X, Malcolm 1925-1965
Malcolm X 1925-1965
Human rights activist
“When I talk about my father,” said Attallah Shabazz to Rolling Stone. “I do my best to make Malcolm human. I don’t want these kids to keep him on the pedestal, I don’t want them to feel his goals are unattainable. I’ll remind them that at their age he was doing time.” The powerful messages of Malcolm X, his dramatic life, and his tragic assassination conspire to make him an unreachable hero. Events in the 1960s provided four hero-martyrs of this kind for Americans: John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. These idealistic men believed in the possibilities for social change, the necessity of that change, and the truth of his vision of change.
Of the four, Malcolm came from the humblest roots, was the most radical, most outspoken, and angriest—“All Negroes are angry, and I am the angriest of all,” he often would say. The powerful speaker gathered huge crowds around him when he was associated with Elijah Muhammad’s Lost-Found Nation of Islam movement, and afterwards with Malcolm X’s own organization. Many Americans, white and black, were afraid of the violent side of Malcolm X’s rhetoric—unlike Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, doctrine of non-violent resistance, Malcolm X believed in self-defense.
But Malcolm X cannot be summed up in a few convenient phrases, because during his life he went through distinct changes in his philosophies and convictions. He had three names: Malcolm Little, Malcolm X, and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Each name has its own history and illuminates a different facet of the man who remains one of the most compelling Americans of the 20th century.
Malcolm X’s father was a Baptist minister and a member of the United Negro Improvement Association. Founded by Marcus Garvey, the group believed that there could be no peace for blacks in America, and that each black person should return to their African nation to lead a natural and serene life. In a parallel belief, Nation of Islam supporters in Malcolm X’s time held that a section of the United States secede and become a nation onto itself for disenfranchised blacks. It seems possible that Malcolm X was predisposed to the separatist ideas of the Nation of Islam partly because of this early exposure to Marcus Garvey.
Born Malcolm Little, May 19, 1925, in Omaha, NE; died of gunshot wounds, February 21, 1965, in Harlem, NY; son of Reverend Earl (a Baptist minister), and Louise Little; married wife, Betty (a student nurse), 1958; children: six daughters. Religion: Muslim.
Activist. Worker in Lost-Found Nation of Islam (Black Muslim) religious sect, 1952-64, began as assistant minister of mosque in Detroit, Ml, then organized mosque in Philadelphia, PA, became national minister, 1963; established Muslim Mosque, Inc., founded Organization of Afro-American Unity in New York City, 1964; lecturer and writer.
Malcolm X described in his autobiography (written with Alex Haley) the harassment of his father, including terrifying visits from the Ku Klux Klan; one of Malcolm X’s first memories is of his home in Omaha burning down. The family moved to Lansing, Michigan, in 1929 and there Malcolm X’s memories were of his father’s rousing sermons and the beatings the minister gave his wife and children. Malcolm X believed his father to be a victim of brainwashing by white people, who infected blacks with self-hatred—therefore he would pass down a form of the abuse he received as a black man.
The minister was killed in 1931, his body almost severed in two by a streetcar and the side of his head smashed. In the autobiography, Malcolm X elaborated, saying that there were many rumors in Lansing that his father had been killed by the Klan or its ilk because of his preachings, and that he had been laid on the streetcar tracks to make his death appear accidental. After his father was killed, the state welfare representatives began to frequent the house, and it seemed to Malcolm X that they were harassing his mother. Terribly stricken by her husband’s death and buckling under the demands of raising many children, Louise Little became psychologically unstable and was institutionalized until 1963.
After his mother was committed, Malcolm X began what was to be one of the most publicized phases of his life. His brothers and sisters were separated, and while living with several foster families, Malcolm began to learn to steal. In his autobiography, he used his own young adulthood to illustrate larger ideas about the racist climate in the United States. In high school, Malcolm began to fight what would be a lifelong battle of personal ambition versus general racist preconception. An English teacher discouraged Malcolm X’s desire to become a lawyer, telling him to be “realistic,” and that he should think about working with his hands.
Lansing did not hold many opportunities of any kind for a young black man then, so without a particular plan, Malcolm X went to live with his half-sister, Ella, in Boston. Ella encouraged him to look around the city and get a feel for it before trying to land a job. Malcolm X looked, and almost immediately found trouble. He fell in with a group of gamblers and thieves, and began shining shoes at the Roseland State Ballroom. There he learned the trades that would eventually take him to jail—dealing in bootleg liquor and illegal drugs. Malcolm X characterized his life then as one completely lacking in self-respect. Although his methods grew more sophisticated over time, it was only a matter of four years or so before he was imprisoned in 1946, sentenced to ten years on burglary charges.
Many journalists would emphasize Malcolm X’s “shady” past when describing the older man, his clean-cut lifestyle, and the aims of the Nation of Islam. In some cases, these references were an attempt to damage Malcolm X’s credibility, but economically disadvantaged people have found his early years to be a point of commonality, and Malcolm X himself was proud of how far he had come. He spared no detail of his youth in his autobiography, and used his Nation of Islam (sometimes called Black Islam) ideas to interpret them. Dancing, drinking, and even his hair style were represented by Malcolm X to be marks of shame and self-hatred.
Relaxed hair in particular was an anathema to Malcolm X for the rest of his life; he described his first “conk” in the autobiography this way: “This was my first really big step toward self-degredation: when I endured all of that pain [of the hair-straightening chemicals], literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are ‘inferior’—and white people ‘superior’—that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look ‘pretty’ by white standards…. It makes you wonder if the Negro has completely lost his sense of identity, lost touch with himself.”
It was while Malcolm X was in prison that he was introduced to the ideas of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Fundamentally, the group believes in the racial superiority of blacks, a belief supported by a complex genesis fable, which includes an envious, evil white scientist who put a curse on blacks. The faith became a focus for Malcolm X’s fury about his treatment (and his family’s) at the hands of whites, about the lack of opportunity he had as a young black man, and the psychological damage of systematic anti-black racism—that is, the damage of self-hatred.
Malcolm X read “everything he could get his hands on” in the prison library. He interpreted history books with the newly-learned tenets of Elijah Muhammad, and told of his realizations in a Playboy interview with Alex Haley. “I found out that the history-whitening process either had left out great things that black men had done, or the great black men had gotten whitened.” He improved his penmanship by copying out a dictionary, and participated in debates in jail, preaching independently to the prisoners about the Nation of Islam’s theories about “the white devil.” The group also emphasizes scrupulous personal habits, including cleanliness and perfect grooming, and forbids smoking, drinking, and the eating of pork, as well as other traditional Muslim dietary restrictions.
When Malcolm X left prison in 1952, he went to work for Elijah Muhammad, and within a year was named assistant minister to Muslim Temple Number One in Detroit, Michigan. It was then that he took the surname “X” and dropped his “slave name” of Little—the X stands for the African tribe of his origin that he could never know. The Nation of Islam’s leadership was so impressed by his tireless efforts and his fiery speeches that they sent him to start a new temple in Boston, which he did, then repeated his success in Philadelphia by 1954.
Malcolm X’s faith was inextricably linked to his worship of Elijah Muhammad. Everything Malcolm X accomplished (he said) was accomplished through Elijah Muhammad. In his autobiography, he recalled a speech which described his devotion: “I have sat at our Messenger’s feet, hearing the truth from his own mouth, I have pledged on my knees to Allah to tell the white man about his crimes and the black man the true teachings of our Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I don’t care if it costs my life.” His devotion would be sorely tested, then destroyed within nine years.
During those nine years, Malcolm X was made a national minister—he became the voice of the Nation of Islam. He was a speechwriter, an inspired speaker, a pundit often quoted in the news, and he became a philosopher. Malcolm used the teachings of the Nation of Islam to inform blacks about the cultures that had been stripped from them and the self-hatred that whites had inspired, then he would point the way toward a better life. While Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was teaching blacks to fight racism with love, Malcolm X was telling blacks to understand their exploitation, to fight back when attacked, and to seize self-determination “by any means necessary.” Malcolm spoke publicly of his lack of respect for King, who would, through a white man’s religion, tell blacks to not fight back.
In his later years, though, Malcolm X thought that he and King perhaps did have the same goals and that a truce was possible. While Malcolm X was in the process of questioning the Nation of Islam’s ideals, his beliefs were in a creative flux. He began to visualize a new Islamic group which “would embrace all faiths of black men, and it would carry into practice what the Nation of Islam had only preached.” His new visions laid the groundwork for a break from the Black Muslims.
In 1963 a conflict between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad made headlines. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Malcolm said that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.” Rolling Stone reported that many people believed Malcolm X had declared the president deserving of his fate, when he really “meant the country’s climate of hate had killed the president.” Muhammad suspended Malcolm X for ninety days “so that Muslims everywhere can be disassociated from the blunder,” according to the autobiography.
Muhammad had been the judge and jury for the Nation of Islam, and had sentenced many other Black Muslims to terms of silence, or excommunication, for adultery or other infractions of their religious code. Malcolm X discovered that Muhammad himself was guilty of adultery, and was appalled by his idol’s hypocrisy. It widened the gulf between them. Other ministers were vying for the kind of power and attention that Malcolm X had, and some speculate that these men filled Elijah Muhammad’s ears with ungenerous speculations about Malcolm X’s ambitions. “I hadn’t hustled in the streets for years for nothing. I knew when I was being set up,” Malcolm X said of that difficult time. He believed that he would be indefinitely silenced and that a Nation of Islam member would be convinced to assassinate him. Before that would come to pass, Malcolm X underwent another period of transformation, during which he would take on his third name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
A “hajj” is a pilgrimage to the holy land of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad; “Malik” was similar to Malcolm, and “Shabazz,” a family name. On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X had announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam to form his own groups, Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. In an effort to express his dedication to Islam, and thereby establish a more educated religious underpinning for his new organization, Malcolm X declared he would make a hajj. His travels were enlarged to include a tour of Middle Eastern and African countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Ghana.
These expeditions would expand Malcolm X in ways that would have seemed incredible to him earlier. He encountered fellow Muslims who were caucasian and embraced him as a brother, he was accepted into the traditional Islamic religion, and he was lauded as a fighter for the rights of American blacks. “Packed in the plane [to Jedda] were white, black, brown, red, and yellow people, blue eyes and blond hair, and my kinky red hair—all together, brothers! All honoring the same God Allah, all in turn giving equal honor to the other.” As a result of his experiences, Malcolm X gained a burgeoning understanding of a global unity and sympathy that stood behind America’s blacks—less isolated and more reinforced, he revised his formerly separatist notions.
Still full of resolve, Malcolm X returned to the States with a new message. He felt that American blacks should go to the United Nations and demand their rights, not beg for them. When faced with a bevy of reporters upon his return, he told them, “The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks.” His new international awareness was evident in statements such as: “The white man’s racism toward the black man here in America has got him in such trouble all over the world, with other nonwhite peoples.”
This new message, full of renewed vigor and an enlarged vision, plus the fact that the media was still listening to Malcolm X, was not well-received by the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X was aware that he was being followed by Black Muslims, and regularly received death threats. His home was firebombed on February 14, 1965—his wife and four daughters were unharmed, but the house was destroyed, and the family had not been insured against fire. It was believed that the attack came from the Nation of Islam. A week later, Malcolm X, his wife (pregnant with twin girls), and four daughters went to the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York, where he would speak for the last time. A few minutes into his message, three men stood and fired sixteen shots into Malcolm X, who died before medical help could arrive. The three were arrested immediately, and were later identified as members of the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X gave African-Americans something no one else ever had—a sense that the race has a right to feel anger and express the power of it, to challenge white domination, and to actively demand change. Politically sophisticated, Malcolm X told everyone who would listen about the tenacious and pervasive restraints that centuries of racism had imposed on American blacks. His intelligence and humility was such that he was not afraid to revise his ideas, and he held up the example of his transformations for all to see and learn from.
Although Malcolm X’s own organizations were unsteady at the time of his death, the posthumous publication of his autobiography insures that his new and old philosophies will never be forgotten. In 1990, twenty-five years after his assassination, Malcolm X and his ideas were still a huge component in the ongoing debate about race relations. Plays and movies focus on him, new biographies are written, and several colleges and societies survive him. “Malcolm’s maxims on self-respect, self-reliance and economic empowerment seem acutely prescient,” said Newsweek in 1990. The words of Malcolm X and the example of his life still urge Americans to fight racism in all of its forms.
(With Alex Haley) The Autobiography of Malcolm X, introduction by M.S. Handler, epilogue by Ossie Daivs, Ballantine Books, 1964.
Malcolm Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, edited with prefatory notes by George Breitman, Merit Publishers, 1965.
The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard, edited and with an introductory essay by Archie Epps, Owen, 1969.
Malcolm X Talks to Young People, Young Socialist Alliance, 1969.
Malcolm X and the Negro Revolution: The Speeches of Malcolm X, edited and with an introductory essay by Archie Epps, Owen, 1969.
Two Speeches by Malcolm X, Merit Publishers, 1969.
By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter by Malcolm X, edited by George Breitman, Pathfinder Press, 1970.
The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches, edited and with an introduction by Benjamin Goodman, Merlin House, 1971.
