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Malcolm X

Historical and Political Setting

In the years around 1960, the American Negroes became increasingly active in the struggle for civil rights. The liberal, intellectual Afro-American leaders such as Martin Luther King and their supporters, who fought for equality of and integration among black and white, had participated in freedom rides and protest marches to finally abolish segregation. But suddenly, they faced opposition from not one, but two parties advocating racism and segregation: The white racists and the so-called Black Muslims. This radical Negro cult called "Nation of Islam" became in an astonishing short time a nation-wide movement and a threat to the White society, because of its radical principles such as "the white man is the devil" and its enormous popularity.

The leader of the movement was the self-nominated "Messenger of Allah", Elijah Muhammad. But the man who made the radical group popular was his minister Malcolm X. He gathered huge crowds of black people and convinced them in eloquent speeches that all whites were evil. The phenomenon Malcolm X became one of the most popular Afro-American leaders in a short time. Although he was dismissed by his leader Muhammad, his popularity did not diminish. When he was assassinated by Black Muslims in 1965, newspapers all over the world paid tribute to him as a great Negro leader. The world-wide support for Malcolm X increased enormously again when Spike Lee's movie was shown in the cinemas about a quarter of a century after his death. Thousands of black people all over the world could be seen wearing black baseball caps with a big white "X" on it, meaning that black Afro-Americans, who had lost their original surnames, were no longer willing to bear their former slavemaster's name.


Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Louise and Earl Little. Louise Little was a mulatto born in Grenada in the British West Indies and Earl Little, a six-foot, very dark skinned man from Reynolds, Georgia, was a Baptist minister and organiser for Marcus Garvey, who wanted that all Afro-Americans go back to the land of their ancestors, Africa. Louise, his second wife, bore six children: Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, Malcolm, Yvonne, and Reginald. Earl Little also had three children by a first wife: Ella, Earl, and Mary. Because of the father's advocacy for Garvey's movement, the whole family was terrorised by the Ku Klux Klan. To avoid any more harassment by these white racists, Little had to migrate with his family to Lansing, Michigan. It did not help. The white racists of Lansing killed Malcolm's father and laid him on a railway track, claiming he committed suicide. Alone and without money, Louise Little got more and more desperate, before the white authorities sent her to a mental hospital. Malcolm attended school until eighth grade living with different families. When his teacher stopped him from trying to become a lawyer, he dropped out of school and went to his older half sister, Ella, who lived in Boston. There, he took a job as a shoeshine boy at the Roseland Ballroom. A career as a hustler seemed a more tempting option, and he was soon peddling narcotics. He met a white girl called Laura who quickly became his girlfriend. Having a white girl and being a very good dancer, he soon was a notorious young man with crazy clothes and a haircut made to resemble the hair of white people, which he was very ashamed of later.

But Roxbury proved to be too small for him, and in 1942 he took a job as a railroad dining-car porter, working out of Roxbury and New York. Settling in Harlem, New York, he became more and more involved in criminal activities. He robbed, worked as a pimp, and sold narcotics.

Malcolm soon learned to survive in the hustler society, which was constantly threatened by internal wars that could render every man your enemy. In Harlem he also got his nickname "Detroit Red", because his home town Lansing was close to Detroit and his hair was red. After a year in Harlem, Malcolm was officially initiated into hustler society. He returned to Boston in 1945 after falling out with another hustler, and continued a life of crime, forming his own house robbing gang. Arrested for robbery in February 1946, he was convicted and sentenced to prison for seven years.

While in prison, Malcolm became a follower of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of a small black cult, the "Nation of Islam", with branches in Detroit, Chicago and New York. Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad corresponded by mail. Malcolm's brothers Philbert and Reginald, visiting him in prison, urged him to join Muhammad's cult, and while still in prison he did. He discarded his "slave name," Little, and took the new name "X". He improved his poor knowledge by reading an encyclopaedia and studied plenty of books as well as the Koran and followed strictly the Nation of Islam's dietary laws and moral codes. After his parole in 1952, Malcolm X undertook organisational work for the "Nation of Islam" under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad. Minister Malcolm X founded mosques in Boston, Philadelphia, Harlem and elsewhere and made the national expansion of the movement possible, so that the membership reached approximately SO'OOO in 1963. Malcolm X' vision was expressed in speeches, a newspaper column as well as radio and television interviews. In addition, he helped to found the Black Muslim newspaper "Muhammad Speaks". Minister Malcolm X was said to be the only Negro who "could stop a race riot ~ or start one." In January 1958 he married Betty X, who was also a member of the Nation of Islam.

