Malcolm X

Malcolm X (Malcolm Little; later El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz)(1925-1965), a leading figure in the 20th-century movement for black liberation in the United States, and arguably its most enduring symbol.

Malcolm X has been called many things: Pan-Africanist (see Pan-Africanism), father of Black Power, religious fanatic, closet conservative, incipient socialist (see Socialism), and a menace to society. The meaning of his public life—his politics and ideology—is contested in part because his entire body of work consists of a few dozen speeches and a collaborative autobiography whose veracity is often challenged. Gunned down three months before his 40th birthday, Malcolm X's life was cut short just when his thinking had reached a critical juncture.

Malcolm's life is a Horatio Alger story with a twist. His is not a "rags to riches" tale, but a powerful narrative of self-transformation from petty hustler to internationally known political leader. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Louise and Earl Little, who was a Baptist preacher active in Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, Malcolm, along with his siblings, experienced dramatic confrontations with racism from childhood. Hooded Klansmen burned their home in Lansing, Michigan; Earl Little was killed under mysterious circumstances; welfare agencies split up the children and eventually committed Louise Little to a state mental institution; and Malcolm was forced to live in a detention home run by a racist white couple. By the eighth grade he left school, moved to Boston, Massachussetts, to live with his half-sister Ella, and discovered the underground world of African American hipsters.

Malcolm's entry into the masculine culture of the zoot suit, the "conked" (straightened) hair, and the lindy hop coincided with the outbreak of World War II, rising black militancy (symbolized in part by A. Philip Randolph's threatened March on Washington for racial and economic justice), and outbreaks of race riots in Detroit, Michigan, and other cities (see Detroit Riot of 1943). Malcolm and his partners did not seem very "political" at the time, but they dodged the draft so as not to lose their lives over a "white man's war," and they avoided wage work whenever possible. His search for leisure and pleasure took him to Harlem, New York, where his primary source of income derived from petty hustling, drug dealing, pimping, gambling, and viciously exploiting women. In 1946 his luck ran out; he was arrested for burglary and sentenced to ten years in prison.

Malcolm's downward descent took a U-turn in prison when he began studying the teachings of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam (NOI), the black Muslim group founded by Wallace D. Fard and led by Elijah Muhammad (Elijah Poole). Submitting to the discipline and guidance of the NOI, he became a voracious reader of the Qu'ran (Koran) and the Bible. He also immersed himself in works of literature and history at the prison library. Behind prison walls he quickly emerged as a powerful orator and brilliant rhetorician. He led the famous prison debating team that beat the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, arguing against capital punishment by pointing out that English pickpockets often did their best work at public hangings! Upon his release in 1952 he renamed himself Malcolm X, symbolically repudiating the "white man's name."

As a devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X rose quickly within the NOI ranks, serving as minister of Harlem's Temple No. 7 in 1954, and later ministering to temples in Detroit and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Through national speaking engagements, television appearances, and by establishing Muhammad Speaks—the NOI's first nationally distributed newspaper—Malcolm X put the Nation of Islam on the map. His sharp criticisms of civil rights leaders for advocating integration into white society instead of building black institutions and defending themselves from racist violence generated opposition from both conservatives and liberals. His opponents called him "violent," "fascist," and "racist." To those who claimed that the NOI undermined their efforts toward integration by preaching racial separatism, Malcolm responded, "It is not integration that Negroes in America want, it is human dignity."

Distinguishing Malcolm's early political and intellectual views from the teachings of Elijah Muhammad is not a simple matter. His role as minister was to preach the gospel of Islam according to Muhammad. He remained a staunch devotee of the Nation's strict moral codes and gender conventions. Although his own narrative suggests that he never entirely discarded his hustler's distrust of women, he married Betty Sanders (later Betty Shabazz) in 1958 and lived by NOI rules: men must lead, women must follow; the man's domain is the world, the woman's is the home.

On other issues, however, Malcolm showed signs of independence from the NOI line. During the mid-1950s, for example, he privately scoffed at Muhammad's interpretation of the genesis of the "white race" and seemed uncomfortable with the idea that all white people were literally devils. He was always careful to preface his remarks with "The honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches. . . ." More significantly, Malcolm clearly disagreed with the NOI's policy of not participating in politics. He not only believed that political mobilization was indispensable but occasionally defied the rule by supporting boycotts and other forms of protest. In 1962, before he split with the NOI, Malcolm shared the podium with black, white, and Puerto Rican labor organizers in the left-wing, multiracial hospital workers' union in New York. He also began developing an independent Pan-Africanist and, in some respects, "Third World" political perspective during the 1950s, when anticolonial wars and decolonization (see Decolonization in Africa: An Interpretation) were pressing public issues. As early as 1954 Malcolm gave a speech comparing the situation in Vietnam (see Vietnam War) with that of the Mau Mau Rebellion in colonial Kenya, framing both of these movements as uprisings of the "darker races" creating a "tidal wave" against U.S. and European imperialism. Indeed, Africa remained his primary political interest outside of black America. He toured Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana in 1959, well before his famous trip to Africa and the Middle East in 1964.

