Malcolm X

"I am part of all I have met,"1 said Malcolm X to his biographer Alex Haley while working on his autobiography. Malcolm X was a man of contradictions, and in the years following his assassination, the media painted him as a pro-violence, anti-white revolutionary. Decades passed before Malcolm X received mainstream acknowledgment for his rightful place in the Civil Rights Movement. From petty criminal to blossoming human rights leader, the arc of Malcolm X is a fascinating, remarkable, and tragic study.

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Table of contents

    Malcolm X, A photo of Malcolm X, StudySmarterMalcolm X, pixabay.

    Malcolm X: Biography

    Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925. Malcolm's parents were activists who supported Marcus Garvey, a Black Nationalist and leader of the Pan-Africanism movement. They relocated from Nebraska to Michigan because the Ku Klux Klan was harassing them, but the threats continued. Firefighters watched their house burn in 1929, and Malcolm X's father was found dead in 1931. He had received multiple death threats from the white supremacist organizations the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Legion, but his death was ruled an accident. Malcolm's mother was eventually institutionalized due to the trauma, leaving Malcolm to be raised in the foster care system until he moved to Boston to live with one of his sisters when he was fifteen.

    Black Nationalism: a popular movement occurring in the 1920s and again in the 1960s and 70s that advocated for a separate set of black-only institutions so African Americans could escape the barriers put in place by white Americans.

    The Pan-Africanism movement: a movement that worked to connect people who are of African descent all over the world.

    Although his sister found him a job shining shoes, Malcolm gravitated toward a life of parties, drugs, and crime, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison when he was twenty-one. Malcolm spent six years in prison reading books and meeting with family members who were members of the Nation of Islam, a small group of Black Nationalist Muslims. By the time he left prison in 1952, he had converted to Islam and changed his last name from Little to X in honor of his unknown African surname.

    Malcolm X quickly became an influential member of the Nation of Islam and worked closely with its leader, Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm is widely believed to have grown membership from 400 to 40,000 between 1952 and 1960. His eloquent and fervent, or passionately intense, speeches inspired listeners but worried critics. Malcolm believed it was up to African Americans to stop allowing white Americans to hold them down and that they should carve out their place in society, even if the consequence was violence. White Americans and the government saw this as a threat, and the FBI put Malcolm under surveillance. Other African American leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., respected Malcolm X but felt he was going about things in the wrong way.

    One of Malcolm X's most famous quotes, "By any means necessary," was spoken at the Organization of Afro-American Unity founding rally on June 28, 1964. However, the phrase originated in the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's play, Dirty Hands, in 1948. Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist who studied the effects of racism, also said it in his speech, "Why We Use Violence," at the 1960 Accra Positive Action Conference.

    Malcolm X considered Elijah Muhammad his mentor, and he took Muhammad's teachings to heart. Malcolm followed the Nation of Islam's strict rules to the point that even the FBI agents assigned to spy on him took notice. When Malcolm found out Muhammad was breaking his own rules quite often, he was devastated. Malcolm could not get past his feelings of betrayal, so when he was reprimanded by Muhammad in 1964 for making callous remarks about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X chose to leave the Nation of Islam.

    After he left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X decided to explore North Africa and the Middle East and fulfill his Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Malcolm X changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz in Saudi Arabia when he converted to traditional Islam. Being outside the United States allowed Malcolm a broader perspective that altered his political and spiritual outlook. Malcolm X came back to the United States a changed man who was ready to embrace the idea of solving America's race problem without bloodshed.2

    On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X began a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York when multiple men ran toward the stage and began shooting him at close range. Malcolm X was pronounced dead shortly after in a nearby hospital. Three Nation of Islam members were tried and convicted for his assassination. Malcolm X is buried as Hajj Malik El-Shabazz in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

    In 2021, the convictions of two of the men convicted of assassinating Malcolm X, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, were vacated. There was never any physical evidence linking them to the crime, and the third man, Mujahid Abdul Halim (previously named Talmadge Hayer), admitted guilt and testified that they were not involved. They were exonerated because The Innocence Project showed proof of their innocence and also proved that the NYPD and FBI withheld evidence from the defense and prosecution.

