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How did one man go from petty criminal to becoming a global voice against racism? He’s one of the most prominent Muslims in modern history and a symbol of black liberation who has inspired generations, a gangster, a preacher, and a revolutionary. This is the extraordinary journey of Malcolm X.
Malcolm X was born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents, Earl and Louise Little were followers of the Pan-African activist, Marcus Garvey. As a result, their family was subjected to constant harassment by the KU Klux Klan who burned down their home when Malcolm was just four years old. The family moved to Michigan where they were threatened by the Black Legion, an offshoot of the KKK. Four of Malcolm’s uncles were also murdered by white racists. Malcolm’s father died when he was six. The incident was officially ruled a streetcar accident, although his mother believed he had ultimately been murdered by the Black Legion.
“Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you that hate the race that you belong to? So much so, that you don’t want to be around each other? You know… Before you come asking Mr. Muhammad, does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God gave you?”– Malcolm X
When Malcolm was 13, his mother was committed to a mental institution. Her children were split up and sent to different foster homes. Malcolm was an excellent student, but dropped out of school after a white teacher told him it was unrealistic for a young black boy to have aspirations of being a lawyer.
After a few years in Michigan and Boston, he moved to Harlem at the age of 18, where he was involved in gambling, robbery, drug dealing, and pimping.
At the age of 21, after committing a string of robberies with a small gang in Boston, Malcolm was arrested and sentenced to eight to 10 years of Charlestown State Prison.
Incarceration was the beginning of Malcolm’s transformation. While in prison, his siblings began writing to him about the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Muhammad. The Nation of Islam promoted black independence and rejected the notion of the superiority of white people.
Instead, Elijah Muhammad taught his followers a form of separatism from whites, who were actually considered devils, inferior to black people who were the original inhabitants of Earth. Malcolm, initially hostile to the idea of any religion, eventually became a member of the Nation. He read books constantly and began writing regularly to Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad’s followers were taught to abandon their given family names as they were actually the names of former slave owners. So Malcolm Little became Malcolm X.
After being paroled, Malcolm visited Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. In June, the next year, he was named assistant minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number 1 in Detroit. He later established Boston’s Temple Number 11 and expanded Temple number 12 in Philadelphia.
“And those of you who think that you perhaps came here to hear us tell you to turn the other cheek to the brutality of the white man. I say again, you came through their own place.”– Malcolm X
Finally, he was selected to lead Temple Number 7 in Harlem, where he was responsible for a huge surge in membership.
“We don’t teach you to turn the other cheek. We don’t teach you to turn the other cheek in the South, and we don’t teach you to turn the other cheek in the North. We teach you to obey the law. We teach you to carry yourselves in a respectable way. But at the same time, we teach you that anyone who puts his hand on you, do your best to see that he doesn’t put it on anybody else.”– Malcolm X
The FBI now had him under surveillance due to his sudden profile as the Nation’s rising star. Malcolm’s rise to national prominence happened in 1957 when he intervened at a police station to arrange for medical assistance and legal help for members of the Nation who had been beaten and arrested by New York police. The crowd of protesters outside grew to almost 4,000. Witnessing Malcolm’s control of the crowd shook the New York Police Department. Within weeks, they had him under surveillance and officially began infiltrating the Nation. In 1958, Malcolm married his wife, Betty, with whom he would have six daughters. Malcolm’s profile continued to grow via print and television appearances and he began to gain international exposure.
“Who is it that controls this prostitution in Harlem? It’s the white mane. Who controls the large amount of sales of whiskey and wine? It’s the white man. Who gives you the deck of cards and the dice that you use to gamble with? It’s the white man. And after he sell them to you, he catch you with them and put you in jail for using them.”– Malcolm X
He was deeply critical of the growing civil rights movement and its leaders, like Dr. Martin Luther King, who preached integration.
“If that’s what you mean by nonviolent, be defenseless. Be defenseless in the face of one of the most cruel beasts that has ever taken the people into captivity. That’s the American white man. A hundred years ago, they used to put on a white sheet and use a bloodhound against negroes. Today, they have taken off the white sheet and put on police uniforms. They traded in the bloodhounds for police dogs, and they’re still doing the same thing. And just as Uncle Tom back during slavery used to keep the negroes from resisting the bloodhound or resisting the Ku Klux Klan, by teaching them to love their enemy. Martin Luther King is just a 20th century or modern Uncle Tom, or a religious Uncle Tom, who was doing the same thing today.”– Malcolm X
Malcolm’s message was being heard louder than ever, but his relationship with a man who had transformed his life was about to fracture. Tensions were growing within the Nation over the amount of attention Malcolm was receiving compared to his mentor, Elijah Muhammad. An unprovoked raid on a Nation of Islam mosque by police in Los Angeles led to one member being paralyzed and another being killed. No charges were laid against the police.
“The white man believes you when you go to him with that old sweet talk ’cause you’ve been sweet talking him ever since he brought you here. Stop sweet talking him. Tell him how you feel. Tell him how or what kind of hell you’ve been catching and let him know that if he’s not ready to clean his house up, if he’s not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn’t have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down.”– Malcolm X
Malcolm was reportedly stunned by Elijah Muhammad’s refusal to allow any form of response or retaliation for the incident. The two also disagreed over Malcolm’s desire to begin working with civil rights organizations, black politicians, and other religious organizations. Then suddenly the assassination of President Kennedy’s in downtown Dallas. President happened.
