Malcolm X (Malik El-Shabazz)

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MALCOLM X (Malik El-Shabazz)

(b. 19 May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska; d. 21 February 1965 in New York City), African-American nationalist leader who became the most prominent spokesman of the black separatist Nation of Islam in the early 1960s and later emerged as one of the decade's most militant champions of human rights for black Americans.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little, the seventh of itinerant Baptist preacher and black nationalist organizer Earl Little's eight children. The fourth child of his fair-skinned mother, Louise Norton, Malcolm had a similarly light complexion and reddish hair. After white racists torched the family's house in Lansing, Michigan, the Littles settled in East Lansing in 1929. Two years later Earl Little died after reportedly being attacked by a group of whites. After her husband's death, Louise's mental health gradually deteriorated. In 1939 she suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital.

Between 1940 and 1941 Malcolm lived in various foster homes in the Lansing area. In early 1942, discouraged by the racist and all-white environment of rural Michigan, he left school after completing the eighth grade and moved to Boston to live with his half-sister Ella Collins. In the following two years Malcolm wandered from job to job and became involved with the underworlds of both Boston and New York City, earning his living peddling drugs, gambling, and pimping. In late 1944 Malcolm organized a burglary gang in Boston. Arrested and convicted of burglary in 1946, he was sentenced to ten years in prison.

While in prison Malcolm converted to the religious teachings of Elijah Muhammad, whose Nation of Islam (NOI) sect merged elements of Islam, Christianity, and black nationalism. Condemning whites as "devils" and calling for a separate African-American state, Muhammad preached black pride, moral uplift, and economic self-reliance. Malcolm adopted the black Muslims' strict rules of moral conduct and began to read ravenously, devouring philosophy, history, and many other subjects. Having become a fervent and highly articulate follower of Muhammad, he was paroled and released from prison in 1952.

After his release Malcolm moved to Detroit, where he became a member of the local NOI's Temple Number One. Shortly thereafter Malcolm received his X, which stood for the lost name of black Muslims' African ancestors. Treated by Muhammad like a son, Malcolm revered the sect's spiritual leader and was determined to spread his pro-black gospel among African Americans. In 1954 he assumed the responsibility for New York's Temple Number Seven. Over the next ten years Malcolm became the NOI's most successful organizer, establishing numerous new Muslim temples across the country. In 1958 Malcolm married Betty Sanders, a member of the New York temple. That same year the first of their six daughters was born.

In July 1959 a Columbia Broadcasting System television (CBS-TV) documentary about the NOI suddenly brought the obscure sect to the attention of the American public. Entitled "The Hate That Hate Produced," the documentary horrified white Americans and triggered a deluge of news stories about Muhammad's organization. Life, Look, Newsweek, and Time reported extensively about the sect and about Malcolm, its most articulate spokesman. Droves of reporters besieged the young minister, asking him to participate in radio and television panels to discuss the black Muslims' controversial message.

While a nonviolent, student-led sit-in movement ushered in the turbulent 1960s, Malcolm plunged into a marathon of press, radio, and television interviews, talking to Playboy journalists as well as to academic audiences at Harvard and Yale. By 1961, chiefly because of Malcolm's tireless recruiting efforts, the NOI's membership had soared from a few hundred to tens of thousands. More than fifty temples—or mosques, as they came to be called after 1961—had been established across the country. Malcolm assumed more and more responsibility within the NOI and became the organization's first National Minister in 1963. Although the black Muslims became increasingly popular among poor African Americans, among whites they conjured up images of a racial Armageddon.

Critical of the black freedom movement of the 1960s, Malcolm denounced the nonviolent philosophy of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. In his famous 1963 "Message to the Grass Roots" speech, he attacked King and other civil rights leaders as "modern Uncle Toms" whom the white man manipulated to keep black Americans passive. Rather than loving their enemy, he argued, blacks should rely on the tradition of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" to attain their freedom. Similarly, Malcolm blasted King's goal of integrating African Americans into American society as impractical and unnatural.

Although Malcolm worshipped Muhammad as Allah's messenger, political and doctrinal differences between the two men had become apparent as early as 1960. Despite his attacks on the tactics of the civil rights movement, Malcolm believed that black Muslims ought to participate in demonstrations or at least lend support to the emerging freedom struggle. However, black Muslims were not allowed to engage in politics, and Muhammad had explicitly instructed Malcolm not to assist in civil rights organizations' efforts. The increasing resentment of Muhammad's family toward Malcolm, whom they perceived as a potential threat to Muhammad's power, further intensified the tensions between the two leaders.

Malcolm's faith in Muhammad was seriously shaken in early 1963, when two former secretaries of the NOI's spiritual leader filed paternity suits against him. Prior to these revelations Muhammad had repeatedly excommunicated members of the sect for marital infidelity or similar violations of the NOI's strict moral code. Unsurprisingly, Malcolm felt betrayed by Muhammad, whom he had always believed to be a symbol of morality and spirituality among black Americans, and he began repeatedly to defy Muhammad's orders. At the same time the NOI's leader sought to curtail the increasing power of his National Minister.

Malcolm's comments about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in late 1963 finally led to the split with the NOI. On 1 December 1963, while speaking to a crowd in New York, Malcolm remarked about Kennedy's death that the slain president "never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon." Although his statement had referred to the atmosphere of hatred that had made Kennedy's death possible, the mourning American public was outraged. Three days later Muhammad suspended Malcolm from the NOI for ninety days and forbade him to speak to the press or to teach in his New York mosque. Malcolm believed that his suspension was part of a deliberate plot to eliminate him from the Muslim organization. On 1 March 1964 his fears seemed to be confirmed by Muhammad's announcement that his suspension would be indefinite. Seven days later Malcolm disclosed his break with the NOI.

