Lesson 2: Black Separatism or the Beloved Community? Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (2024)


Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm X (1925-65) was the son of a West Indian mother and black Baptist preacher. His father was a local organizer for Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association, which promoted black separatism and pan-Africanism. After moving to Lansing, Michigan, Malcolm suffered the death of his father (under suspicious circ*mstances) and several years later saw his mother committed to a mental institution. A top student in elementary school (who was elected the seventh-grade class president), Malcolm told his English teacher he wanted to be a lawyer; he was told, "That's no realistic goal for a nigg*r," and he soon asked to go live with his half-sister Ella in Boston. He took a job as a shoe-shine boy; later became a street hustler in New York; and eventually was imprisoned for burglary before his twenty-first birthday. Malcolm read voraciously in prison and was introduced to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI) by his siblings and inmates. Paroled in August 1952, he went to live in Detroit with his eldest brother Wilfred.

After meeting Elijah Muhammad, he began recruiting converts for the local NOI temple and officially adopted "X" for his surname, which represented his lost African family name. He quickly rose through the ranks of NOI temple ministers. Malcolm married Betty X (née Sanders) in January 1958, who bore him four daughters while he was alive and twins after his death. In 1959, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam gained national prominence with the airing of "The Hate That Hate Produced," a documentary by Mike Wallace and Louis Lomax, and subsequent articles in U.S. News & World Report and Time magazine. By 1960, Malcolm X had started or helped start over a hundred temples with thousands of converts; founded the NOI's newspaper Muhammad Speaks; wrote a syndicated column entitled "God's Angry Men" for major black newspapers; and became Elijah Muhammad's chief spokesman.

Malcolm X's popularity soon distanced him from rival ministers at the Chicago headquarters. In addition, Elijah Muhammad's bad health and rumors of his infidelity with NOI secretaries led to uncertainty about the future leadership of the Nation. After John F. Kennedy's assassination in November 22, 1963, Elijah Muhammad directed his ministers not to comment on the death of a president popular among black Americans. But after giving a speech entitled "God's Judgment of White America" on December 4, 1963, Malcolm X called the assassination a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." Elijah Muhammad promptly silenced Malcolm X for ninety days. Convinced that jealous rivals were undermining his reputation with the ailing Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam in March 1964 and announced the formation of the Muslim Mosque, Inc.

Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam at the climax of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s fame as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. During 1963 and 1964, King was chosen Time magazine's "Man of the Year"; drew national attention to "Bull" Connor's barbaric law enforcement; penned his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"; delivered his most famous speech ("I Have a Dream") at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; saw passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; and received the Nobel Peace Prize. To justify an alternative message for black liberation in America, Malcolm X painted a stark contrast between his philosophy and that of the most popular civil rights spokesman of his day.

After a pilgrimage to Mecca in April 1964, where he became a Sunni Muslim (and referred to the NOI as a "pseudo-religious philosophy"), he returned to America as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity. No longer asserting that whites were "devils," but still skeptical of American institutions to secure the civil rights of black Americans, Malcolm argued that the civil rights movement needed to be taken to a more receptive international forum such as the United Nations and World Court. Denounced by his protégé Louis X (Farrakhan) in Muhammad Speaks as "worthy of death," and suspecting he was poisoned during a tour of Africa, Malcolm X saw his death as imminent. On February 14, 1965, his home was firebombed, and on February 21 Malcolm X was shot to death as he began a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

For Malcolm X, discussing his legacy is complicated by his departure from the Nation of Islam in March 1964, which was followed by a year of self-examination and public exploration of alternative approaches to helping black Americans secure their rights. Although he became famous between 1959 and 1963 as the lead spokesman for the Nation of Islam, his controversial exit from the Black Muslim organization and his eventual assassination in February 1965 make it difficult to give a definitive account of what he actually believed. This lesson will focus on the ideas and recommendations of Malcolm X that produced his greatest fame and notoriety as the public face of the Nation of Islam. (Students can explore some of the changes that his thinking underwent in the last year of his life in the "Extending the Lesson" section of this lesson.)

During his seventeen-year association with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X did not consider politics a legitimate activity for black Americans. He believed that the United States governments (both state and federal) represented the interests of whites exclusively, which made political participation by black Americans a waste of time at best, and complicity in their own oppression at worst. The "so-called Negro," as Elijah Muhammad called black Americans, needed to stay as far away as possible from the white institutions of power. These institutions included not only political parties, offices, and elections but also schools, workplaces, and social venues. According to the Nation of Islam's religious dogma, the one true God, Allah, destined whites for imminent annihilation. Therefore, the less integrated blacks were with white society, the better.

