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Kohlberg, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, Are some societies better than others

A half-century after their deaths, Martin Luther King Jr, Kohlberg and Malcolm X was the world’s most revered political activists.

They were respected leaders of the American Civil Rights movement, struggling for racial equality and freedom. But at the start of the 1960s, the media were constructing a conflict that stirred the civil rights debate: Malcolm X versus Reverend Martin Luther King.

While King advocated non-violent direct action and passive resistance to achieve equal civil rights, Malcolm X was the spokesman for the Nation of Islam (NOI), the black Muslim movement which violently rejected white America and its Christian values, and preached the supremacy of blacks over whites.

He promoted a segregationist approach that sought to instil in blacks a pride in their African heritage, whereas Martin Luther King believed that self-respect would come through integration.

“King was working to take down signs that prevented black people from riding buses where they wanted to, and to ride in trains, public transportation, preventing them from voting, and all of those things that black people were prevented from doing in the south. In the north, blacks always could vote, but as Malcolm said ‘You may have the vote but you ain’t no voting for nothing because they’ve already decided that you are not going to have any power’,” explains historian James H. Cone.

King once told the press that “the method of non-violent resistance is one of the most potent, if not the most potent weapons available to oppressed people and their struggle for freedom.”

However, for Malcolm, turning the other cheek was a weak strategy that was unacceptable.

“Malcolm comes from a black nationalist tradition that does not believe that you can get your freedom, your self-respect, your dignity by simply letting somebody beat up on you, and you do not try to defend yourself. That’s why Malcolm emphasised self-defence. But King emphasised non-violence because if blacks had responded, tried to defend themselves, that would have brought the police department down on those demonstrators and whites would have loved to have the chance to kill black people indiscriminately. So King and Malcolm had that tension,” says Cone.

The theory holds that moral reasoning, the basis for ethical behavior, has six identifiable developmental stages, each more adequate at responding to moral dilemmas than its predecessor. Kohlberg followed the development of moral judgment far beyond the ages studied earlier by Piaget, who also claimed that logic and morality develop through constructive stages. Expanding on Piaget’s work, Kohlberg determined that the process of moral development was principally concerned with justice, and that it continued throughout the individual’s lifetime, a notion that spawned dialogue on the philosophical implications of such research.

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