Freed from the shackles of Muhammad's restrictive doctrines, Malcolm intended to use his popularity among poor African Americans and international audiences to assume a leadership position in the black freedom struggle. On 12 March 1964 Malcolm announced the formation of the Muslim Mosque, Inc., designed as the spiritual base of the struggle. Continuing his criticism of the nonviolent civil rights movement, Malcolm told the press that he would attempt to convert African Americans to active armed selfdefense against white supremacist terror. Nevertheless, he stressed his organization's willingness to cooperate in local civil rights projects in the South. In addition, the Muslim Mosque would launch a voter registration drive among northern blacks to facilitate black community control.

Malcolm's militant statements articulated the sentiment of many frustrated African Americans in the 1960s, but they frightened white America. His announcement that black men did not "intend to turn the cheek any longer," together with his call upon African Americans to form defensive rifle clubs, led the New York Times to denounce him as an "irresponsible demagogue." According to Malcolm nonviolence was simply nonsensical as long as white Americans continued their brutal reign of terror against the southern black freedom movement. He repeatedly declared that blacks should fight for their freedom "by any means necessary." King, whom Malcolm met only once, in late March 1964, disagreed but refused to debate him on this question.

In April 1964, during a pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Malcolm began to reconsider some of his convictions. In letters that he sent to friends and fellow black leaders in America, he announced his conversion to orthodox Islam and explained his changed perception of whites. "True Islam," Malcolm wrote to astonished readers, "removes racism" and leads people to "accept each other as brothers and sisters, regardless of differences in complexion." Abandoning Muhammad's "white devil" theory, he began to define whiteness primarily as attitudes and actions, a shift that opened new avenues for cooperation between blacks and certain whites.

After leaving Mecca, Malcolm, or El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, as he began to call himself, toured several African countries. Malcolm was received like a diplomat in Ghana, where he addressed the Ghanian parliament and had a private audience with President Kwame Nkrumah. Crisscrossing the African continent, Malcolm increasingly interpreted the problems of African Americans in the context of a worldwide, Pan-African struggle for human rights and stressed the bonds between black Americans and Africa.

Upon his return to the United States in May 1964, Malcolm announced his intention to bring the case of African Americans before the United Nations. Accusing the United States government of violating black Americans' human rights, he called for an official censure by the United Nations. One month later he declared the formation of another black nationalist organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), whose secular program encouraged blacks to control their own educational, cultural, economic, and political institutions. Redefining black nationalism, Malcolm had abandoned separatism and instead called for African Americans' philosophical and cultural return to Africa in America.

In July 1964 Malcolm returned to Africa and attended the African summit conference in Cairo, Egypt, as an official representative of his new organization. During the conference Malcolm appealed to the delegates of thirty-four African nations to indict the United States before the United Nations and to pass a strong denunciation of American racism. During his five-month lobbying trip Malcolm had private meetings with numerous African leaders such as President Gamal-Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Kenya's revolutionary leader Jomo Kenyatta.

Despite the failure of Malcolm's campaign, the U.S. government grew increasingly concerned about the outspoken militant, whose verbal assaults tarnished America's reputation in the cold war rivalry with the Soviet Union. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stepped up their surveillance of Malcolm, which had begun in the 1950s. Infiltrating the Muslim Mosque and the OAAU, the FBI eventually compiled over 2,300 pages of material on the controversial black leader.

After his return from the second Africa trip in November 1964, Malcolm attempted to establish a working relationship with the civil rights movement. He often spoke with activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and on 4 February 1965 he made a speech in Selma, Alabama, where King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference were staging nonviolent demonstrations for new voting rights legislation.

While Malcolm was still redefining his ideas and beliefs in early 1965, his relations to the NOI grew more hostile. His repeated revelations about Muhammad's extramarital affairs and the black Muslims' secret contacts with the Ku Klux Klan made Malcolm a major target for constant harassment and death threats by the NOI. On the night of 14 February 1965 Malcolm and his family survived a firebomb attack on their house in East Elmhurst, Queens. Amid this atmosphere of daily threats, an exhausted Malcolm told reporters of his feeling that his death was near.

On 21 February 1965, during an OAAU meeting in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, Malcolm was murdered by several gunmen. Over three decades after the conviction of three assailants for Malcolm's murder, scholars continue to debate whether the NOI or the American government, in particular the FBI and CIA, were responsible for his death. He is buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

The significance of Malcolm became apparent only after his death. While still incomplete by the time of his murder, his black nationalist philosophy became the most important reference point for the emerging Black Power movement, which dominated the second half of the 1960s. His ideas on black pride, black political and economic advancement, and Pan-Africanism influenced an entire generation of militant African-American activists. Even beyond the 1960s many young blacks revered Malcolm as the epitome of black self-respect. The African-American actor Ossie Davis spoke for many when he remarked during the slain leader's funeral, "And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him: Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood!"

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) remains one of the most impressive accounts of the life of Malcolm X. Useful biographies include Peter Louis Goldman, The Death and Life of Malcolm X (2nd ed., 1979); Eugene Wolfenstein, The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (1981); and the controversial Bruce Perry, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (1991). Robert L. Jenkins and Mfanya Donald Tryman, eds., The Malcolm X Encyclopedia (2002), provides information on virtually every aspect of his life. Clayborne Carson, Malcolm X: The FBI File (1991), contains additional biographical information and reveals the extent of governmental surveillance.

Simon Wendt