Although Malcolm tried to conceal his differences with Elijah Muhammad, tensions between them erupted. The tensions were exacerbated by the threat Malcolm's popularity posed to Muhammad's leadership and by Malcolm's disillusionment with Elijah upon learning that the NOI's moral and spiritual leader had fathered children by former secretaries. The tensions became publicly visible when Muhammad silenced Malcolm for remarking after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that it was a case of the "chickens coming home to roost." (Malcolm's point was that the federal government's inaction toward racist violence in the South had come back to strike the president.) When Malcolm learned that Muhammad had planned to have him assassinated, he decided to leave the NOI.

On March 8, 1964, he announced his resignation and formed the Muslim Mosque, Inc., an Islamic movement devoted to working in the political sphere and cooperating with civil rights leaders. That same year he made his first pilgrimage to Mecca and took a second tour of several African and Arab nations. The trip was apparently transformative. Upon his return he renamed himself El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, adopted from Sunni Islam, and announced that he had found the "true brotherhood" of man. He publicly acknowledged that whites were no longer devils, though he still remained a Black Nationalist (see Black Nationalism in the United States) and staunch believer in black self-determination and self-organization.

During the summer of 1964 he formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Inspired by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) made up of independent African states, the OAAU's program combined advocacy for independent black institutions (e.g., schools and cultural centers) with support for black participation in mainstream politics, including electoral campaigns. Following the example of Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm planned in 1965 to submit to the United Nations a petition that documented human rights violations and acts of genocide against African Americans. His assassination at the Audubon Ballroom in New York—carried out by gunmen affiliated with the NOI—intervened, and the OAAU died soon after Malcolm was laid to rest.

Although Malcolm left no real institutional legacy, he did exert a notable impact on the Civil Rights Movement in the last year of his life. Black activists in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had heard him speak to organizers in Selma, Alabama, in February 1965, began to support some of his ideas, especially on armed self-defense, racial pride, and the creation of black-run institutions. He also gained a small following of radical Marxists, mostly Trotskyists in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Malcolm convinced some SWP members of the revolutionary potential of ordinary black ghetto dwellers, and he began to speak more critically of capitalism. Was Malcolm about to become a civil rights leader? Could he have launched a successful Pan-Africanist movement? Was he turning toward Marxism? Scholars and activist have debated these issues, but no firm answers are yet possible.

Ironically, Malcolm X made a bigger impact on black politics and culture dead than alive. The Watts Rebellion occurred and the Black Power Movement emerged just months after his death, and his ideas about community control, African liberation, and self-pride became widespread and influential. His autobiography, written with Alex Haley, became a movement standard. Malcolm's life story proved to the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966, that ex-criminals and hustlers could be turned into revolutionaries. And arguments in favor of armed self-defense—certainly not a new idea in African American communities—were renewed by Malcolm's narrative and the publication of his speeches. Even after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., when the civil rights leader was celebrated as an American hero by many blacks and whites, Malcolm's image loomed much larger in inner-city communities, especially among young males.

Despite the collapse or destruction of Black Nationalist organizations during the mid-1970s, Malcolm X continued to live through the folklore of submerged black urban youth cultures, making a huge comeback thanks to rap music, black-oriented bookstores, and Afrocentric street vendors. The 1980s were a ripe time for a hero like Malcolm X, as racism on college campuses increased, inner cities deteriorated, police brutality cases seemed to rise again, and young black men came to be seen as an "endangered species." Malcolm's uncompromising statements about racism, self-hatred, community empowerment, and his background as a "ghetto youth," made him the undisputed icon of the young.

The recirculation of Malcolm as icon during the late 1980s and 1990s got its biggest boost from the commercial marketplace, as retailers, publishers, and Hollywood cashed in on the popularity of hip-hop music and culture. And as Afrocentrism achieved respectability among black urban (and suburban) professionals, Malcolm's face and name became a central staple among the "Afro-Chic" products that made up their casual attire (see Afrocentricity). The rush to purchase "X" paraphernalia affected not only African Americans but also suburban whites, Latinos, and Asian Americans fascinated with black youth cultures. Dubbed the "X" generation, ad agencies boldly marketed "X" products without even mentioning Malcolm. "Malcolmania" reached its high point with the release of Spike Lee's cinematic rendering of Malcolm's autobiography in 1992. Following Lee's lead, retailers sold millions of dollars worth of "X" caps, T-shirts, medallions, and posters emblazoned with Malcolm's name, body, or words.

Not surprisingly, the selling of Malcolm X in the 1990s generated pointed debate among African Americans. Some argued that marketing Malcolm undermined his message, while others insisted that the circulation of his image has prompted young people to search out his ideas. Some utilized his emphasis on black community development to support a new African American entrepreneurialism, while others insisted on seeing him as a radical democrat devoted to social justice. His anti-imperialism has dropped out of public memory, whereas his misogyny has been ignored by his supporters and spotlighted by his detractors. However these disputes evolve, it appears that Malcolm X's place in U.S. history, and in the collective memory of African Americans, is secure. Ironically, some of his centrality can be attributed to the mutability of his own viewpoint. Because his ideas were constantly being renewed and rethought during his short career, Malcolm has become a sort of tabula rasa, or blank slate, on which people of different positions can write their own interpretation of his politics and legacy. Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas can both declare Malcolm X their hero.

 

Contributed By:
Robin Kelley

 

Supporters administer first aid to Malcolm X as he lies on the floor of the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, where he was shot as he began a speech in February 1965.

Corbis