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MPH Program in Health Services
More Black History Month Profiles . . .

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) & Malcolm X (1925-1965)

The Christian Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Muslim minister Malcolm Little (aka el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz; Malcolm X) were religious and civil rights leaders who shared the goals of eliminating racism and promoting justice and freedom for African Americans. King followed the nonviolent and civil disobedience tactics of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), whereas Malcolm X took a more direct, militant approach. 

King guided grassroots, community-oriented, and Christian church-affiliated organizations in the racially-segregated South, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

SNCC was then headed by Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998). Carmichael was originally a follower of King’s teachings and tactics, but following the beatings and killings of civil rights workers, and influenced by Malcolm X, he assumed a more militant position, as “Kwame Ture,” developer of the Black Power movement (see Kruse & Zilizer, 2019: 45 & 52; Zinn, various).

King’s vision of racial equality included equality in health. For example, he gave a speech to the Medical Committee for Human Rights in 1966 in which he has been quoted as saying, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.’ (The exact quotation is uncertain.) 

Since his death, a sanitized version of King has been elevated to sainthood by White society, though still he is cursed in America by the so-called “alt-right” (white supremacist/white nationalist) movement.

White society has remained largely ambivalent and uncomfortable with regards to Malcolm X’s teachings, yet his relevance to public health and African American history is without question, especially in his opposition to the violence perpetrated daily against African Americans. 

Historian Howard Zinn captures one of a plethora racist acts against the health and well-being of African Americans: 

“Eighteen days after the Washington gathering (where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech), as almost as if in contempt for its moderation, a bomb exploded in the basement of a black church in Birmingham and four girls attending a Sunday school class were killed. President Kennedy had praised the ‘deep fervor and quiet dignity’ of the march, but black militant Malcolm X was probably closer to the mood of the black community” (Zinn, 2003, p457). 

Zinn’s reference is to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on September 15 by the Ku Klux Klan, where four little African American girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, were killed. 

King and Malcolm X each fought in their own ways for equality for African Americans, but race-based health inequality remains a critical issue in America. African Americans are still sicker and die younger than their White contemporaries, they face higher rates of violence and incarceration, and have less access to quality, affordable health care. Several of the African Americans public health leaders we are exploring this month have made addressing health inequities among racial minorities the focus of their life’s work: Camara Jones, Robert D. Bullard, and alumna Mary T. Bassett, among them.

For a further exploration of race-based health inequality, read former Surgeon General David Satcher’s seminal 2002 paper “What If We Were Equal,” which estimates 83,000 excess deaths per year among African Americans (the “black-white mortality gap”): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15757931 

And “Structural Racism and Health Inequities” (2011) by Gilbert C. Gee and Chandra L. Ford: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4306458/ 

Author: Dr. Clarence Spigner, Health Services Professor and MPH Program Director

Photos: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking. Julian Wasser—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images; Malcolm X

Sources: 

  • Kevin M. Kruse & Julian E. Zelizer. 2019. Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974. W.W. Norton & Company, New York / London
  • Howard Zinn. 1980, 1909, 1995, 1998, 2003. A People’s History of the United States, HarperPerennial / Modern Classics. New York
  • Alex Haley. 1965. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Grove Press.