Competing Voices of the Civil Rights Movement

Civil Rights leaders marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963.
Photo caption

Civil Rights leaders marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963.

“The question is not if we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” 

― Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When most people think of the Civil Rights Movement in America, they think of Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. But "the Movement" achieved its greatest results—the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—due to the competing strategies and agendas of diverse individuals. Even black Americans, the primary beneficiaries of this landmark legislation, did not agree on the tactics that should be used to secure the equal protection of their rights. This unit presents the views of several important black leaders who 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.

Guiding Questions

To what extent was King's nonviolent resistance to segregation laws the best means of securing civil rights for black Americans in the 1960s?


Is the separate black nation proposed by Malcolm X a better or nobler goal than "the beloved community" of Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Which approach toward equity is more sustainable?

Learning Objectives

Explain Martin Luther King, Jr.'s concept of nonviolent resistance and the role of civil disobedience within it.

Analyze the concerns regarding King's intervention in Birmingham and King's responses to those concerns.

Evaluate the merits and shortcomings of the competing philosophies around achieving civil rights. 

Examine the relationship between each leader's background and their approach to achieving civil rights. 

Analyze the public response to the means by which each leader sought to achieve their goals. 

Examine the reasons why Malcolm X thought integration was a false hope for blacks in America.

Explain why Malcolm X disagreed with both the goal and the method of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nonviolent protest strategy.

Evaluate the short and long term impact of these men and their philosophies regarding violence as a means toward change.