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Malcolm X = John Locke

October 30, 2010
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After reading Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet,” I began to think how Malcolm X’s actions and beliefs could be compared to the other philosopher’s we had studied this semester so far.  Did he portray Machiavellian characteristics, MLK’s peaceful determination, Hobbes’s naturally violent, competitive spirit, or Locke’s views on peace and equality?

As I analyzed Malcolm X’s speech, I came to the realization that he used many of Locke’s ideas and reasoning.  John Locke believed that we should have a sense of community and equality and that we should get what the government isn’t protecting for us through any means necessary.  Malcolm X felt that the United States hadn’t given blacks the proper rights or respect that they deserved and he didn’t feel any sense of belonging.  In fact, he said:

“No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver–no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”

Unlike MLK, Malcolm X didn’t believe in peaceful solutions.  If someone used violence or force against him and his people, he would retaliate in the same manner.  In other words, he advocated the “eye for an eye” idea.  This seems more like Hobbes than Locke, since Hobbes wrote that people tend to be naturally violent.  Consequently, he seems to display a Machiavellian characteristic, since it seems as if he’s willing to do whatever necessary to get what he wants (ends justify the means).  Malcolm X argued that blacks in America had their rights violated by the government, therefore, they had the right to revolt against them in order to gain them back.  Also, he said that representation should be done by people of that specific demographic.  It makes no sense for a wealthy, white man to represent poor, black men from the ghettos, when he doesn’t know what these people need or what their lives are like.  Democracy is founded on a “no taxation without representation” ideal, and the fact that African Americans had no rights went against this.  Locke said that God naturally gives us a right to land and our own bodies, and that if we put labor into the land then we deserve it.  Locke’s law of property provides Malcolm X with his strongest argument.  Blacks were introduced to the United States against their will and had worked endlessly, under slavery, until they earned their freedom.  Therefore, shouldn’t they have a right to the land as well?  If so, shouldn’t the government protect their property like they do for the whites? He says:

“Well, we’re justified in seeking civil rights, if it means equality of opportunity, because all we’re doing there is trying to collect for our investment. Our mothers and fathers invested sweat and blood. Three hundred and ten years we worked in this country without a dime in return–I mean without a dime in return.”

Malcolm X said that civil rights violate human rights.  In his passage about the United Nations (UN), Malcolm X says:

“But the United Nations has what’s known as the charter of human rights, it has a committee that deals in human rights. You may wonder why all of the atrocities that have been committed in Africa and in Hungary and in Asia and in Latin America are brought before the UN, and the Negro problem is never brought before the UN.”

Malcolm X says that civil rights in the United States are meant to restrict blacks’ human rights.  Human rights are something you are born with, but the way society works, people are too busy worrying about civil rights to even think about their God-given human rights. Malcolm X said something along the lines of how civil rights are appealing to the very government who is holding them down.  The other reason he mentioned the UN is because he compared blacks in the United States to smaller, poorer nations in the UN.  Just like blacks in the United States, these poorer nations want some power and some representation.   This deals with Locke’s idea of equality, where everyone should be able to have the things they need as long as it doesn’t make anyone else worse off.

Malcolm X’s speech, in my opinion, is an extreme way to revolt.  Sure, violence is sometimes necessary in order to attain what we want, but I don’t think total separation, like he proposed, was the answer to ending segregation, but would rather make it worse.  I respect what Malcolm X did, and I think it’s better that he followed Locke’s ideas instead of Hobbes’s or Machiavelli’s violent beliefs.  Regardless of his approach, Malcolm X’s courage and determination turned him into a martyr, being one of the most influential African Americans in our nation’s history.

6 Comments
  1. Benjamin Di Pietro permalink
    October 31, 2010 4:50 PM

    Had Malcolm X not been assassinated so early in the Civil Rights Movement, do you think he would have changed his methods or beliefs? To me, it seems as though he was fighting for the quick fix, whereas MLK was going more slowly and covering all possible ground in order to assure results and leave nothing out.

    • jldykes permalink
      November 2, 2010 10:43 PM

      Although Malcolm X violent methods were for a great cause, in the end his work in general would have been ineffective because he gave the “white man” a reason to continue to oppress black people. The violence he advocated would fuel the fire that drove oppression. If he remained alive throughout the Civil Rights Movement, I don’t believe that his beliefs would have changed. Malcolm X only wanted to relieve the situation in the south, MLK set out to progressively change the beliefs of the people so that they saw the wrong in what they were doing. This supports the fact mentioned in the previous post that Malcolm X was fighting for a quick fix, whereas MLK was going more slowly and covering all possible ground in order to assure results and leave nothing out.

      Although these leaders were fighting towards the same goal, they went about it in far different ways. When it came to progression in the civil rights movement it seems as though the assassination of Malcolm X, helped Martin Luther King’s method of non-violent civil disobedience excel. Although his principles remained MLK, was able to focus more on the goal at hand, and not contradictory methods preached by Malcolm X.

  2. mattwax permalink
    November 1, 2010 12:07 PM

    Malcolm X does certainly seem to speak to many of Locke’s ideals in his speech. In the case of Malcolm X, the government was not acting to ensure the rights of blacks throughout the country. “People have the right to remove [the government] by force,” and for the minority population of the time, it seems as if they could have been justified in rebellion. They did in fact enter into that society, many participated in it-voting- and recieved very little of what they were promised. Although many Malcolm X’s propositions seem to be wildly radical, there obvioulsy remains a logical basis for his argument. We must also apreciate the mindset of Malcolm X; his actions were the culmination of centuries of frustration- surely one is allowed to vent a little and come off as angry when their race has been preyed upon for hundreds of years. Still, I would not go so far as to equate him with Locke, but the two do in fact have similar beliefs on a particular set of issues.

  3. alifoti permalink
    November 1, 2010 9:57 PM

    I agree with you on the argument that Malcolm X draws parallels to Locke in terms of a right to rebellion. In the context of slavery, a state to which Malcolm X draws attention as the history of the African-American community, individuals never possesses a right of property, which automatically legitimizes their rebellion. Also, both refute the idea of tacit consent, because Locke requires express consent to the government through a social contract, and Malcolm X argues that without representation in government and the political rights that accompany this representation, he is not an American. However, I disagree with you on the point that both Locke and Malcolm X endorse rebellion through “whatever means necessary” to obtain equality of rights. While Malcolm X is obviously seeking an immediate solution to rectify the injustices that the black community faces during the Civil Rights Movement, Locke does not want his right to rebellion to cause constant conflict. Instead, he understands the nature of people to be slow-moving and afraid of rebellion and instructs that people only rebel if the rights of the majority are infringed upon.

  4. Raye permalink
    April 29, 2011 1:03 PM

    I definitely do see the similiarities In Malcolm X’s beliefs and John Locke, but do think that his idea of “by any means neccessary” has any basis on Machiavelli’s ” the ends justifies the mean”?

  5. Raye permalink
    April 29, 2011 1:07 PM

    I definitely see the similarities between Malcolm X and Locke’s beliefs ,but do you think that Malcolm X’s qoute “by any means neccessary has any basis on Machiavelli’s “the end justifies the means’?

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