Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. are two of the most iconic figures of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s. However, they only ever met each other once — briefly, and almost by accident.
On March 26, 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X met in person — for the first and only time.
Their meeting was brief and unplanned, but nevertheless an iconic moment in American history. For years, the two icons of the American civil rights movement had circled each other. Both believed strongly in the importance of their struggle. King and Malcolm X had similar goals, but their methods to achieving them were often starkly different.
King encouraged Black Americans to utilize non-violent techniques like peaceful marches. But Malcolm X viewed King’s tactics with impatience. Calling King a “modern Uncle Tom,” Malcolm declared that King was encouraging Black Americans to be “defenseless in the face of one of the most cruel beasts that has ever taken a people into captivity.”
“I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American Black man’s problem just to avoid violence,” he wrote in his autobiography.
King disagreed. He saw violence as self-defeating and believed that urging Black Americans to arm themselves, as Malcolm X did, would “reap nothing but grief.”
The men continued to work separately throughout the early 1960s. Malcolm invited King to attend one of his Harlem rallies, but King declined. Malcolm then decided to skip King’s rally — the famous March on Washington, during which King would give his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Malcolm paid attention to the March, but he wasn’t impressed. To a journalist he quipped: “While King was having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare.”
Both men were important to the civil rights movement, but it seemed unlikely that they would meet. Then, in early March 1964, Malcolm X made the fateful decision to leave the Nation of Islam. In a lengthy statement declaring his independence from the Nation, Malcolm wrote that he wanted to “cooperate in local civil rights actions.”
On March 26, Malcolm visited the U.S. Senate to witness the filibuster of Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights bill. Martin Luther King Jr. was also there. After King finished a press conference on the bill, the two men ran into each other in the Senate gallery. King said, “Well, Malcolm, good to see you,” and extended his hand. Malcolm took it. “Good to see you,” Malcolm said.
This chance meeting could have led somewhere — but we’ll never know. Within a few years of their one and only meeting, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were dead, each killed by an assassin’s bullet.
Learn more about the day that two of the biggest civil rights leaders of the 20th century crossed paths for the first and only time.