Malcolm X and MLK: Two Freedom Trails out of Boston (Pt. 2)

The following is the second in a two-part series. To read the first part, click here.

In 1951, Boston Evening Traveler columnist Walter Schofield began campaigning for the city to create a path taking pedestrians past milestones of the American Revolution. By May, Mayor John Hynes bowed to the pressure and agreed to establish the Freedom Trail.

Malcolm Little was incarcerated in Charlestown State Prison that year, and Martin Luther King was just settling in to his St. Botolph Street apartment as he began doctoral studies at Boston University. The history of Boston’s fight for freedom cannot have been lost on them. Freedom was central to their rhetoric and to the struggle they would lead: “I believe in a religion that believes in freedom,” said Malcolm. “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” wrote Martin from Birmingham Jail.

But it was religion, not warfare, that marked the path of liberation for these two deeply spiritual men. Malcolm left Boston in the summer of 1952 to become a minister of an unusual separatist sect of Islam. Martin left in the spring of 1955 to become pastor of a Baptist church already embroiled in the fight for integration.

Boston transformed Malcolm Little into Malcolm X by the time he left for Detroit, where he would soon lead a Nation of Islam temple. Boston turned Martin Luther King into Dr. King when he left for Montgomery, Ala., to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Both men would leave Boston in obscurity and return as world leaders. Within 18 months, Martin would rocket to the center of the international stage as a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott. For Malcolm it would take longer. He would attract a large following to the Nation of Islam, but it would not be until 1959 that he would attract much attention beyond the black community.

Martin’s pacifist, integrationist religion was far more palatable to white people, who by 1957 were putting him on the cover of Time and interviewing him on Meet the Press.  Prime time wasn’t ready for Malcolm’s muscular rhetoric of black independence, pride and entrepreneurialism within the African-American community.

Together they would play good cop, bad cop in the struggle to lift up American blacks. They learned how to do it in Boston.

The Cradle of Freedom

Boston helped make Malcolm and Martin what they came to be. Both men immersed themselves in the city’s culture of scholarship and debate, even if for Malcolm that meant the Norfolk Prison Colony’s library and debating society. Each plunged himself into a very different kind of religious scholarship. Martin was cocooned in a white, liberal school of theology that welcomed black scholars. Malcolm studied the literature of slavery in an extraordinary prison library – while serving out a sentence that he believed was unfairly lengthened. The reason? He’d been convicted of a burglary he’d committed with white women accomplices.

Both men acknowledge the influence Boston had on them. Malcolm wrote in his autobiography, “No physical move in my life has been more pivotal or profound in its repercussions.” Martin often referred to Boston as his second home.

The preacher’s son from the Deep South and the wild teenager from East Lansing, Mich., would take different political directions out of Boston in the early- to mid-50s. But by the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were following a path toward each other.

Martin at BU

weal_06_img1129Boston must have been exciting for a young doctoral student from the Deep South – one who’d never lived in a multicultural, mixed neighborhood like Boston’s South End. That’s what Martin found at 170 St. Botolph St. for his first few months in Boston, and then at 397 Massachusetts Ave., in the middle of this first year at BU. It must have also been a heady experience to debate with world-famous religious philosophers like Edgar Brightman, Howard DeWolf and Howard Thurman. Not to mention consulting on his dissertation with Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Boston University was a center of liberal theological thought and welcomed African-American graduate students. Brightman was a leader in the school of theology known as Boston Personalism, which seeks to describe the uniqueness of human beings in nature. From Boston Personalism, Martin derived two tenets of his thought: belief in a personal God and belief in the dignity of all mankind. Richard Lischer, in his book The Preacher King, wrote, “King’s theological education provided the vocabulary and conceptual framework of his sermons at Ebenezer (Baptist Church) and his larger message to the nation.”

In his final year at Boston University, King family friend Howard Thurman was named the dean of BU’s Marsh Chapel, the first African-American dean of a predominately white university. He was an internationally known theologian who knew Gandhi, and he became Martin’s spiritual advisor. Martin was said to have carried until his death Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, which shows how to use the Gospel as a guide to resistance for the poor and disenfranchised.

The Parkhurst Collection

A very different institution had a profound influence on Malcolm: The Parkhurst collection at the Norfolk Prison Colony’s library. The extensive collection of books had been bequeathed to the prison in 1946 by Lewis Parkhurst, a successful Unitarian businessman, lawmaker and publisher. The collection had so many books that some were still in crates when Malcolm was transferred to Norfolk in 1948.

The Parkhurst collection included anti-slavery pamphlets and books, including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the writings of Frederick Law Olmstead — probably The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States — and Frances “Fanny” Kemble’s Journal of A Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839.

Malcolm was horrified by the cruelty of chattel slavery described in his reading. Writes Louis DeCaro in John Brown the Abolitionist – A Biographer’s Blog: “Malcolm looked back at the Parkhurst Collection’s anti-slavery books as having had a profound impact upon him. Malcolm went so far as to say that “Not even Elijah Muhammad could have been more eloquent than those books were in providing indisputable proof that the collective white man had acted like a devil in virtually every contact he had with the world’s collective non-white man”.”

