Becoming Malcolm X
On May 19th, 1925, the charismatic and controversial Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little at Omaha’s University Hospital. Malcolm was his mother’s 4thand his father’s 7thchild. His father Early (Earl) Little was born in Reynolds, Georgia, whereas his mother Louise (Louisa Langdon Norton) was only 17 when she emigrated from Grenada to Canada. They were both members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League(UNIA). Marcus Garvey founded the UNIA in 1914 with the purpose of uniting Afro-Americans and Africans into a great racial hierarchy. Inspired by Garvey, Earl taught his children to take pride in their origins and to gain independence from Whites.
The Traumatic Experience Caused by the KKK and White Supremacists
Because of his views on life, the Klu Klux Klan was after Earl. A few months before Malcom was born, in the search for his father, KKK members dressed in their white hooded suit stormed at midnight into the Little family house holding burning torches. Although the Littles tried to resist the threats, they had to move in 1926 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and later on to Lansing, Michigan. The Littles bought a house in Lansing, however, it was located in a predominantly white neighbourhood. Their white neighbours managed to make them leave, because of the legal racial exclusion clause which prohibited the sale of buildings to African Americans.
A powerful explosion shook the new family house in Lansing after which it burnt to the ground and it did so without the intervention of the relevant services. Malcolm was only 4 at the time, however, he would remember this dramatic event his whole life. For Malcolm, the burning of his family home was “nightmare night. I remember being suddenly snatched awake into a frightening confusion of pistol shots and shouting and smoke and flames … Our home was burning down around us”.Thus, Malcolm was confronted since very young with what meant to be an African American in the 1920s and 1930s US. This meant being deprived of many constitutional rights and being the constant target of the KKK, just because one’s skin colour was not white.
Owing to the close relationship between Malcolm and his father, they were both able to take part in the privately held UNIA conferences. Malcolm remembered that his father was always proclaiming at the end of the conferences:“Up, you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will”. However, in 1931, Earl was assassinated most likely by a white supremacist group called the Black Legion. Yet, the Lansing police determined that his death as well as the burning of the house were accidents. Some years after her husband’s death, Louise suffered a nervous breakdown and was taken to the Kalamazoo State Hospital where she would stay for the next 24 years.
Finding the real meaning of life – converting to Islam and “becoming X”
Because of his mother’s illness, Malcolm was separated from his brothers. Moreover, after a teacher told him that “the dream of being a lawyer was unrealistic for a coloured boy”, Malcolm relinquished formal education. He would live for a while in Boston, Massachusetts and then in New York’s Harlem where until 1942 he would steal and lead minor prostitution, drugs and gamble networks. In 1946, Malcolm was put on trial for these offences and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, but was released in 1952 after only seven years in jail. While serving time, Malcolm received letters from his brothers, but especially from Reginald, in which they described a relatively new religious movement called the Nation of Islamled by Elijah Muhammad.
Muhammad preached about the African American independence from the Whites and a union with the Africans, in order to form a separate sovereign state from the Europeans and Americans. Moreover, Reginald explained to Malcolm that the white people systematically prohibited the political, economic and social ascension of the African Americans and therefore, they were the devil.
"The devil is also a man, " Reginald said.
"What do you mean?"
"Them, " he said. "The white man is the devil."
I said, "Without any exception?"
"Without any exception."
After these long talks with his brother, Malcolm decided to convert to Islam. Since 1950, instead of his surname Little, he started writing an X which stood for what he believed to be the name of his real African family. In his autobiography, Malcolm explained that X replaced the name Little “which was imposed on his ancestors by a blue-eyed devil”. This way, he would be known as Malcolm X inside the Nation of Islam, until, according to Elijah Muhammad’s teachings, Allah would come and give each one a holy name. Moreover, Malcolm X became assistant minister at the Nation of Islam’s Number One Temple in Detroit and, in 1957, he was put in charge of Harlem’s Number Seven Temple. He managed to extend its confessional base to almost 30.000 new Nation of Islam members by 1963. This way, the organization received new members each month.
„With each meeting, my discomfort grew that in Harlem, choked with poor, ignorant black men suffering all of the evils that Islam could cure, every time I lectured my heart out and then asked those who wanted to follow Mr. Muhammad to stand, only two or three would. And, I have to admit, sometimes not that many”.
Malcolm X became the national spokesperson for the Nation of Islam and he proved himself to be very intelligent, articulate and even a born leader. His fame and reputation outdid the Nation of Islam’s founder Elijah Muhammad. In 1959, Malcolm X took part in the filming of the documentary "The Hate That Hate Produced"about the Nation of Islam produced by Mike Wallace and Louis Lomax. In the documentary Malcolm X was presented as the most important leader of the Nation of Islam which made the mass-media more aware to his comments and speeches. Also, he became known as a master of words.