Work represented in anthologies, including 100 and More Ouotes by Garvey, Lumumba, and Malcolm X, compiled by Shawna Maglangbayan, Third World Press, 1975.
(With Alex Haley) The Autobiography of Malcolm X, introduction by M.S. Handler, epilogue by Ossie Daivs, Ballantine Books, 1964.
McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1973.
Political Profiles: The Johnson Years, edited by Nelson Lichtenstein, Facts on File, 1976.
Political Profiles: The Kennedy Years, edited by Lichtenstein, Facts on File, 1976.
Newsweek, February 26, 1990.
Playboy, January 1989.
Rolling Stone, November 30, 1989.
11: Malcolm X
Excerpt from "Message to the Grass Roots"
Speech delivered in Detroit, Michigan, on November 10, 1963.
Reprinted from Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, 1965; available online at: http:// www.csun.edu/-hcpas003/grassroots.html
Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) sought an aggressive and militant, or combative, response to racial injustice and inequality. He differed from many African American civil rights leaders of the 1950s and early 1960s by calling for Black Revolution and Black Nationalism. As noted in his "Message to the Grass Roots," he believed: "When you want a nation, that's called nationalism." Frequently contrasted with the reverend Dr. Martin Luther Kingjr. (1929–1968), who preached peaceful, nonviolent ways to confront injustices, a method referred to as civil disobedience, Malcolm X declared: "There's no such thing as a nonviolent revolution."
"You can't separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom."
Malcolm X was intent on inspiring a grass roots movement, or one organized at local levels rather than at centers of major political activity. He frequently spoke in neighborhood places where people gathered for information, worship, and entertainment. He also wrote newspaper columns and used radio and television to communicate his message. A popular and fiery public speaker, he was a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam from 1952 to 1964. Islam is a religious system based on the teachings of Mohammed (570-632), who believed he was chosen by Allah (god) to serve as his divinely inspired representative on Earth. The Nation of Islam is an Islamic sect, a group with particular beliefs or values that functions within a larger group. The Nation of Islam asserted that most African slaves brought to the Americas were Muslims (followers of Islam) and argued that African Americans should return to the Islamic faith to reclaim their heritage.
Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska, one of eight children of Earl Little, an outspoken minister, and Louise Norton Little. Earl Litde was frequendy harassed by white racists, and the family moved twice by the time Malcolm was four. After relocating to Lansing, Michigan, their home was burned to the ground, and two years later Earl Little died under suspicious circumstances. The family gradually fell apart, but Malcolm remained a strong student through junior high school. He dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but a white teacher discouraged him. As a result, Malcolm X quit school. He eventually began a life of crime. He was arrested at age twenty and imprisoned for theft and for carrying a weapon.
While in prison, Malcolm X converted to Islam and read a great deal. He joined the Nation of Islam in 1952 upon his release and quickly became a leading figure in the organization. His increasing fame contributed to tension with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975). Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam in 1964.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Message to the Grass Roots":
- Malcolm X is seeking to persuade the audience to support his aggressive response to racial injustice. Through the early part of his speech, he builds a sense of shared experience and common purpose to emphasize the similarities among those attending the speech. Among the similarities he stresses is a shared oppression by whites, both in America and abroad.
- Malcolm X tells his audience, "you were brought here by the people who came here on the 'Mayflower,' you were brought here by the so-called Pilgrims, or Founding Fathers." Although there were no slaves on the Mayflower, which landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, slavery had been introduced in the colonies a year earlier in the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement when a Dutch slave trader exchanged his cargo of Africans for food. The Africans were called indentured servants at that time, similar to poor English people who traded several years of labor in exchange for passage to America. Yet they were essentially slaves: the term slave became more generally used in the mid-seventeenth century, about the time slavery was officially legalized in Virginia and Maryland.
- In his message, Malcolm X refers to the Bandung Conference, an event that was organized in 1954 and held in April, 1955. At the gathering, twenty-nine African and Asian nations met in Bandung, Indonesia, to promote economic and cultural cooperation and to oppose being ruled or dominated by another nation. He notes that the people who attended the meeting were from various religious backgrounds. The conference participants also included: communists, people who believe in a system of social and political ideas that bans private property, makes goods available to all based on their needs, and distributes these goods by a central governing system; socialists, people who believe in a system where the means of production are owned and administrated by all of society; and capitalists, people who practice an economic system of private ownership where the prices of goods, services, and labor are determined by supply and demand. Malcolm X observes that "despite their economic and political differences, they came together."
- Malcolm X carefully defines the word "revolution" as a violent uprising to gain control over land and form a nation. He contends that significant social change will occur only when injustice is met with aggression. He refers to the peaceful March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963), which occurred less than three months before he made this speech, to contrast his more militant approach to injustice with those of the marchers. "Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms … singing 'We Shall Overcome?'" In a true revolution, according to Malcolm X, "You don't do any singing, you're too busy swinging."
- Voicing his concern about whether nonviolent protest is effective, Malcolm X asks: "How are you going to be nonviolent in Mississippi and Alabama, when your churches are being bombed, and your little girls are being murdered." He is referring to the many bombings that took place in Birmingham, Alabama, against blacks during the civil rights movement. Specifically, more than fifty bombings of African American homes, churches, and businesses occurred in Birmingham between 1947 and 1965. He is also drawing attention to the murder of four black girls that occurred two months before his speech. On September 15, 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley were killed when a bomb exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The bomb was set by members of the Ku Klux Klan, a group believing in the superiority of whites, who terrorized blacks in the United States for many years.
- To highlight his differences with the civil rights movement, Malcolm X calls his strategy a "Black Revolution" and the strategy of civil disobedience demonstrated by those who marched on Washington a "Negro Revolution." Negro was the term applied to African Americans by whites. During this period of the early 1960s, many African Americans preferred to refer to themselves as blacks—a term they selected as opposed to a term that others used to categorize them.
Excerpt from "Message to the Grass Roots"
We want to have just an off-the-cuff chat between you and me, us. We want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand. We all agree tonight, all of the speakers have agreed, that America has a very serious problem. Not only does America have a very serious problem, but our people have a very serious problem. America's problem is us. We're her problem. The only reason she has a problem is she doesn't want us here. And every time you look at yourself, be you black, brown, red or yellow, a so-called Negro, you represent a person who poses such a serious problem for America because you're not wanted. Once you face this as a fact, then you can start plotting a course that will make you appear intelligent, instead of unintelligent.
What you and I need to do is learn to forget our differences. When we come together, we don't come together as Baptists or Methodists. You don't catch hell because you're a Baptist, and you don't catch hell because you're a Methodist. You don't catch hell because you're a Methodist or Baptist, you don't catch hell because you're a Democrat or a Republican, you don't catch hell because you're a Mason or an Elk, and you sure don't catch hell because you're an American; because if you were an American, you wouldn't catch hell. You catch hell because you're a black man. You catch hell, all of us catch hell, for the same reason.
So we're all black people, so-called Negroes, second-class citizens, ex-slaves. You're nothing but an ex-slave. You don't like to be told that. But what else are you? You are ex-slaves. You didn't come here on the "Mayflower." You came here on a slave ship. In chains, like a horse, or a cow, or a chicken. And you were brought here by the people who came here on the "Mayflower," you were brought here by the so-called Pilgrims, or Founding Fathers. [They] were the ones who brought you here.
We have a common enemy. We have this in common: We have a common oppressor, a common exploiter, and a common discriminator. But once we all realize that we have a common enemy, then we unite—on the basis of what we have in common. And what we have foremost in common is that enemy—the white man. He's an enemy to all of us. I know some of you all think that some of them aren't enemies. Time will tell.
In Bandung back in, I think, 1954, was the first unity meeting in centuries of black people. And once you study what happened at the Bandung Conference, it actually serves as a model for the same procedure you and I can use to get our problems solved. At Bandung all the nations came together, the dark nations from Africa and Asia. Some of them were Buddhists, some of them were Muslims, some of them were Christians, some were Confucianists, some were atheists. Despite their religious differences, they came together. Some were communists, some were socialists, some were capitalists—despite their economic and political differences, they came together. All of them were black, brown, red or yellow.
The number one thing that was not allowed to attend the Bandung Conference was the white man. He couldn't come. Once they excluded the white man, they found that they could get together. Once they kept him out, everybody else fell right in and fell in line. This is the thing that you and I have to understand. And these people who came together didn't have nuclear weapons, they didn't have jet planes, they didn't have all of the heavy armaments [weapons] that the white man has. But they had unity.
They were able to submerge their petty little differences and agree on one thing: That [though] one African came from Kenya and was being colonized [taken over and controlled] by the Englishman, and another African came from the Congo and was being colonized by the Belgian, and another African came from Guinea and was being colonized by the French, and another came from Angola and was being colonized by the Portuguese. When they came to the Bandung Conference, they looked at the Portuguese, and the Frenchman, and the Englishman, and at the Dutchman, and learned or realized the one thing that all of them had in common—they were all from Europe, they were all Europeans, blond, blue-eyed and white skins. They began to recognize who their enemy was. The same man that was colonizing our people in Kenya was colonizing our people in the Congo. The same one in the Congo was colonizing our people in South Africa, and in Southern Rhodesia, and in Burma, and in India, and in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan. They realized all overthe world where the dark man was being oppressed, he was being oppressed by the white man; where the dark man was being exploited, he was being exploited by the white man. So they got together on this basis—that they had a common enemy.
And when you and I here in Detroit and in Michigan and in America who have been awakened today look around us, we too realize here in America we all have a common enemy, whether he's in Georgia or Michigan, whether he's in California or New York. He's the same man—blue eyes and blond hair and pale skin—the same man. So what we have to do is what they did. They agreed to stop quarreling among themselves. Any little spat that they had, they'd settle it among themselves, go into a huddle—don't let the enemy know that you've got a disagreement.
Instead of airing our differences in public, we have to realize we're all the same family. And when you have a family squabble, you don't get out on the sidewalk. If you do, everybody calls you uncouth, unrefined, uncivilized, savage. If you don't make it at home, you settle it at home; you get in the closet, argue it out behind closed doors, and then when you come out on the street, you pose a common front, a united front. And this is what we need to do in the community, and in the city, and in the state. We need to stop airing our differences in front of the white man, put the white man out of our meetings, and then sit down and talk shop with each other. That's what we've got to do.
I would like to make a few comments concerning the difference between the Black Revolution and a Negro Revolution? First, what is a revolution? Sometimes I'm inclined to believe that many of our people are using this word "revolution" loosely, without taking careful consideration of what this word actually means, and what its historic characteristics are. When you study the historic nature of revolutions, the motive of a revolution, the objective of a revolution, the result of a revolution, and the methods used in a revolution, you may change words. You may devise another program, you may change your goal and you may change your mind.
Look at the American Revolution in 1776. That revolution was for what? For land. Why did they want land? Independence. How was it carried out? Bloodshed. Number one, it was based on land, the basis of independence. And the only way they could get it was bloodshed. The French Revolution—what was it based on? The landless against the landlord. What was it for? Land. How did they get it? Bloodshed. Was no love lost, was no compromise, was no negotiation. I'm telling you—you don't know what a revolution is. Because when you find out what it is, you'll get back in the alley, you'll get out of the way.
The Russian Revolution—what was it based on? Land; the landless against the landlord. How did they bring it about? Bloodshed. You haven't got a revolution that doesn't involve bloodshed. And you're afraid to bleed. I said, you're afraid to bleed.
As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people, but when it comes to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls murdered, you haven't got any blood. You bleed when the white man says bleed; you bite when the white man says bite; and you bark when the white man says bark. I hate to say this about us, but it's true. How are you going to be nonviolent in Mississippi and Alabama, when your churches are being bombed, and your little girls are being murdered, and at the same time you are going to get violent with Hitler, and Tojo, and somebody else you don't even know?
If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country….
There's no such thing as a nonviolent revolution. The only kind of revolution that is nonviolent is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. It is the only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to the white folks—on the toilet. That's no revolution. Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis for all independence. Land is the basis of reedom, justice, and equality.
The white man knows what a revolution is. He knows that the black revolution is world-wide in scope and in nature. The Black Revolution is sweeping Asia, is sweeping Africa, is rearing its head in Latin America. The Cuban Revolution—that's a revolution. They overturned the system. Revolution is in Asia, revolution is in Africa, and the white man is screaming because he sees revolution in Latin America. How do you think he'll react to you when you learn what a real revolution is? You don't know what a revolution is. If you did, you wouldn't use that word.
Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. And you, sitting around here like a knot on the way, saying, "I'm going to love these folks no matter how much they hate me." No, you need a revolution. Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms … singing "We Shall Overcome?" You don't do that in a revolution. You don't do any singing, you're too busy swinging. It's based on land. A revolutionary wants land so he can set up his own nation, an independent nation. These Negroes aren't asking for any nation—they're trying to crawl back on the plantation.
When you want a nation, that's called nationalism. When the white man became involved in a revolution in this country against England, what was it for? He wanted this land so he could set up another white nation. That's white nationalism. The American Revolution was white nationalism. The French Revolution was white nationalism…. All the revolutions that are going on in Asia and Africa today are based on what?—black nationalism. A revolutionary (today) is a black nationalist. He wants a nation … If you're afraid of black nationalism, you're afraid of revolution. And if you love revolution, you love black nationalism.