Malcolm X believed that the only way to be free from the cultural hegemony of white America was through the reeducation of black Americans. Central to that reeducation was the rejection of the traditional Christianity of black America. Malcolm X read current events in light of Nation of Islam eschatology. With "the race problem" in the U.S. as the problem in modern-day America, Malcolm X believed only God's "Messenger," Elijah Muhammad, knew the true nature of the problem and how it could be solved. Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., who appealed to the conscience and justice of white America, Malcolm X highlighted the longstanding and manifest injustices of white America to persuade black Americans to seek a separate black state large enough to include all 22 million black Americans then residing in the United States. Self-understanding for black Americans could only come through their becoming a nation unto themselves and form their own schools, shops, and businesses.

For an introduction to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement, see Sections I and IV of Lesson #1 of "Competing Voices of the Civil Rights Movement" unit, entitled "Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nonviolent Resistance: To Obey or Not to Obey?"

Content Standards

NCSS.D1.2.9-12. Explain points of agreement and disagreement experts have about interpretations and applications of disciplinary concepts and ideas associated with a compelling question.

NCSS.D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circ*mstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

NCSS.D2.His.2.9-12. Analyze change and continuity in historical eras.

NCSS.D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.

NCSS.D2.His.4.9-12. Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.

NCSS.D2.His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.

NCSS.D2.His.12.9-12. Use questions generated about multiple historical sources to pursue further inquiry and investigate additional sources.

NCSS.D2.His.14.9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.

NCSS.D2.His.15.9-12. Distinguish between long-term causes and triggering events in developing a historical argument.

NCSS.D2.His.16.9-12. Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.


This lesson makes use of sound recordings, written primary source documents, and worksheets, available both online and in the Text Document that accompanies this lesson. Students can read and analyze source materials entirely online, or do some of the work online and some in class from printed copies.

Read over the lesson. Bookmark the websites that you will use. If students will be working from printed copies in class, download the documents from the Text Document and duplicate as many copies as you will need. If students need practice in analyzing primary source documents, excellent resource materials are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Learning Page of the Library of Congress. Helpful Document Analysis Worksheets may be found at the site of the National Archives.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. A Journalist's Report: The Better Vision for Black Americans

In the activitiesfor this lesson, students will be playing the part of a news reporter from the 1960s. As a television, radio, or newspaper reporter, you have attendedrallies and speeches and read writings and other reports on statements made by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose approaches to solving the difficulties are poles apart. Students can write an editorial, createvideo or audio recordings, and/or construct visual or other artistic renderings to convey their evaluation ofthe two activists and judge which leader's goals could best secure a better life for black Americans.

Give students the option of either working individually or working in pairs as a journalistic team. If they opt to work with a partner, they should be able to articulate why they need to work with a partner and who will be responsiblefor what elements of the final editorial (i.e. one will record a video and the other will complete a written editorial).

Students can develop context for this assignment by accessing two EDSITEment-reviewed websites or by reading printed copies of the same information located in the Text Document on pages 1-3, distributed to students in advance.

On the first full period devoted to this lesson, begin class with an introduction to Malcolm X's provocative rhetoric by having students listen to 3-5 minutes of his November 10, 1963 speech, "Message to the Grassroots," linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed "American Studies at the University of Virginia." Given the length of the audio clip, you may want to suggest that each student listen to a different 3-5 minute segment of the speech to give a more expansive coverage of Malcolm X's riveting oratory.

Next, have students read Louis Lomax's interview of Malcolm X (November 1963) and answer the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on pages 9-10 of the Text Document. A link to the text "A Summing Up: Louis Lomax Interviews Malcolm X"can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Teaching American History." For a shorter version of the interview that can be printed out and distributed to the students, see the excerpted version on pages 4-8 of the Text Document.

  1. Why does Malcolm X call white people "devils"?
  2. Why does the Nation of Islam support a racially segregated American society?
  3. What solution does Malcolm X propose and how would this provide what blacks most need?
  4. How does Malcolm X defend the Nation of Islam from the criticism that they preach black supremacy and violence?
  5. Why does Malcolm X not approve of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s approach to securing civil rights?
  6. Does Malcolm X think black Americans are citizens of the United States? What does he cite to support his opinion of the political status of black Americans?

Read Malcolm X's "Message to the Grassroots" (November 10, 1963) and answering the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on page 13 of the Text Document. A link to the text of "Message to the Grassroots" can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Teaching American History." A short excerpt from the speech is also included in the Text Document on pages 11-12, and can be printed out for student use.

