A Comparison of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the Black and Mainstream Press, 1955-2011
Most historians of the black protest movement claim that the mainstream media misrepresented Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as opposing figures, without detailing how the media achieved this, how these representations influenced King and Malcolm X’s posthumous media images, or how African-American media representations of the pair differed from mainstream representations. In order to understand how this misrepresentation came to be, and what its implications were for memory of the two after their deaths, this thesis examines the representation of King and Malcolm X in mainstream and African-American newspapers from the beginnings of their public careers until 2011. Newspapers drew on their pre-existing views of American race relations to evaluate the importance of King and Malcolm X. During their lifetimes newspapers selectively conveyed the ideologies of both men, embracing King’s leadership while distrusting Malcolm X. After their deaths, newspapers sanctified King and discussed him extensively, often confining his significance to the battle against legal segregation in the South. Newspapers gave Malcolm X less attention at first, but rehabilitated him later, beginning with African-American newspapers. The failure of the black protest movement to end racial disparities in standards of living, combined with King’s appropriation by the mainstream media, paved the way for much greater attention to Malcolm X by the late 1980s. By this time, newspapers represented King and Malcolm X as politically compatible, but continued to give them distinct personas that still affect public images of African-American leaders, such as Barack Obama, to this day.