MLK

Martin and Malcolm

When filling out my Apocalypse Bingo sheet, I could have never guessed that a second Civil Rights Movement would be on the horizon. I found myself woefully undereducated about the nuances that are required for this subject. Luckily, one of the benefits of self-quarantine is that I have more time and the resources to learn more. And so, I set out to watch two movies that focus on two of the most recognized figures of the First Civil Rights Movement in America: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Selma (2014)

David Oyelowo (MLK Jr.) and others Civil Rights activists march in a scene of Selma | Paramount Pictures.

During my elementary school years, I grew up in a small town near Memphis, Tennessee. Those days were filled with stories about Martin Luther King Jr.— taking field trips to the hotel where he was assassinated, and learning how much progress and change he brought to our nation. The impression I got was that he was a national hero that helped end racism in our country.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that, at the time when MLK was living, our government had the exact opposite opinion of him. I was shocked. I thought only white supremacists and racists had a poor opinion of him. So, when Ava DuVernay announced that her film ​Selma​ would be available to stream for free, I leapt at the chance to watch it. It ended up being one of the most relatable films to our current times that I’ve seen. David Oyelowo was the actor casted to play MLK, and I’m not sure there is anyone else that bears such a striking resemblance to him.

The movie tells of the struggle between the people who demanded change and equality for the Black community, and both the local and federal government who were more complicit with the status quo.

What I really appreciate about this film is that it highlights King’s dedication to non-violence, and his cunning in using his enemies’ prejudice against them to the movement’s advantage. He puts their bigotry and violence on full display for the country to see, and when the Alabama state troops conceded because of the backlash against their violence, the marchers turned back. This allows the President to reflect on the violence and outrage, which convinced him to pass a bill that will allow Black citizens to vote without restrictions.

While knowing a little bit about Martin Luther King Jr.’s involvement in the First Civil Rights Movement, this film helped me see him as a more layered, complex, and cunning person that helped the cry of the oppressed be heard more loud and clear.

Malcolm X (1992)

Denzel Washington standing behind microphones on the city street in a scene from the film Malcom X (1992) | Photo by Largo International NV | Warner Bros. Pictures.

I grew up not knowing who Malcolm X was, but once I heard of his existence, I was immediately bombarded with the accusations that he was a terrorist. I took that accusation as fact, so I spent years thinking that Malcolm was the radical violent version of MLK. While researching about the First Civil Rights Movement, I discovered that I was wrong. So, I was determined to watch the Spike Lee Joint and see the history I missed out on. The movie was three-and-a-half hours long, but it flew by with how interesting and enjoyable it was to watch.

While MLK was a Christian pastor who believed in unity and non-violence, Malcolm was an Islamic minister who, for most of his life, believed in segregation and equality “by any means necessary.” He taught that the white man had stripped the Black people of all their culture, their right to commerce, and even their identities. So there was nothing to be done than to live apart from another. He condemned leaders like MLK for pandering to the white community.

After becoming disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, Malcom took a pilgramage to Mecca where he realized that members of different races could live together in peace. He believed this could be obtained through Islam. After returning to the United States, he began to change his views on Black nationalism, and was later assassinated while speaking at the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

This film’s ending was especially powerful, with actual footage of Malcolm’s speeches interspersed with the film and a surprise cameo from Nelson Mandela. I am so glad I watched this film. It gave me a newfound respect for all of the different factions of the First Civil Rights Movement, and allowed me to view the depth of pain and alienation that bigotry and racism caused. Malcolm X was a powerful figure in the First Civil Rights Movement that should be highlighted just as much as MLK.

What Have I Learned?

We are all (hopefully) taught that overt racism is wrong. We’re taught not to judge people based on the color of their skin, not to call others names, that violence against others because of their race is wrong. This is overt/individual racism. Nearly everyone recognizes that this is wrong.

We are rarely taught about the real history of racism in America. It took the recent events of police brutality for me to really reflect on how much race, education, and socioeconomic circumstances are a factor in each of our lives. Whether we like it or not, slavery and racism is part of the history of our country and have cultivated many of the social situations that communities and families find themselves in today. Watching ​Malcom X a​nd ​Selma​ have helped me realize that while overt racism is generally frowned upon today, we still have a long way to go when it comes to addressing outdated policies and ideologies that seem to perpetuate racial tensions in our country. It’s easy to say in hindsight that we would have walked hand in hand with MLK Jr. or Malcolm X in the last Civil Rights Movement, but that might be disingenuous if we’re standing on the sidelines now. We must confront these issues head on and leave a better country and world for the next generation.

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