  1. What does Malcolm X think the goal of any revolution should be?
  2. How does Malcolm X justify violence as a means for black Americans to improve themselves?
  3. According to Malcolm X, what is the difference between a "Negro" revolution and a "black" revolution?
  4. According to Malcolm X, what are "Uncle Toms" and how do they slow progress for blacks in America?

Provide students with an opportunity to listento excerpts from Malcolm X's "Ballot or the Bullet" speech from April 12, 1964.

1. What does the title "ballot or the bullet" mean?

2. Why does Malcolm X have to clarify his religious affiliation at the opening of the speech?

3. Why does Malcolm X stress that politics and religion must be separated?

4. What do you think about Malcolm X's perspective on personal responsibility and capitalism in the black community?

5. What is a "self-help philosophy"?

6. Why might 1964 be the year of the "ballot or the bullet"?

Activity 2. Another Perspective on Violence & Civil Rights

Begin day two by introducing students to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s stirring rhetoric by having them listen to a brief excerpt from his "I Have a Dream" speech. Go to the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project: Popular Requests" and click the Quicktime or Realmedia link for a three-minute, audio excerpt from "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

Then, spend part of the class having students read Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "The Power of Nonviolence" (June 4, 1957) and answering the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on page 17 of the Text Document. A link to the text of "The Power of Nonviolence" can be found here.The speech is also included in the Text Document on pages 14-16, and can be printed out for student use.

  1. How does King defend his philosophy of nonviolence against the claim that it is cowardly or passive? In what way does he consider it strong?
  2. What is the goal of nonviolent resistance?
  3. What does King mean by agape love and how does it shape his strategy for social change?
  4. Explain how King thinks God is involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
  5. How does King respond to those who counsel the Movement to pursue "a policy of moderation"?

Next, have students read Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and answerthe questions that follow below, which are available in worksheet form on pages 23-24 of the Text Document. Note: If your class has completed Lesson 1 of the "The Diversity of the Civil Rights Movement" unit, substitute the King activity listed in the "Extending the Lesson" section, which examines Martin Luther King, Jr.'s October 1966 essay, "Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom."

A link to the full text of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project".For purposes of this lesson, use the excerpts from the essay, located on pages 18-22 of the Text Document.

  1. Does King consider himself an "outsider" by staging a civil rights protest in Birmingham? List three reasons he gives in response to this criticism.
  2. Explain the four-step process King outlines for their nonviolent campaign. [Note: for an example of the nonviolent mindset King wanted to instill in his protest movement, have students read the Commitment Card that participants were asked to sign in preparation for the protest, which is located at the "Teaching American History" site.
  3. Does King recognize the danger of breaking laws in order to change them? How does he connect the means of civil disobedience with its aim in order to justify this form of nonviolent resistance?
  4. Does King think the tension stirred up by his protest movement helps or hinders social and political reform?
  5. How does King respond to the charge that he is an extremist? Whom does he identify as the real extremists?
  6. Why is King hopeful about the prospects for equal rights for black Americans? Give specific examples and reasons he mentions to support your answer.

Activity 3. Reporting on the Civil Rights Movement

After students have gained an understanding of the key ideas of the two leaders, they are ready, as reporters, to assume their final, culminating task of constructing their editorial. Their product should include the following points, using the Text Document guidelines on page 25, which students should have in hand for reference as they write:

  1. An introduction, including general statements and a few specific details about conditions facing black Americans (use notes taken from the website of the National Park Service);
  2. An assessment of thestrengths and weaknesses of Malcolm X's vision of a separate nation for black Americans;
  3. An assessment ofthe strengths and weaknesses of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of "the beloved community," in which the peaceful integration of black and white Americans into one society occurs;
  4. The author's judgment of the two visions: Which one offers the better solution to the needs and problems confronted by the black community?
  5. Justification of the choice: Why is this vision better? Give three or four reasons supporting this claim.

After the editorials have been written, arrange students in a gallery walk or in small groups to share what they have created.


Instruct students to give a one- or two-paragraph answer to any or all of the following questions, which are available in worksheet form on pages 26-27 of the Text Document:

  1. Give your evaluation of the strongest claims Malcolm X made regarding why integration will not work and justify your choice. Make sure you include a consideration of why some blacks would have viewed his approach as legitimate in the early 1960s.
  2. Do you think Malcolm X gave sufficient evidence to support the claim that black Americans deserve a separate nation?
  3. Why does Malcolm X disagree with both the goal and the method of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nonviolent protest movement?
  4. How did Martin Luther King, Jr. expect that his nonviolent protest methods would help to produce a "beloved community"? Connect his means with his ends.
  5. Does Malcolm X's call for blacks to make progress as a distinct race present a more persuasive or constructive approach to securing rights than Martin Luther King, Jr.'s appeal for blacks to secure freedom as American citizens? In your answer, explain whether people deserve rights as individuals or as members of a specific group.
  6. Does the discussion of how to use religion make their arguments more persuasive or less persuasive?
  7. In their speeches, how does Malcolm X's use of American history differ from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s? What role does the past have in promoting progress for blacks in America, and progress for all Americans?
  8. If you had a chance to sit down and talk with either or both men, what would you ask them that you do not yet understand, and what would you want to say to them?

