On 25th May, a horrifying video from Minneapolis (USA) went viral. The police attempted to arrest a black man named George Floyd on charges of $20 fraud. The video shows 3 police officers. The first holding George’s legs, the second sitting on him and the third stamping his neck with his knee. George kept crying helplessly, he shouted for help, he kept saying, “I am suffocating”, “I can’t breathe”, “leave me! I will die!!” But his cries fell on deaf ears. The policeman was unmoved. He remained in that position for several minutes even after George fell unconscious. Meanwhile, the 4th police officer prevented the stand byers from intervening or filming the incident.
This news spread like wildfire. This initiated far and wide protests which kept getting forceful and violent. The protestors reached the White House, the historical St. Johns Church also called “church of Presidents” was vandalized and set on fire. The conditions deteriorated so much that Trump was taken to the safety bunker of the White House.
These protests grabbed the attention of the entire world, the Police was tormented by guilt, Houston police chief publicly said, “shut up Trump” when he threatened the protestors. The police in Miami and New York fell to their knees expressing their anguish over the incident and solidarity with the oppressed
The question is how did the death of a man cause such an uproar??
Let’s understand this from history: in the 20th century, especially in the 50s and the 60s, two voices were quite popular in the USA fighting for black rights.
Martin Luther King Jr (associated with southern Christian leadership conference). He was the founding president of the organization. Highly educated, religious, and public speaker. He had been the president of the student union in the college though there were few blacks over there. This shows that he was quite popular among the whites too. He was influenced by Gandhi. He came to India too and held talks with Jawaharlal Nehru on the social issues.
The other figure was Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik Al Shahbaz), he was associated with an organization called (Nation of Islam), later he left the organization due to some ideological differences. He toured the Middle East and many African countries to give an international aura to the Black Right Violations in the USA and to attract the sympathy of the governments for their cause. He was pretty young when his father was killed by the white extremists, his mother lost her mind and she was admitted to a mental hospital. Now, he along with his siblings were left with nothing and had to live on the pennies thrown by the people. He was neither educated nor was he upbrought in a decent home. Thus, he fell into theft and was caught along with his mate and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. He started reading in the library and finished all the books in the stock. At the age of 27, he was released, he joined (Nation of Islam) and soon became its spokesperson.
Though Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X had similar goals, the methods they adopted were far from close. How to get the rights for Black? How to give them a life of dignity? Their answers were quite different.
King Luther said, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But despite temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.” Once he said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” On 28th August 1963 a huge and historical protest was held in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington City. More than 250,000 people participated. Martin Luther gave his famous speech “I have a dream” from that stage itself. There too, he emphasized non-violence. “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood”.
On the other hand, Malcolm X said, “We are not human beings unless we band together and do whatever, however, whenever is necessary to see that our lives and property are protected, and I doubt that any person here would refuse to do the same thing where he in the same position”. On 27th April 1962 in Los Angeles, the police fired at the members of the Nation of Islam, 7 were injured and one killed. Malcolm X was then its spokesperson, he said, “The white man is intelligent enough, he should be made to realize how black people feel and how fed up we are with compromising and sweet talks. stop sweet-talking him. tell him how you feel tell him. what kind of hell you been facing and tell him to know, if he is not ready to clean his house, he shouldn’t have a house. It should get on fire and burn down. Firing back on the objections of King Luther and others, he said, “I believe that it is a crime for anyone to teach a person who is being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself.”
The question that arises now is, how were the problems of Blacks solved in the USA? Were they solved by peaceful demonstrations? Or was it the force and might that freed the Blacks and gave them their rights?
In January 1965 King Luther along with other leaders took out a peaceful demonstration, it initiated a continuous chain of protests demanding voting rights. Those were of course peaceful, but the police turned violent, and then on 1st of February Luther along with hundreds of demonstrators was detained. All the efforts to get them released went in vain. The next day, Malcolm X gave a speech, “Many African Americans did not support the king’s nonviolent approach. Luther was immediately released along with all the other detainees. It’s evident that even for the release of a non-violent leader, some violence is required.
On 14th April 1968, Martin Luther was shot and killed. Though a lot of measures were taken, violence hit the streets in more than a hundred places. Stokely Carmichael who had been the chief of the Student Non-Violence Coordination Committee for a long time said, “White America killed Dr king last night. She made it a whole lot easier for a whole lot of black people today. There no longer needs to be intellectual discussions, Black people know that they have to get guns. White America will live to cry that she killed Dr. King last night. It would have been better if she had killed Rap Brown and /or Stokely Carmichael, but when she killed Dr. King, she lost”.