    Malcolm X, Pan-African flag colors over Africa, StudySmarterAn image of the Pan-African flag colors draped over the African continent, pixabay.

    Malcolm X: Ideology and Beliefs

    Malcolm X was an intellectual whose ideology reflected his life's journey.

    Black Nationalism

    Malcolm X spent his early childhood in a Black Nationalist family, and the Nation of Islam set Malcolm on the path to change his behavior while he was in prison. The media labeled the Nation of Islam as violent, but they preached self-defense. At that time, many African Americans were becoming cynical that the non-violence taught by some African American leaders would ever get them the rights they deserved, primarily since violence against them increased as they put more pressure on the system to change.

    Malcolm X responded to accusations that the Nation of Islam spread hate in his May 5, 1962 speech at Ronald Stokes's funeral, telling attendees, "Before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God made you." Marcus Garvey popularized the slogan "Black is beautiful" in the 1920s and dissected the ways in which white Americans cut into African American feelings of self-worth. A man who attended one of Malcolm's rallies said, "Once you heard him speak, you never went back to where you were before."1

    Ronald Stokes was killed by the LAPD on April 27, 1962. He was the secretary of a Nation of Islam mosque in Los Angeles that the LAPD was watching. On the night of the 27th, an argument broke out between members and the LAPD, leading to a show of force by the LAPD that, in addition to Stokes's death, left seven Nation of Islam members wounded. Stokes's death inspired Malcolm X to speak out against police brutality.

    The Organization of Afro-American Unity

    Traveling through Africa and the Middle East, along with his pilgrimage to Mecca, sparked a consciousness shift within Malcolm X. There was no concept of race among the Muslims he met abroad, so Malcolm concluded that America's race problem should be tackled as an American problem, not a black versus white problem.3 Influenced by the Pan-African Organization of African Unity (OAU), Malcolm X formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) when he returned to the United States.

    Unlike the Nation of Islam, the OAAU welcomed all faiths and non-believers. Malcolm X learned from watching the diverse leaders within the OAU come together, and he brought that message home by reaching out to Civil Rights leaders he'd avoided in the past. In the founding speech on June 28, 1964, Malcolm expressed that they should share the common desire to:

    declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day.

    Malcolm X felt this could be accomplished by unifying African Americans in the Western Hemisphere and taking their grievances out of local hands and into the authority of the United Nations.

    After founding the OAU, Malcolm X became more open to working with white Americans on the problem of racism but felt it was better for the two groups to work separately. He recognized that white Americans could make positive contributions to the cause but believed African Americans needed to retain control of all aspects of the African American perspective in order for them to be successful.

    Famous Works of Malcolm X

    Malcolm X was only in the public eye for a decade or so before his assassination. During that time, he became well-known for his intelligence and powerful speeches. Malcolm X's only published work is his autobiography.

    The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1968)

    In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X says:

    I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I'm a human being first and foremost, and as such I'm for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.

    (Chapter 19)

    Listed in Time's 100 most influential non-fiction books, Malcolm X's autobiography, written with the help of Alex Haley, chronicles his life through his struggles as an African American man in the United States. The autobiography discusses how his Islamic faith allowed Malcolm to transform his anger into a desire to secure human rights for himself and others.

    "The Ballot or the Bullet"

    Malcolm delivered this controversial speech on April 3, 1964, at the Cory United Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. 1964 was an election year, and Malcolm X was fed up with the status quo. He uses his platform to discuss that it was time to set differences aside and work together against their "common problem . . . the white man." Malcolm clarifies that white Americans have made themselves the problem by "oppressing and exploiting and degrading" African Americans. This speech interchanges "it'll be ballots, or it'll be bullets" with a paraphrase of founding father Patrick Henry's famous quote, saying, "it'll be liberty, or it'll be death."

    In her book, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (1969), Coretta Scott King says that Malcolm X paid her a visit in Selma after Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested because "[i]f the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to listen to Dr. King" (256).