Lesson Extensions

While a member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was apolitical. This was due to Elijah Muhammad's strictures against Black Muslims participating in a political system he believed was rigged against blacks. Malcolm X was chiefly a religious spokesman who exhorted black Americans to separate from what he viewed as white American institutions. His message to white Americans was to repair the damage they had done to black Americans (for example, by giving them a separate state and money for 25 years to get started), or else God's judgment would fall on them for domestic oppression and international imperialism and colonialism.

After Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam in March 1964, he felt free to offer political solutions to the problems that afflicted black Americans. He was still dubious of the American political system, but advised black Americans to (1) engage in smarter political voting and organization (for example, no longer voting for black leaders he viewed as shills for white interests) and (2) fight for civil rights at the international level, where he thought the non-white nations of the world would side with the oppressed black American minority and pressure the United States (through the United Nations and World Court) to protect their rights.

A month after leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X gave a speech entitled "The Ballot or the Bullet." This speech will help students understand how his thinking about America and black progress was evolving. In particular, it will explore how his goal and methods changed after he left the Nation of Islam.

Have students read the "The Ballot or the Bullet" (April 3, 1964) and answer the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on pages 7-8 of the corresponding Text Document. A link to the text "The Ballot or the Bullet" can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Teaching American History". For purposes of this lesson, use the excerpts from the speech, located on pages 1-6 of the Text Document.

  1. After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X wanted to solve the problems of black Americans by minimizing the differences between black Americans. What did he say was their "common problem"?
  2. Why does Malcolm X not consider himself an American? What does he point to as evidence that he is not really a citizen of the United States?
  3. Does Malcolm X think either the Democratic or Republican Party wants to help blacks in America? Give specific reasons for your answer.
  4. What does Malcolm X mean by "the ballot or the bullet"? Has he given up on the American political process, or does he think blacks can use the vote in a new way?
  5. Why does Malcolm X not believe in nonviolence as a means of social reform?
  6. Why does Malcolm X think that the civil rights struggle needs to become a human rights struggle? What would this look like?
  7. What are the political, economic, and social aspects of black nationalism?
  8. Why does Malcolm X's view of the American government lead him to highlight the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms?
  9. In what ways has Malcolm X's thinking changed from his days as NOI spokesman? Why do you think he changed his mind?

2. King Confronts the Black Power Movement

After Malcolm X's violent death in February 1965, and amidst urban riots the following year, increasing numbers of black youth rejected Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nonviolent methods and sought a more militant approach to combating white supremacy in America. The cry of "Black Power," instead of "We Shall Overcome" and "Freedom Now," became the slogan of a new faction of the Civil Rights Movement. In response to Black Power advocates, King wrote an article for Ebony magazine that directly addressed the claims of this new movement and explained why he believed nonviolent protest remained the most prudent means of advancing the cause of black Americans.

Have students read King's October 1966 essay, "Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom," and answer the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on pages 14-15 of the Text Document. A link to the "Nonviolence" text can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Teaching American History". A shorter excerpt from the article is also included in the Text Document on pages 9-13, and can be printed out for student use.

  1. Does King think that violence on behalf of securing rights is a popular notion among black Americans? Why does he raise this issue in 1966?
  2. What does King mean when he says that the threat of violence as a strategy for civil rights or economic improvement is "nonexistent"?
  3. What practical reason does King mention to show that advocating violence on behalf of rights for blacks in America is not smart?
  4. Why does King think that an international approach or "revolution of color" to promote the rights of black Americans is premature in 1966?
  5. Why does King believe that a focus on self-defense to promote progress for blacks is unproductive?
  6. In what larger context does King put suffering for the sake of progress? In other words, why should protestors risk injury rather than seek their own safety (i.e., self-defense) to promote progress?
  7. Explain why King thinks the "moral power" of a committed minority can produce significant social, political, and economic change in America.
  8. Explain why King believes in 1966 that marches, boycotts, and organization still hold out the best hope for further progress for black Americans.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

Lesson 2: Black Separatism or the Beloved Community? Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (2024)
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