Malcolm X (1925-1965)

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Malcolm X (1925-1965)

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, Malcolm X was the son of a freelance Baptist preacher who followed the teachings of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Following threats on his father from the local Ku Klux Klan, Malcolm and his family moved to Lansing, Michigan. There, in the face of similar threats, Malcolm's father defiantly continued to urge African Americans to take control of their lives, a stand that cost him his life when the Klan-like Black Legion murdered him in 1931. Although found with his head crushed and nearly severed from his body, authorities deemed the death a suicide. As a result, the Littles were denied much-needed insurance benefits. The family deteriorated rapidly as welfare workers sought to turn the children against each other and their mother. Ultimately, Malcolm was removed from his mother's care at age six and placed in a foster home. Shortly thereafter, his mother suffered a mental breakdown from which she never recovered.

In 1941, Malcolm moved to Boston to live with his half-sister, but soon quit school and drifted into the urban underworld of narcotics, prostitution, gambling, and burglary. Known as "Detroit Red," Malcolm was arrested for robbery in 1946 and sentenced to prison. There, he first learned the importance of education, reading and copying the entire dictionary and then moving on to devour works of history, politics, and literature. Later, at the urging of his siblings, Malcolm converted to the Nation of Islam, or Black Muslims, an ascetic sect that brought discipline into the lives of its members, especially those in prison. Upon joining the Nation of Islam, Malcolm abandoned his "slave name" in favor of Malcolm X, the "X" standing for his lost African name.

After serving six years in prison, Malcolm was released in 1952 and immediately traveled to Detroit to meet Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad. Assigned to Temple No. 7 in Harlem, Malcolm quickly emerged as the sect's most dynamic minister. His charisma helped boost membership in the Nation of Islam to an estimated 40,000 by 1960. The Nation of Islam preached strict moral purity and the superiority of the black race. Like Garvey's followers in the 1920s, Black Muslims denounced whites as "blue-eyed devils," opposed integration, and called for black pride, independent black institutions, and, ultimately, a separate black nation. Only after African Americans were united, Malcolm insisted, could they contemplate integration with whites.

In contrast to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, advocacy of non-violence, integration, and inter-racial harmony, Malcolm X utilized fiery rhetoric to launch an uncompromising and fearless assault on America's racial hypocrisy at home and abroad. When confronted by a violent white oppressor, he argued, the oppressed must use "any means necessary" to achieve their liberation. "Afro-Americans should not be victims any longer…," he declared. "Bloodshed is a two-way street…, dying is a two-way street…, killing is a two-way street." By 1963, Malcolm, not Martin, appeared most often on TV screens, in newspaper interviews, and in public forums. Often surrounded by menacing body guards, speaking with determined confidence, and jabbing his finger in the air to underscore his points, Malcolm made an unforgettable impression, eliciting admiration among many black Americans and fear among whites. Civil rights leaders committed to non-violence and integration publicly repudiated his separatist message and his advocacy of armed self-defense.

Malcolm X became restive, though, as the Nation of Islam failed to join the rising tide of civil rights activity. Convinced that Elijah Muhammad was not sincere, a view validated by evidence of corruption within the organization and compounded by Muhammad's mounting jealousy of Malcolm's blossoming personal influence, Malcolm X's relationship with the Nation of Islam began to falter. Malcolm's public assertion in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy's assassination amounted to "chickens coming home to roost" gave Muhammad reason to suspend him. During this suspension, Malcolm traveled to Mecca and throughout North Africa where he discovered Orthodox Islam. Upon his return to the United States in 1964, Malcolm shifted his ethical stance. Still convinced that racism "corroded the spirit of America" and that only black people could free themselves, Malcolm rejected racism of all kinds, spoke of a common bond linking humanity, and conceded that some whites did want to end racism. He also formally broke with the Nation of Islam and changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, a move which reflected his Mecca pilgrimage. In June of 1964, Malcolm X founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), moved increasingly in the direction of socialism, and expressed growing interest in China. Still in transition, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated by three Black Muslim loyalists as he spoke in a Harlem ballroom.

As Malcolm X had predicted in his autobiography, he would become more important in death than life. Malcolm's message profoundly influenced the development of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Black Power, the Black Panther Party, and George L. Jackson. The anger that Malcolm sought to channel into political action exploded in the 1965 Watts riot and the string of rebellions culminating in Newark and Detroit in 1967. By the 1990s, Malcolm X had become a folk hero to African Americans living in decaying American cities. Rap artists chanted his words; murals, hats, T-shirts, and posters displayed his piercing gaze; and filmmaker Spike Lee memorialized his life in a 1992 feature film. In death, Malcolm has come to symbolize racial pride, dignity, self-defense, and human transcendence.

—Patrick D. Jones

Further Reading:

Breitman, George, editor. The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary. New York, Pathfinder Press, 1989.

——. Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary. New York, Pathfinder Press, 1987.

——. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements. New York, Grove Weidenfield, 1990.

Carson, Clayborn. Malcolm X: The FBI File. New York, Carroll &Graf Publishing, 1991.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Goldman, Peter. The Death and Life of Malcolm X. New York, Harper& Row, 1973.

Haley, Alex. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, Grove Press, 1965.

Horne, Gerald. "'Myth' and the Meaning of 'Malcolm X."' American Historical Review. Vol. 98, No. 2, 1993.

Perry, Bruce. Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. New York, Station Hill Press, 1991.

Wolfenstein, Victor. The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution. Berkeley, University of Calfornia Press, 1981).