Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X meeting for the only time, 26 March 1964

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Martin Luther King and Malcolm X look at each other while waiting for a Press conference in Washington D.C. They are surrounded by people including a police officer looking away from them. 26 March 1964.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X meet for the only time while waiting for a press conference in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 1964. Library of Congress // Public Domain

When two giants collide, there is but a gentlemanly hand-shake. The only meeting these two men would ever have between each other was nothing but a chance encounter. It is hard to believe two of the biggest historical figures of the 20th Century depicted here only ever met once. The famous Martin Luther King Jr (MLK) reacts to a surprising encounter with his counterpart civil rights activist Malcolm X.

The two, who were known for their battle in the Civil Rights movement in 1960s America, had very differing opinions on how to achieve their goals. MLK came from middle class America and wanted a stern yet non-violent approach to the movement, as he saw violence as negative in his campaign’s bid to land equal rights for African-Americans. Malcolm X, on the other hand, was a man who grew up in a very troubled, working class family and wanted to take the violent and rapid approach to attaining civil rights for black people in America through his voicing of the Nation of Islam organisation. This is where the two differed and never reconciled completely, much to the dismay of many in the movements.

This dismissal of each other’s outlooks meant the two never contacted or worked together to convey any sort of unified message for the Civil Rights movement. In fact, much to the disbelief of myself and many others, these two legendary figures only actually met once in their lives – astonishing for the positions they held.

In 1964, Malcolm was attending a debate about civil rights in the US Senate in Washington D.C. whilst MLK was at a conference nearby. It would lead the ever hopeful Malcolm to finally meet MLK who had consistently ignored calls for a meeting before. Indeed, Malcolm would approach MLK on the day in 1964 before shaking his hand and both parties smiled. This moment is captured in this picture and is very widely recognised as some form of reconciliation between the two bitter, yet strikingly similar, rivals. Lasting only a minute this iconic image is still displayed today as a peaceful reminder that these two, despite their differences, were fighting for the same just cause. This image symbolises the way MLK was becoming more militant in his ways towards the end of the 60s and Malcolm X, in his last few years had started to sway towards more non-violent approaches. Had tragedy not struck them both, you can imagine these two would have met in the middle at some point in their quest for equality. As the pair are caught smiling and embracing each other, this moment captured in the picture would be used as a symbolic image throughout the civil rights movement and remains one of the most prominent photographs of the 20th century.

After the death of Malcolm X, MLK sent a telegraph to his wife paying his respects to Malcolm X, who he noted he had a great affection for. Perhaps, these two had more in common than many let on they did. The pair would both meet their demise by assassins, just like their fathers who had both inspired them had met their demise at the hands of white supremacists.

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