Comparing Styles of Leadership: Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Both Malcolm X and Dr. King were great leaders of the civil rights movement that discouraged oppression and discrimination of African Americans. Malcolm X did this with by encouraging others to use equal force against violent oppression. Dr. King, on the other hand by encouraged nonviolence. In an era plagued by discrimination and Jim Crow Blacks were not afforded the same freedoms Whites. Most Black people suffered from oppression, living in poverty, and fear and violence from Whites.  To stimulate political and social change, both Malcolm X and Dr. King became historically recognized leaders. They both wanted equal opportunities and quality life for Black Americans. To do this, these leaders utilized different aims to reach their goal. This can not only be seen in their personality and experiences, but also in their leadership quality and style. While Dr. King was the inventor and implementer of non-violent protest, Malcolm X encouraged Blacks to fight back with violence against white oppressors.  Although they both fought for the same end result- freedom and equal opportunities- Malcolm X and Dr. King were very different leaders with unique leadership styles.

Dr. King and Malcolm X were very different African American leaders with very distinct experiences and leadership style. As explained by O’Donnell, “socio-cultural circumstances and conditions” of Malcolm X and Dr. King helped shaped these individuals, (2012). This can be in the life and experiences of Dr. King. Known and recognized for his charismatic leadership qualities, he took a stand for non-violence. He grew up in a warm and loving home in a middle class community with other middle class Blacks. He lived in a two parent home and son of a minister. Dr. King’s father was a successful minister. He was raised participating in the NAACP and an active part of the Black community. In this way, Dr. King had opportunities available to him that most Black Americans did not. He was supported by both his parents and given a quality education earning a Doctorate degree in 1955, (Gibbs, 2008). His opportunities and upbringing allowed Dr. King to follow in his father’s footsteps. The loving environment and permanent role model in his father, Dr. King and his experiences shaped him into the non-violent charismatic leader that we are familiar with today.

Malcolm X, on the other hand, had a considerably different up bringing. His childhood experiences molded Malcolm X into the courageous Black Nationalist that society knows and recognizes. At a young age, Malcolm lost his father. A pillar of the community, Malcolm’s father was also a minister. However, at a young age his father was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, (Gibbs, 2008). This event would significantly impact him for the rest of his life. It sent his mother into a manic depression where she was unable to provide for her children. Malcolm was soon orphaned. He grew up in foster care and living in poverty, without the care of a loving mother. He was shuffled from one home to the next and did not have a relationship with his siblings. His experience as an orphan altered the point of view of Malcolm X and his perception of oppression, white supremacy, and black pride. The murder of his father by the Klan directly influenced his approach against White oppression. It also impacted his leadership style.

The life and upbringing of these two leaders magnifies the difference in their leadership approach. The condition of their upbringing allows an audience to understand the differences in leadership that is seen of Malcolm X when compared to that of Dr. King. Therefore, “(psychological and phenomenological speaking as personal life experiences) is important factors in why leaders (and by implication, those they lead) choose violence or nonviolence as alternative means to accomplish socio-economic and political ends”, (O’Donnell, 2012). The life experiences influenced their leadership style but also the method used to encourage and stimulate social change.The leadership style they used helped to change public perception and greater society. Malcolm’s tragic childhood encouraged him to lead of life of crime. He did not have the role model and influence of a father to give him guidance and direction. Furthermore, the tragedy of his father’s death also encouraged his approach to violence, oration, and leadership. Had Malcolm grew up with a minister father and a supporting mother, he may not possess the same leadership qualities observed. Malcolm openly called Whites, the devil and encouraged Blacks to violence to fight violence. With this Malcolm encouraged Black economic independence, pride, and unity as a strategy against White supremacy. This is expressly in his approach to encourage Black nationalism.

While Malcolm X was encouraging Blacks to enforce the use of violence when met with violence, Dr. King did just the opposite. To stimulate social equality, Dr. King encouraged Black and White Americans to act in non-violence. He preached to congregations and others under his leadership to not attack Whites with violence even when met with violence. This demonstration of will, silent protest, and “freedom marches” showed Americans that anyone could fight for equal rights and can do so in a peaceful manner. The idea of using, “weapons of love” made those against social change, change their tactics, (Edwards, 2011). Through non violence protest against oppression Dr. King was “appealing to White American sense of fair play that a public demonstration of nonviolence could bring about changes and therefore oppose the idea of self-defense”, (Moritz, 1998).  Unlike X, Dr. King preached in various African American churches in the community and he preached in Washington. His method wasn’t just to reach Black people, but Blacks and Whites alike to stimulate change and social equality.

