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."
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."