Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X: Debunking the perceived ideologies that have historicized Dr. King and Malcolm X as binary icons within a movement (by Kevin Wang)

In this high school history lesson, students will learn about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, their philosophies and politics, how their experiences shaped these, and how their ideologies continue to evolve.

This lesson is designed to introduce students to the Black Freedom Struggle movements of the 1960s, specifically those lead by Dr. King and Malcolm X. By incorporating primary sources, ranging from speeches to interviews, we will first achieve an understanding of the politics and ideologies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X that reflected their respective views on integration and separatism. We will then continue this analysis with readings on the personal lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. By doing so, our aim is to come to an understanding of how their personal experiences have shaped and influenced their initial views on politics and attaining equality. These readings will also highlight some of personal struggles both leaders faced in developing their political identity, which will be the emphasis of the next and final step, where students will analyze primary sources in which Dr. King and Malcolm X deviate from the stance of politics they were ‘known’ for. Students should leave the lesson with an understanding that both leaders struggled with their personal identities and helped shaped each others, that political ideologies are not rigid and solidified but fluid and constantly evolving.

Essential Understanding:
Although Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are described in history as ideological opposites in terms of shaping their political movements, they are in fact not these iconic opposite figures in history but rather two leaders of the same movement, whose different background shaped their political identities, their fluid political identities continued to be influenced by one another throughout the movement.

Essential Questions:
1. Who were Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.?
2. What were their political views on fighting for equality?
3. How did their personal experiences shape their ideological frameworks?
4. Were these frameworks rigid or were they fluid? How did their political views evolve over time.

Racism – discrimination based on race
Self-determination –determination of one’s own fate or course of action by its own people
Nation of Islam –an exclusively Black sect of Islam that supported a separate black nation
Integration –intermixing of people or groups
Separation –state of being apart
Institutional racism –racism occurring within a system of power
Nationalism –political ideology that involves a strong identification of a group of individuals with a nation

Two of the most widely known figures in history during the Black Struggle Movement were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Both were civil rights activists that fought to end inequality toward the African American community. How both leaders went about fighting for equality is where the two diverged. Martin Luther King was an advocate of racial integration, which calls not only for the end of systematic racial segregation but also for integration of goals and leveling of barriers in order to create opportunities regardless of race. The method by which Martin Luther King used to attain racial integration was through nonviolent civil disobedience. Used by such activists like Mohandas Gandhi, civil disobedience is a form of passive resistance characterized by the refusal to obey laws and social rules that are deemed unjust.

Malcolm X, on the other hand, was an advocate of racial separatism as opposed to racial integration. He strongly believed in self-determination as the only way to attain racial equality for African Americans. African Americans must rise up and free themselves from the oppression of White America –sovereignty cannot be given and must taken. Malcolm X argued that the means by which African Americans can attain this independence is through revolution, most likely a violent revolution. Malcolm’s politics differed from King’s in many ways. His belief in self-determination and Black Nationalism led him in to discourage Whites from being part of the movement. Through his radical politics of self-determination and self-defense, Malcolm redefined how many African Americans understand White America as a system of racial oppression that only they themselves can solve.

Our history books today describe Dr. King and Malcolm X as ideological opposites. This common misperception thus divorces the influences each man had on the other. Though Martin Luther King believed in racial integration while Malcolm X believed in racial separatism and Black Nationalism, these ideologies were not mutually exclusive for either of these men. In this history lesson, we will put into question whether these two men really were ideological opposites of each other. While many students are familiar with the independent works of Dr. King and Malcolm X, few are aware of their correspondence with other or how they influence and changed each other’s political ideologies. By learning about their political ideologies and understanding how their personal experiences have shaped those ideologies, this lesson aims to dispel the perception of Dr. King and Malcolm X as rigid symbols of opposite movements and more as individuals with fluid political identities who have correspondence with another have helped further develop each others political ideologies.

I Have A Dream” Speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.
If Someone Puts a Dog on You, Kill That Dog” Excerpt by Malcolm X
Black Nationalism” Excerpt by Malcolm X
Souls. The Unfinished Dialogue “by Clayborne Carson
Letter to King” by Malcolm X
King on Vietnam War” Excerpt of an interview with Dr. King


Note: Each day of the lesson plan should take no more than a standard high school class period.

Day 1:
Prior to class, ask students to prepare a brief statement ( a few words or sentences) that they associate with names Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Begin the class by recapping briefly on the Black Freedom Struggle with an emphasis on understanding the key differences between integrationist and separationist movements and the involvement of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X with each, respectively. The introduction provided in lesson plan can be used here. From there, draw a line on the board with “Integration” and “Separation” at the opposing ends and have students decide where along the drawn line do Dr. King and Malcolm lie. Ask students to describe their preconceived notions of Dr. King and Malcolm X based on their homework and today’s brief summary and write these down next to their names, wherever they may be on the line. Following this, we will read the transcript of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech provided in the materials above as well as video excerpts of “If Someone Puts a Dog on You, Kill That Dog” and “Black Nationalism” by Malcolm X, which are also provided in the materials above. When presenting these primary sources, a few questions (provided below) should be presented to engage the students.
• Are descriptors of Dr. King and Malcolm X that we listed previously accurate?
• What are some things each say that support this?
• How were they different?
• After presenting these sources, do you think these two leaders should be placed further away from each other on the line? Closer together?

