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People & Ideas: Malcolm X

Malcolm X

Source: Library of Congress

One of nine children, Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb. His father, a civil rights activist and Baptist minister, moved the family a number of times during Malcolm's childhood in response to threats from the Black Legion, a white supremacist organization. Malcolm later recalled: "When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home. ... Brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out."

The family moved to Lansing, Mich., and two years later their home was burned to the ground. When Malcolm was 6 years old, his father's body was found lying across the town's trolley tracks. The death was ruled accidental, but Malcolm believed his father had been killed by white supremacists. A few years later, his mother suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized. The children were split up among foster families.

Though he was smart and did well in junior high, Malcolm lost interest in school and moved to Boston, where he became a street hustler and petty thief. In 1946, he was arrested and convicted of burglary and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

While an inmate at the Norfolk Prison Colony in Massachusetts, Malcolm began a period of self-education. His brother, a recent convert to the Nation of Islam (NOI), came to visit, and Malcolm immersed himself in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the NOI. The NOI aims to improve the moral, social and economic standing of black Americans and invokes aspects of traditional Islam.

But the NOI's teachings depart from traditional Islamic beliefs in fundamental ways. Traditional Islam teaches that Allah is one God and the prophet Muhammad is the final prophet of Islam. The NOI teaches that a man named Wallace D. Fard came to earth as God incarnate and that Elijah Muhammad, the leader when Malcolm converted, was a prophet sent to spread the word about Fard's incarnation. The NOI preached that the original black race of man is superior, while traditional Islam teaches that all humans are equal, regardless of race. Elijah Muhammad advocated a separate nation for his black followers: "We want our people in America whose parents or grandparents were descendants from slaves, to be allowed to establish a separate state or territory of their own -- either on this continent or elsewhere." Muhammad urged black men and women to stop relying on acceptance from whites; blacks needed to accept themselves first.

The message of black nationalism and pride struck a chord with Malcolm Little and thousands of others looking for an answer to racial oppression, segregation and brutality. By the time Malcolm left prison, he had shed the last name "Little," which he considered a slave name, preferring instead an "X" to signify his lost ancestral surname.

A charismatic and powerful speaker, Malcolm X emerged as the principal spokesman of the Nation of Islam during the 1950s and early 1960s. He organized temples; founded a newspaper, Muhammad Speaks; and led Temple No. 7 in New York City's Harlem. Elijah Muhammad appointed him the national representative of Islam, the second most powerful position in the NOI.

Malcolm X condemned whites, whom he referred to as the "white devil," for the historical oppression of blacks: "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters -- Plymouth rock landed on us! ... This white man always has controlled us black people by keeping us running to him begging, 'Please, lawdy, please, Mr. White Man, boss, would you push me off another crumb down from your table that's sagging with riches.'"

Malcolm X argued for black power, black self-defense and black economic autonomy, and encouraged racial pride. He saw Christianity as a religion for the white man, fine-tuned to perpetuate subjugation of the black race: "Brothers and sisters, the white man has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze on a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus! We're worshipping a Jesus that doesn't even look like us! ... The white man has taught us to shout and sing and pray until we die, to wait until death, for some dreamy heaven-in-the-hereafter, when we're dead, while this white man has his milk and honey in the streets paved with golden dollars right here on this earth!"

He did not believe that the civil rights movement's goal of racial integration through nonviolence was realistic or moving in the right direction for black Americans: "I don't favor violence. If we could bring about recognition and respect of our people by peaceful means, well and good. Everybody would like to reach his objectives peacefully. But I'm also a realist. The only people in this country who are asked to be nonviolent are black people."

Source: Library of Congress

His more radical approach was seen as challenging the civil rights leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. He came to Selma while King was in jail and assured King's wife, Coretta Scott King: "I want Dr. King to know that I didn't come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King." His fiery rhetoric incited fear, and critics condemned the Nation of Islam as a cult.

Malcolm X himself began to doubt the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, the man he had once revered as a prophet. Revelations of sexual misconduct, pressure on Malcolm X to help cover up the scandal, and Malcolm's increasing suspicion that the NOI was built on a number of lies led him to end his relationship with the organization. In March 1964, he founded his own separate organization, Muslim Mosque.

That same year he made a pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca. He later described the transformative experience in his autobiography: "There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds 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 the non-white."

For the first time, he felt completely enveloped by the brotherhood of Islam: "In the Holy World, away from America's race problem, was the first I ever had been able to think clearly about the basic divisions of white people in America. ... In my thirty-nine years on this earth, the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being."

Returning to the United States, he publicly renounced the teachings of the Nation of Islam and founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity as a vehicle to connect the experience of black Americans to the Third World: "This religion recognizes all men as brothers. It accepts all human beings as equals before God, and as equal members in the Human Family of Mankind. I totally reject Elijah Muhammad's racist philosophy, which he has labeled 'Islam' only to fool and misuse gullible people as he fooled and misused me. But I blame only myself, and no one else for the fool that I was, and the harm that my evangelical foolishness on his behalf has done to others."

In February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated onstage during a speaking event at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. Fifteen hundred people attended his funeral at the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ in Harlem.

His philosophy laid the groundwork for later black pride movements, including the Black Panther Party. In his eulogy delivered at Malcolm X's funeral, the actor and activist Ossie Davis said: "Last year, from Africa, he wrote these words to a friend: 'My journey,' he says, 'is almost ended, and I have a much broader scope than when I started out, which I believe will add new life and dimension to our struggle for freedom and honor and dignity in the States.'"

The NOI itself has undergone significant changes following the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975 and continues to advocate social and economic equality for black Americans.

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Published October 11, 2010

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