Examining the Life of Malcolm X
Although best known for slogans such as “By Any Means Necessary” as well as posters depicting him with a gun, Malcolm X was a very complex man. An ex-convict, Malcolm X’s strength, charisma, and intelligence only underscored the potential the nation tucked away in its prison systems. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published months after his death, offered insight into who he once was, who he became, and who he might have been.
His initial views proclaiming white people as devils, a view consistent with the Nation of Islam (NOI) and its leader Elijah Muhammad, propelled him to the attention of the news media — that and the tens of thousands who came to hear him speak. Ultimately, Malcolm X’s break with the NOI, as well as his renunciation of equating white people to the devil, placed him in greater favor with many, black and white. Unfortunately, violence cut that new journey short — but not his legacy as one of the 20th century’s elite freedom fighters.
The rise of Malcolm X
As a child, Nebraska-born Malcolm Little’s life was torn apart when a group of white extremists murdered his father. Forced to go on welfare, the Little household became unstable, and the children often lived in foster homes. Extremely bright, Little dropped out of school when a white teacher told him that becoming a lawyer wasn’t a realistic goal for someone of his color.
With limited opportunities available to him, Little ventured into a life of crime. While serving a ten-year sentence for burglary, he seriously explored the Nation of Islam and eventually dedicated himself to the group, even conversing with leader Elijah Muhammad.
By the time Little was released from prison in 1952, he had met Elijah Muhammad and officially joined the NOI, adopting the name Malcolm X to rid himself of what he characterized as his slave surname. He moved to Chicago and studied directly under Muhammad, who sent Malcolm X to spearhead a Harlem branch for the NOI as part of a plan to expand the organization’s reach.
As a national NOI spokesperson, the handsome and articulate Malcolm X generated much media attention, particularly for his disagreements with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent methods of protest as well as for the NOI’s message of black self-sufficiency and separatism. Malcolm X’s criticism landed him a public platform when he appeared in a weeklong television special titled “The Hate That Hate Produced,” with TV journalist Mike Wallace.
Conflicts with the Nation of Islam
As Malcolm X’s public stature grew, tensions developed within the NOI. Malcolm X, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, lived by a strict moral code. After becoming a Muslim, he remained celibate until he married Betty Shabazz in 1958. In addition, he didn’t engage in extramarital affairs (as confirmed by the FBI agents who followed him). In 1963, he discovered that Elijah Muhammad had engaged in sexual relations with as many as six women in the NOI and that some of those affairs had produced children. Muhammad’s moral failings greatly contributed to Malcolm X’s eventual split from the NOI.
Around the same time, Malcolm X offended many with his response to President Kennedy’s assassination. According to Malcolm X, Kennedy “never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon,” meaning that white Americans or presidents weren’t exempt from the violence that denied life and liberty to African Americans. Although Elijah Muhammad suspended and silenced Malcolm X for 90 days for his statements, Malcolm X suspected that Muhammad had other reasons for silencing him. In March 1964, Malcolm X left the NOI and formed the Muslim Mosque, Inc.
But he wasn’t finished evolving. After traveling to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in April 1964 and sharing his religious pilgrimage with Muslims of all races, Malcolm X returned to the U.S. and softened his stance on racial separatism. In May 1964, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
The death of Malcolm X
By early 1965, it was clear that Malcolm X was marked for assassination. On February 14, someone firebombed his family’s New York home, but the family escaped unharmed. On February 21, Malcolm X wasn’t so lucky: During a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, three men later revealed to be members of the NOI (a fact some people debate) fatally shot Malcolm X multiple times at close range. Many contend that the three men, convicted of first-degree murder in 1966, colluded with the FBI.
While it’s impossible to know where Malcolm X would have directed his talents, many believe that he would have worked more closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. Despite depictions of the two as opponents, Malcolm X shared King’s commitment to freedom and equality. Just before his death, he had corresponded with King about his efforts in Selma. In addition, Malcolm X had become increasingly more pan-Africanist in his view: Before his death, he began to draw great correlations between the American oppression of black Americans and the worldwide oppression of people of color in general. Without him, the Organization of Afro-American Unity ended.