What happened next …
Less than two weeks after this speech by Malcolm X, U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) was assassinated. When Malcolm X responded insensitively to the assassination and blamed Kennedy for not having done enough to stop violence, he met with an angry public response and was ordered not to speak publicly for ninety days by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. The relationship between the two men was already strained, and Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam a few months later.
In April of 1964, Mai com X made his haji, a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, that is a customary journey every Muslim undertakes sometime in life. He returned with a new name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and a more inclusive ideology, or a way of thinking that included a wider range of people. This belief system was based on human rights. The experience also led him to change some of his ideas about race. He acknowledged that some whites were sincere toward blacks and civil rights. He began working on his autobiography with journalist Alex Haley (1921–1992).
Meanwhile, tensions between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam worsened. His New York City home was firebombed on February 14, 1965, and a week later Malcolm X was killed shordy after beginning a speech in Manhattan, a section of New York City. The firebombing was an unsolved case, but the assassination was linked to the Nation of Islam when one of its members was convicted of the killing. The case remains controversial because more than five people have been accused of taking some part in the secret plot to kill Malcolm X.
The legacy of Malcolm X is strong. His militant approach was adopted by other black leaders and organizations, and he remains a major figure for study and research. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965, with Haley recreating conversations he had with Malcolm X to tell his story in his own words. Time magazine would later include it as one of the ten most important nonfiction books of the twentieth century. Noted filmmaker Spike Lee adapted the autobiography for his 1992 film, Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington.
Did you know …
- In his autobiography, Malcolm X explained why he changed his name from Malcolm Litde: "To take one's 'X' is to take on a certain mystery, a certain possibility of power in the eyes of one's peers and one's enemies." He added: "The 'X' announced what you had been and what you had become: Ex-smoker, Ex-drinker, Ex-Christian, Ex-slave."
- Famed boxer Muhammad Ali (1942–) converted to Islam in 1963 through the influence of Malcolm X He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., in 1942.
- Malcolm X quickly became better known to the general public than Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. His popularity and the controversy he created made him a major focus in a week-long CBS News television special in 1959 called "The Hate That Hate Produced."
Consider the following …
- In his "Message to the Grassroots" speech, Malcolm X describes differences between the Black Revolution and the Negro Revolution. Research the civil rights movement of the early 1960s and write about whether the distinction accurately describes the situation then, and whether it still applies today.
- Consider and write about whether "Message to the Grass Roots" has the same power today as it did in 1963.
For More Information
Alkalimat, Abdul. Malcolm X for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1990.
Carson, Claybourne, et al., eds. The Eyes on the Prize: A Civil Rights Reader. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Jenkins, Robert L. The Malcolm X Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Malcolm X. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements. Edited by George Breitman. New York: Merit Publishers, 1965. Reprint, New York: Grove/Atlantic, 1990.
Malcolm X and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove, 1965. Reprint, New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.
Shabazz, Ilyasah. Growing Up X. New York: One World, 2002.
Malcolm X. http://www.brothermalcolm.net/ (accessed on June 6, 2006).
The Official Web Site of Malcolm X. http://www.cmgww.com/historic/malcolm/index.htm (accessed on June 6, 2006).
Mason or an Elk: Organizations whose members share and promote similar beliefs.
"Mayflower": The ship that brought the Pilgrims from Great Britain to America in 1620.
Bandung: The conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955.
Buddhists: Those who follow the teachings of Indian philosopher Gautama Buddha (c. 563–c. 483 bce).
Muslims: Followers of Islam.
Christians: Those who believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ (4? bce–29? ce) and follow the lessons he taught on Earth.
Confucianists: Those who follow the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius (c. 551–479 bec).
Atheists: Those who do not believe in God.
Korea: A reference to the Korean War (1950–53).
Germany: A reference to World War II (1939–45) and the fight against Nazi Germany.
Hitler: Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), leader of Nazi Germany during World War II.
Malcolm X 1925–1965
Malcolm X was a minister, orator, American Black Muslim, and a prominent leader of the Nation of Islam until his break with the organization. He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925, and he was also later known by his Islamic name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Along with other African Americans in Omaha, he and his family lived in segregated North Omaha. His mother, Louise, was a homemaker who looked after the family’s eight children, of whom Malcolm was the fourth. She was a Grenadian by birth, the daughter of a white man. Her son Malcolm acquired the nickname “Red” because of a reddish tinge to his hair in his early years. In his youth, Malcolm regarded his light complexion as a status symbol, but he later said that he came to hate the white blood he inherited from his maternal grandfather. Malcolm’s father, Earl, was a fiery Baptist lay preacher, a proponent of the ideas of Marcus Garvey, and a founder of the Omaha chapter of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Malcolm’s early life was one of turmoil. Because of his outspokenness on matters of civil rights, Earl Little attracted the hatred of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, which harassed the family and on two occasions forced them to move to escape threats. Thus, before Malcolm was four years old, his family relocated first to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then to Lansing, Michigan. In 1929, however, the family’s Lansing home was burned. Earl Little and the black community believed that the fire was the work of a white supremacist group called the Black Legion. In 1931 Earl Little was run over by a streetcar, and after his mutilated body was found, the family was convinced that he died at the hands of the Black Legion, but the police ruled the death a suicide. Although Earl Little had two life insurance policies, the company that had issued the larger of the two refused to pay the family because of the finding of suicide. Later, in 1938, unable to cope with her grief over her husband’s death, Louise Little had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized for twenty-six years. The eight children were split up and placed in various orphanages and foster homes.
Malcolm was a bright student and, in fact, was at the top of his class in junior high school. In the eighth grade, however, one of his favorite teachers told him that his dream of becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger” (Malcolm X 1965, p. 36). At that point he lost interest in formal education and dropped out of school. He moved to Boston to live with his half-sister (one of Earl’s children by a previous marriage) and he worked there in an assortment of odd jobs. His “street” education began in the early 1940s, when he moved to Harlem, New York, and embarked on the life of a petty criminal. Using the nickname “Detroit Red,” he was involved in running drugs, gambling, racketeering, burglary, and prostitution. He also became addicted to cocaine. From 1943 to 1946 he lived intermittently in Harlem and Boston, often accompanied by his close friend Malcolm Jarvis. He escaped the military draft by telling the examining officer that he could not wait to organize black soldiers so that he could “kill some crackers.”
Malcolm X returned to Boston in January 1946. On the twelfth of that month he was arrested for burglary, and he was quickly convicted of grand larceny and breaking and entering. He was sentenced to ten to twelve years in prison and he began serving his sentence on February 27, 1946. In prison Malcolm acquired the nickname “Satan” because of the inveterate hatred he expressed for God, religion, and the Bible. He used those years, though, to further his education by reading extensively from the prison library and pursuing a course of self-enlightenment. He became so absorbed in his studies that, he later claimed, he lost awareness that he was in prison and felt spiritually free. When he entered prison, he was barely literate, but he developed his ability to read and write by
copying the pages of a dictionary, one at a time, until he had copied the dictionary in its entirety. He requested and received a transfer to a prison with a larger library, and he said that after lights out at 10:00 p.m., he continued to read by sitting on the floor near the door of his cell, where light filtered in from a bulb in the corridor. When the prison guards conducted their hourly rounds, he would climb back into bed and feign sleep until they passed, then read for another hour, often continuing this ruse until 4:00 am. His reading program was broad, including the works of Socrates, Gandhi, Herodotus, W.E.B. Du Bois, and numerous other philosophers and scientists. He used their works to test his own emerging religious beliefs.
While he was in prison, Malcolm X received letters and visits from his brother Reginald, who was a recent convert to Islam and a member of the Nation of Islam, an organization that promulgated the teachings of its founder, Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975). Often referred to as the Black Muslims, the Nation of Islam believed that white society achieved social, economic, and political success while acting to deny such success to African Americans. The Nation of Islam rejected integration, but perhaps its most controversial belief was that blacks should form a separate state of their own, free of white domination and white religious, economic, political, and cultural institutions.
While in prison, Malcolm extensively studied the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and maintained contact with him. Committed to the organization’s goals, he began to gain a measure of fame among his fellow prisoners for his growing convictions. Prison authorities regarded him as a potential troublemaker, however, and refused to grant him an early release, as would have been customary after five years. Finally, after serving nearly seven years of his sentence, he was paroled in 1952. At that time he took the name Malcolm X, believing that “Little” was a slave name. The “X” represented not only the brand that was often burned into the upper arms of slaves, but also the unknown tribal name he would have had but was lost to him. Numerous members of the Nation of Islam followed his example and took X as their surname.
Malcolm X was highly intelligent and a forceful orator. After meeting with Elijah Muhammad, he gained appointment as a minister in the Nation of Islam at its Boston mosque, and in 1954 Elijah Muhammad gave him the task of establishing mosques in Harlem, Philadelphia, Detroit, and other cities. He also served as the Nation of Islam’s national spokesman. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s he used the radio, newspaper columns, and the new medium of television to spread the message of the Nation of Islam. He typically relied on fiery rhetoric, such as his frequent assertion that whites were “devils” who had been created in a misbegotten breeding program established by a black scientist. The media could always count on him for a provocative quotation, such as his famous statement, when asked about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, that it was a matter of “chickens coming home to roost.” In 1959 he took part in a television documentary with the journalist Mike Wallace titled “The Hate that Hate Produced.” He was also sharply and publicly critical of the 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr. Whereas King advocated nonviolence in his approach to race relations, Malcolm X believed that “turning the other cheek” led nowhere and that violence was sometimes necessary. Blacks would attain their freedom, he said, “by any means necessary.”
By the early 1960s, Malcolm X was eclipsing Elijah Muhammad as the most prominent member of the Nation of Islam. In 1952 the organization had only 500 members, but by 1963 it claimed some 30,000 members, and many historians credit this exponential growth to Malcolm X and his powers of persuasion. His growing prominence drew the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which labeled him a communist and infiltrated the organization. One of Malcolm X’s bodyguards was in fact an FBI agent, and the FBI conducted wiretaps and other forms of surveillance. In time, the bureau’s file on him would run to 2,200 pages. Meanwhile, in 1958, he married Betty X, born Betty Sanders, and the two had six daughters, all with the surname Shabazz. Malcolm himself later adopted Shabazz as part of his Islamic name, and it became a popular surname among American Black Muslims. According to Malcolm X, it was the name of a black African tribe from which African Americans descended.
Malcolm X, despite being the Nation of Islam’s brightest rising star, broke with the organization in the early 1960s. He had begun to hear rumors that Elijah Muhammad was committing adultery with young organization secretaries and that some of these liaisons had produced children. Islam strictly forbids adultery, and Malcolm X, deeply committed to the teachings of Islam, had remained celibate himself until his marriage. At first, Malcolm X did not want to believe the rumors, but when they were confirmed by Muhammad’s son and several of the women involved (and later by Muhammad himself, who asked him to keep the matter quiet), his disillusionment with the Nation of Islam and its message of religious (as opposed to economic) nationalism was complete.
Malcolm thus believed that the Nation of Islam was fraudulent, for its chief prophet had betrayed Islam’s teachings. On March 8, 1964, he publicly announced his departure from the Nation of Islam, and just a few days later he founded his own organization, Muslim Mosque, Inc. Later that year he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which was built around four major goals: (1) the restoration of connections with Africa; (2) reorientation, or learning about Africa through reading and education; (3) education, to liberate the minds of children; and (4) economic security.
A number of Malcolm X’s followers urged him to become an orthodox Sunni Muslim. He acquiesced, but to complete his conversion he decided to make a pilgrimage to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest site. Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so is required to make such a major pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey known as the hajj, at least once during his or her life. He departed for Mecca in April 1964, but when he arrived in Saudi Arabia the authorities detained him because they did not believe he was an authentic Muslim and because he was traveling with an American passport. After some twenty hours in detention, he was released with the help of a friend. Later, Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia met with him at his hotel and declared him a state guest. In this way he was allowed to make his pilgrimage to Mecca. His journey, however, was not hajj but umrah, referring to a “minor” rather than a “major” pilgrimage.
Malcolm X performed all the rituals associated with the umrah. These included making seven circuits around the Kaaba, a large cubical monument contained within Mecca’s mosque that Muslims believe was built by the prophet Abraham. He drank water from the well of Zamzam, located near the Kaaba and believed to be the well provided to Hagar, Abraham’s wife, when she was in desperate need of water for her infant son Ishmael. He completed the ritual running between the hills of Safah and Marwah seven times, an act that commemorates Hagar’s frantic search for water until she found it in the well of Zamzam. In short, Malcolm X carried out all of the rituals that any Muslim would be expected to carry out on a minor pilgrimage to Mecca.