Many view Malcolm X with negative connotations. In an article presented by,, the author noted that, “Malcolm X own view of the world was pretty much tinted with anger, bitterness, and the desire to get back at the world that treated him pretty much unfairly”, (“Differences”, 2010). Like Dr. King, Malcolm X was a minister. However, X led a ministry that did not follow the Christian beliefs found in the core of America. Malcolm followed the Nation of Islam under the leadership of self-proclaimed prophet Elijah Muhammad. These teachings encouraged Blacks to fight back against oppressors. Muhammad preached for Black Muslims to harbor the same feelings towards Whites that Whites felt about Blacks. Furthermore, the Nation of Islam encouraged Black pride, social and economic independence, self-defense, and other tactics to combat racism. In this way, Malcolm provoked fear in White Americans in the same manner that White Americans provoked fear in Black society. “Malcolm always spoke of the bitter and unmeasurable present and warned White America of outburst of violence in a tone that shocked most whites”, (Moritz, 1998).

Although some complained of the tactics used by Malcolm X, others did the same when considering Dr. King’s leadership style. Martin was considered conservative. He did not do TV shows or radio broadcast. Instead, he spoke to his congregation and preached equality. He was a Christian minister and conducted himself as such.  “Martin had to be moderate, because the civil rights movement was supported and financed by many whites”, (Mortiz, 1998). However, despite the reasoning, Dr. King preached equality and civil liberty to all audiences regardless of race. He encouraged social equality and an end to segregation. It is possible that Dr. King did this due to the support gained by Whites. It can also be considered that Dr. King wanted to reach White audiences to change their attitudes and perceptions. Blacks were then, and continue to be now, connected with negative connotations and synonyms. To change this perception, Dr. King utilized a nonviolent approach to demonstrate that African Americans are not violent, are not criminals, and are not to cause harm. The nonviolent approach made society understand all that Blacks go through in a segregated society and what they were willing to endure to have equal opportunity.

Malcolm X encouraged that, “Blacks first had to love themselves to build up Black consciousness”, (Mortiz, 1998). Malcolm encouraged Black owned businesses, Black owned housing, and pushed Blacks to take the right steps towards economic and social independence. In this time, many Blacks did not have the opportunities available to have a black owned business or suffered from oppression. As a result, Malcolm X encouraged Blacks to have pride within themselves and each other. In this way, “he wanted Black people to love themselves, so that they could unite and control their own community”, (Edwards, 2011). Dr. King also fought for the Black community. However, instead of using Black pride as a motivator, Dr. King encouraged peace, harmony, and unity. He wanted America to be a large melting pot that allows individuals of various nationalities and ethnic backgrounds to have the same freedom and opportunity made available to Whites. The only way he could do this was through nonviolent protest and freedom marches.

The life and leadership styles of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are vastly different. While Dr. King received the highest credentials made available to him, Malcolm X was a self-taught extremist. Malcolm X preached Black pride, Black Nationalism, and to reach Black equality by any means necessary. However, Dr. King used nonviolence, National speeches, and demonstrations to push for social and political change. Understanding their life and personal experiences, we are better able to understand how, “personal life experiences are responsible for shaping a person’s conception of democracy”, (O’Donnell, 2012).



Edwards, D. (2011, March 14). Martin luther king and malcolm x (similarities and differences). Word Press. Life Examinations. Retrieved from

Gibbs, E. (2008, Feb 08). Comparing the legacy of martin luther king jr and malcolm x. Helium, Retrieved from

Moritz, E. (1998). [Web log message]. Retrieved from

O’Donnell, P. (2012, May 11). Malcolm x and martin luther king jr.: violence and nonviolence. Retrieved from

The differences between martin luther king jr and malcolm x. (2012, October 03). Retrieved from


About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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One Response to Comparing Styles of Leadership: Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  1. Taylee Wood says:

    We are learning about this in school right now, and this is very interesting. Thank you for writing this article. This was very helpful and useful.

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