The Panthers - MALCOLM X


Malcolm X (1925-1965), African American activist whose ideas about racial problems in the United States had an important influence on black nationalist and black separatist movements of the 1950s and 1960s. He believed that Western nations were inherently racist and that black people must join together to build their own society and value system. His beliefs gained a broader audience through The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), published after his assassination. Late in his life, Malcolm X was also known by the religious name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. His father’s death had a disastrous effect on Malcolm and his family. His mother suffered a nervous breakdown, and the welfare department took the eight little children away from her. Malcolm was placed in a foster home and then in reform school. In 1941 he went to live with his half-sister in Boston, Massachusetts. There he soon entered the fringes of the underworld, and at the age of 17 he moved to the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Known as Detroit Red, Malcolm turned to a life of crime, including drug dealing and armed robbery. When he was 20, Malcolm received a sentence of ten years in prison for burglary.

While in prison, Malcolm read widely and developed an interest in the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist religious movement whose members were known as Black Muslims. Malcolm studied the teachings of the leader of the Black Muslims, Elijah Muhammad, who advocated an independent black state. The Nation of Islam was based on a theology adapted from several models: traditional Islamic teachings, Marcus Garvey’s principles of black nationalism, and economic self-help programs that addressed the needs of African Americans living in urban ghettoes. Unlike traditional Islam, which rejects all forms of racism, the Nation of Islam declared that whites were the “devil by nature,” and that God was black. The Black Muslims predicted that in the near future a great war would take place in which whites would be destroyed and black people would rule the world through the benevolence of Allah, their creator. To prepare for this new order, the Nation of Islam stressed personal self-restraint, opposed the use of drugs and alcohol, and organized economic self-help enterprises that eventually included farms, food stores, restaurants, and small businesses. The Black Muslims recruited heavily among the poorest of urban blacks and in prisons, where Malcolm Little was converted to the faith. When Malcolm was released from prison in 1952, he went to Detroit, Michigan, and joined the Nation of Islam temple in that city. He dropped his last name—considered a “slave name” by Black Muslims—and became Malcolm X. In 1958 he married Betty Sanders, later known as Betty Shabazz, and they eventually had six daughters. Malcolm X rose rapidly in the Nation of Islam organization as a minister and recruiter of new members. Elijah Muhammad appointed him as the chief minister of Harlem’s main temple in June 1954. Malcolm X also helped establish the movement's main information and propaganda newspaper, Muhammad Speaks.Within five years, Malcolm X had become a more prominent spokesperson for the Nation of Islam than Elijah Muhammad. During the decade between 1955 and 1965, while most black leaders worked in the civil rights movement to integrate blacks into mainstream American life, Malcolm X preached the opposite. He maintained that Western culture, and the Judeo-Christian religious traditions on which it is based, was inherently racist. Constantly attacking mainstream civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm X declared that nonviolence was the “philosophy of the fool.” In response to King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Malcolm X quipped, “While King was having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare.” Malcolm X believed that black people must develop their own society and ethical values, including the self-help, community-based enterprises that the Black Muslims supported. He also thought that African Americans should reject integration or cooperation with whites.

His fiery style and natural speaking ability made Malcolm X a popular public speaker, but his growing reputation caused tension with Elijah Muhammad and other Black Muslim leaders. While Muhammad strenuously tried to maintain the Nation of Islam as a religious self-help movement, Malcolm was increasingly moving towards a political response to racism. He called for a “black revolution,” which he declared would be “bloody” and would renounce any sort of “compromise” with whites. In this way Malcolm X rejected the conservative values of the Nation of Islam in favor of a more radical, revolutionary approach to social change. Malcolm X also had come to reject some of the tenets of the Nation of Islam, including Elijah Muhammad’s theory that the white race was created by a dissident “mad scientist” named Yakub.

In 1963 Elijah Muhammad silenced Malcolm X for his statement that the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy had represented “the chickens coming home to roost”—a repayment for America’s continuing failure to end racial cruelty and hatred. This comment, often taken out of context, was not meant to be disrespectful to the late president, although in fact, Malcolm X had little respect or admiration for any white leaders. Rather, he was trying to make the point that the violent treatment of blacks had now come back to the “roost” with violence against a white president. However, the insensitive nature of the statement reflected poorly on the Black Muslims and led Muhammad to silence Malcolm X. In essence, Muhammad told his most prominent follower that he could not speak in public and remain within the Black Muslim organization. Rather than accept this silencing, Malcolm X publicly broke with the Nation of Islam on March 8, 1964, and formed his own movement, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. Even before the split, however, Malcolm X had already begun to part ways with the Black Muslims because he felt stifled by the authoritarian organization of the Nation of Islam. He was ready to be his own leader, rather than to follow the dictates of Muhammad or anyone else.

In 1964, shortly after his break with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X made a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy Muslim city in Saudi Arabia that was the birthplace of the founder of Islam. He also visited several other African and Arab nations. While on this trip, he wrote a highly publicized letter expressing his own faith as a follower of traditional Islam and renouncing the Black Muslim teaching that all white men are evil. He became an orthodox Sunni Muslim (Sunni Islam). He also adopted a religious name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, meaning the Malcolm (or Malik) who is from the tribe or family of Shabazz and has made the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. However, most people in the United States continued to call him Malcolm X, a name he did not reject.
When Malcolm X returned to America, he held the first rally for a black nationalist group he had founded, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). This group, which had no direct religious ties, advocated racial solidarity and strove to unify all black organizations fighting white racism. At the same time, Malcolm X renounced his previous racism against whites, declaring that in Mecca he had realized that people of all colors were children of Allah. In contrast to his earlier views, he encouraged blacks to vote, to participate in the political system, and to work with each other and with sympathetic whites and Hispanics for an end to racial discrimination. As he told a group of African leaders, the problem of race was “not a Negro problem, nor an American problem. This is a world problem, a problem of humanity.”

Malcolm X also began collaborating with writer Alex Haley on an account of his life. In the manuscript, later published as The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), he predicted that he might not live to see the book published. That prophecy became a reality on February 21, 1965. Malcolm X was assassinated while addressing an OAAU rally in New York City. At least two of the three men later convicted of the crime were connected with the Nation of Islam. Many scholars and supporters of Malcolm X have speculated that leaders or individuals within the Nation of Islam—including Elijah Muhammad—considered him a danger to their own movement and could not forgive him for rejecting their authority and organizing a rival movement. These observers believe that the Nation of Islam leadership may have ordered the assassination of Malcolm X.