Malcolm X’s trip to Saudi Arabia had a transforming effect on him. For two decades or more, he had been angry and bitter, filled with hatred directed at whites for centuries of injustice and exploitation of blacks. He had called himself the “angriest black man in America.” After his trip to Mecca, though, he softened his rhetoric considerably and adopted a new attitude to race relations, one that he admitted his followers would find surprising. For example, while he was in Mecca he wrote a letter to his followers in Harlem in which he stated:
Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.. . . There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white. (Malcolm X 1965, p. 340)
When he returned to the United States, Malcolm X was again a media magnet. Reporters and the public were interested in whether his trip to Saudi Arabia had changed him in any way. At a press conference on his arrival, he made the following statement, which indeed did come as a surprise to many:
In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I never will be guilty of that again—as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man. The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks. Yes, I have been convinced that some American whites do want to help cure the rampant racism which is on the path to destroying this country! (Malcolm X 1965, p. 362)
In the year before his death, Malcolm X became an international ambassador. Chief among his activities was an eighteen-week trip to Africa, during which he addressed African heads of state at the first meeting of the Organization of African Unity. He also spoke in Paris and in Birmingham, England, on issues having to do with race relations; in Birmingham, he paid a visit to a pub that held to a “non-coloured” policy.
Malcolm X’s break with the Nation of Islam was marked by animosity. One member of the group confessed to Malcolm that he had been given orders by Nation of Islam leaders to kill him. In March 1964, Life magazine published a picture of Malcolm X holding a rifle and peeking out from curtains in his home, resolved to defend himself and his family against the death threats he had received. The Nation of Islam used the courts to reclaim his home in Harlem, which the group claimed was its property. He received an eviction order, but the night before a court hearing to postpone the eviction, the house was burned to the ground. No one was ever charged with the crime.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. He had just begun giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City when a disturbance erupted. He and his bodyguards tried to restore order, but at that point a man rushed forward and shot him in the chest with a shotgun. Two other men, armed with handguns, pumped bullets into his body; in all, he was shot sixteen times. He was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Eventually, three men were charged with the crime: Malcolm 3X Butler, Thomas 15X Johnson, and twenty-two-year-old Talmadge Hayer. All three were convicted, although Hayer was the only one to
confess to the crime. Hayer stated in affidavits that Butler and Johnson had taken no part in the crime and were not even present, but he named two other men who, he said, had participated in the crime. To this day, questions remain about who was behind the murder.
For many Americans, particularly white Americans, Malcolm X was and remains a frightening figure. He was outspoken and incendiary, and he held that violence was acceptable when other means of achieving respect and racial equality failed. He fell under the watchful eye of the J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI—though in that respect, so did Martin Luther King Jr. and a host of other black activists. He used the language of religion and the cadences of the Christian Bible to announce to Americans that a day of judgment for three centuries of exploitation was at hand. His words often seemed prophetic during the turbulence and racial unrest of the 1960s.
Time, however, has softened the image of Malcolm X, at least to some extent. His 1965 Autobiography of Malcolm X was written with the help of Alex Haley, himself the author of Roots, which entered American homes, both black and white, as a television miniseries about the history of slavery. The Autobiography is commonly read in schools. A popular 1992 movie, Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee, won its star, Denzel Washington, an Academy Award nomination for best actor. In 1999, this once feared black militant earned a mainstream honor when his picture was placed on a U.S. postage stamp.
The chief legacy of Malcolm X is that he sharpened and clarified the racial debate in America during the 1950s and 1960s. Like Martin Luther King Jr., he has become an icon of the debate, but whereas King, from Malcolm X’s point of view, advocated turning the other cheek, Malcolm X believed that turning the other cheek only meant getting the other cheek slapped. Thus, he was a caustic critic of exploitation, poverty, racism, oppression, and violence against blacks. His militancy, feared at the time, is admired by many in the early twenty-first century. He spoke to the collective consciousness of the African diaspora, giving it a sense of economic, political, and social independence from dominant white America.
Asante, Molefi K. 1993. Malcolm X as Cultural Hero: And Other Afrocentric Essays. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Breitman, George. 1967. The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary. New York: Pathfinder.
———, Herman Porter, and Baxter Smith. 1976. The Assassination of Malcolm X. New York: Pathfinder.
DeCaro, Louis A., Jr. 1996. On The Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X. New York: New York University Press.
Dyson, Michael Eric. 1995. Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gallen, David, ed. 1992. Malcolm A to Z: The Man and His Ideas. New York: Carroll and Graf.
Jenkins, Robert L., ed. 2002. The Malcolm X Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Malcolm X. 1965. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press.
———. 1970. By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter, by Malcolm X. Edited by George Breitman. New York: Pathfinder.
———. 1971. The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches. Edited by Benjamin Goodman. New York: Merlin House.
———. 1989. Malcolm X: The Last Speeches. Edited by Bruce Perry. New York: Pathfinder.
———. 1992. Malcolm X: February 1965, The Final Speeches. Edited by Steve Clark. New York: Pathfinder.
Marable, Manning. 1992. “By Any Means Necessary: The Life and Legacy of Malcolm X.” Speech delivered at Metro State College, Denver, CO, February 21. Available from http://www.black-collegian.com/african/lifelegacy200.shtml.
Perry, Bruce. 1991. Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. New York: Station Hill.
Wood, Joe, ed. 1992. Malcolm X: In Our Own Image. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Michael J. O’Neal
BORN: May 19, 1925 • Omaha, Nebraska
American civil rights activist
Malcolm X became one of the most important icons of twentieth-century African American life after his 1965 assassination, but stirred tremendous public debate about racial injustice in the United States in the years just before his death. As the national spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim religious sect, he urged African Americans to move beyond the promise of uniting with mainstream America and embrace their rich, but buried African heritage instead. He later broke with the Nation of Islam, converted to the traditional form of the Muslim religion, and began to promote racial and cultural tolerance. His black nationalism, however, influenced a younger generation of activists. Although Malcolm X became more tolerant toward the end of his life, some people continued to take a militant stance. Urban frustration and unrest eventually erupted in various American cities in the years following his death.
"The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks."
Malcolm X was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, as Malcolm Little. His father, Earl Little, was a freelance preacher who headed the Omaha chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). This was an influential black nationalist group founded by Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), an African American of Jamaican origin. Malcolm's mother, Louise, was of West Indian heritage. Malcolm was the fourth of the couple's six children.
Omaha authorities considered Earl Little a troublemaker because of his speeches promoting the UNIA message, which urged blacks to rediscover and take pride in their African roots. The family was harassed by white-supremacist groups—those who believe in the superiority of the white race above all others. In 1929, just after the birth of a new Little, Yvonne, the family's house burned down in the middle of the night in what was likely a case of arson. They relocated to Lansing, Michigan, where Earl Little continued his work for UNIA. Again, shadowy white-supremacist groups bullied him. One night in 1931, he was found dead. He had been hit by a streetcar, a vehicle that ran on rails laid into the street and powered by electricity. Although Little had been beaten before being struck by the streetcar, his death was ruled a suicide. That ruling meant Louise Little was unable to collect on a life insurance policy, and the family struggled as a result. They received government aid in the form of monthly welfare checks, but such assistance also brought frequent visits from county caseworkers. Eventually, the social workers put Malcolm and his siblings into foster care, a system where children are sent to live with other families in an effort to give them the care that they need. Louise Little had a nervous breakdown and was placed in a state psychiatric hospital, where she spent the next twenty-six years.
Growing up in a mid-sized town in the Midwest, Malcolm was limited by racial attitudes during that era. As he wrote in his autobiography, blacks were never expected to be on any street after dark in nearby East Lansing, home to Michigan State University and thousands of white college students. They were also expected to show a proper amount of respect to whites, a practice Malcolm opposed intensely. In his early teens, he ran into trouble at school, was expelled, and sent to a juvenile detention home. While there, he attended a local middle school where he was its only black student. He earned good grades and was even elected his seventh-grade class president. A year later, a teacher asked him what he wanted to do for a living in the future. Malcolm said that he hoped to become a lawyer. The teacher told him that was an unrealistic goal and that he should think about carpentry instead. Realizing that top grades and leadership abilities were not enough to succeed in the predominantly white world, Malcolm became withdrawn and sullen.
Influenced by Nation of Islam
Malcolm had spent the previous summer in Boston, Massachusetts, with his half-sister, Ella, from his father's first marriage. After he finished the eighth grade around 1941, he wrote Ella and asked if he could come and live with her. He spent the next few years living first in Roxbury, Boston's predominantly black quarter, and working at odd jobs before taking a food-service position on the train that ran from Boston to New York City. Already fascinated by urban living, he spent more and more time in Harlem, the thriving African American section of Manhattan. He became a well-known figure, nicknamed "Detroit Red" for the slight reddish color of his hair, which he straightened by means of painful barbershop chemicals. He satisfied his desire for flashy suits, gambling, and a nightclub-centered social life with illegal business activities, which included selling marijuana and committing burglary. His luck ran out in 1946 when he was arrested and jailed for the next six years.
Prison transformed Malcolm. He read extensively and learned about a new religion, the Nation of Islam, thanks to letters and visits from two of his brothers, who were members of the black Muslim group. Originally called the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, the sect was led by Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975) and had been founded in Detroit, Michigan, where Malcolm's older brother, Wilfred, lived. The religion contended that many Africans had originally been Muslim (followers of Islam), and it urged African Americans to renounce Christianity, the religion that had permitted slavery. Nation of Islam ministers also preached that Africans had been the first race on Earth, while the white race resulted from genetic experiments carried out by an evil scientist on the Greek island of Patmos.
When Malcolm was paroled in 1952, he moved to Detroit and adopted the Nation's rules completely. He had already given up cigarettes and pork in prison. Once out of jail, he stayed away from alcohol and drugs, and he prayed five times a day. Families like Wilfred's lived according to strict rules of personal conduct, with the women dressing modestly and the children acting subdued and respectful. "I had never seen any Christian-believing Negroes conduct themselves like the Muslims," he wrote in his autobiography about the first Nation of Islam services he attended. "I had never dreamed of anything like that atmosphere among black people who had learned to be proud they were black, who had learned to love other black people instead of being jealous and suspicious."
Becomes "Malcolm X"
Malcolm quickly emerged as a leader within the Nation of Islam. He met Elijah Muhammad, who suggested that he change his last name from Little to "X." This was a symbolic rejection of Little's previous name, which they considered to have been a slave name. Within a few years, Malcolm X rose to a post that made him second in command only to Elijah Muhammad. Also, he had opened Nation of Islam temples in Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. His extraordinarily powerful style of preaching lured many new converts. He worked to win over the skeptics, who were doubtful and uneasy about the Nation's strict rules against gambling, drug and alcohol use, and sexual misconduct. He reminded them that blacks needed to live pure lives, otherwise the whites would continue to control them. He followed those teachings in his own personal life, providing an example of a committed husband and father after his 1958 marriage to Betty Sanders, a nursing student. Over the next seven years, they became parents to six daughters, including twins born shortly after he was killed.
Malcolm X's leadership is generally credited with increasing Nation of Islam ranks from just 500 in 1952 to 30,000 members just ten years later. But as Black Muslim converts grew in number, media interest in the group also increased. In 1959 Malcolm X was interviewed for a television news documentary about the Nation of Islam, which was presented by CBS News journalist Mike Wallace. After agreeing to participate, Malcolm X and the other Nation of Islam leaders were upset by the sensationalist nature of the story that aired under the title "The Hate That Hate Produced." They felt that the religion's teachings were misrepresented to suggest that Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and others were promoting hatred toward whites.
The television special made Malcolm X famous across America, and he was asked to appear on panel discussions on radio and television to debate the topic of race in America. His fellow panelists were often black scholars or civil rights leaders, and he easily intimidated his opponents. Sometimes he was accused of inciting blacks to become violent. Malcolm warned that asking the white establishment for fair treatment, through its own legal and judicial system, was misguided. The rights of blacks, he asserted in what became his most famous phrase, must be seized "by any means necessary."
Discontent with the Nation of Islam
Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and the Nation of Islam were watched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The growing number of followers in cities with a large black population concerned the FBI. The agency was aware that unrest was brewing in various parts of the United States. By the early 1960s, the Nation of Islam's leadership was urging the creation of a separate black state, and Malcolm X went to Georgia in January 1961 to meet with Ku Klux Klan leaders there. The Ku Klux Klan is a secret organization, founded in the United States around 1866, to advance white supremacy often through intimidation, terror, and violence. Such meetings and political activity only intensified the FBI's interest. Malcolm X later claimed that some FBI agents sent to spy on Nation of Islam meetings actually joined the movement and turned into counterspies as a result.
The enormous amount of media attention that focused on Malcolm X caused resentment within the Nation of Islam. In turn, Malcolm X began to have doubts about the leadership of Elijah Muhammad. There had been some rumors that Elijah Muhammad had engaged in adultery. Malcolm X met with two former female employees of the Nation of Islam, who had filed paternity lawsuits against Elijah Muhammad. Such legal actions claimed that Muhammad had fathered one or more of the secretaries' children. Only then was Malcolm X convinced that the rumors were true. He confronted Elijah Muhammad, who explained that the affairs, which were expressly forbidden by the strict Nation of Islam code of personal conduct, were similar to those that biblical prophets had also enjoyed. Disillusioned, Malcolm X began to question some of the group's teachings and goals. He began to rethink the organization's policy of helping only African Americans who converted and became part of its membership, rather than all blacks in need. He was also uneasy with the group's ideology of black separatism, realizing that it shared similarities with white-supremacist beliefs.
