Why Martin and Malcolm Wouldn't Make Much of a Difference Today

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X would not necessarily be considered world-changing revolutionaries if they had risen to national prominence 50 years later -- in today's world.

"I'm afraid that if Martin and Malcolm were around today, they just might be lone voices in the woods," said Mark Chapman, professor of African American studies at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y. "Back in the time of Martin and Malcolm, the time was very different. Politically, there was a movement against colonialism and for the rights and freedom of marginalized people not just in America but all over the world. The voices of Malcolm and Martin were heard all around the world."

"It is often asked who could be held in the same regard of Malcolm and Martin?" Chapman continued. "With the Rev. Jesse Jackson, there have been questions about his personal ambition, and he has had his moral shortcomings. And Al Sharpton doesn't even come close."

A Nation's Consciousness: Then and Now

From the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till -- the black teen killed for whistling at a white woman -- to Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat, the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, and then the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, the civil rights movement was the dominant issue in the United States during the time of King and Malcolm X.

If they were around today -- if the civil rights movement had taken place without them -- they would not find an America primarily consumed with lingering racial inequality and subtle forms of racism. They would find a post-9/11 nation where, according to some polls, people wouldn't mind giving up some of their civil liberties to protect the nation from terrorism. They would find a nation divided over the reasons for going to war in Iraq.

Malcolm X and King would also find a nation still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, as thousands of poor people -- predominantly African American -- remain displaced and have no idea when they will be able to call any place their permanent home.

Malcolm X was a consistent critic of U.S. domestic and foreign policy, famously saying that a "white man's heaven is a black man's hell" and predicting that "a bloodbath is on its way in America." Initially, King was somewhat reticent to harshly criticize the government following the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But he gradually spoke out against the Vietnam War, most notably in a worldwide address at New York City's Riverside Church in 1967 where he called America the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

Today, some analysts say, Malcolm X and King would still be outspoken critics of the United States -- and would likely be labeled by right-wing conservatives as "anti-American" and not supportive of troops serving overseas.

"My feeling is that they were such visionary leaders -- that they were so open to growth -- that they would have been powerful critics of our domestic and foreign policy," said Mark Naison, also a professor of African American studies at Fordham. "I hate to use this term, but they wear well. Their ideas hold up. If you take Dr. King's speech where he declared the United States was the greatest purveyor of violence and replace Vietnam with Iraq, it almost seems prophetic."

'Can-Do' Spirit Wilts Into 'Can't Do'

It's debatable whether King would have had a "Dream" vision of the United States if he had grown up in a different time and risen to prominence in today's world. Arguably, the fiercest critics are not pessimists but are at heart optimists -- and have a belief and hope for what their world can be. That may be part of what fuels their criticism.

Still, some warn that the lack of great modern-day leaders is not just an African American problem. It also may illustrate the change in the heart of the nation following the assassinations of President Kennedy, Malcolm X, King and Robert F. Kennedy, and the failure of the Vietnam War. A nation of optimism wilted into a nation of frustration and broken promises -- and has yet to fully recover.

"Remember, this lack of great leaders is not just a problem in the African American community. It is a problem across the board," Naison said. "In many ways, Dr. King, John F. Kennedy, and even Malcolm X were products of a nation of optimism. Look at Hurricane Katrina. What happened to the can-do spirit? We used to be a nation of miracles, not one that could be paralyzed by a natural disaster. And we're still paralyzed. People are still stranded."

"Look at JFK. When he talked about optimism, it was believable," Naison continued. "But when President Bush says the same thing, it's almost comical. … We are hated around the world. They [other nations] hate us. They laugh at us."

The 1960s saw a loss of innocence and dynamic leadership that has left people looking for the next JFK, King and Malcolm X ever since. But we should remember one thing: One or two charismatic people can symbolize a movement. But rarely does one person single-handedly start a movement.

"People are always expecting one person to start a movement," Chapman said. "But Martin Luther King didn't start the civil rights movement. It was set in motion before he came into the picture. He was not bigger than the movement."

Undoubtedly, Malcolm X and King were revolutionaries who changed the world. But if they emerged today, they might be just revolutionaries in a changed world.