King Luther was the symbol of peace and negotiations. Killing him meant that non-violence was no longer the way ahead. A lot of leaders of his organization said, “The strategy of non-violence should also be buried with King.”
On the evening of 18th March, 2018, a 22-year-old Black named Stephen Clark was killed by the police as they fired 8 bullets on him, suspecting that he is pointing a gun towards them when he was having nothing other than mobile in his hand. Most of the bullets hit his back which made it clear that he was shot without even checking if he had a gun or not. After this brutal murder, neither Trump spoke nor was any action taken against the involved policemen. On 17th July, 2014, a Black named Eric Garner was choked by the police in broad daylight in New York City, he kept saying: I can’t breathe until they killed him. Same like George Floyd, his video also went viral, but neither Obama spoke nor was any strict action against the accused policemen.
But when George Floyd was killed, a huge issue was created, despite the lockdown due to COVID 19 people filled the streets, properties were set ablaze and the violence erupted, the police looked helpless. People reached the White House too, President Trump had to show his concern and expressed, “I am deeply grieved” and “that was a horrific sight”. Sharpton the famous social activist said: this is the first case of racism that Trump criticized. The question is: what has forced Trump to speak up today? Indeed, in the history of Minnesota state (the place where George was killed), this is the first ever incident when a white police officer has been charged with the murder of a black man.
This strange case of George Floyd is an illustration of what Luther had said once “a riot is the voice of unheard”. Malcolm X had also said the same thing “Anytime you live in a society supposedly based upon the law and it doesn’t enforce its laws because the colour of man’s skin happens to be wrong, then I say those people are justified to resort to any means necessary to bring about justice when the government can’t give them justice’’.
This is one angle of looking at the whole scenario that shows how violence becomes essential at times. Another question which arises now is what was the accomplishment of Luther’s ideology then? What did the non-violence strategy gain? Was only Malcolm X right? Was everything achieved through violence alone?
Indeed, the reality is quite the opposite, though a lot of violent protests and activities were carried out in the mid of the last century, it was the legislations that helped the Blacks and improvised their situation. Civil Rights Act 1957, Civil Rights Act 1960, Civil Rights Act 1964, Voting Rights Act 1965, Fair Housing Act 1968, various human rights commissions, Equal Employment Commission, Civil Rights Division, etc. were created to ensure justice to the Blacks. And the credit mostly goes to the ideology of Luther King rather than the ideology of Malcolm X, if only violence was used in the entire struggle for civil rights, the state might have crushed it. But on the other hand, we should also remember that it was Malcolm X who forced the whites to pay attention to Martin Luther. Malcolm forced the whites to come to negotiations and Luther used these negotiations to achieve his cause.
The conclusion is that these are the two methods that every oppressed group adopts. I have mentioned Luther and Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Movement just to illustrate my point of view more effectively.
Staying silent and acting numb against oppression isn’t advised even by Luther, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, he said, “The principle of self-defence, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi.” And killing the innocent people in the name of revenge isn’t recommended even by Malcolm X who is often targeted by people saying that he incited violence. He had said, “We are non-violent only with non-violent people—I’m non-violent as long as somebody else is non-violent”.
The point to understand is that whenever voice is suppressed, noise should be created, non-violence and justice could never tell you to stay silent during oppression, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X seem to be different but they are the two sides of the same coin.
Bhagat Singh has played an equally important role in the freedom of India as Gandhi. Abul Kalam Azad and Tahreek-e- Shahiden were equally significant in the fight against the British. Martin Luther and Malcolm X have equal credits for the Blacks getting civil rights, and this is the conclusion of my words.
The mistake occurs when we start comparing leaders of both the ideologies when we start appreciating one and blaming the other due to our faulty analysis. When we agree with one group and fight the other, we waste our time and potential, leaving aside our core objective. The time is wasted, the chances spoilt and the resources drained.
Mukhtar Masood had once said, “The people who fail to decide their priorities, take the freedom for granted using it for momentary pleasure, meanwhile forgetting to preserve their identity and culture, will finally face a time they lose the right to own, the right to govern and even the right to life.”
(Author’s note: The article has been translated into English by Hamza Jawed Khan.)