Malcolm’s rise to fame

Malcolm x Elijah MuhhammedUpon his release from prison, Malcolm moved to Detroit, where he worked for his brother in a furniture store and in an auto plant. Then he moved to Chicago to live with Elijah Muhammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam. By 1953 he was back in Boston, starting up Temple Number 11 at 35 Intervale St. in Dorchester. By the next year Elijah Muhammed appointed him minister for Temple Number Seven in New York, but he returned to Boston to build the membership of the Boston temple.

Malcolm was the Nation of Islam’s most effective recruiter. The sect was growing rapidly, in part because of Malcolm’s charisma, his tireless speaking and his message. He had little use for Martin’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance – he called it the “philosophy of the fool” – and saw no good coming from political involvement with white people. He preached that black people must separate from the race he called “white devils,” and he defended African-Americans’ right to fight violence with violence. That resonated with black people well aware of the vicious white resistance to the civil rights movement in the South. They concluded whites would never grant blacks equality, and it made sense to them to build all-black social and economic institutions.

In 1955, Malcolm was minister of Temple Number 12 in Philadelphia, and he founded three successful Nation of Islam temples in Hartford, Atlanta and Springfield, Mass. By 1959 he became a national figure in 1959 when he and the Nation of Islam were featured in a documentary, “The Hate That Hate Produced.”

Malcolm helped elevate Martin’s image with white people. Martin wouldn’t have anything to do with him. He refused to meet with Malcolm or respond personally to his overtures. “Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief,” he said.

The Montgomery bus boycott

martin5When Martin and Coretta Scott King permanently moved to Montgomery in the summer of 1955, a campaign had already begun to end segregation on city buses. In March, before Martin obtained his doctorate, a 15-year-old black girl had been arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Black activists had started to build around that case to challenge Alabama’s bus segregation laws. They decided to stop riding the buses after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on Dec. 1, 1955. Martin, not yet 30, was immediately plunged into the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott. It ended on Dec. 20, 1956, when a court ruled the state’s segregation laws were unconstitutional.

The boycott rocketed him to fame. In 1957 he would meet with President Eisenhower and form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He would be arrested in Selma and Birmingham, he would deliver his “I Have a Dream” Speech before 250,000 people and he would win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35 – the youngest ever to do so.

He would also lead marches in the North for better housing, better schools and better jobs. He led one such march in Boston on April 23, 1964, during one of his frequent visits to the city. The march followed a speech to the Massachusetts Legislature the day before. The audience included young lawmakers Michael Dukakis and William Bulger, reported  WBUR.

March on Washington

By 1963, two events just a few months apart would indelibly stamp onto history the good-cop, bad-cop images of Martin and Malcolm. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin delivered to the world his “I Have A Dream” speech, one of the most famous in history.  Malcolm called it the “Farce on Washington.” Three months later, Malcolm would shock the world by commenting that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a matter of “chickens coming home to roost.”


But both men were changing. Martin was becoming more aggressive. His demands were expanding beyond integration and acceptance. He increasingly aligned himself with the militant American labor movement in the struggle for better jobs and better pay for black Americans. He once said that when he listened to Malcolm speak, even he got angry.”

The March on Washington itself was organized by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and supported by the Teamsters and AFL-CIO affiliated unions. The demands of the march went beyond desegregation. They included a $2 minimum wage, a federal jobs program and the expansion of federal labor regulations to more classes of workers such as farmworkers and domestics. Many forget that Martin was assassinated while he was in Memphis supporting the sanitation workers’ strike for the right to join AFSCME.

malcolm_x_ontheairMalcolm, too, was changing. He would soon renounce the Nation of Islam and embrace traditional Sunni Islam. In February 1965 he said,  “I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then … pointed in a certain direction and told to march.”

He also recognized that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a stunning success. He realized he had to present a strategy to improve the lives of African-Americans. In doing so, he harkened back to his work with Randolph in 1961 to fight the deterioration of York City’s black communities through various strategies of raising workers’ wages.

In Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable wrote that Malcolm drew on that experience to call for a black united front embracing virtually all Negroes around a program of self-respect, economic development and group empowerment.

And once Malcolm left the Nation of Islam in 1964, he began to pay attention to civil rights issues and to reach out to civil rights leaders – including Martin.

Malcolm x and Martin Luther KingOn March 26, 1964, they met for the only time — and for about one minute, long enough to shake hands and have their picture taken. They had both come to Washington, D.C., to watch the Senate filibuster the Civil Rights Act. Eight days later Malcolm X made a speech titled “The Ballot or the Bullet,” in which he advised African-Americans to exercise their right to vote wisely. He also announced he would form a political organization.

By then, both men expected to die soon, and they were right. Each was shot to death at the age of 39. Malcolm was killed on Feb. 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. Martin was murdered on April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.

Just a few weeks before he died, Malcolm met with Coretta Scott King in Selma, Ala., while her husband was in jail. Malcolm told her he came to make Martin’s job easier. “If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King,” he said.

We are indebted to the following books for this article: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley; Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable; and Parting the Waters: America in The King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch.

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