Malcolm Little, better known as Malcolm X, was born May 19, 1925 and assassinated February 21, 1965. He was an African-American leader and figurehead in the Nation of Islam (NOI), important to the movement for freedom and equality in postwar America because of his orations regarding, race, pride, and black nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s. Early in life, Malcolm struggled to survive as a black, young man growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, especially with a father whose activism for the local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and preaching gained attention from white supremacist groups, leading to his family’s frequent encounters with harassment. Persecution followed the family as they moved from Omaha to Milwaukee to Lansing, and eventually led to the 1921 death of his father. After his mother was admitted into a mental institution following her husband’s death, Malcolm and his siblings were put into separate foster homes.
Although he excelled in school, he was not expected to do much. At fifteen, his English teacher made this clear, telling him explicitly that his dream of becoming a lawyer was unrealistic. Malcolm dropped out of school and eventually earned a 10 year prison sentence in 1946. HE occupied his time in prison by reading books and getting familiar with the Nation of Islam by visiting siblings. NOI was a small faction of black Muslims who embraced black nationalism, believing that in order to gain freedom, justice, and equality, black Americans must establish an independent state from white Americans. His conversion to the Nation of Islam, before his release from prison in 1952, would lead to his work as a minister and activist for the NOI, where he would work alongside their leader, Elijah Muhammad, to expand the movement’s following among black Americans.
This time in postwar America, is populated with rapid progress in almost every way possible. Between 1945 and 1960, the gross national product in the US more than doubles; the economy is booming and much of it is a result of government spending on interstate highways, schools, veterans’ benefits, and new technologies, like military airplanes and consumer goods. Middle-class Americans had more money to spend than ever before and usually spent it on leisure and children. However, beneath this picture of a prosperous America, issues regarding civil rights and counterculture begin to erupt. In 1948 we begin to see our government take on these greater issues.
President Truman issued an executive order that outlawed segregation in the US military and the Supreme Court declared government support, enforcing restrictive agreements to exclude minorities from buying homes in white neighborhoods, to be illegal with the Shelley v. Kraemer case. The 1950s was the first time, however, that this fight against racism and segregation, truly entered mainstream of American life. Malcolm Little, at this same time, makes his first statement as a newly devoted follower of NOI by changing his surname to “X” at the suggestion of his leader, Elijah Muhammad. This was meant to abandon what he, and, considered to be his slave name and also signify his lost tribal name.
After his release from prison, was quickly appointed as a minister and national spokesman by Muhammad. Under Muhammad’s lead, the NOI developed a coherent theology, as opposed to its founder, Wallace D. Fard. He taught the basic principles of Islam, including monotheism, submission to Allah, and a strong family life, along with traditional behaviors like celibacy. Malcolm capitalized on these teachings as he spread them through newspaper columns, the radio, and television. He did everything in his power to communicate these NOI messages and promote a program of economic self-sufficiency for blacks, the development of black-owned businesses, and the creation of a separate black nation carved out of the states of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
His national newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, was established in 1960 and accredited him with increasing NOI membership 60-fold from 1952 to 1963. His message grew more radical over time, exemplified by his Organization of Afro-American Unity founding rally on June 28, 1964 in which he persuaded blacks to abolish racism “by any means necessary”, including violence. These militant proposals won over a large number of followers but, also opened doors for criticism by those who pegged his beliefs as hate speech, for surveillance by FBI agents who infiltrated the organization, and for opposition from less radical civil rights activists, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Furthering his controversy, Malcolm’s comment on president John F. Kennedy’s assassination earned him a silence by Muhammed.
In March 1964, he terminated his relationship with NOI, founded his own religious organization, the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He converted to traditional Islam, changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and returned to America with a new outlook. After witnessing the harmony among Muslims of all races, he spoke to all people about his surprising, newfound hope for integration and peaceful revolution in the United States. However, relations between Malcolm and Muhammad remained volatile as many attempts were made to assassinate Malcolm X, until the attempt on February 21, 1965 proved successful.
Malcolm’s work advanced the conversation of freedom in America in three clear ways; he spread the word around interracial cooperation, allowed people to question the effectiveness of nonviolent methods in gaining African-American freedom, and demonstrated the lengths all people will go to secure their own idea of “freedom”. It is clear that throughout the beginning of his activist work, he was more interested in black independence than integration. However, by catering to the militant ideals of some, progress was made in joining more people into the conversation.
The United States was slowly making progress in terms of racial integration. For example, in 1954 the Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, with the Brown v. Board of Education decision. This ruling was a step in the right direction for America but, it was not implemented socially and allowed for troubles like the 1956 signing of the “Southern Manifesto”, a doctrine declaring that Southern congressmen would do all they could to defend segregation, and the 1957 incident at Little Rock High School.
For nine black students to enter school, Eisenhower needed to follow a court order and send federal troops to escort children into their school building. It is understandable that many would view this marshal tactic as a symbol that more militant measures need to be used to produce results. Sending messages like this to the American people inevitably results in beliefs similar to those held by Malcolm X and his supporters. The condoning of violence in the case that it is necessary, demonstrated how far people would go to secure their idea of freedom. It is important to realize, however, that this was not the first time this message came about.
Organizations like the Klu Klux Klan actively practiced violence as a means of preserving their own idea of “freedom”; however, because it was now officially proposed as a means for African Americans, Malcolm had shed light upon this debate. He proved that all human beings would fight for this right, America itself did so when battling Britain for “freedom”. Conversation regarding what freedom was, how it differed between and within races, and the right means of obtaining it, forced people to redefine what they believed.
This African-American leader’s impact on American history is multifaceted. As Malcolm Little, he proved that African-Americans could succeed in being influential, simply by excelling in school after being told he could not. His legacy as Malcolm X, contributed to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opened the doors for Black Power, a post-1966 rallying cry for a more militant civil rights movement and emphasis on African-American pride.
The Black Panther Party, for example, advocated for armed self-defense in response to police brutality, a more militant and radical approach. His short-lived legacy as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, however, symbolized the ever-changing ideals of America and the way personal, individual reactions affect masses. For Malcolm X, it made sense to follow Elijah Muhammad’s teachings rather than align himself with a figure like Martin Luther King Jr. He discovered, sooner than Dr. King, that the institutionalized nature of over two centuries of segregation and racism would not be solved with simple nonviolent rallying.
Malcolm’s tactics targeted the angry mentality of his people and the social implication of trying to force segregated people into the same rooms as one another and expect a good outcome. Malcolm felt that Dr. King’s solutions worked in theory, but never played out in reality; therefore, this shift in disposition between the two and their followers was inevitable. However, after separating himself from NOI and challenging his own beliefs, Malcolm X reevaluated his stance, daring to explore the idea that he was wrong about a militant style.
Although this last identity as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was short-lived, it is worth acknowledging for its symbolic power. Today, the United States is divided; today, claiming to be a Democrat or a Republican, not only speaks on one’s political stance, but on one’s character. The debates Americans normally have are ad hominem arguments, leaving no room for questioning or altering one’s own views. Malcolm’s final conversion to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz teaches that “anger can blind human vision”, but, America “can actually have a bloodless revolution”.