Malcolm X's formal break with the Nation of Islam came in a series of events that followed the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63). At a New York City lecture, an audience member asked Malcolm X to comment on the tragedy. He answered that it was a case of "chickens coming home to roost." By this he meant that there was an overall state of violence in America that he believed Kennedy had done little to stop. In his eyes, that culture of violence was responsible for the assassination. Newspaper headlines repeated the comment the following day, and Malcolm X was widely criticized for his words. In response, Elijah Muhammad banned him from speaking to the media for three months.
In March 1964, Malcolm X officially left the Nation of Islam and established the Muslim Mosque, Inc., in Harlem. A month later, he made a pilgrimage (journey) to Mecca, the city in Saudi Arabia that all orthodox Muslim men are required to visit once in their lifetimes. After making the hajj, or Islamic pilgrimage, he visited several countries in Africa. The experience changed him. As noted on the Malcolm X Museum Web site, he wrote the following in an Egyptian newspaper: "At Mecca I saw the spirit of unity and true brotherhood displayed by tens of thousands of people from all over the world, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans." He added that the experience provided "a new insight into the true brotherhood of Islam, which encompasses all the races of mankind."
Emerges as more tolerant leader
When Malcolm X returned to the United States in May 1964, a crowd of reporters and photographers was there to greet him at the airport. In the ensuing press conference, he announced that he had become a traditional Sunni Muslim, and that his Muslim Mosque in Harlem was linking itself to the 750 million Muslims around the world. He also noted that his visit to the Middle East and Africa had changed some of his views on race in America. "In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments [accusations] of all white people," he said, according to his autobiography. "I will never be guilty of that again—as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man. The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks."
Malcolm changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and in June 1964 founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He returned to Africa a month later as its delegate to the first conference of the Organization of African Unity, a new political alliance created by some of the former European colonial territories that had recently achieved independence and elected their first black-led governments. He also reached out to other social reform groups, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had led the desegregation fight in the South, and to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) and his associates. Previously, he had dismissed King's crusade of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest, believing it was misguided.
Malcolm X's change in attitude angered many Muslims who had joined the Nation of Islam in the last decade. For years, he had received death threats, by mail and over the telephone, from white supremacists. After his pilgrimage, however, there were rumors that his former colleagues wanted to assassinate him. On February 14, 1965, Malcolm X's family home in Queens, a New York City borough, was firebombed, but his wife and four children escaped the explosion and flames unharmed. Elijah Muhammad told the press the following day that Malcolm X had probably set the fire himself in order to stir public sympathy.
On Sunday, February 21, 1965, Malcolm X arrived at the Audubon Ballroom on West 166th Street in Harlem to speak to a crowd of about four hundred. Introduced by a colleague, he took the stage and greeted the audience with "Asalaikum, brothers and sisters!" This is a traditional Muslim greeting that means "peace be upon you." The crowd responded with "Asalaikum salaam!" ("And also upon you!"). Immediately after that, there was a disturbance and a scuffle in the audience, and three men rose from their front-row seats and fired guns at him. Malcolm X was shot sixteen times, in front of his pregnant wife and four young daughters. The crowd erupted in a frenzy and managed to prevent one of the gunmen from fleeing. Two of the suspects were identified by witnesses as Nation of Islam members.
"Our own black shining prince"
Malcolm X was rushed to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, but was pronounced dead from gunshot wounds to the chest shortly after arrival. As the news spread, it was feared that riots would break out. New York City police as well as law-enforcement authorities in several other U.S. cities kept a close watch that night in predominantly black neighborhoods. Twenty-two thousand people paid their respects during the public part of the funeral. Actor Ossie Davis (1917–2005) delivered the eulogy. Davis noted that although Malcolm X would be forever associated with the idea of violence, it should be remembered that the slain leader had led a peaceful, nonviolent life. As noted on the Official Web Site of Malcolm X, Davis remarked that "Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves…. And we will know him then for what he was and is—a Prince—our own black shining Prince!—who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so."
Malcolm X was legendary during his lifetime. In death, he ascended to mythic status. Within a few years, new organizations that were founded on black nationalist principles emerged in several U.S. cities. The militant Black Panther group was the most prominent among these. Malcolm X's Autobiography, finished after his death by journalist Alex Haley (1921–1992), is considered among the most influential works of nonfiction in the twentieth century.
In 1992 filmmaker Spike Lee made a long-awaited, three-hour-plus movie about Malcolm X's life, starring Denzel Washington. That same year, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson (1945–2005) wrote about Malcolm X's importance to African Americans in an essay for Life magazine. Wilson pointed out how thrilling it was to hear recordings of the speeches as a young black man in what most Americans called the "ghetto," which is a neglected, impoverished area of a city. "Having heard Malcolm speak that first time you could not turn away from the clear unadulterated [pure] truth, his impeccable [flawless] logic and a torrent [downpour] of words that came straight at you," Wilson wrote. "His public stance was that of a man who did not hold his tongue, a man who was unafraid, a man who was not seeking approval from whites."
For More Information
Alkalimat, Abdul. Malcolm X for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1990.
Carson, Claybourne, et al., eds. The Eyes on the Prize: A Civil Rights Reader. New York: Penguin, 1991.
Jenkins, Robert L. The Malcolm X Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Malcolm X and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove, 1965. Reprint, New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.
Cone, James H. "Malcolm X: The Impact of a Cultural Revolutionary." Christian Century (December 23, 1992): p. 1189.
Wilson, August. "The Legacy of Malcolm X." Life (December 1992): p. 84.
Malcolm X. http://www.brothermalcolm.net/ (accessed on July 4, 2006).
Malcolm X. "Article Written by Malcolm X for an Egyptian Newspaper." Malcolm X Museum. http://www.themalcolmxmuseum.org/ (accessed on July 4, 2006).
Official Web Site of Malcolm X. http://www.cmgww.com/historic/malcolm/index.htm (accessed on July 4, 2006).
Malcolm X 1925-1965
Malcolm X, a Muslim minister and Black Nationalist leader, was the most formidable race critic in American history. More effectively than anyone before or since, he exposed the moral and legal hypocrisy of American democracy and the ethical contradictions of white Christianity.
Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska, to a Baptist preacher and a West Indian immigrant, both of whom were followers of Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), an early proponent of Black Nationalism. Malcolm’s first introduction to white supremacy came in infancy, when the Ku Klux Klan drove his family out of town. The harassment continued in Lansing, Michigan, where the Little home was destroyed by arson, and where Malcolm’s father was allegedly murdered by another white hate group. His mother had a nervous breakdown and had to be institutionalized, and her six children became wards of the state. After stints in various foster homes, Malcolm dropped out of school and landed in a juvenile detention facility. In his teens, he made his way first to Boston and then to New York, where as “Detroit Red” he became a fixture of the underworld. He dabbled in drugs, prostitution, numbers running, and armed robbery, and was arrested and convicted of the latter a few months shy of his twenty-first birthday.
While incarcerated, he experienced two major conversions. The first was intellectual: realizing that lack of education was a major contributing factor to black oppression, he set himself to read everything he could get his hands on. The second was religious: he became a follower of Elijah Muhammad’s (1897–1975) Nation of Islam, a sui generis American religious sect that embraces the trappings of orthodox Islam while propagating a mythology and inverting white supremacist ideology to proclaim black supremacy instead. The Nation of Islam flourishes in prisons in particular, where its strict code of personal discipline helps many former substance abusers to become clean. It was at this time that Malcolm, in keeping with the Nation’s custom, dropped his last name, bequeathed him by slave owners, and took an X in its place, to mark his lost African ancestry. Upon Malcolm’s release in 1952, his brilliance, dedication, and charisma, along with the debating skills he had honed in prison, brought him to the highest ranks of the Nation’s leadership. He became its national spokesperson, second only to Elijah Muhammad himself, and was appointed ministerin-charge of the prestigious Temple Number Seven in Harlem.
Malcolm X quickly distinguished himself as the most feared, controversial, and articulate race critic in the United States. Since the overt racist violence of southern conservatives was obvious, and was effectively exposed in the media by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) and the civil rights movement, Malcolm focused his critique on the covert racist violence of northern liberals. His attack on these liberals was brutal and persistent. He exposed the responsibility they bore for the creation of the black ghetto, with its poverty, drugs, crime, unemployment, bad schools, and bad housing. While King praised white liberals for their support of the civil rights movement, Malcolm castigated them for their hypocrisy in opposing legal segregation in the South while maintaining de facto segregation in the North.
Although he was often accused of preaching hate and violence, Malcolm simply exposed what was already there. White America had always been hateful and violent toward blacks: 244 years of slavery had been followed by 100 years of segregation. Black America had tried and failed to “overcome” using the principles of love and nonviolence. Now it was time for righteous anger and “nonnonviolence.” In other words, blacks needed to start defending themselves and their freedom, just as whites had always done. Only in this way could they affirm their humanity. Malcolm is often contrasted with King, and the latter, a frequent target of Malcolm’s sharp tongue, kept a wary distance from him, but by the end of their lives each was moving closer to the other’s position. King had become much more radical, and Malcolm much more universal in outlook.
In 1964 Malcolm X broke with Elijah Muhammad and converted to Sunni Islam, taking many of his followers with him. The year that followed marked the first time in Malcolm’s career that he was free to think and speak for himself. It was a period of intense change and creativity, during which he abandoned the racist ideology of the Nation of Islam and tentatively began to reach out to whites and to the mainstream civil rights movement. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, he took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and founded the Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity—a religious and a political organization, respectively. He traveled widely, visiting countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, explaining the black struggle for justice in the United States and linking it with other liberation struggles throughout the world. He also collaborated with the writer Alex Haley (1921–1992) on an autobiography. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, in front of a large crowd that included his wife and children. Three men connected with the Nation of Islam were convicted of the crime; it was widely suspected, though never proven, that Elijah Muhammad himself ordered the assassination.
There are many questions that arise out of Malcolm X’s account of his life as told to Haley, especially the circumstances of his father’s death, the timing of his conversion to Sunni Islam, who set fire to Malcolm’s home, and Malcolm’s sexual orientation. No one has raised these questions as sharply and as controversially as Bruce Perry in Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (1991). Though his biography received much attention when published, it had little impact on the thinking about Malcolm X among most scholars, largely because Perry’s sources have proven difficult to check.
In 1992 the Spike Lee film Malcolm X made The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) a best seller, and sparked a renewal of interest in Malcolm. In the early twenty-first century, he was more popular than ever in the African American community, especially among the young. His name, words, and face adorn T-shirts, buttons, and the covers of rap albums. His writings, books about him, and tapes of his speeches are sold by street vendors, at cultural festivals, and in bookstores. His two most significant speeches, “Message to the Grass Roots” and “The Ballot or the Bullet,” were delivered in the last year of his life—one immediately before his break with the Nation of Islam, and the other soon after. In both of these speeches, he pushed the basic theme that he had sounded from the beginning of his career: black pride. It was by far his most influential notion, yielding Black Power, Black Theology, African American studies, and much else. This cultural philosophy was his lasting bequest to his people, whom he loved so deeply and for whom he died.
SEE ALSO Black Power; Civil Rights; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Nation of Islam
Breitman, George, ed. 1970. By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter. New York: Pathfinder Press.
Cone, James H. 1991. Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
Goldman, Peter. 1979. The Death and Life of Malcolm X. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Malcolm X.  1990. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements. Ed. George Breitman. New York: Grove.
Malcolm X, with Alex Haley.  1973. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine.
Perry, Bruce. 1991. Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. New York: Talman.
Born May 19, 1925 Omaha,
Black Muslim leader
Malcolm X was one of the most charismatic and controversial public figures of the 1960s. As a minister in the Nation of Islam (also known as the Black Muslims), an American religious sect, he preached that whites were "devils" and supported the separation of the races. After breaking with the organization, he traveled to Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, located in Saudi Arabia. His experiences during this journey changed his thinking. He became more optimistic about finding a common ground between the races. Along with other leaders of the decade, including President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry), Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968; see entry), and Robert Kennedy (1925–1968), he was killed by assassin bullets.
"We declare our right on this earth … to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence, by any means necessary."
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925. His father Earl, a Baptist minister, was a civil rights activist. Earl was a supporter of Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), who was then leading a "back to Africa" movement among African Americans. When Malcolm was six years old, Earl Little's lifeless body was discovered stretched across trolley tracks in Lansing, Michigan, where the family had settled. The authorities determined that Little's death was accidental, but the family believed he died at the hands of the Black Legion, a group like the Ku Klux Klan that terrorized black citizens. Louise Little, Malcolm's mother, was devastated by the loss and eventually had to be committed to a mental institution.
Young Malcolm was an excellent student. However, he became uninterested in his studies when a teacher discouraged him from thinking that he could become a lawyer. The sole reason the educator gave was Malcolm's ethnicity. The teacher advised Malcolm to be "realistic" about his career goals, according to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In those days, society limited the career opportunities available to blacks, Hispanics, women, and other minorities.
