Malcolm X (1925–1965)
Malcolm X was perhaps the most important figure in the black liberation movement from the mid-1950s until his premature death in 1965. He was fearless and unapologetic in articulating the pain of oppressed people and in demanding justice for them. Taking full advantage of the budding visual media of television and working tirelessly among the people, Malcolm was known to households across the nation and around the world. In a great sense, he was a spokesperson for those far beyond the confines of the various organizations with which he was affiliated and was a major inspiration for other social movements in the United States, such the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party, as well as those in other countries. In addition, he commanded the respect of leaders of the more moderate civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and enjoyed the company of writers such as James Baldwin, scholars such as Kenneth B. Clark, and artists such as Ossie Davis, who would later eulogize the slain giant as a “prince.”
Childhood and Youth
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, to a Garveyite Baptist minister, Earl Little, and to a British West Indian, Louise Norton Little. The social milieus of his infancy, childhood, and youth would prove significant in shaping Malcolm’s political outlook and activism later in his life. As noted, Malcolm’s father was a supporter of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, and his household was constantly under siege by white supremacists because of his activism on behalf of black communities. In his autobiography, for instance, Malcolm recalled his mother once telling him that, when she was pregnant with him, a group of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen rode upon their home in Omaha. Brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they surrounded the house in search of Malcolm’s father, who happened to be in another state organizing for Garvey. His mother, clearly full with child, confronted the mob and successfully held it off.
Despite the racial violence he had endured during his short life, including the murder of his father, which caused the institutionalization of his mother and the dispersal of his seven siblings among family members and orphanages, Malcolm was by all accounts a brilliant student and graduated first in his junior high class. While in school in Boston, another incident occurred that would later prove significant in shaping his outlook on American society. When asked by his favorite teacher what vocation he wanted to pursue, Malcolm replied that he dreamed of becoming a lawyer. The English teacher halted his ambition: As Malcolm would recall later, his teacher advised him that he had to be realistic about his goal to be a lawyer solely because of his race. Malcolm, understandably disillusioned, lost interest in school and eventually dropped out. He remained in Boston for a time, working a variety of odd jobs, before moving to New York where by 1942 he was involved in narcotics, prostitution, and gambling rings in Harlem.
Malcolm eventually moved back to Boston, where he was soon arrested and convicted on burglary charges in 1946. Still a student at heart, Malcolm meliorated his 7-year prison sentence by devoting himself to study. A major turning point during his incarceration came in 1948 when, introduced by his brothers Philbert and Reginald to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm became intrigued about black history and culture and eventually converted to the Nation of Islam (NOI). Upon his release from prison in the spring of 1952, Malcolm, earning his “X,” was appointed minister of Temple No. 1 in Detroit before assuming duties as a minister of Temple No. 7 in New York, where he also became the first national minister for Elijah Muhammad.
The teachings of Elijah Muhammad resonated with Malcolm, who had firsthand knowledge of the ways in which white society actively worked to keep black people from the means of empowerment to achieve political, economic, and social success in America. Malcolm was in perfect agreement with the goals of the group to establish a separate black state, one that was not under the authority of white people, within the borders of the United States,. And, as an eloquent and charismatic national minister for Muhammad, Malcolm became the main exponent of the NOI’s teachings for more than a decade.
Nation of Islam
Charged by Elijah Muhammad with establishing new mosques in black communities across the United States, the politically astute and polished Malcolm used newspaper columns, radio, and television to communicate the NOI’s message throughout America. He was very successful in attracting new members and is largely credited with increasing the size of the NOI from a membership of around 500 in 1952 to more than 30,000 by 1963 and with raising the funds that allowed the group to construct the facilities of Temple No. 2, its elaborate national headquarters in Chicago, Illinois.
Malcolm’s fiery delivery, quick wit, and formidable physical presence—he stood 6’4” tall, was clean-cut, and maintained an impeccable reddish brown quo vadis hairstyle—made him a media magnet. In 1959, for instance, he was featured in a weeklong network television special, “The Hate That Hate Produced,” Page 889 | Top of Articlewith Mike Wallace. Later, Alex Haley interviewed Malcolm for an article that appeared in a 1963 issue of Playboy magazine and for what eventually became The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which Time magazine named one of the ten greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Given the tumultuous racial climate of the 1960s, Malcolm also attracted the government’s attention, especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In 1956, the FBI had initiated a counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, against the Communist Party and by the 1960s had redirected its attention to target the activities of hundreds of groups—including Students for a Democratic Society, the National Organization for Women, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Black Panther Party. Its director J. Edgar Hoover was especially concerned about the rise in the black community of what the agency called a “black messiah” who could electrify and unite its people against the U.S. government. As the NOI continued to expand and as Malcolm grew in popularity beyond the group’s membership, the FBI became increasingly concerned that the national minister could be the messianic figure it feared so much. To subvert this possibility, FBI agents infiltrated the organization, with one agent even acting at one time as a bodyguard of Malcolm. In addition, the agency planted electronic listening devices and video surveillance equipment in mosques and NOI businesses to secretly monitor the group’s activities.
