One of my favorite topics that I have covered during Black History Months in the past is that of the contrast in ideology between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Now a true and thorough study of history will demonstrate that the philosophies espoused by each man were more complex and nuanced than is commonly realized, and that each man’s philosophy actually evolved over time. But in a nutshell I think it is a useful discussion to compare the doctrine of non-violent and peaceful resistance with the doctrine of opposing violent oppression with violence. I have often heard that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of non-violence is an admirable ideology while Malcolm X’s we will defend ourselves with violence if necessary is viewed as unproductive, negative and morally reprehensible.
Let me first state that as a matter of personal policy, I utilize nonviolent resistance because of past decisions I made that were too quick to embrace violence as an acceptable means to achieve certain aims. My personal decision regarding how I resist oppression is not a statement on the efficacy or morality of violent resistance to violent oppression. The restraint shown by Martin Luther King Jr. definitely took a great deal of strength and courage. Because while he did not react violently he did not shrink from confronting the injustices of oppression either. Malcolm X in his advocacy of self-defense gave compelling arguments as to why picking up arms was a matter of practicality.
There are however people who view Malcolm X and his philosophy as bad while viewing Martin Luther King Jr. and his philosophy as good. One such example is contained in the X-men comic books. What do the X-men have to do with Black History? A lot more than many people realize. In the X-men world you have two primary leaders in Professor X and Magneto. Professor X seeks to get along in harmony with the humans and maintain peaceful relations with humans even when under attack from them. Contrast that with Magneto who is willing to respond to violence against mutants with violence of his own. So simply and simplistically put this represents Malcolm versus Martin.
A look at the X-men comic books make it clear that their viewpoint is that Malcolm X/Magneto is a bad guy, but is that realistic? Some have argued that the X-men story is not an allegory of the fight for black rights but I argue that the fact that Magneto is considered a bad guy is the greatest evidence that Magneto does represent Malcolm X. Why else would a philosophy of self-defense be considered villainous? I must concede that in the second X-men film the mutants were representative of homosexuals as evidenced by Iceman’s “coming out” to his parents who respond by asking him if he can just stop being a mutant. Interestingly enough however is that Magneto is not a bad guy in this film and in fact works side by side with Professor X in defense of mutant rights.
If we contrast that with the first and third X-men films, it is quite clear that mutants represent blacks. In fact, in a step to make it abundantly clear whom Magneto is representative of Malcolm when he says: “The war is still coming, Charles. And I intend to fight it, by any means necessary.” And in the third film while being interrogated Mystique, who is being addressed as Raven by her captor responds: “I don’t answer to my slave name.” Of course in both of these films Magneto is the bad guy. And it is not just through symbolism that people make the argument that Malcolm X was “the bad guy” it has been explicitly stated by many.
One of the most recent examples of this is a young woman named Tomi Lahren. Tomi is a conservative pundit who took issue with Beyonce’s salute to the Black Panthers and Malcolm X during the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. In her original rant she cites the Black Panthers and Malcolm X as bad because they were critical of Martin’s non-violent movement. In subsequent statements she stated that she wouldn’t have an issue with a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and that she is a supporter of Martin’s message of nonviolence. If you are not familiar with Tomi Lahren she is particularly well known for a tirade against President Obama for his willingness to use violence against the Islamic State… I’m kidding, she actually criticized Obama for not being violent enough. This is a curious stance for an advocate of non-violence.
I will argue that the people that advocate Martin over Malcolm do not truly believe in the efficacy or moral superiority of nonviolence over self-defense, rather they only believe it is a position that should be taken by black people. This is not a position they are willing to take for themselves. Aaron McGruder did a wonderful job of depicting this in his Martin Luther King Jr. episode of the Boondocks. In the episode Martin awakens from a coma in the year 2000 and goes on to comment about the course of action Americans should take in response to the September 11 attacks. Obviously his public calls for understanding and turning the other cheek are met with scorn, derision and outright hostility.
In short how many people in America were proponents of Martin’s non-violence philosophy on September 12? How many people if being violently attacked will utilize a philosophy of non-violence? But how many of these people feel Martin is a better example for black people than Malcolm X? I think it is evident that the vast majority of people who praise Martin’s non-violence are not actual adherents and do not believe in its effectiveness. So when someone starts going on about how great Martin Luther King Jr. and how admirable his philosophy of non-violence was, ask them if they practice it themselves.