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.
THE NATION OF ISLAM
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 Page 278 | Top of Articlean 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.
BREAK WITH THE NATION OF ISLAM
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 Page 279 | Top of Articleand 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.
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———, Herman Porter, and Baxter Smith. 1976. The Assassination of Malcolm X. New York: Pathfinder.
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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