When Chickens Come Home to Roost
Although Malcolm enjoyed a growing reputation in the black community, many of the older and more established civil-rights leaders at the time rejected the rhetoric of the NOI and the style of leadership of its chief proponent. In light of this and the federal government’s anti-Islamic rhetoric, Elijah Muhammad cautioned his ministers and instructed them to use discretion in their public remarks to avoid providing their detractors with ammunition to use against the organization. This was particularly the case in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Within hours of the assassination, Muhammad sent his ministers two directives ordering them to make no remarks about the death of Kennedy and, if pressed to do so, to simply say “no comment.”
The directive was motivated both out of respect for the slain president and out of fear of reprisals from the public and the U.S. government for comments even remotely critical of the fallen leader. But, in early December 1963, within days of the assassination, in response to a question after a speech titled “God’s Judgment of White America,” which had been prepared a week before the assassination, Malcolm called Kennedy’s murder a “case of chickens coming home to roost.” The comments, Malcolm explained, occurred in the context of the “we reap what we sow” theme of the speech he had just given and were meant to illustrate that it was not surprising that the violence that white people had long exacted against black people would eventually revisit them in devastating ways.
Predictably, national media outlets immediately reported the remarks and a firestorm ensued. Elijah Muhammad was critical of his spokesperson for making the remarks and directed Malcolm to remain silent for a period of 90 days, noting that it would give time for Muslims to dissociate themselves from the statements. This measure, known as “C Time,” was a customary form of discipline when a minister or other NOI member violated a rule or acted in ways “unbecoming a Muslim.”
Malcolm, and later his supporters and biographers, however, would view the move as an attempt to publicly humiliate the national minister and to keep him silent about other matters related to the leadership of the organization. Some observers believed that Malcolm had by this time eclipsed the leadership of Muhammad and the Muslim hierarchy and had aroused their jealousy and that the move by Muhammad was an attempt to put him in his place. In addition, Malcolm’s remarks came in the wake of widespread rumors that Elijah Muhammad had been engaged in sexual relationships outside his marriage with women in Temple No. 2. Malcolm eventually confirmed the accusations with some of the women and found that some had borne Muhammad children. Elijah Muhammad, himself, admitted to Malcolm that he had engaged in the Page 890 | Top of Articlerelationships, some of which had begun as early as 1955. Malcolm, a strict adherent of the NOI’s moral code, had since his conversion remained chaste until his marriage to his wife Betty in 1958. Thus, he was devastated by the news of Muhammad’s improprieties and believed that, because he had expressed his disappointment within a small circle of ministers, his silencing was a pretext to oust him from the NOI.
It should be noted that during this period of turmoil, Malcolm also had been conducting interviews for what would become an autobiography extolling the virtues of the man whom he called “The Messenger of Allah.” Therefore, when things began to unravel in the NOI for him, Malcolm implored his coauthor, Alex Haley, to revise earlier chapters of the manuscript to foreshadow what became an abrupt change in an otherwise coherent narrative about his views of the NOI and its leader. Haley refused Malcolm’s requests and allowed the story to remain as it unfolded. This point notwithstanding, with growing isolation and amid rumors that he would be killed, Malcolm left the NOI in March 1964, merely 3 months removed from being its most ardent proponent.
After leaving the NOI, Malcolm founded his own Islamic organization, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and that same year, 1964, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This trip proved to be life-altering for Malcolm, as indicated in letters he wrote to his wife, to his sister, who financed the trip, and to Wallace D. Muhammad, the second son of the first wife of Muhammad, with whom Malcolm had first confided his father’s indiscretions. The trip also prompted Malcolm to repudiate many of the racial aspects of the Islam he had previously embraced because, as he noted, he had met white men whom he could call his brothers. On June 28, 1964, after the pilgrimage and trips to Lebanon, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, and Morocco and with the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz imprinted on his passport, Malcolm called a press conference at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem to announce his new project, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), to expand his activism beyond the confines of religion.
Malcolm modeled the OAAU after the Organization of African Unity to be an international secular organization to promote the social, political, and economic interests of black people. Malcolm stated that OAAU’s principal concern was human rights, but that it would also focus on civic and social matters, such as voter registration, school, rent, housing reform, and social programs for drug addicts, unwed mothers, and troubled children. In addition, there was a cultural component to the OAAU that was designed to reeducate black people about their history and contributions. Also, concerned that white liberals would exploit their association with the OAAU, the organization would not accept donations from white people or allow them to join the group.
The Death and Life of Malcolm X
After Malcolm renounced Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, repeated attempts were made on his life, and he rarely traveled anywhere without bodyguards. The violence began to escalate in 1965, and in February of that year the home where Malcolm, Betty, and their four daughters lived in East Elmhurst, New York, was firebombed. A week later, on February 21, during a speaking engagement in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, three gunmen created a diversion and rushed Malcolm onstage, where they shot him 15 times at close range. At the age of 39, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader and ardent defender of black humanity, was pronounced dead on arrival at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. More than 1,500 people attended his funeral 6 days later in Harlem’s Faith Temple Church of God in Christ. Malcolm was finally laid to rest at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, never to see the birth of his twin girls only months after his murder.
—Garrett Albert Duncan
Breitman, G. (Ed.). (1965). Malcolm X: The man and his ideas. New York: Pathfinder Press.
Clarke, J. H. (1969). Malcolm X: The man and his times. New York: Macmillan.
Haley, A., & X, M. (1965). Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press.
Wood, J. (Ed.). (1992). Malcolm X: In our own image. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
X, M. (1989). The last speeches of Malcolm X. New York: Pathfinder Press.