Disheartened, the youngster left school, drifted to Boston and New York, and became first a small-time criminal and then a drug dealer, pimp, and gambling syndicate operator. In 1946, when he was three months shy of his twenty-first birthday, he received a ten-year prison sentence for burglary.
While in jail, Malcolm began studying the philosophy of Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975), head of the Nation of Islam. An Islamic religious group, the Nation of Islam was created to reclaim the dignity and power of the black community. Elijah claimed that blacks were racially superior to whites and that black Americans were kept powerless by a white-ruled society. Elijah frequently referred to whites as inherently evil "blue-eyed devils" because of their oppression of blacks, according to Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary: A Biography. In order for blacks to control their own destiny, Elijah argued that they needed to establish their own independent nation. Malcolm became a faithful follower of Elijah and changed his name to Malcolm X. The "X" symbolized the unknown surname of his ancestors' African tribe. Africans who were captured, brought to the United States, and sold as slaves were given the last names of their owners. Little had been the surname of his family's slave masters.
Malcolm was paroled from prison in 1952 and was named a Nation of Islam minister as well as the organization's national spokesperson. His intellect and enthusiasm quickly placed him in the upper rank of the organization. He established Nation of Islam mosques and recruited thousands of new members across the country. His clear and forceful public presence made him an effective Nation of Islam representative. His growing skill as a speechmaker and spokesperson led him to become the organization's lieutenant with the highest national profile in the late 1950s. Although he remained devoted to Elijah Muhammad, whom he respected and considered his teacher, Malcolm gained fame and popularity. Soon, his presence even began to overshadow that of the Nation of Islam leader.
Different approaches to civil rights
During the 1960s the civil rights movement was expanding across the United States. Conflict arose with regard to the methods by which blacks might best fight for equality. Some black leaders, most famously Martin Luther King Jr., felt that blacks and whites could work together in a non-violent manner to achieve racial equality. Others, such as Malcolm X, were far more radical. Malcolm was convinced that racial hatred lay deep within white people and that even the most well-meaning whites were not to be trusted. For this reason, he believed blacks needed to separate themselves from the American white population. Furthermore, Malcolm advised blacks to take up arms and defend themselves when confronted by violent, racist whites.
The more moderate civil rights leaders urged blacks to vote in elections, organized voting rights drives in the American South, and attempted to integrate or mix the races in schools across the country. Malcolm, however, suggested that black Americans resist participating in elections and remain separate from whites. These stances made Malcolm and the Nation of Islam a threat to the American establishment. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents secretly joined and spied on the organization, and they specifically targeted Malcolm for observation. An undercover agent even became one of his bodyguards.
A rift in the ranks
Malcolm X had been a by-the-book follower of the Nation of Islam, which required that members must take a firm vow not to have sex before marriage. Also, once married, members were to remain faithful to their spouses. In 1963, a conflict occurred between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam when he learned that Elijah Muhammad had been sexually involved with six women and had fathered children with several of them.
Previously, Elijah had criticized and even cast out Muslims who had disobeyed the sect's rules. Malcolm was outraged by what he considered to be Elijah's double standards. Additionally, Elijah asked Malcolm to keep silent about the affairs. Malcolm declined because he felt betrayed by the man he considered to be both a teacher and a prophet. In fact, he was coming to view the Nation of Islam and its leader as corrupt.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Malcolm X, in a much-publicized declaration, claimed that the president's murder was an example of "chickens coming home to roost," as quoted in Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary: A Biography. He was suggesting that white Americans promoted violence against minorities and, in so doing, created a culture that allowed for the killing of their president. The insensitive nature of Malcolm's observation caused a firestorm of controversy. Elijah Muhammad suspended him from the Nation of Islam, ordering him not speak publicly for three months. Malcolm, however, suspected that the action was not in response to his comments on the Kennedy assassination. He thought it might be linked to his refusal to conform within the organization's power structure.
A change in philosophy
In March 1964, Malcolm stopped being a member of the Nation of Islam and established the Muslim Mosque, Inc., his own religious group, and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He also traveled to Mecca, a city in Saudi Arabia and the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632), the founder of Islam. The journey greatly expanded Malcolm's understanding of Islam and changed his life. He met and got to know people of all races, whom he observed praying side by side as Muslims. He came to see the possibility that he might share a friendship with whites and returned home with a very different point of view with regard to relationships between the races.
"Spirit of True Brotherhood"
In 1964, Malcolm X visited Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad in c. 570 in Saudi Arabia. At that time, he wrote a letter which described his transformation from racial separatist to integrationist.
The letter, reproduced in his autobiography, began: "Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land.… For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors."
He remarked that their skin tones ranged from "blue-eyed blonds to black skin Africans." He noted that: "…we were all participating in the same rituals, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white."
Malcolm X explained that his observations during his visit to Mecca caused him to re-evaluate his beliefs. "The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks," he noted, as quoted in Contemporary Black Biography. Malcolm X realized that this change of heart would shock those familiar with his ideas, but reminded readers of his autobiography that he has "always kept an open mind."
Malcolm now believed that good and evil could not be defined strictly by black and white. Some blacks were capable of being insincere, while some whites were well meaning and kindhearted. Malcolm radically altered his message, stressing a newfound belief that the races could and should coexist. He suggested that blacks could improve their economic and political status by working through established channels. He declared that he was eager to join and support black and progressive white organizations and to work together for equality. He also chose a new name: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
That summer, he embarked on a second international journey, during which he met with the leaders of several African nations. These encounters transformed him into a committed internationalist, someone who believed in the joining together of all exploited peoples across the globe.
The conflict between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam now was both well known and deeply philosophical. Those FBI agents who had secretly joined the organization learned that a plot to murder Malcolm X was in the planning stages. Malcolm X suspected his life was in danger as well. On February 14, 1965, his Queens, New York, home, which he shared with his wife, Betty, and four children, was fire-bombed, but no one was injured.
A tragic end
Exactly one week later, as he began a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York, three assassins—all members of the Nation of Islam—charged the stage and shot Malcolm. Fifteen bullets entered his body. He was rushed to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital but was dead on arrival.
In death, Malcolm X was remembered for his passionate efforts in the quest for African American equality. He also won respect for expanding his approach to race relations. His 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was published after his death, charted the many stages of his life. In particular, his message of black pride and empowerment was meaningful to his readers. At the same time, his rage against racism arguably was a contributing factor in the race riots that exploded in America's black ghettos during the long, hot summers of the late 1960s. Malcolm's beliefs also greatly affected several emerging political action groups of the era, from the activist Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to the militant Black Panther Party.
For More Information
Benson, Michael. Malcolm X. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 2002.
Brown, Kevin. Malcolm X: His Life and Legacy. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.
Malcolm X. Malcolm X Talks to Young People: Speeches in the U.S., Britain, and Africa. New York: Pathfinder, 1991.
Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965.
Myers, Walter Dean. Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary: A Biography. New York: Scholastic, 1993.
Stine, Megan. The Story of Malcolm X, Civil Rights Leader. New York: Dell, 1994.
Wilson, August. "The Legacy of Malcolm X." Life (December 1992): p. 84.
Malcolm.http://www.brothermalcolm.net (accessed August 2004).
"Malcolm X." Contemporary Black Biography.http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (accessed August 2004).
Malcolm X Museum.http://www.themalcolmxmuseum.org (accessed August 2004).
The Official Web Site of Malcolm X.http://www.cmgww.com/historic/malcolm/index.htm (accessed August 2004).
May 19, 1925
February 21, 1965
Nationalist leader Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little and also known by his religious name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz, was the national representative of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, a prominent black nationalist, and the founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, J. Early Little, was a Georgia-born Baptist preacher and an organizer for Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. His mother, M. Louise Norton, also a Garveyite, was from Grenada. After J. Early Little was murdered, Malcolm's mother broke under the emotional and economic strain, and the children became wards of the state. Malcolm's delinquent behavior landed him in a detention home in Mason, Michigan.
Malcolm journeyed to Boston and then to New York, where, as "Detroit Red," he became involved in a life of crime—numbers, peddling dope, con games of many kinds, and thievery of all sorts, including armed robbery. A few months before his twenty-first birthday, Malcolm was sentenced to a Massachusetts prison for burglary. While he was in prison, his life was transformed when he discovered, through the influence of an inmate, the liberating value of education and, through his family, the empowering religious/cultural message of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. Both gave him what he did not have: self-respect as a black person.
Malcolm was released from prison in 1952, but not before he had honed his reading and debating skills. He soon became a minister in the Nation of Islam and its most effective recruiter and apologist, speaking against black self-hate and on behalf of black self-esteem. In June 1954 Elijah Muhammad appointed him minister of Temple Number 7 in Harlem. In the temple and from the platform on street corner rallies, Malcolm told Harlemites, "We are black first and everything else second." Initially his black nationalist message was unpopular in the African-American community. The media, both white and black, portrayed him as a teacher of hate and a promoter of violence. It was an age of integration, and love and nonviolence were advocated as the only way to achieve it.
Malcolm did not share the optimism of the civil rights movement and found himself speaking to unsympathetic audiences. "If you are afraid to tell truth," he told his audience, "why, you don't deserve freedom." Malcolm relished the odds against him; he saw his task as waking up "dead Negroes" by revealing the truth about America and about themselves.
The enormity of this challenge motivated Malcolm to attack the philosophy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement head-on. He rejected integration: "An integrated cup of coffee is insufficient pay for 400 years of slave labor." He denounced nonviolence as "the philosophy of a fool": "There is no philosophy more befitting to the white man's tactics for keeping his foot on the black man's neck." He ridiculed King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech: "While King was having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare." He also rejected King's command to love the enemy: "It is not possible to love a man whose chief purpose in life is to humiliate you and still be considered a normal human being." To blacks who accused Malcolm of teaching hate, he retorted: "It is the man who has made a slave out of you who is teaching hate."
As long as Malcolm stayed in the Black Muslim movement, he was not free to speak his own mind. He had to represent the "Messenger," Elijah Muhammad, who was the sole and absolute authority in the Nation of Islam. When Malcolm disobeyed Muhammad in December 1963 and described President John F. Kennedy's assassination as an instance of "chickens coming home to roost," Muhammad rebuked him and used the incident as an opportunity to silence his star pupil. Malcolm realized that more was involved in his silence than what he had said about the assassination. Jealousy and envy in Muhammad's family circle were the primary reasons for his silence and why it would never be lifted.
Malcolm reluctantly declared his independence in March 1964. His break with the Black Muslims represented another important turning point in his life. No longer bound by Muhammad's religious strictures, he was free to develop his own philosophy of the black freedom struggle.
Malcolm had already begun to show independent thinking in his "Message to the Grass Roots" speech, given in Detroit three weeks before his silence. In that speech he endorsed black nationalism as his political philosophy, thereby separating himself not only from the civil rights movement but, more importantly, from Muhammad, who had defined the Nation as strictly religious and apolitical. Malcolm contrasted "the black revolution" with "the Negro revolution." The black revolution, he said, is international in scope, and it is "bloody" and "hostile" and "knows no compromise." But the so-called "Negro revolution," the civil rights movement, was not even a revolution, according to Malcolm, who mocked it: "The only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. It's the only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated public park, a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks on the toilet."
After his break Malcolm developed his cultural and political philosophy of black nationalism in "The Ballot or the Bullet." Before audiences in New York, Cleveland, and Detroit, he urged blacks to acquire their constitutional right to vote and move toward King and the civil rights movement. Later he became more explicit: "Dr. King wants the same thing I want—freedom." Malcolm went to Selma, Alabama, while King was in jail in support of King's efforts to secure voting rights. Malcolm wanted to join the civil rights movement in order to expand it into a human rights movement, thereby internationalizing the black freedom struggle, making it more radical and more militant.
During his period of independence, which lasted for approximately one year before he was assassinated, nothing influenced Malcolm more than his travel abroad. His pilgrimage to Mecca transformed his theology. Malcolm became a Sunni Muslim, acquired the religious name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz, and concluded that "Orthodox Islam" was incompatible with the racist teachings of Elijah
Muhammad. The sight of "people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one" had a profound effect upon him. "Brotherhood," and not racism, was seen as the essence of Islam.
"Freedom is essential to life itself. Freedom is essential to the development of the human being. If we don't have freedom we can never expect justice and equality."
muhammad speaks, september 1960
Malcolm's experiences in Africa also transformed his political philosophy. He discovered the limitations of skin-nationalism, since he met whites who were creative participants in liberation struggles in African countries. In his travels abroad he focused on explaining the black struggle for justice in the United States and linking it with other liberation struggles throughout the world. "Our problem is your problem," he told African heads of state: "It is not a Negro problem, nor an American problem. This is a world problem; a problem of humanity. It is not a problem of civil rights but a problem of human rights."
When Malcolm returned to the United States, he told blacks: "You can't understand what is going on in Mississippi, if you don't know what is going on in the Congo. They are both the same. The same interests are at stake." He founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, patterned after the Organization of African Unity, to implement his ideas. He was hopeful of influencing African leaders "to recommend an immediate investigation into our problem by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights."
