Malcolm XMay 27th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism
1925-1965 Malcolm X was one of the most honored and respected African American leaders during the turbulent 1960s, and a source of inspiration for generations of Blacks since. His evolution from antagonism toward non-Blacks to a vision of brotherhood had as its theme self-respect and self-reliance for all Africans everywhere, a timeless message that remains influential today.
Fast Track to Prison
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, a Baptist lay preacher and a follower of Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, was subject to violent threats from white supremacists. Holding firm to their convictions, the family moved often to escape danger, and arrived in Lansing, Michigan, soon after Malcolm X’s birth. In 1929, their house burned down, and in 1931, his father was found dead. Both events were ruled accidental, but the family knew the truth. Malcolm X’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown, and all eight children were assigned to various foster homes.
Despite this early trauma, Malcolm X excelled in junior high school; he lost interest when a favorite teacher said that his dream to become a lawyer was “…no realistic goal for a nigger.” He dropped out, drifted, and made his way to Boston in 1941. There he became involved with the underworld, which deepened with his move to New York’s Harlem at the age of 17. Known as “Detroit Red” for his naturally red hair, he “hustled” his way with drug dealing, pimping, gambling, and robbery. This downward spiral soon reached bottom: he was arrested and convicted of burglary in 1946, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
During his incarceration, Malcolm X was contacted by one of his brothers who had become a member of the Nation of Islam. This sect of “Black Muslims,” led by Elijah Muhammad, held that non-Blacks were devils and inherently racist, and promoted the creation of a separate African American nation within the United States. The Black Muslims worked to create black-owned businesses, and rejected integration and the political process. Adherents followed a strict code of self-restraint and moral behavior, shunning alcohol and drugs, premarital sex, and adultery, and advocating respect for women and the family as the backbone of society. Intrigued and inspired, Malcolm X again became an excellent student: he studied their teachings, the Koran, and the Bible, along with general philosophy and religion in the prison library, and led the prison debating team. He began a correspondence with Elijah Muhammad, and converted wholeheartedly to the faith and its tenets. On his parole in 1952 after seven years behind bars, he went to Chicago to meet Muhammad.
A Charismatic Leader
In the style of many Black Muslims, Malcolm X replaced his “slave name” with the initial X, and rose rapidly within the organization. Muhammad assigned him to start or lead various “temples,” including those in Detroit and Boston. This culminated with his appointment as chief minister of the main temple in Harlem in 1954. Throughout this period, Malcolm X was skillfully using the mainstream media to promote the Black Muslim message in his emerging role as spokesman, while also founding an in-house newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. His incendiary oratory and compelling charisma made him the Black Muslims’ most visible figure and successful recruiter: he was largely responsible for an increase in membership from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963.
The FBI opened a file on Malcolm X in 1953 and began infiltrating the Nation of Islam. As his visibility and influence grew, Elijah Muhammad and other leaders became concerned that Malcolm X was a threat to their control of the organization. There were substantive tensions as well: Malcolm X privately derided the “Whites as devils” argument, and gave some indication of supporting political activism. He also advocated the use of violence as self-defense and a “black revolution,” which ran counter to the Black Muslims’ conservative values, but which would have a powerful influence on the emerging Black Power, student activist, and militant Black Panther movements, energizing countless African Americans. In 1958, Malcolm X married Betty Sanders, with whom he would have six daughters. He was featured in a Mike Wallace television special in 1959. That year, he made two trips to Africa, where he began formulating a more comprehensive pan-African philosophy.
The long-gestating tension between Malcolm X and Muhammad peaked in 1963, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Malcolm X publicly commented that Kennedy “…never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon,” a reference to America’s violently racist culture breeding more violence. The statement was quoted out of context and embarrassed the Black Muslims, so much so that Muhammad ordered Malcolm X “silenced” for nine months, angering and frustrating his protege. By this time, Malcolm X had also discovered that Muhammad was having sexual affairs, and illegitimate children, with employees. He was appalled by this breach by the Nation of Islam’s moral leader, and refused Muhammad’s request to help hide the acts from public disclosure.
Malcolm X publicly broke with the Nation of Islam in 1964. By then an internationally recognized political leader and a widely-heard voice for African Americans, he journeyed to Africa again that year, and then to Saudi Arabia to make the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. There, he encountered Muslims of many nations and races, and saw firsthand the bonds connecting them. He converted to orthodox Sunni Islam, took an Arab name, renounced violence and separatism, and announced the possibility of universal human brotherhood transcending differences of race. Returning to the United States, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which supported black participation in the mainstream political process, and which stood as a clear rival to the Nation of Islam. He began working with the author Alex Haley on his autobiography, predicting that he might not live to see its publication. FBI infiltrators were reporting to officials that Black Muslim leaders, and even Muhammad personally, had ordered Malcolm X’s assassination. An image of Malcolm X standing at a window with a machine gun, intent on defending himself against daily death threats, was printed in Life magazine and burned into the nation’s awareness. His family survived the firebombing of their house in 1965, but just one week later, Malcolm X was tragically gunned down by three Black Muslims as he began a speech in New York’s Audubon Ballroom. He died immediately, a martyr to the cause at the age of 39.
Malcolm X’s seminal influence only grew stronger after his death. His image as a symbol of African American strength has become iconographic in the popular culture. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965, became a classic work and remains required reading for students and scholars. A major motion picture retold his story to millions worldwide in 1992; directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington, it was nominated for Academy Awards and reminded new generations of his achievements and influence. Malcolm X’s journey from hustler to political leader, and from anger to inclusion, leaves a universal legacy that continues to lead and inspire.