One of twentieth-century America's most controversial black leaders, Malcolm X was critical of nonviolence as a tactic, and he advocated armed resistance to white racism. Often regarded as a radical opposite to Martin Luther King, Jr., he had a following that was almost entirely urban and Northern. Malcolm X insisted on high moral standards from his followers. Born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, he spent much of his youth in Massachusetts, where he first became aware of class differences between African Americans. His teenage years were dominated by petty crime, and in 1946 Malcolm was imprisoned for burglary. There Malcolm converted to the Nation of Islam (NOI), led by the charismatic and enigmatic Elijah Muhammad, who convinced Malcolm that his imprisonment was the fault of white society. This would become a cornerstone of Malcolm's philosophy.
On his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm devoted himself to serving Muhammad. In accordance with the teachings of the NOI, he replaced Little, his “slave name,” with X, which signified the unknown African name of his forebears. Malcolm rose quickly through the hierarchy of the NOI and by 1957 had become Muhammad's national representative, responsible for representing the NOI to the media. Malcolm was a gifted speechmaker—powerful, quick-witted, and amusing—and this talent won him many admirers, even among those he opposed. White Americans, as well as many African Americans, were alarmed by the aggressive, uncompromising stance of the NOI. Malcolm frequently stated that all whites were devils, and he was particularly critical of other black leaders. This, combined with his insistence that blacks must arm themselves against white America, led to Malcolm X becoming a symbol of angry black militancy and being characterized by his detractors as a reactionary demagogue.
However, internal tensions within the NOI, particularly its apolitical stance, led to frustration and disillusionment for Malcolm. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Malcolm defied an NOI ban on making comment by claiming that the chickens had come home to roost. This deliberately provocative statement (both to mainstream America and to Muhammad) resulted in Malcolm being censured by Muhammad, and in February 1964 he left the NOI.
The year between leaving the NOI and his death was one of the most important in Malcolm's life, yet it is frequently ignored. During that year Malcolm became an orthodox Muslim, and, having traveled in the Middle East and Africa, he recanted his statements about whites and changed his name to Al Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. Furthermore, Malcolm attempted during this time to move toward the center of the civil rights movement, having realized the importance of racial cooperation. However, before he was able to make any significant contribution, Malcolm was murdered on February 21, 1965, by three Black Muslims as he spoke at a meeting of his newly founded Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Harlem, New York. Malcolm's growing criticism of the Nation of Islam's teachings was deemed by Muhammad as sacrilegious, and within the NOI there was talk of making an example of Malcolm for his perceived treachery. Before his murder Malcolm was involved in several negative incidents with followers of Muhammad, and his house was destroyed by a fire only one week before he was assassinated.
Malcolm's immediate legacy was in the burgeoning black power movement, the proponents of which he directly influenced in two ways. His militant image was important in the political development of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, who would be charged by critics with the same accusations of inciting racial anger and violence that followed Malcolm X. Furthermore, Malcolm's growing awareness of the importance of Africa to black Americans underpinned the movement.
Apart from his media appearances and speeches, Malcolm left behind his autobiography, cowritten with Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) has been the subject of much criticism for its subjective style. There is no doubt that the autobiography should be treated as a political manifesto, rather than straight narrative, but it remains an important document.
After black power faded, so, too, did Malcolm's legacy. It was not until 1992, with the release of Spike Lee's movie Malcolm X, that Malcolm returned to the public consciousness beyond African Americans. Based closely on the Autobiography, Lee's film was widely criticized, but it served to remind America of Malcolm X. However, promotion of the film manifested itself in the marketing of Malcolm's image, and, as before, the justification of anger and violence from, in particular, young black males. In some rap music the perceived violence, racism, and misogyny of the lyrical contents were attributed to the teachings of “Brother Malcolm.”
It is largely for these reasons that the value to African Americans of Malcolm X remains misunderstood, kept in the shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. Until Malcolm's teachings cease to be used as a justification of angry black machismo, his later teachings of racial pride and tolerance will continue to be undervalued.
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