For example, it could be argued that Douglass furthered opportunities for Black people in America politically, whilst Malcolm did not – Douglass was the first African American nominated for vice president of the US in 1872 . This was an incredible feat for an ex-slave, as during the 19th century, slaves had very little freedom, especially in the southern states of the US where the repressive Jim Crow Laws limited the basic human rights of African- Americans. An 1850 publication advised slave-owners to “ensure that the slave is uneducated, helpless, and dependent by depriving them of access to education” . By teaching himself to read and write Douglass was not only breaking the law, but paving the way for others to do the same. Frederick Douglass defied the repressive American slavery laws, becoming an icon for the thousands of slaves across America. As a result, it could be said that Douglass, not Malcolm X, was the most significant Black civil rights campaigner between 1863 and 1968. In addition, Douglass’ warmer reception when travelling abroad could also suggest that Douglass was a more significant campaigner than Malcolm X. Both campaigners travelled further afield from the US – Douglass visited Ireland and England in 1845 to preach the evils of slavery, yet in contrast Malcolm X’s trip to Europe was cut short in 1964 after he was refused entry to France . This is significant as Malcolm’s inability to enter France would have severely damaged his ability to increase his influence overseas, in contrast to Frederick Douglass. As a result of Douglass’ arguably more warm reception from further afield, it could be said that Douglass was the more significant of the two campaigners, as Malcolm X was viewed with hostility by many, both black and white, who disagreed with his pro-segregation and black supremacist rhetoric.

Another way in which it could be argued that Malcolm X was not the most significant campaigner for Black civil rights in America is by looking at the contribution of Booker T. Washington towards the fight for the freedom and rights of Black people in America. Born in 1856 into slavery, Washington set up the first educational institute for African Americans in the USA, known as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1881. During the 17th and 18th centuries, slaves in America had restricted access to educational opportunities, with many being refused the right to learn to read and write. Many slave owners, and white people, believed that as second-class citizens, slaves had no need to be educated, and did not even possess the academic capacity for an education. As a result, Washington’s introduction of the Tuskegee Institute, which aimed to teach African Americans about agriculture and farming, was an incredibly controversial move, which resulted in many whites objecting to the campaigns of Washington. Washington’s momentous act of helping to improve the education and opportunities available to the African Americans in the United States of America suggests that Booker T. Washington was the most significant Black civil rights campaigner within the years 1863-1968 as he provided opportunities to the Black community which they had been previously denied, meaning they could hope for a better and more fair future in which they could improve their social position. As a result of the opportunities Booker T. Washington provided for the Black community in the USA, it could be said that he was more significant a campaigner than Malcolm X, who (it could be argued) did not create any opportunities for educational improvement during his campaign of the 1950s and 1960s.

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