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Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall

Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall are both critical figures in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This history research article focuses on these two individuals and how they adopted opposite ideological views regarding the future of blacks in America.

Malcolm X & Thurgood Marshall: Background information

Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall were two of the most important figures of the Civil Rights Movement between 1960 and 1965. These two individuals represented opposite ends of the ideological spectrum in terms of their strategies toward achieving civil rights for African Americans (through social activism). While Malcolm X viewed radical black separatism as the ideal method of achieving rights for the African American population during this time of terrible oppression and subjugation, Thurgood Marshall instead worked within the established legal system to help civil rights leaders achieve their goals. Both men had valid intellectual and philosophical reasons for their disparate tactics in

Both men had valid intellectual and philosophical reasons for their disparate tactics in achievement of civil rights, and it is important to understand the differences between their approaches and the reasons each man had for coming to such opposite conclusions in terms of their preferred methods in terms of working towards freedom from oppression for African Americans. Regardless of the discrepancies between their approaches, both men are important figures in the history of the Civil Rights movement and a detailed understanding of their motivations and actions is essential to a proper understanding of this significant period in American history.

Historical background: Malcolm X

A proper understanding of Malcolm X’s ideology and the reasons behind it requires some biographical information as a means of explaining his origins and the effect his upbringing had on the development of his political views. Malcolm was born Malcolm Little; his father was a political activist and he recalls being harassed and threatened during his childhood by white supremacists as a result of his father’s activities, as in his book The Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-written by Alex Haley, where he states:

“The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because ‘the good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my father’s ‘spreading trouble’ among the ‘good’ Negroes of Omaha with the ‘back to Africa’ preachings of Marcus Garvey” (1).

Clearly both his father’s belief in black nationalism and the virulent racism he experienced as a child greatly informed his political beliefs in the years to follow. It is impossible to understate the importance of these early formative experiences on the political viewpoint and ideology of Malcolm X in the years to come. These viewpoints would only become more hardline and radicalized when Malcolm joined, and later came to lead, the Nation of Islam, changing his name in the process from Malcolm Little to the much more famous Malcolm X.

Malcolm X as a leader

As a leader of the most popular and powerful black nationalist group in the country, and a fierce proponent of black separatism who viewed whites as evil to their core, Malcolm X often found himself at odds with the leaders of the more mainstream Civil Rights Movement. As The New York Times states:

“During the ‘60s, Malcolm X disdained the leaders of the civil rights movement, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, calling him an ‘Uncle Tom.’”

Malcolm X clearly believed that more radical action was needed to free black America from the oppression they faced at the time, and did not see the merit in working within the white system that had subjugated them for so long. This point of view was understandable given both Malcolm’s personal history and the venomous opposition the nonviolent Civil Rights movement received from much of white America. However, towards the end of his life Malcolm X recanted his more hardline stance on black separatism and opened himself to a more accepting vision of how to achieve progress and battle tough race relations in America.

Leaving the Nation of Islam

Upon breaking away from the Nation of Islam and adopting more traditional Islamic practices Malcolm X began to believe his earlier beliefs were more radical than necessary. Indeed, the New York Times goes so far as to state that Malcolm:

“…spurned his past as a white-hating separatist and Nation of Islam spokesman to become an orthodox Muslim and an international figure.”

This transformation shows that Malcolm eventually came to realize that white America could be convinced of the validity of the concerns of African Americans and their rights as human beings and that a race war and stringent separatism and nationalism were not the only answers to the myriad issues facing black Americans during this time period. Such a change of conviction was surprising to many, but is indicative of the open-mindedness essential to the mentality of a man as intellectual as Malcolm Unfortunately, shortly after this change of heart Malcolm X was assassinated, and America never got to truly see what he would have accomplished with this new outlook.

Historical background: Thurgood Marshall

On the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of their ideological methodology in support of Civil Rights, but certainly not in terms of impact, was Thurgood Marshall. Marshall’s background is also important to understanding his outlook and ideology. According to Linda Greenhouse:

“Mr. Marshall, who was born and reared in Baltimore, was excluded from the all-white law school at the University of Maryland. Later he brought successful lawsuits that integrated not only that school but also several other state university systems.”

This story illustrates not only the prejudice that Marshall faced as a black man in America, but also his penchant for using the mechanisms of the very systems that excluded him against themselves. Clearly Marshall had such pervasive intelligence and abilities that the white dominated system simply could not exclude him despite their best efforts. Furthermore, once inside that system, Marshall utilized his access and abilities to create previously unthinkable opportunities for subjugated African Americans across the nation.

Marshall’s legal career

Although earlier Marshall had argued landmark civil rights cases before the Supreme Court (such as voter rights for African Americans), and later he was appointed to the very same court and became one of the most socially conscious justices in history.

Between the years of 1960 and 1965, Marshall’s most important contribution to the cause of the Civil Rights Movement was his work done to protect the legal rights of protesters demonstrating against segregation via sit-ins. Many of these protesters were being arrested and imprisoned as a result of their actions, and as Marshall stated, he was:

“determined that every young person arrested as a result of participation in a peaceful protest against racial segregation will have adequate legal defense” (Duzdiak, 85).

This was an essential contribution to the cause of civil rights as countless protesters and demonstrators were arrested illegally and unconstitutionally in an attempt to silence their opposition to the inherently unjust nature of segregation. The aid of a prominent and respected attorney like Thurgood Marshall was an invaluable asset to the protesters who knew they had allies fighting for their legal defense in case they encountered such ludicrous legal hurdles in their quest for equality. While on the long list accomplishments in the life of Thurgood Marshall his actions between 1960 and 1965 may seem minor, the fact of the matter is that his legal aid to protesters and demonstrators in the south was absolutely vital to the success of the Civil Rights Movement and cannot be overlooked in terms of its importance.

Marshall & Malcolm X: Two sides of the same coin

Two of the most important, if ideologically disparate, figures of the Civil Rights Movement were Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall. While Malcolm X believed for much of his life in a black militant viewpoint that virulently and even violently pitted African Americans against their oppressors, Thurgood Marshall championed the cause of nonviolent protesters through his unique status in the white dominated legal system. While both men utilized extremely different tactics to achieve their goals they both helped to advance the rights of African Americans and shape the nation we see today, and their accomplishments cannot be forgotten in any serious examination of race in America.

Works Cited

Dudziak, Mary L.. Exporting American dreams: Thurgood Marshall’s African journey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Greenhouse, Linda . “Thurgood Marshall, Civil Rights Hero, Dies at 84.” The New York Times. N.p., 25 Dec. 1993. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.

“Malcolm X.” The New York Times. N.p., 7 Apr. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.

X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965. Print.


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