Malcolm X was not successful. On February 21, 1965, he was shot down by assassins as he spoke at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. He was thirty-nine years old.
No one made a greater impact upon the cultural consciousness of the African-American community during the second half of the twentieth century than Malcolm X. More than anyone else, he revolutionized the black mind, transforming some self-effacing colored people into proud blacks and self-confident African Americans. In the wake of the civil rights movement, and to some extent as a consequence of Malcolm X's appeal, some preachers and religious scholars created a black theology and proclaimed God as liberator and Jesus Christ as black. College students demanded and got courses and departments in black studies. Artists created a new black aesthetic and proclaimed, "Black is beautiful."
No area of the African-American community escaped Malcolm's influence. Some mainstream black leaders who first dismissed him as a rabble-rouser embraced his cultural philosophy following his death. Malcolm's most far-reaching influence, however, was among the masses of African Americans in the ghettos of American cities. Malcolm loved black people deeply and taught them much about themselves. Before Malcolm, many blacks did not want to have anything to do with Africa. But he reminded them that "you can't hate the roots of the tree and not hate the tree; you can't hate your origin and not end up hating yourself; you can't hate Africa and not hate yourself."
Malcolm X was a cultural revolutionary. Poet Maya Angelou called him a "charismatic speaker who could play an audience as great musicians play instruments." Disciple Peter Bailey said he was a "master teacher." Writer Alfred Duckett called him "our sage and our saint." In his eulogy, actor Ossie Davis bestowed upon Malcolm the title "our shining black prince." Malcolm can be best understood as a cultural prophet of blackness. African Americans who are proud to be black should thank Malcolm X. Few have played as central a role as he in making it possible for African Americans to claim their African heritage.
The meaning of Malcolm X grows deeper as people of color continue to study his life and thought. The recent "gift" of a trove of his speeches, photographs, letters, and journals to the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem (2002) promises to yield new insights into his growth and development as a thinker and leader. These important documents will eventually be made available for scholarly assessment.
Earlier in 1999, a previously unknown collection of Malcolm X's letters, school notebooks, and photographs was deposited at Emory University's Woodruff Library in Atlanta, Georgia. They date from 1941 to 1955. They show Malcolm as an articulate and eloquent writer, even as a teenager, and seriously interested in writing a book. This contrasts sharply with his portrayal of himself as ignorant in his Autobiography.
With the passage of time, Malcolm's image has soared. In 1965 he was widely rejected as a fiery demagogue, but today his image adorns a U.S. postage stamp. Indeed, he is regarded by many as an important African-American leader alongside of Martin Luther King Jr.
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Cone, James H. Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991.
Goldman, Peter. The Death and Life of Malcolm X, 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.
Malcolm X, with Alex Haley. Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine, 1965.
Malcolm X Papers, New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Harlem, NY.
Malcolm X Collection, 1941–1955, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.
james h. cone (1996)
Updated by author 2005
Malcolm X was a nation of islam minister and a black nationalist leader in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Since his assassination in 1965, his status as a political figure has grown considerably, and he has now become an internationally recognized political and cultural icon. The changes in Malcolm X's personal beliefs can be followed somewhat by the changes in his name, from Malcolm Little when he was a young man to Malcolm X when he was a member of the Nation of Islam to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz-Al-Sabann after he returned to the United States from a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964. He was a ward of the state, a shoe shine boy in Boston, a street hustler and pimp in New York, and a convicted felon at the age of 20. After embracing Islam in prison and directing his grassroots leadership and speaking skills to recruit members to the Nation of Islam, he ultimately became an influential black nationalist during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The fifth child in a family of eight children, Malcolm was born May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist minister and a local organizer for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a black nationalist organization founded by Marcus M. Garvey in the early twentieth century. His mother, Louise Little, was of West Indian heritage. Malcom's father was killed under suspicious circumstances in 1931 and his mother had a breakdown in 1937.
After his father's death and his mother's commitment to a mental hospital, Malcolm was
first placed with family friends, but the state welfare agency ultimately situated him in a juvenile home in Mason, Michigan, where he did well. Malcolm was an excellent student in junior high school, earning high grades as well as praise from his teachers. Despite his obvious talent, his status as an African American in the 1930s prompted his English teacher to discourage Malcolm from pursuing a professional career. The teacher instead encouraged him to work with his hands, perhaps as a carpenter.
In 1941, shortly after finishing eighth grade, Malcolm moved to Roxbury, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Boston. From 1941 to 1943, he lived in Roxbury with his half-sister ella lee little-collins. He worked at several jobs, including one as the shoe shine boy at the Roseland State Ballroom. He became what he later described as a Roxbury hipster, wearing outrageous zoot suits and dancing at local ballrooms.
Malcolm moved to Harlem in 1943, at the age of 18. Here, he earned the nickname Detroit Red, because of his Michigan background and the reddish hue to his skin and hair. In his early Harlem experience, Malcolm was a hustler, dope dealer, gambler, pimp, and numbers runner for mobsters.
In 1945, when his life was threatened by a Harlem mob figure named West Indian Archie, Malcolm returned to Boston, where he became involved in a burglary ring with an old Roxbury acquaintance. In 1946 he was caught attempting to reclaim a stolen watch he had left for repairs, and the police raided his apartment and arrested him and his accomplices, including two white women. He was charged with larceny and breaking and entering, to which he pleaded guilty at trial. On February 27, 1946, he entered Charlestown State Prison to begin an eight- to ten-year sentence; he was 20 years old.
Malcolm was transferred in 1948 to an experimental and progressive prison program in Norfolk, Massachusetts. The Norfolk Prison Colony gave greater freedom to its inmates. It also had an excellent library, and Malcolm began to read voraciously. Prompted by his brother, Reginald Little, Malcolm converted to Islam while in prison and became a follower of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam, founded by Wallace D. Fard in the 1930s, advocated racial separatism and enforced a strict moral code for its followers, all of whom were African American.
Malcolm was paroled from prison in 1952. He immediately moved to Detroit, where he worked in a furniture store and attended the Nation of Islam Detroit temple. Malcolm soon abandoned the surname Little in favor of X, which represented the African surname he had never known. With his oratory skill, Malcolm X quickly became a national minister for the Nation of Islam. As a devout follower of Elijah Muhammad, he helped to establish numerous temples across the United States. He became the minister for temples in Boston and Philadelphia, and in 1954, he became minister of the New York temple. In 1958 he married Sister Betty X, who had earlier joined the Nation of Islam as Betty Sanders. Together, they had six children, including twins who were born after Malcolm's assassination.
During his early years with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm's primary role was as spokesman for Elijah Muhammad. He was a highly effective grassroots activist and successfully recruited thousands of urban blacks to join the organization. In 1959 a television program entitled The Hate That Hate Produced resulted in a focused public scrutiny of the Nation of Islam and its followers, who became known to many U.S. citizens as Black Muslims. Increasingly, Malcolm was seen as the national spokesman for the Black Muslims, and he was often sought out for his opinion on public issues. In vitriolic public speeches on behalf of the Nation of Islam, he described whites in the United States as devils and called for African Americans to reject any attempt to integrate them into a white racist society. As a Nation of Islam minister, he denounced Jews and criticized the more cautious mainstream civil rights leaders as traitors who had been brainwashed by a white society. He further challenged the so-called integrationist principles of recognized civil rights leaders such as martin luther king jr.
Elijah Muhammad took a somewhat less rash approach and favored a general nonengagement policy in place of more confrontational tactics. Malcolm's increasing popularity—as well as his caustic public remarks—began to create tension between him and Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm became frustrated at having to restrain his comments.
When President john f. kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Malcolm exclaimed that Kennedy "never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon." Malcolm later regretted his comment and explained that he meant that the government's involvement in and tolerance of violence against African Americans and others had created an atmosphere that contributed to the death of the president. Nevertheless, his comments and his increasing public notoriety prompted Elijah Muhammad to "silence" Malcolm and suspend him as a minister on December 1, 1963. Members of the Nation of Islam were instructed not to speak to him.
However, by 1963, Malcolm had become disillusioned by the Nation of Islam, particularly with rumors that Elijah Muhammad had been unfaithful to his wife and had fathered several illegitimate children. On March 8, 1964—while still under suspension from the Nation of Islam—Malcolm formally announced his separation from the organization. He soon announced the creation of his own organization, Moslem Mosque, Incorporated (MMI), which would be based in New York. MMI, Malcolm stated, would be a broad-based black nationalist organization intended to advance the spiritual, economic, and political interests of African Americans. On March 26, Malcolm met for the first and only time with Martin Luther King, in Washington, D.C. King at the time was scheduled to testify on the pending civil rights act of 1964.
In April 1964, Malcolm made a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy site of Islam and the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. He was profoundly moved by the pilgrimage, and said later that it was the start of a radical alteration in his outlook about race relations.
"We are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition as human beings. We are fighting for … human rights."
Upon his return to the United States, Malcolm began to use the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Al-Sabann. He also exhibited a profound shift in political and social thinking. Whereas in the past he had advocated against cooperation with other civil rights leaders and organizations, his new philosophy was to work with existing organizations and individuals, including whites, so long as they were sincere in their efforts to secure basic civil rights and freedoms for African Americans. In June 1964, he founded the secular Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which espoused a pan-Africanist approach to basic human rights, particularly the rights of African Americans. He traveled and spoke extensively in Africa to gain support for his pan-Africanist views. He pledged to bring the condition of African Americans before the General Assembly of the united nations and thereby "internationalize" the civil rights movement in the United States. He further pledged to do whatever was necessary to bring the black struggle from the level of civil rights to the level of human rights. When he advocated for the right of African Americans to use arms to defend themselves against violence, he not only laid the groundwork for a subsequent growth of the black power movement, but also led many U.S. citizens to believe that he advocated violence. However, in his autobiography, Malcolm said that he was not advocating wanton violence but calling for the right of individuals to use arms in self-defense when the law failed to protect them from violent assaults.
In 1965 Malcolm's increasing public criticism of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam prompted anonymous threats against his life. In his attempts to forge relationships with established civil rights organizations such as the student non-violent coordinating committee, Malcolm was criticized severely in the Nation of Islam's official publications. In a December 1964 article in Muhammad Speaks— the official newspaper of the Nation of Islam— Louis X (now known as Louis Farrakhan) said, "[S]uch a man as Malcolm is worthy of death, and would have met with death if it had not been for Muhammad's confidence in Allah for victory over the enemies."
On February 14, 1965, Malcolm's home in Queens, New York—which was still owned by the Nation of Islam—was firebombed while he and his family were asleep. Malcolm attributed the bombing to Nation of Islam supporters but no one was ever charged with the crime. One week later, when Malcolm stepped to the podium at the Audubon Ballroom in New York to present a speech on behalf of the OAAU, he was assassinated. The gunmen, later identified as former or current members of the Nation of Islam, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in April 1966.
Malcolm left a complex political and social legacy. Although he was primarily a black nationalist in perspective, his changing philosophy and politics toward the end of his life demonstrate the unfinished development of an influential figure. Although some people point to his identification with the Nation of Islam and dismiss him as a racial extremist and anti-Semite, his later thinking reveals profound changes in his perspective and a more universal understanding of the problems of African Americans. In his eulogy of Malcolm, the U.S. actor Ossie Davis said,
However we may have differed with him—or with each other about him and his value as a man—let his going from us serve only to bring us together, now. Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man—but a seed—which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us.
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Malcolm X, with Alex Haley. 1984. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books.
Myers, Walter. 1993. Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary. New York: Scholastic.
Natambu, Kofi. 2002. The Life and Work of Malcolm X. Indianapolis, Ind.: Alpha.
African American civil rights leader Malcolm X was a major twentieth-century spokesman for black nationalism. Unlike many other African American leaders of this time, who supported nonviolent methods, Malcolm X believed in using more aggressive measures in the fight for civil rights.
As a boy
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, a Baptist minister, was an outspoken follower of Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), the black nationalist leader. (A nationalist is a person who promotes one nation's culture and interests over all others.) Garvey supported a "back-to-Africa" movement for African Americans. During Malcolm's early years, his family moved several times because of racism (dislike and poor treatment of people based on their race). They moved from Omaha, Nebraska, after being threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, a group that believes that white people are superior to all other races. While living in an all-white neighborhood in Michigan their house was burned. When Malcolm was six years old, his father was mysteriously murdered. The black community was convinced that white people had committed the crime. Three of Malcolm's four uncles were also murdered by white people.
By the 1930s the nation had fallen into the Great Depression, a decade-long period of great economic hardship. Work was scarce, and Malcolm's family struggled. For a time his mother and her eight children lived on public welfare. When his mother became mentally ill, Malcolm was sent to a foster home. His mother remained in a mental institution for about twenty-six years. The children were divided among several families, and Malcolm lived in various state institutions and boardinghouses. At thirteen Malcolm was charged with delinquency (behaving in a way that is against the law) and was sent to a juvenile detention home (a place where young people are held in custody). He dropped out of school at the age of fifteen.
A criminal life
Living with his sister in Boston, Massachusetts, Malcolm worked as a shoeshine boy, a busboy, and a waiter. In Boston Malcolm began visiting the black ghetto (an area of a city where a minority lives) of Roxbury. There, he was drawn to the neighborhood's street life. He began wearing flashy clothing and jumped into a criminal life that included gambling, selling drugs, and burglary.
