May 19, 1925- February 21, 1965
Leader of Black Rights and Nation of Islam in the USAby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Malcolm Little. Malcolm X. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Three names, one man. The representative of a movement, this man is easily recognized by our society, but what inspired Malcolm’s passion? What course did his life take that led him to such a powerful position? What experiences triggered his influence?
Born in 1925 to Earl Little, a Baptist preacher and member of the United Negro Improvement Association, Malcolm was exposed to racial struggle from a young age. Having a father that was a targeted spokesman against African-American oppression, Malcolm’s first memories were of the violence his father’s stance prompted in others. At the age of four, his home was burned to the ground and the family was forced to relocate; an occurrence that became habitual over the next several years. When Malcolm was six, Earl was found dead on railroad tracks, allegedly a victim of the Black Legion, a group similar to the Ku Klux Klan. After his father’s death, the eight little children and their mother struggled as she dealt with her grief. Soon after, his mother was taken to a mental asylum and the children became wards of the state.
At the age of 15, Malcolm dropped out of school when a teacher encouraged him, that as a black man, to have more “realistic” plans than to become a lawyer. The following year he moved to Boston to live with his half-sister, and took a wide array of jobs over the next several years. Working as a shoeshine, soda jerk, busboy and a number of other menial jobs, Malcolm earned an income and was exposed to another world. He began committing petty crimes, which led to his eventual involvement in a burglary ring, selling drugs, and a “call-girl” service. He was arrested and imprisoned for burglary in 1946 at the age of 21. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. These years served as a changing point for his life. Prison became a chrysalis in which he transformed.
During his imprisonment, he stayed in contact with his brother who began telling him of a new religious group. Intrigued by the group’s philosophy, Malcolm sought out information about the Nation of Islam from his brother, and eventually began corresponding with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the sect. Attracted by the organization’s stance that white man where devils, Malcolm became increasingly involved. Also during this time Malcolm began a process which he called “self-education”. He strived to improve his vocabulary, penmanship and speaking skills by participating in debates with fellow convicts, reading everything he could get his hands on and even copying the entire dictionary by hand. As he was exposed to the beliefs of the Nation of Islam, he began to see the world around him differently. When later reflecting on this period of his life, he said that as he read books, suddenly he saw how black men had been removed from history and their deeds had been downplayed. His anger grew as his stance against the white man solidified.
Six years after his imprisonment, Malcolm was released on parole. At his release he changed his name to “X”, to symbolize the rejection of his slave ancestor’s name. He became the Assistant Minister to the Detroit Nation of Islam Mosque, and a mere year later was asked by Elijah Muhammad to found a mosque in Philadelphia. He also took on the task of organizing a mosque in Harlem, New York. The Nation began growing significantly, and Malcolm’s notability grew. His dynamic speaking skills, partnered with his dark past struck a familiar chord with many who heard him. This unique ability made him an excellent spokesman for the Nation, and their message began to spread. Fostering their anger against the white man, Malcolm taught followers that no white men were capable of sympathizing with their cause, and that violence and action were the only way to right the wrongs committed against them. He believed that the Afro-Americans should form their own state, embracing their heritage by returning to Africa. His teaching was well accepted, as he led by example as well as by words. Adhering to the strict Muslim lifestyle, Malcolm prided himself in his high moral code, and expected the same diligence from others.
In 1957, he met a young student nurse named Betty who sympathized with his cause and a year later they were married. He continued being an advocate for the Nation, but as his popularity increased, so did tension within the organization. Jealousy began to develop as Malcolm’s notability grew beyond that of Elijah Muhammad’s. Also, Malcolm’s trust in the organization was significantly shaken when a scandal was revealed that Muhammad had fathered several illegitimate children with women within the Nation, an indignity which was abhorrible to Malcolm. A final, severing blow was dealt when Muhammad ordered Malcolm to not speak on behalf the Nation for 90 days on December 1st of 1963, after Malcolm made an audacious statement concerning John F. Kennedy assassination. On March 8th of the next year, Malcolm announced he was leaving the Nation of Islam because of the corruption he has witnessed and disunity with the fellow leaders.
He then founded a new organization, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. Following this, he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, where his philosophy was once again revised. After this journey, and several visits to Europe, he claimed to have found that some white men could in fact sympathize with the black man’s cause. He also changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, an action that represented his dedication to the Islamic faith. His fight for black rights became more political, and his focus began to encompass the concept of world brotherhood. Having previously taught that blacks must attain their goal of equality by any means necessary, Malcolm began considering nonviolent protest as an option. Formerly having opposed Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm now began corresponding with him and even extended an invitation for King to speak at a Muslim rally. A mere year after his separation from the Nation, Malcolm was shot to death while speaking at a meeting in Harlem on February 21st, 1965. Strongly opposing his new direction, the Nation of Islam had threatened him and was suspect in his murder.
Respect for his leadership, as well as speculation of where his new stance would have led him, surrounded his sudden passing. In an age when men were struggling to deal with the issue of the individual’s rights, Malcolm represented a bold approach to a solution. A strong character who displayed passion for justice late in his life, Malcolm X stands as a figure who fought for equality for black people.
1About Malcolm X. The Estate of Malcolm X. <http://www.cmgww.com/historic/malcolm/about/bio.htm> (December 1, 2007)
2 Malcolm X. Answers.com <http://www.answers.com/topic/malcolm-x> (December 4, 2007)
3 Lesson Plan: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X: A Common Solution?. OAH Magazine. January 2005. <http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/liberation_curriculum/malcolmx/index.htm> (December 6, 2007)