The Black Freedom Struggle: the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, & Martin Luther King Jr. (Leyth Swidan)


Students will examine what role black nationalism and supremacy played within the Nation of Islam through Malcolm X’s perspective. Students will also evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Malcolm X’s and Martin Luther King’s arguments on how to achieve black equality to critically determine which approach and method best secured freedom, civil rights and a better life for black Americans during the late twentieth century. Discuss and analyze the idea of black supremacy and nationalism within the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X’s influence on the organization, and what ideas were being constructed. By examining, evaluating, and comprehending the different viewpoints, perspectives and roles of the two civil rights advocates, as well their tactics and methods that dealt with the fight for black freedom in the United States through different primary sources, students will be able to demonstrate their knowledge on how Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. worked towards the same goal although they held differing philosophies and values.

This lesson will allow students to have a clear understanding of an aspect of the black movement during the 1960s, which will come in two forms: (1) comprehending how black nationalism and supremacy was advocated for within the Nation of Islam under Malcolm X’s leadership and (2) comparing and contrasting Malcolm X with Martin Luther King Jr. in order for students to critically and analytically think about which leader’s philosophy most effectively promoted black power in the United States. The lesson is structured in a way for students to analyze what they learn immediately after they have read the information. Through this method, students will learn about the Nation of Islam, a black religious movement that sought to improve the spiritual, mental, social, and economic condition of blacks in the United States, through Malcolm X’s perspective since they will be reading two speeches. This will enable them to understand how his tactics and methodology of uplifting the black race greatly influenced the Nation of Islam as its leader. This, students are provided with the skills and knowledge needed to understand and recognize Malcolm X’s impact on the Nation of Islam, especially with his stance on violence and militant action.

In the second half of the lesson, students will learn that Malcolm X was not the only proponent of black nationalism during that time. As a supporter of nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr. will serve as Malcolm X’s contrast, or foil, as students read his speeches “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom” and “The Power of Nonviolence.” Having read both of the figure’s speeches and discussed with fellow students what King’s stance was in relation to achieving black nationalism, students will then be able to clearly differentiate their outlooks apart by watching the short PBS clip that alternates between interviews of the two men. Students will be able to understand the methods and approaches Malcolm and King used in their rhetoric as they fought for black freedom. By examining the different philosophies and tactics of each leader, student should use their analytical skills and the knowledge they have gained thus far to examine and form opinions on each’s vision for racial justice along with their views on violence and race during an uncertain time for blacks the United States. On the third day, students will continue using their critical thinking skills to formulate an argument on which leader best advocated for black rights and a black identity by arguing for the reason why they posted their note where they did on the wall. Ultimately, this lesson will allow students to construct their own ideas and beliefs, via race and violence, on how to most efficiently and effectively achieve greater black freedom and power in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century by siding with each Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr., while also taking Malcolm X’s stance as the spokesman of and his influence on the Nation of Islam into consideration.

Essential Understanding:
Under Malcolm X’s leadership, the Nation of Islam promoted black rights as members sought to create a distinct identity within the United States, which came in the form of violence. However, there were alternative methods to achieve this goal under Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy, which advocated nonviolence tactics as the solution to the black freedom struggle.

Essential Questions:

  1. What was the connection between Islam and nationalism in the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim organization?
  2. Is it possible to see the Nation of Islam as only a political or religious organization, or can it be both simultaneously?
  3. How did Malcolm X’s philosophy on black freedom impact the Nation of Islam, and how did Martin Luther King’s philosophy impact the way he saw the Civil Rights Movement.
  4. Why does Malcolm X not approve of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach to securing civil rights, and why is his stance on violence what it is?
  5. Explain why King believes that nonviolent marches and protests hold out the best hope for further progress for black Americans.
  6. Is the separate black nation proposed by Malcolm X a better goal than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideal unified and integrated nation?
  7. Was King’s nonviolent resistance to segregation laws the best means of securing civil rights for black Americans in the 1960s?

Nation of Islam: a black Islamic sect proposing a separate black nation. It came to prominence under the influence of Malcolm X.

Black Nationalism: a social and political movement advocating for separate national status for blacks.

