As President Johnson’s proposed civil rights legislation slowly moved through Congress during the spring of 1964, Malcolm X expressed cynicism about its prospects in speeches to his followers (see, for example, “The Ballot or the Bullet.”) Once a leading spokesman of the Nation of Islam, a religious-political movement claiming adherence to Islamic principles but actually a hybrid mixing Islamic ideas with a Black Nationalist political agenda, Malcolm X had recently broken with the group after becoming disillusioned with its charismatic leader Elijah Muhammad. But Malcolm continued to espouse the group’s goal of Black separatism, which he envisioned taking place through return to the African homeland. Until this could be achieved, Malcolm X counseled his followers to cooperate with the civil rights movement’s goal of asserting Constitutionally guaranteed rights for African Americans, but not its nonviolent strategy.
In a press conference speech directed at a wider national audience, Malcolm X explained his split with the Nation of Islam, his plan to found a new mosque in New York City, and his position on the civil rights movement. Below is an excerpt showing a key difference between his views and those of Martin Luther King. (In our next blog post, we will highlight King’s argument for a nonviolent strategy.)
Concerning nonviolence: it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks. It is legal and lawful to own a shotgun or a rifle. We believe in obeying the law.
In areas where our people are the constant victims of brutality, and the government seems unable or unwilling to protect them, we should form rifle clubs that can be used to defend our lives and our property in times of emergency, such as happened last year in Birmingham; Plaquemine, Louisiana; Cambridge, Maryland; and Danville, Virginia. When our people are being bitten by dogs, they are within their rights to kill those dogs.
We should be peaceful, law-abiding—but the time has come for the American Negro to fight back in self-defense whenever and wherever he is being unjustly and unlawfully attacked.
If the government thinks I am wrong for saying this, then let the government start doing its job.