Because of his success, other Ministers of the "Nation of Islam" grew jealous. Elijah Muhammad also began to be afraid of his best Minister who proved to be more famous than he himself. So, partly because of these tensions within the Black Muslim movement, Malcolm became critical of Elijah Muhammad. He was eventually "silenced" for 90 days after commenting on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with the phrase "chickens come home to roost." But before his silence was lifted, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam to form the Muslim Mosque, Inc. on March 1964. He began to advocate a more pragmatic black nationalism and said that blacks should control the politics within their own community and, through his speeches, encouraged his followers to make changes by voting.

At the height of his power Malcolm X was one of black America's most powerful voices. He had enormous influence among black youth and in progressive intellectual circles. He travelled widely in Europe and Africa and established his Organisation of Afro-American Unity. He saw the black American struggle partly as a segment of the efforts of third world nations for human rights.

In 1964, Malcolm X went on his pilgrimage to Mecca, which is obligatory for orthodox Muslims, and there he began to consider changing his views towards integration. In Mecca, he saw that it was possible for black and white people to live in brotherhood, of which he was deeply touched. After the pilgrimage he adopted the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

The angry members of the Nation of Islam began to threaten to kill him. His home in Queens, New York, which Malcolm X shared with his wife and his six children was firebombed in early February 1965. When Malcolm X was delivering a speech in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965, he was shot down by Black Muslims.

Malcolm X' Personality

Malcolm X' personality changed profoundly during his life. Although he has always been the same person, his life can be divided in four parts, in which his character is as different as possible.

Malcolm Little: He was the son of a Baptist preacher and follower of Garvey. He was brought up in a hostile environment and always felt the hatred of white racists towards his family. Alex Haley named the chapter of Malcolm's childhood "Nightmare". The traumatic childhood experiences and the murder of his father by whites made it possible that Malcolm later believed that the white man is the devil. The white government who was responsible for his beloved mother's insanity, also nourished his hatred and racism. Although willing to stay in the white society and to become a lawyer, his teacher prevented him from studying law, because he thought this was not appropriate for a Negro. Detroit Red: Not being able to get a good job, Malcolm had to become a hustler to earn enough money for his excessive life style. He became selfish and lost all his scruples. In this society, there was no place for mercy. He did not fear any other people or death and used every kind of drugs. Although he hated the whites, he felt inferior and wanted to be like them. Because of this he straightened his hair and had a white girlfriend. When he was in prison, he hated the Christian religion which he thought was a tool of the white society to keep the Negroes down. This led him to the perception that there must be a religion for the black people.

Malcolm X: When he found this religion, Islam, he felt an immense gratitude toward his saviour, the "honourable Elijah Muhammad." He believed everything he said and was enormously devoted to finding new members for the "Nation of Islam." Now, his hate, energy, intelligence and passion had an aim. He worked all the time for his leader and hardly slept. Malcolm X made an astonishing change, he gave up all his vices and became an extremely virtuous man. But he did neither condemn violence, nor did he support integration. He even attacked the more liberal Afro-American leaders.

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz: Malcolm was deeply hurt when Elijah Muhammad dismissed him. But he did not give up, he established his own movement and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. This trip changed his points of view profoundly. He became less militant and even admitted that sometimes white people can help the black movement. He also got rid of Mr Muhammad's doctrines and taught the real Islam he experienced in the East. When he heard of the Black Muslim's plot to kill him, he did not feel any fear. He just wanted his family to be safe. Before he died, he declared that he would be glad if he could have helped the black people, but that all credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes were his.

Source: 4newmuslims.org
(The International Association for New Muslims. Muslim World League)