Black nationalism has been a consistent theme throughout the history of the African American presence in America. By organizing as a social movement within the overall black nationalism social movement, African Americans hoped to change the social, economic, and political conditions of racial and class inequality as well as become liberated without being exploited by the dominant power. As Wallace D. Muhammad described it, the “Nation of Islam was a religion and a social movement organization” that incorporated spirituality, economic empowerment, and social uplift of the race while creating black pride.1

Having developed as a result of America’s racist treatment of its black community, the Nation of Islam with its radical theology of black supremacy and strict adherence to black economic self-sufficiency was the most established and recognized black nationalist religious organization in the United States. Founded by Wallace Fard in 1930, it referred to Christianity as the white man’s religion, and argued that Islam was closer to African roots and identity. The Nation of Islam was a political organization as it hoped to find a solution for the plight of African Americans. It was known for its teachings combining principles of traditional Islam with black nationalist ideas. Its goals included improving the spiritual, political, social, and economic condition of African Americans in the United States. It promoted racial unity, superiority of the black man, and self-reliance and maintained a strict moral code among members. In terms of its religious doctrine, the Nation proved to be much more politically radical than Orthodox Islam although it believed that there is no other God but Allah, who was their black God and Islam was the only true religion of Allah. This was due to Islam supporting blacks from the start because unlike Christianity, which forced Africans to give up their way of life, it did not compel them to discard their culture.2 This religious aspect combined with black pride and black nationalism created the foundation of the Nation of Islam.

The Nation of Islam’s unorthodox interpretation of Islam was mixed with a doctrine of black personal responsibility and economic self-sufficiency, along with anti-white mythology. This, along with total racial separation as the means to black redemption, alluded to black nationalism, which was the solution to the lack of upward mobility for blacks in the United States caused by institutional racism and economic inequality. This creation of a new identity strengthened a sense of identity within members of the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm X was one of the most prominent black nationalist leaders in the United States as he advocated black pride, and was known all over the world as an African-American/Pan-Africanist and human rights leader. As the spokesman of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X called on African Americans to be proud of their heritage and to set up strong communities, such as schools, churches, and support networks, without the help of white Americans. Blacks should achieve what was rightfully theirs “by whatever means necessary.” He advocated black supremacy while demonizing Caucasians, who were seen as evil blue-eyed devils, referring to them as “the enemy” and decrying their mere existence.3 Malcolm X believed that the only way to be free from the cultural hegemony of white America was through the rejection of the traditional Christianity of black America, which hinted at his promotion of uncompromising resistance to white oppression.

Unlike Malcolm X who highlighted the longstanding and manifest injustices of white America to promote economic and social separatism to blacks, Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the conscience and justice of white America and advocated for integration. His advocacy for nonviolent and peaceful change and integration stood in stark contrast with Malcolm X’s message of black pride, self-sufficiency, and self-defense against racial oppression “by any means necessary.” In contrast with Malcolm X’s black separatism, Martin Luther King, Jr. saw nonviolence as a means of building an integrated community of blacks and whites in America. He rejected the idea of black nationalism as he believed that the fate of black Americans was interconnected to America itself. Being a strong believer of civil disobedience and peaceful mass protests, King employed nonviolence tactics to advance black rights while also combating racial inequality.


Day One:

  1. Hand out the Nation of Islam’s beliefs and wants to students and have them read it as background on the Nation of Islam.
  2. Having assigned Malcolm X’s speeches (“Black Man’s History” and “The Ballot or the Bullet”) and interview (A Summing Up: Louis Lomax interviews Malcolm X) as homework the night before, have students form groups of five in order to discuss three points they found interesting or informative that shed light on what Malcolm X’s philosophy entailed when it came to black rights and Islam, both during his time in the Nation of Islam and after. Have them keep in mind the following questions:
    • How does Malcolm X’s perspective change from his time in the Nation of Islam to after he left?
    • What are the political, economic, and social aspects of black nationalism?
    • In what ways has Malcolm X’s thinking changed from his days as NOI spokesman?
    • After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X wanted to solve the problems of black Americans by minimizing the differences  between black Americans. What did he say was their “common problem”?
    • Why does Malcolm X call white people “devils”?
    • Why does the Nation of Islam not try to integrate blacks into American society?
    • What solution does Malcolm X propose and how would this provide what blacks most need?
    • How does Malcolm X defend the Nation of Islam from the criticism that they preach black supremacy and violence?
    • Why does Malcolm X not believe in nonviolence as a means of social reform and how does he justify violence as a means for black Americans to improve themselves?
    • Why does Malcolm X think that the civil rights struggle needs to become a human rights struggle? What would this look like?
    • What is Malcolm X’s intention when he states “We [blacks] don’t separate our color from our religion?” Why does he believe that one’s skin color is closely related and important to their religion?
  3. After that, have each group summarize its main points to the rest of the class so that different perspectives are heard and analyzed.
  4. Have students note Malcolm X’s attitude towards the Nation of Islam by having them compare and contrast his ideology, both during and after his tine at the Nation, with that of the Nation of Islam. This could be done by having them write a couple of sentences addressed to him either criticizing or praising one of his speeches, and ultimately, stance.

