Malcolm X (1925-1965) was a man with a limitless future. He was a man who played a crucial role in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, bringing forth a strong feeling of oppression among African-Americans which others would later bring to a crescendo. He died too young, still full of a huge promise that the last year of his life showed clearly to the world.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little, in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925. He was the fourth child of the Reverend Earl Little, a Baptist minister. His father was also a believer in the teachings of Marcus Garvey, a well-known speaker at the time who advocated black pride and the idea that all African-Americans should leave the United States and return to Africa. Little promoted this view publicly until 1931, where he was murdered under mysterious circumstances in East Lansing, Michigan, where the family had moved. Malcolm Little grew up without a father from the age of six.
His mother, Louise, was a strict disciplinarian who beat Malcolm frequently; she eventually had a mental breakdown and was declared insane. Even through all this, though, Malcolm still kept his head on straight, earning good grades in school, being elected class president, and playing basketball. When he was 14, his successes had encouraged him to confide in his favorite teacher that he dreamed of becoming a lawyer. The white teacher responded to him, "That's no realistic goal for a ni__er," and told Malcolm that he should do some sort of work with his hands.
Malcolm's ego was crushed, and it largely changed his perspective on life. He moved to Boston with his sister and started working odd jobs. When he moved to New York City in the early 1940s, these odd jobs turned into hustling, dealing drugs, and robbery. In 1946, at the age of 20, he was the head of a interracial burglary ring that included two young white women. He was caught with the group and in possession of some stolen goods, a crime that normally receives two years. However, the judge sentenced Malcolm to eight to ten years, telling the already-angry young man that "this will teach you to stay away from white girls."
In prison, Malcolm took up reading as a result of having a lot of time to spare. He would read up to fifteen hours a day, trying to search for answers to the questions that were filling his mind, questions of purpose in life and questions of race relations. He found the answer in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. This sect believed that God had come to earth in Detroit in 1930 in the form of a man named Wallace D. Fard, whose teachings Muhammad eventually took up. Among the beliefs of this sect were the ideas that God created humankind 66 trillion years ago, that all humans were originally black, that a great black civilization ruled the earth for most of those trillions of years, that black scientists created animals and the moon, that a dissident black scientist named Yacub manufactured the white race 6000 years ago, that whites are a race of devils created specifically to torment blacks, that God granted to the whites control of the world for a limited period, and that God would deliver blacks from their bondage and destroy the white devils, perhaps in the year 1984. In essence, these teachings rely heavily on the concept of black superiority, a message that young Malcolm, with his mixed-up youth and anger towards white people, dived into.
He became a believer in this theology in 1947 and indoctrinated himself into the faith through thinking and reading for the rest of his prison term. When he was released in 1952, he renamed himself Malcolm X in keeping with Elijah Muhammad's belief that American blacks should give up their "slave names." A year later he was named an assistant minister at a Nation of Islam temple in Detroit, and a year after that he was sent to preach to the largest black community in the United States, that of Harlem in New York City.
The civil rights movement was just beginning to stir in the American south in the mid 1950s as Malcolm X went to Harlem. He was a tall, thin, charismatic man with a commanding speaking presence, and he spoke directly to the urban black community. Unlike Martin Luther King Jr., he wasn't polite about what he believed; he spoke with a deep anger about the broken promises of integration and Christianity and the need for blacks to get organized, get land, and feel pride in the fact that they were black. He preached that white people were devils who only held blacks down. Many people believe that Malcolm X taught messages of hate; that is a misunderstanding, he only stirred up the hatred that was already there by speaking directly to it with the things he believed in.
By the early 1960s, he was viewed as a leader of the black community, but he was also learning that the messages he had been preaching for the last ten years weren't exactly entirely true. He had met many white people that he found were not altogether evil, and his hardline stances on race relations were somewhat softening. He was also discovering that the leadership of the Nation of Islam wasn't particularly great, either; the leadership often dismissed their own teachings and encouraged jealousy and intrigue to fester within the group, something Malcolm didn't like at all. In 1964, he took a major stance and broke off from the Nation of Islam, announcing that he was forming a "black nationalist party" to represent blacks in national politics. Shocked at the loss of their most famous member, the Nation of Islam plotted revenge; one of their most well-known members, Louis Farrakhan, said publicly that Malcolm was worthy of death.
Malcolm spent the last year of his life changing his views a bit in the public arena and giving the world a glimpse of what might have been. He still felt deep anger toward white America; whites in the U.S. were still the enemy of blacks, he said, until their behavior proved otherwise. At the same time, however, he began to talk less about rage and more about the peaceful elements of what Islam had to offer to race relations in America through Islamic teachings. He became an accredited minister of Sunni Islam and he began using a new name: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He also quickly wrote an autobiography with the help of Alex Haley.
In December of 1964, he was asked what he would be doing next with his life and his politics. He responded simply, "I have no idea," giving the idea that for the first time in his life since he was fourteen, the possibilities were wide open for him.
Two months later, as Malcolm spoke to 400 blacks at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, he was shot to death by several assassins in the audience. Three Black Muslims were convicted for his murder and received life sentences. To this day it is believed that there was a conspiracy of many people and groups planning to take him out that night.
It's hard to say what might have been, but his legacy is clear. He gave African-Americans a new self-respect and helped them to think about themselves in a new way. In many ways, he helped to bulldoze the path of the civil rights movement as much as anyone else, but he did it through ideas more than actions.
In 1990, Spike Lee produced a magnificent biographical film about Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. This film, and Malcolm X's autobiography, are both well worth exploring to gain a greater understanding of the history of race relations in the United States and the story of one intriguing and influential man.
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