After reading and watching these primary sources, students will be divided into groups of 3-4 and answer the questions above. These small group discussions should take no longer than 10 minutes, upon which each group will return and present what they discussed to the rest of the class. Additional descriptors and quotes/evidence will be added to the board and the distance in the lines adjusted for each leader.

Conclude this day by setting up the framework to for the next day, in which students will learn how both leaders developed their political views from their personal experiences. Additionally, ask students if they saw any similarities between them. These questions are rhetorical and meant to create a framework for the next day’s discussion. For homework, have students read Clayborne Carsons’s “The Unfinished Dialogue” provided in the materials section. Carson’s paper should provide the necessary information into understanding the background behind these two man as well as presenting the possibility of a compromised between these men with respects to their converging ideologies.

Day 2:
Using the descriptors of politics of Dr. King and Malcolm X that students wrote on the board from the previous lesson day, begin this class by dividing up the class into groups of 3-4 again and divvying up the descriptors to each group. Have each group go through Clayborne Carson’s paper and look for personal experiences that explains their political ideologies. Half of the groups should have Dr. King and the other half should have Malcolm X. These small group discussions should take no longer than 20 minutes, during which the teacher should float from group to group to help facilitate any problems. Guiding questions for the small group discussion is provided below. After the discussion, each group will present their findings to the class. An understanding of the personal experiences that influence Dr. King and Malcolm X should help students demystify the two leaders as oppositional forces in history, that their political views were created from personal experiences and thus can also be changed with future experiences.

• What important personal experiences helped shape the political identities of Dr. King and Malcolm X?
• How were Dr. King’s and Malcolm X’s childhoods different? How were they the same?
• What roles did each of the following play in their early lives: family, education, experiences with Whites, religion?

Following this understanding, we will shift the conversation to see how exactly did their current experiences in the movements and with each other helped further develop their political views to a point of compromise between the two leaders. We will start by reading “A Letter to King” sent by Malcolm X and an interview of Dr. King discussing his position in the Vietnam War, both of which are provided in the materials section. Upon presentation of these sources, students will return to their small groups and discuss. A set of guiding questions for discussion is provided below. Small group discussion should take no longer than 20 minutes.
• In Malcolm’s letter to Dr. King, what is Malcolm asking of Dr. King? Why do you think he is reaching out to him?
• What are some differences you see in Malcolm’s politics?
• Does Malcolm’s message of unity and commonality in this letter conflict with his messages in the previous speeches he made?
• Does this letter align more with the descriptors we gave for Dr. King or for Malcolm X?
• In Dr. King’s interview, what is his position of the Vietnam War?
• Why is he opposed to America’s involvement? How is his argument paralleled to the self-determination of African Americans in America?
• Does this interview align more with the descriptors we gave for Dr. King or for Malcolm X?

After small group discussions, students will present their answers to the rest of the class. We will conclude this lesson by returning to the board with line drawn with integration and separation at opposing ends. At this point, students should reexamine the initial descriptors they gave for Dr. King and Malcolm and where along the long they placed each leader. Students will then be given the opportunity adjust the placement of Dr. King and Malcolm X along this binary line as well as highlight descriptors that both leaders possess. Students should leave class today with an understanding of 1) how personal experiences shape political ideologies and 2) how Dr. King and Malcolm X influenced each other to the point of a possible convergence between the two.

Additional Sources:
X, Malcolm. Chapter 18: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York City: Penguin Books Ltd, 1965.

King, Martin Luther. “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” Speech at Riverside Church, New York, 1967. Retrieved from , transcript available here: (


Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12

1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
-Students are asked to pick out quotes primary sources that support and provide evidence for some of the preconceived notions they have towards the politics of Dr. King and Malcolm X.

2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationship among the key details.
-Students will analyze and interpret the main ideas of the sources given in order to learn about the politics of Dr. King and Malcolm X.

3. Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
-Students will analyze the personal experiences of Dr. King and Malcolm X in order to help them understand how these experiences have shaped and influenced their political identities.

4. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media in order to address a question or solve a problem.
-Students will analyze various forms of sources ranging from audio files of speeches, transcripts, audio files of interviews, letters, and literary sources.

5. Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
-Students will analyze both primary and secondary sources to help them learn about Dr. King and Malcolm X, their political views, and how these views have changed.

History-Social Science Content Standards –Grade Eleven

6. Examine the roles of civil rights advocates (e.g., A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, James Farmer, Rosa Parks), including the significance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech.
-This lesson plan will focus on the civil rights movements of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm and will include an analysis of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech along with many other primary sources from Dr. King and Malcolm X.

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