A Charismatic and Controversial Public Figure
Malcolm X became a widely known, but also controversial public figure. The FBI put him under surveillance after President Harry S Truman received a letter from him in which Malcolm made known his opposition towards the Korean War. Also, in the same letter he openly declared himself a communist while the US was going through its Red Scare phase of the Cold War. Moreover, FBI agents were infiltrated in the Nation of Islam – one of them was Malcolm’s bodyguard – with the purpose of secretly placing microphones, cameras and other surveillance instruments, in order to keep track of the organization’s activities.
The beginning of the 1960s saw the highest point of the racial tensions in the US. Malcolm X as well as the organization preached the creation of a single state for African Americans. He rejected the non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement and thought of its leaders as „stooges for white people”. Moreover, Malcolm advised the African Americans to use every method of self defence at their disposal. He even criticized Martin Luther King Jr. and used the word “chump” to describe him. Malcolm X’s speeches were very popular among the African Americans, especially those from the Northern and Western urban centres. They thought that Malcolm X was a much better spokesperson for them than the Civil Rights Movement’s leaders.
Separation from the Nation of Islam
Yet, in 1963 Malcolm found out that even though Elijah Muhammad preached celibacy until marriage, he had relationships with six women and children with every one of them. Malcolm was deeply affected by his findings, since he respected this canon, until 1958 when he married Betty Shabazz. Muhammad asked Malcolm not to make it public, yet he refused, because he felt betrayed by Elijah, the one man he considered to be a real prophet. Also, Malcolm thought he lied to the ones who entered the NoI, because the organization was not what they were told about.
Because he did not wish to continue to be part of the organization’s lies, Malcolm X relinquished his NoI membership in March, 1964. However, he kept being a Muslim and created his own religious movement called Muslim Mosque, Inc.The separation from the NoI was caused not only by Elijah’s incompliance to his own rigid teachings, but also by the fact that the NoI members became increasingly dissatisfied with Malcolm X’s fame.
He became a well-known figure who allowed himself to disobey the decisions of the NoI. The organization sent condolence messages to the Kennedy family after JFK’s assassination and specifically asked its members to refrain from further comments. However, Malcolm ignored the advice and told the press that „[Kennedy] never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon”. Moreover, a newly published Louis Lomax-edited book about the NoI comprised six Malcolm X speeches and only one of the founder of the organization. Also, its cover consisted of a picture of Malcolm X and nobody else from the NoI. Furthermore, Malcolm was presented with the possibility of writing an autobiography which enraged the other NoI members.
The Mecca Pilgrimage – the turning point in Malcolm X’s life, separating from the Nation of Islam
In 1964, Malcolm X left for Mecca in a pilgrimage which radically changed his outlook on life. He gave up the limitations that Muhammad imposed on him and declared that “I met blue-eyed blond people whom I can call my friends”.Thus, Malcolm X radically changed his message by preaching unity and integration for the African Americans and Whites. This way, the tensions between him and the NoI members reached a point where the organization ordered the placing of explosives in Malcolm’s car.
The FBI agents infiltrated in the NoI warned the authorities about the organization’s decision to eliminate Malcolm. Because of this, he would not leave the house without his bodyguards. On February, 14th, 1965, the Nation of Islam sent its agents to Malcolm’s house located in New York’s East Elmhurst where he lived with his wife and four children. The NoI members engaged in a drive-by shooting, but Malcolm and his family survived it. Yet, after just one week from the shooting, he was assassinated while delivering a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. The NYPD (New York Police Department) determined that it was the final result of a year-long conflict between two rival African American groups. Also, the police identified three members of the NoI as Malcolm X’s assassins-Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson – who were convicted of first degree murder in March, 1966.
Malcolm X was buried in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. His death made African American music, jazz especially, become an extension of the Civil Rights Movement. This way, the new musicians rejected the political moderation and non-violence. Influenced by Malcolm’s speeches, their songs expressed fury and militantism. Moreover, after the release of Malcolm’s autobiographical book, he became very popular with the white American youth.
Throughout time, Malcolm X achieved the hero status in the African American pantheon, although he was perceived as an irresponsible demagogue at the time of his death. No matter what is believed of him, he was one of the few who managed to change the racial discourse and politics. He made people understand that in order to actually transform something, it was not enough to just wish for a domestic change, but to internationalize the human rights subject. Malcolm X believed that the UN should decide on these matters and not the US Congress.
Malcolm X became a universal symbol of hope and human dignity.
- Marable, Manning, Malcolm X:A Life of Reinvention, Viking Penguin, New York, USA, 2011
- Malcom X, Alex Hayley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Grove Press, USA, 1965