Malcolm or MLK?

Two weeks ago, the world witnessed a murder of an innocent Black man, George Floyd, what many, including Jesse Jackson, called a “public lynching” in broad daylight, at the hands of a white policeman. It was a brutal killing by the manner in which Minneapolis policeman, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck, slowly and viciously forcing the life out Floyd for almost 9 minutes. While Chauvin’s fellow officers, by not coming to Floyd’s aid, were complicit to the crime. There was no need for Chauvin to have subdued Floyd in such a cruel and purposeful way until Floyd could no longer breathe, especially since Floyd had already been restrained. Nor, did Floyd have any weapon. Nor had he committed any crime warranting such force. In a video captured by a teenager, Floyd could be heard stating he could not breathe, and calling out for his deceased mother. Since 2014, there have been other police killings of African-Americans with no consequences for the police officers involved.

All of the circumstances surrounding these African-American deaths at the hands of the police were suspicious at best, Floyd being the latest victim. There was Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York (2014), Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (2014), Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Illinois (2014), Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio (2014), Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina (2015), Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland (2015), Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, Minnesota (2015), Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (2016), Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota (2016, SP twin-city to Minneapolis), Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California (2018), Botham Jean in Dallas, Texas (2018), and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky (2020), and finally, Floyd in Minneapolis. The fact these murders took place all over the United States points to a “systemic issue” in policing in our country, a system valuing white privilege over people of color, 56 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and even after the recent introduction of body cameras. In reality though, such police use of excessive force betrays a “societal systems failure”, not just policing as will be explained. Fortunately, bystanders have captured many of the questionable circumstances of these deaths with cell-phones.

Garner was put in a deadly choke-hold by one officer who was never convicted. Garner’s crime selling “loosie cigarettes” (single cigarettes). Then there was Brown who allegedly took something from a convenient store and was walking in the middle of the street. He scuffled with a police officer and was shot and left on the pavement for hours. Then there was McDonald who supposedly threatened an officer with a knife but the video evidence proves otherwise. Then, Rice who was only 12 years-old was carrying a toy pellet gun when he was shot and killed. Elsewhere, Scott who was stopped for a broken taillight and because he ran away was shot five times. Then, Gray who was carrying a knife when he was detained and after being handcuffed and shackled, he was found in a police van after almost an hour with his spine nearly severed. While Jamar Clark was shot in a suspicious situation. Then, Sterling who was selling DVDs outside a convenient store and when officers detained him, they shot him. Then, there was Castile who was in a car with his girlfriend and her baby-daughter. As Castile reached for his wallet, the officer shot him seven-times. Whereas Stephon Clark, a victim of mistaken identity, and in his grandmother’s driveway, and after running, was shot twenty-times by police because his cell-phone was mistaken as a gun. Also, Jean was an innocent victim, the officer entered his apartment thinking it was her own and thinking Jean was a burglar. So, Jean was shot in his own apartment. Taylor likewise was shot in her own apartment because police entered upon suspicion of drugs without prior warning. Taylor was shot eight times. And now, this past week, on Memorial Day, May 25th, George Floyd, who was 46 years-old, was murdered by a white policeman.

In 2019 alone, 1,099 people have been killed by the police in the United States. The top 5 cities with the worst police homicides against African-American males in the U.S. are: Reno, Nevada, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Santa Ana, California, Anaheim, California, and St. Louis, Missouri. Furthermore, 99% of killings by police between 2013-2019 never resulted in any convictions of any police officers. Also, Black people are three-times more likely to be killed by police than white people are.

As Cornel West has rightly pointed out, American democracy is in real trouble, especially for perpetuating a system of inequality, not only for its minority populations but in the disparities of wealth distribution. Why are we propping up a system favoring billionaires, just interested in tax cuts and not progressive reform? We need a national healthcare system. State university education should be free. According to Cornel West: “Any society that refuses to eliminate or attenuate dilapidated housing, decrepit school systems, mass incarceration, massive unemployment and underemployment, inadequate healthcare and its violations of rights and liberties is undesirable and unsustainable.” So, business as usual is not going to work. The United States cannot expect to maintain a corrupt system without breakdown, without people saying enough, without mass civil disobedience. It is just untenable.

This is not simply a question of a few “bad apple cops” as the National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien said. Nor is it just about policing. Many police do a very difficult job well. Nonetheless, it is a systems problem, the whole system, our whole American democracy and American society, need reforming if we are ever able to be sustainable for the future. Moreover, this social movement has proven that all ethnicities and identities can come together—Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native, LGBTQ—and struggle against the problems associated with whole system.

What is more, the election of President Donald J. Trump is the culmination of the problems in our society. He was elected because of the overall symptomatic issues disparaging our American democracy today, especially the notion of fear of the “Other”—the immigrant, the African-American, or simply put, the “non-white”. It is a frail system and it will not survive unless we can address the real inequalities of our society, whether these are rooted in economics, racism, xenophobia, education, housing, or healthcare. In fact, all are interrelated.

Hence, the title of this essay posed a question: “Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr?” And because, this past week until now has been about the murder of another African-American, it is right to look to our Civil Rights past (1954-1968). It is right to ask what heroes we may look up to and who do we turn to for guidance in a context all the more ironic because little has changed from more than fifty years ago until now in regard to the disparities Americans face today. We saw how the Coronavirus (COVID-19) unfairly affected both African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans because a majority of these minorities for many reasons could not self-isolate. Nor do many of them have adequate healthcare or the type of housing to social distance. Many of these minorities, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, had to work in the service economy to feed their families and could not stay home.

So, “Malcolm or MLK?”—and the answer is we need both voices now more than ever. The murder of George Floyd brings to the fore all the historical racism and all the unfair police-targeting African-Americans face daily. We need voices like Malcolm X, who see the bullshit for what it is and who can wake people up to the realities of what is happening around them and to them. And we need voices like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who will lead us toward real peaceful change and reform. We need both Malcolm and MLK as guiding lights—we always have. We need voices who spoke up against racism and who spoke out for social justice and because they did so, they were murdered too.

Moreover, we need our society not only to have an MLK Holiday once a year but we need society to have a Malcolm X holiday day too. We need to recognize Black voices who speak the truth and who speak the truth to power. So, Malcolm X deserves a monument near the National Mall in Washington DC as much as that of MLK exists there now.

Let’s listen to what both Malcolm X said before he was assassinated in 1965 at only thirty-nine years-old and let’s listen to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said before he too was assassinated in 1968 at same age, only thirty-nine, and let’s appreciate them both. The former a Muslim and the latter a Christian. Both voices as different and important as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Let’s celebrate their memories by demanding our lawmakers in the U.S. Congress to pass meaningful legislation. Let’s elect someone as president who will be a transformative figure and who will empathize and console the American people once more.

Here are some memorable quotes from these two American Civil Rights heroes.


“We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”

Malcolm X

“The time is always ripe to do what is right.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Usually, when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.” Malcolm X

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“There was police brutality and there was atrocity, and the press was just as atrocious as the police. Because they helped the police to cover it up by propagating a false image across the country.” Malcolm X

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.” Malcolm X

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lessen on how to improve your performance next time.” Malcolm X

“He who accepts evil without protesting against it, is really cooperating with it.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” Malcolm X

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I believe that there will be ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice, and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think it will be based on the color of the skin…” Malcolm X

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I’m for truth no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” Malcolm X

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


As Sam Cooke (1963) once sang: “A Change Is Gonna Come”. It really has been a long time waiting for change to come, but we need change, and we need it NOW!

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).