Malcolm’s response to the Kennedy assassination led to him being officially silenced for 90 days,
In a TV interview, when asked “you were involved in a controversy some months ago with your leader. Is that over with?”, he replied:
“Well, I have been silent for the past 90 days because of some statements I made concerning the President of the United States, which were distorted…– Malcolm X
I said the same thing that everybody said, that his assassination was the result of the climate of hate. Only I said, “The chickens came home to roost,” which means the same thing.”
In March of 1964, Malcolm publicly announced his break from the Nation of Islam. He also expressed the desire to work with other civil rights leaders, saying that Elijah Muhammad had prevented him from doing so. Then came a bombshell.
“Well, in reality, I never even left the Muslim movement, they put me out. And they put me out because of what I knew and what I knew was told to me by Mr. Muhammad’s son, Wallace Muhammad, himself. They put me out and they put him out. The first one to tell me who the father [of these various children] was, was Wallace Muhammad and he told me that the father was Elijah Muhammad himself… He made six sisters pregnant. They all had children. Two of those six had two children. I am told that there is a seventh sister who is supposed to be in Mexico right now and she’s supposed to be having a child by him. [I’m afraid of what might happen to me as a result of making these revelations]. I probably am a dead man already.”– Malcolm X
After splitting from the Nation, Malcolm began learning the tenets and practices of Sunni Islam. He founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc., a religious organization and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a non-religious group promoting Pan-Africanism. He had softened his position on Martin Luther King, who he met only once in person, and later the same year, he performed Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. This was to be yet another transformative experience for him.
“When I was on the pilgrimage, I had close contact with Muslims whose skin within America would be classified as white and with Muslims who would themselves would be classified as white in America. But these particular Muslims didn’t call themselves white. They looked upon themselves as human beings, as part of the human family and therefore, they looked upon all other segments of the human family as part of that same family. Now, they had a different look or a different air or a different attitude than that which is reflected in the attitude of the man in America who called himself white. So, I said that if Islam had done that for them, perhaps if the white man in America would study Islam, perhaps it could do the same thing for him.”– Malcolm X
After Mecca, Malcolm made two trips to Africa, meeting officials and speaking on radio and television across the continent. In Cairo, he attended the second meeting of the Organization of African Unity and met Africa’s most high-profile leaders, including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria, who all offered him official positions in their respective governments. He met with Fidel Castro and was one of the first African American leaders to meet the newly created Palestine Liberation Organization and was one of the pioneers of a tradition of black Palestinian solidarity that would be continued by the Black Panther Party and the Black Lives Matter movement.
A common misconception about Malcolm’s philosophical evolution is that his process of turning to Sunni Islam, softened his political positions. While it’s true that Malcolm abandoned some of the Nation’s more extreme separatist positions on race, he remained a staunch black nationalist.
In a TV interview, when asked “I think what a lot of people are interested in Malcolm is whether this experience has made you feel that your feelings have changed, that the animosity you have expressed in the past towards all whites.” Malcolm replied:
“There’s one thing that I want to make clear. No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition whites show toward me, as far as I’m concerned, as long as that same respect and recognition is not shown toward every one of our people in this country, it doesn’t exist for me.”– Malcolm X
If anything, Malcolm’s travel had led him to globalize his perspective, seeing black liberation as something beyond the United States and as something that was intimately tied to struggles for independence across the Third World.
“It has remained a domestic problem, it has remained within the jurisdiction of the United States and as such, it has been impossible for the Afro-American, or American negroes to try and enlist the support of other dark-skinned people who are being oppressed the world over in that struggle. And the only way this can be done is by internationalizing the problem. If you take up arms, you’ll end it. But if you sit around and wait for the one who’s in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time. And in my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change.”– Malcolm X
The Nation of Islam had not taken Malcolm’s exit and public criticism of Elijah Muhammad’s misconduct lightly. His family was repeatedly threatened. Their car was bombed and FBI surveillance records show that law enforcement was aware that elements within the Nation were openly discussing his death. Then his house was burned down. On February 21st, 1965, Malcolm was addressing the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom. He was shot 21 times. Three Nation of Islam members were tried and convicted of the murder, but questions remained. At the time of his death, Malcolm was under surveillance by both the NYPD and the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation. For many, there is simply no doubt that one or both organizations had a hand in his assassination. Malcolm’s legacy went on to be preserved in hip-hop, film and literature. Most importantly, he’s own autobiography, which continues to be celebrated and was named one of the 10 most influential non-fiction books of the 20th century. His politics continue to inspire generations of activism against racism and imperialism worldwide.
“People in power have misused it and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built and the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods and I for one will join in with anyone. I don’t care what color you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this Earth. Thank you.”– Malcolm X
Malcolm’s funeral was held in Harlem. Some estimate that up to 30,000 people attended. Actor and activist Ossie Davis delivered the eulogy.
“Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes, extinguished now and gone from us forever. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain and we will smile. Many will say, turn away, away from this man for he is not a man, but a demon, a monster, a subverter, and an enemy of the black man. And we will answer and say unto them, “Did you ever talk to brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him?” 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. What we place in the ground is no more now a man, but a seed, which after the winter of discontent, will come forth again to meet us and we shall know him then for what he was and is, a prince, our own black shining prince, who did not hesitate to die because he loved us so.”– Ossie Davis
“I’ll probably continue to use Malcolm X [instead of Shabbazz] because, and I’ll probably use it as long as the situation that produced it exists.”– Malcolm X
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