In 1942 Malcolm moved to New York City's Harlem neighborhood where he continued his unlawful lifestyle. He adapted well to the New York City street life and rose quickly in the criminal world. Malcolm became known as Detroit Red, for his red shock of hair. When the police uncovered his criminal activities, Malcolm returned to Boston.
Reformed in prison
In 1946, at the age of twenty, Malcolm was sentenced to ten years in prison for burglary. While in prison he began to transform his life. He began reading books on history, philosophy, and religion. In prison his brother Reginald visited him and told Malcolm about the Black Muslims. The Black Muslims were an Islamic religious organization whose official name was the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. The leader of the group was Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975).
Malcolm began to study Muhammad's teachings and to practice the religion faithfully. These teachings taught that the white man is evil and doomed by Allah to destruction. Also, the teachings stressed that the best course for black people is to separate themselves from Western, white civilization—culturally, politically, physically, and psychologically. The Black Muslim teachings also prohibited personal habits such as smoking, drinking, and the eating of pork. In addition to finding his new religion while in prison, Malcolm began copying words from the dictionary and developed the vocabulary that would help him become a passionate and effective public speaker.
In 1952 Malcolm was released from prison, and he went to Chicago, Illinois, to meet Elijah Muhammad. There he was accepted into the movement and given the name of Malcolm X. Malcolm believed the "X" represented his "slave" name that was forever lost after being raised in a mainly white nation. Malcolm X became assistant minister of the Detroit Mosque, or Muslim house of worship. The following year he returned to Chicago to study personally under Muhammad, and shortly thereafter was sent to organize a mosque in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1954 he went to lead the mosque in Harlem.
The message of Malcolm X
Malcolm X soon became the most visible national spokesman for the Black Muslims. As the voice of the organization he was a speech-writer, a philosopher, and an inspiring speaker who was often quoted by the media. His debating talents against white and black opponents helped spread the movement's message.
At this time in the United States there was a major movement for racial integration, or bringing the races together in peace. However, Malcolm X and the Black Muslims were calling for racial separation. He believed that the civil rights gains made in America amounted to almost nothing. He criticized those African Americans who used nonviolent methods in order to achieve integration. Malcolm X called for self-defense in the face of white violence.
Malcolm X urged black people to give up the Christian religion. He preached that the high crime rate in black communities was basically a result of African Americans following the lifestyle of Western, white society. During this period Malcolm X, following Elijah Muhammad, urged black people not to participate in elections. These elections, the movement believed, meant supporting the immoral (against the ideas of right and wrong held by most people) political system of the United States.
In 1957 Malcolm X met a young student nurse, Betty Jean Sanders (1936–1997), in New York. She soon became a member of the Black Muslims. They were married in 1958, and she became Betty Shabazz. The couple eventually had six daughters.
By 1959 the Black Muslim movement had moved into the national spotlight. Racial tensions were reaching a boiling point, and white Americans grew fearful of Malcolm X and his message of black supremacy (the belief that the black race is better than all others). By 1960 Black Muslim membership had grown to more than one hundred thousand.
As the movement reached its peak, some observers felt that there were elements within the Black Muslim movement that wanted to oust Malcolm X, or force him from office. There were rumors that he was planning to take over leadership from Elijah Muhammad and that he wanted to make the organization political. Others felt that the personal jealousy of some Black Muslim leaders was a factor.
On December 1, 1963, Malcolm X stated that he saw President John F. Kennedy's assassination as a case of "The chickens coming home to roost." Soon afterward Elijah Muhammad suspended him and ordered him not to speak for the movement for ninety days. On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X publicly announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam. He said he was starting two new organizations: the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He remained a believer in the Islamic religion.
An international focus
During the next months Malcolm X made several trips to Africa and Europe and one to Mecca, a city in Saudia Arabia that is the holiest city of the Islamic religion. Based on these trips, he wrote that he no longer believed that all white people were evil and that he had found the true meaning of the Islamic religion. He changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Malcolm X announced that he planned to take the black struggle to an international audience by putting black people's complaints against the United States before the United Nations (UN). For this purpose he sought aid from several African countries through the Organization of Afro-American Unity. At the same time he stated that his organizations were willing to work with other black organizations and with progressive white groups in the United States. Together, these organizations would work on voter registration, on black control of community public institutions such as schools and the police, and on other civil and political rights for black people.
Malcolm X began holding meetings in Harlem at which he discussed the policies and programs of his new organizations. Then, on a Sunday afternoon, February 21, 1965, as he began to address one such meeting, Malcolm X was assassinated.
Since his death Malcolm X's influence on the political and social thinking of African Americans has been enormous, and the literature about him has only grown. Alex Haley's 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was written from several interviews conducted with Malcolm X before he died. It is now considered a classic in African American literature. Malcolm X Community College in Chicago, Malcolm X Liberation University in Durham, North Carolina, and the Malcolm X Society are all named for him.
For More Information
Breitman, George. The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary. New York: Merit Publishers, 1967.
Lomax, Louis. To Kill a Black Man. Los Angeles, CA: Holloway House Publishing Company, 1968.
Lomax, Louis. When the Word Is Given: A Report on Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and the Black Muslim World. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1963.
Myers, Walter Dean. Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary. New York: Scholastic, 1993.
Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965. Reprint, New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.
Director: Spike Lee
Production: Marvin Worth and Spike Lee for 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, in association with Largo International N.V.; 35mm; running time: 201 minutes; released 1 November 1992 by Warner Brothers. Filmed in Saudi Arabia and the USA.
Producer: Marvin Worth, Spike Lee; screenplay: Arnold Perl, Spike Lee, based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley; photography: Ernest Dickerson; editor: Barry Alexander Brown; assistant directors: Randy Fletcher, H. H. Cooper, Dale Pierce, Samir Seif, Ntshavheni Wa Luruli; production design: Wynn Thomas; art director: Tom Warren; music: Terence Blanchard; sound editor: Skip Lievsay; sound recording: Rolf Pardula; costumes: Ruth E. Parker; choreography: Otis Sallid; stunt coordination: Jeff Ward.
Cast: Denzel Washington (Malcolm X); Angela Bassett (Betty Shabazz); Albert Hall (Baines); Al Freeman Jr. (Elijah Muhammad); Spike Lee (Shorty); Delroy Lindo (West Indian Archie); Theresa Randle (Laura); Kate Vernon (Sophia); Lonette McKee (Louise Little); Tommy Hollis (Earl Little); James McDaniel (Brother Earl); Nelson Mandella (Himself); Ossie Davis (Himself).
Lee, Spike, with Ralph Wiley, By Any Means Necessary: The Trialsand Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X, including theScreenplay, New York, 1992.
Hardy, James E., Spike Lee: Filmmaker, Broomall, 1995.
Jones, K. Maurice, Spike Lee & the African American Filmmakers:A Choice of Colors, Brookfield, 1996.
Haskins, Jim, Spike Lee: By Any Means Necessary, New York, 1997.
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McDaniel, Melissa, Spike Lee: On His Own Terms, Danbury, 1999.
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Harrell, Alfred D., "Malcolm X: One Man's Legacy to the Letter," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 73, no. 11, November 1992.
Crowdus, Gary, and Dan Georgakas, "Interview with Spike Lee," in Cineaste (New York), Winter 1992/1993.
Amiel, V., and others, Positif (Paris), February 1993.
Baecque, A. de., "Docteur Spike et Mr. Lee," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), February 1993.
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"Malcolm Little's Big Sister," in New Yorker, vol. 70, no. 47, 30 January 1995.
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Bowman, James, "Spike Lee: 'Artist'," in National Review, vol. 50, no. 14, 26 July 1999.
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Malcolm X is the first film about an African American to be given a blockbuster budget by a Hollywood studio. That the film was made at all, much less as an epic, is primarily due to writer/director Spike Lee's history of producing controversial films that make money. Not surprisingly, Malcolm X was surrounded by racially-based tensions from the onset. Lee used racial considerations to wrest control of the project from white directors only to find himself maligned by some African American intellectuals who felt he was not qualified to take on so weighty a subject. Yet another racial nuance arose when Warner Brothers refused to approve completion funding after Lee went over budget. The director had to obtain millions in gifts from prominent African American entertainers and athletes to continue the film while Warner Brothers feuded with a bond company.
Despite this considerable pre-release sound and fury, including numerous predictions in the press that the film would surely inflame white and/or black audiences to violence, when Malcolm X finally appeared, public reaction was remarkably subdued. Rather than provoking his audiences with a film about social and racial conflict, Lee had opted for a hagiographic script stressing the theme of personal redemption. The three main sections of the film might easily have been subtitled "Malcolm the Criminal," "Malcolm the Prophet," and "Malcolm the Martyr."
After sensationalistic opening credits in which an X becomes a burning American flag and contemporary conflicts between African Americans and police are referenced, the film opens with Malcolm in his zoot suit period. An elaborate dance hall sequence has Malcolm hurrying home a respectable black woman in order to return for a tryst with Sophia, a white woman who will become his consort. He soon becomes part of Harlem's crime scene and is shown at bars handling gambling transactions but not pimping or selling drugs, other facets of his criminal years. After a fallout with West Indian Archie, the mob boss, Malcolm and his sidekick Shorty flee to Boston where they become house robbers until caught and sent to prison. The housebreaking is mainly played for laughs as are Malcolm's repeated hair straightening shampoos, painful procedures used in his autobiography to symbolize self-hatred and wanting to be white.
The prison sequences dramatize Malcolm's conversion to the Nation of Islam by a fellow inmate who will later grow jealous of his pupil's fame. This is one of many departures from the autobiography Lee vehemently insists was his final guide in shaping the script. In reality Malcolm's conversion was mainly the work of his immediate family and daily correspondence from Elijah Muhammad, the sect's leader.
Following his release from prison, Malcolm is shown having a meteoric rise through the ranks of the Nation until he is second in importance only to Elijah Muhammad. Viewers unfamiliar with the movement are likely to get the impression that it was much larger than it was (a few thousand at most), but Malcolm's pivotal role in its growth and public image is on target. His anti-white speeches and virulent attacks on civil rights leaders are mainly kept off screen while his equally strong views on personal and community self-help are spotlighted. His personal life, particularly his marriage, is projected as exemplary. In that regard, Denzel Washington who does a superb job conveying the zeal, body language, and speaking style of the public Malcolm renders a private Malcolm who is rather saccharine and humorless.
The least convincing aspects of the film chronicle Malcolm's pilgrimage to Mecca where he discovers the Nation is regarded as heretical because of its teachings that all white people are devils. Upon his return to America, Malcolm breaks with the Nation to form rival religious and secular organizations. From what is projected on the screen Malcolm's motivation appears to be disillusionment with Elijah Muhammad's spiritual authority compounded by knowledge of Elijah's sexual infidelities. What robs these crucial moments in Malcolm's life of their dynamism is the complete omission of Malcolm's subsequent trips to Africa and the Middle East.
During those journeys Malcolm met many heads of state, the majority of whom considered themselves socialists and revolutionaries. They urged him to join the civil rights movement for an integrated America and to internationalize the African American struggle by making it an issue at the United Nations. Malcolm X followed that advice by taking steps to mend the feud he had instigated with Martin Luther King and to align his new secular organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, with the mainstream civil rights movement. Omission of this trajectory distorts the account of his final year.
Lee takes great pains to show us CIA agents photographing Malcolm in Egypt and FBI agents bugging his phone and premises in New York. Given the context Lee has set up, this seems simple racist paranoia rather than a concern about Malcolm's international contacts and his ideological drift to the political left. Rather than probe this aspect of Malcolm's final days, the film takes the easier course of presenting the mechanics of the assassination in great detail. What amounts to an epiphany has been signalled from the start by various devices, including Malcolm's repeated visual recall of his father's persecution by klansmen. His own assassins are shown as Muslims solely motivated by religious fanaticism.
Ossie Davis's funeral oration is used to segue to a montage sequence in which Malcolm's name and image become the symbols of integrity and rebellion for black America. Black children chant, "I am Malcolm," and Nelson Mandella appears as a school teacher imploring us all to study Malcolm's life. The film concludes with engaging documentary footage of the real Malcolm. These few moments offer images of a man far more vital and complex than the staid icon depicted in the fictional portions of the film.
Both the strengths and weaknesses of Malcolm X stem from the decision to make it an inspirational biopic. The hero's worst behavior, his most controversial ideas, and his changing political views have all been muted. What is projected is the story of how a young black man caught in the racism and crime of the big city completely remade his life and finally even shed off racism only to be gunned down by former compatriots whose vision could not grow as full as his own.
Lee's response to criticism that his film is too superficial is that he did not intend it to be the last word on Malcolm X but a stimulus for further study, particularly by young people. Using that standard as a measure, Lee more than met his goal. The baseball caps with X on them that he used to promote the film became omnipresent in black communities. The film also sent sales of books by and about Malcolm into the millions of copies. Despite a running time of 201 minutes, the film turned a modest profit while garnering its share of awards at various national and international film events.