Day Two:

  1. Now introduce Martin Luther King Jr. to the class by providing them with his speeches, “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom” and “The Power of Nonviolence.” Have them read both speeches individually.
  2. Next, have students discuss with each other what they thought was significant from MLK’s speech using these questions to frame their group discussions:
    • What is the goal of nonviolent resistance?
    • What does King mean when he says that the threat of violence as a strategy for civil rights or economic improvement is “nonexistent”?
    • Why does King believe that a focus on self-defense to promote progress for blacks is unproductive?
    • What practical reason does King mention to show that advocating violence on behalf of rights for blacks in America is not smart?
    • How does King defend his philosophy of nonviolence against the claim that it is cowardly or passive? In what way does he consider it strong?
  3. Play the PBS video of Malcolm X’s and MLK Jr.’s interviews to allow students to directly see how the two influential figures differed from each other. This will leave students thinking about how the two’s policies and ideologies played out when taking the Nation of Islam’s stance on black supremacy, rights, and nationalism into consideration.
  4. Hold a collective group discussion on how the two authoritative figures differed in methodology for the achievement of equality for the black race.
  5. For homework, have students prepare a statement that explains what leader they believe accomplished the goal of achieving black supremacy and nationalism better in terms of ideology and rhetoric.

Day Three:

  1. This day will consist mainly of one discussion. Put up two pieces of paper on the wall; one that says “Malcolm X (1)” and the other “Martin Luther King Jr. (10).” Allow six feet in between both papers. Pass out sticky notes and have students write their name and number on theirs. This number represents where they believe they stand on the scale, or in other words, whose philosophies they support more, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. The more they support a person, the closer their note and number is to that figure’s number. Then have students come up to stick their notes to the wall.
  2. With desks arranged in a circle, have students go around stating the reason why they placed their note where they did. Does this mean that the leader who their notes are closer to advocated for black rights more effectively than the other leader?
  3. In the last twenty minutes of class, facilitate a discussion among students that answers the essential questions provided. This should leave them with a clear understanding of how the Nation of Islam, with Malcolm X as its leader, advocated for black supremacy.

Additional Sources:

  1. Algernon Austin (2003): Rethinking race and the Nation of Islam, 1930-1975, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 26:1, 52-69
  2. Carson, Carlborn. “The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.” OAH Magazine of History 19, no.1 (January 2005): 22-26.
  3. Jackson, Sherman A. Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  4. Marsh, Clifton E. From Black Muslims to Muslims. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 1996. Print.
  5. Talhami, Ghada Hashem. “America’s Early Experience with the Muslim Faith: The Nation of Islam.” Middle East Policy Council15, no. 3 (Fall 2008): 129-138.
  6. Tinaz, Nuri. “The Nation of Islam: Historical evolution and Transformation of the Movement.” Journal Of Muslim Minority Affairs 16, no. 2 (July 1996): 193.
  7. Walker, Dennis. Islam and the Search for African-American Nationhood: Elijah Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan, and the Nation Of Islam. Atlanta: Clarity, 2005. Print.
  8. White, Vibert L. Inside the Nation of Islam: A Historical and Personal Testimony of a Black Muslim. Gainesville: University of Florida, 2001. Print.


  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.
  • Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
  • Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
  • Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.


1 Marsh, Clifton E, From Black Muslims to Muslims, 51.
2 Jackson, Sherman A., Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection, 41.
3 Walker, Dennis, Islam and the Search for African-American Nationhood: Elijah Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan, and the Nation Of Islam, 277.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s