Closer Readings Commentary

Malcolm X: A Radical Vision for Civil Rights

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X waiting for press conference, March 26, 1964.
Photo caption

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X waiting for press conference, March 26, 1964.

When most people think of the civil rights movement, they think of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, and his acceptance of the Peace Prize the following year, secured his place as the voice of non-violent, mass protest in the 1960s.

Yet the movement achieved its greatest results—the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—due to the competing and sometimes radical strategies and agendas of diverse individuals such as Malcolm X, whose birthday is celebrated on May 19. As one of the most powerful, controversial, and enigmatic figures of the movement he occupies a necessary place in social studies/history curricula.

Malcolm X’s Black Separatism

Malcolm X’s embrace of black separatism shaped the debate over how to achieve freedom and equality in a nation that had long denied a portion of the American citizenry the full protection of their rights. It also laid the groundwork for the Black Power movement of the late sixties.

Malcolm X believed that blacks were god's chosen people. As a minister of the Nation of Islam, he preached fiery sermons on separation from whites, whom he believed were destined for divine punishment because of their longstanding oppression of blacks.

Whites had proven themselves long on professing and short on practicing their ideals of equality and freedom, and Malcolm X thought only a separate nation for blacks could provide the basis for their self-improvement and advancement as a people.


In this interview at the University of California—Berkeley in 1963, Malcolm X addresses media and violence, being a Muslim in America, desegregation, and other issues pertinent to the successes and short-comings of the civil rights movement. 

Malcolm X and the Common Core

The Common Core emphasizes that students’ reading, writing, and speaking be grounded in textual evidence and the lesson Black Separatism or the Beloved Community? Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., which contrasts Malcolm X and Martin Luther King’s aims and means of achieving progress for black American progress in the 1960s, provides a wealth of supplementary historical nonfiction texts for such analysis.

This lesson helps teachers and students achieve a range of Common Core standards, including:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2—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.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9—Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.4—Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.

The background to the teacher section, written by a scholar of African American political thought, will benefit both novice teachers and those who seek to deepen their understanding of this seminal figure.

In the activity section, students gain an understanding of Malcolm X’s ideas and an appreciation for his rhetorical powers by diving into compelling and complex primary source material, including an exclusive interview with the journalist Louis Lomax (who first brought Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam to the attention of white people) and by reading and listening to a recording of Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots.”

The assessment activity asks students to evaluate both visions for a new and “more perfect” America. In this way they will gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of civil rights movement writ large.

In the extending the lesson section, the evolution of Malcolm X’s views are traced and considered.

After he left the Nation of Islam in March 1964, Malcolm felt free to offer political solutions to the problems that afflicted black Americans. He advised black Americans to (1) engage in smarter political voting and organization (for example, no longer voting for black leaders he viewed as shills for white interests); and (2) fight for civil rights at the international level.

One of Malcolm X’s last speeches, "The Ballot or the Bullet," is crucial, and a close reading of it will help students understand how his thinking about America and black progress was evolving.

More Common Core Connections

Teachers may also wish to use a radio documentary accessible through the NEH-supported WNYC archive that includes a rare interview with Malcolm X and goes on to explore his legacy and relationship with Islam through interviews with friends, associates, and excerpts from his speeches.

Last and not least, the NEH-supported American Icons podcast on The Autobiography of Malcolm X surveys The Autobiography’s  appeal and includes riveting passages read by the actor Dion Graham. Teachers can listen to both podcasts as they begin to plan lessons around the text, or they may choose to listen with students in order to introduce them to the debates the text continues to spark around race, rights, and social justice. This activity would help students meet another of the ELA Standards.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.5—Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.

Additional Resources