    "Speech at Ford Auditorium"

    This speech in Detroit, Michigan, on February 14, 1965, was Malcolm X's final public appearance before he was assassinated, and Malcolm gave it the day after his family's home was firebombed in New York. Malcolm takes issue with being accused of advocating violence. He questions how defending oneself or others against violent attacks is committing violence. When African Americans stand up and say they will begin to protect themselves physically, they speak in a way that will get through to the Ku Klux Klan. Malcolm says this is the way it must be because "[if] a man speaks the language of brute force, you can't come to him with peace."

    Malcolm then comments on how the media forms public opinion, saying that the media supports the government by spreading news supporting the status quo's message. Malcolm X uses the example of an exposé revealing a deal amongst politicians that made a show of protecting African American rights and the wants of white Americans. Malcolm X then dismisses a Newsweek poll that stated African Americans are "satisfied," saying, "Maybe I haven't met the Negros he met. Because I know he hasn't met the ones I've met."

    Malcolm X: Quotes

    "[The assassination of John F Kennedy is] the chickens coming home to roost."4

    The New York Times quoted Malcolm X's response and went on to write that Malcolm X said that chickens coming home to roost made him "glad."3 Malcolm X denied this in an on-camera interview and explained his comment meant that the assassination was the product of a "climate of hate."5 Malcolm X was openly critical of John F Kennedy because he felt Kennedy manipulated African Americans into voting for him by making promises he didn't fulfill.

    The most disrespected . . . unprotected . . . [and] neglected person in America is the black woman.

    Malcolm X said this in a speech in Los Angeles on May 22, 1962. He spoke up for African American women at a time when most people didn't.

    I felt that the American black man only needed to choose which one to be eaten by, the 'liberal' fox or the 'conservative' wolf.

    In Chapter 19 of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm discusses why he preferred Barry Goldwater as a presidential candidate over Lyndon Johnson. Malcolm X was angry that the Democratic Party used African Americans for their vote. If he was going to be around someone who disliked him because of the color of his skin, he preferred them to be open about it. He felt that conservatives like Goldwater were more open about it.

    Malcolm X: Legacy

    Malcolm X's influence strengthened in the years following his assassination. Malcolm X is still a controversial figure in the Civil Rights Movement but has finally been acknowledged as a legitimate voice among its leaders. One of the most enduring lessons in Malcolm X's message is African American pride. Malcolm X spoke plainly and often that African Americans had every right to take pride in themselves because their blood, sweat, and tears built the United States, and their intellectual legacy is mighty. Another thing people learned from Malcolm X is that it is acceptable and admirable to change course when presented with new information. Malcolm X didn't allow past actions to define his future. Malcolm embodied the idea that people act according to their level of understanding, and as his perception grew, so did he.

    Malcolm X - Key takeaways

    • Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925. Malcolm changed his name to Malcolm X upon joining the Nation of Islam in 1952.
    • Malcolm X was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement who was known for his outspoken beliefs regarding self-defense among the African American community and for holding white Americans accountable for the struggles of African Americans.
    • While in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X considered himself a Black Nationalist and spread a message of African American self-pride. Malcolm X believed African Americans should separate themselves from white American society and form institutions run by African Americans.
    • After he left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X explored North Africa and the Middle East and made his Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. While on this journey, Malcolm X converted to traditional Islam and adopted a new worldview of Pan-Africanism. Malcolm X founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity upon returning to the United States. He hoped to join with other civil rights leaders and unite Africans in the Western Hemisphere to take their fight to the United Nations.
    • Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, by Nation of Islam members. Malcolm is buried as Hajj Malik El-Shabazz in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

    1 Bagwell, Orlando, Director. Malcolm X: Make it Plain. Transcript. PBS. 2005.

    2 Author Unknown. "African Sojourner, 1964." The Malcolm X Project, Columbia University.

    3 Author Unknown. "Malcolm X Pleased By Whites' Attitude On Trip to Mecca." The New York Times. 1964.

    4 Author Unknown. "Malcolm X Scores U.S. and Kennedy." The New York Times. 1963.

    5 "Chickens Coming Home to Roost | Malcolm X." YouTube. 2012.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Malcolm X

    Who is Malcolm X?

    Malcolm X was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement who was known for his outspoken beliefs regarding self-defense among the African American community and for holding white Americans accountable for the struggles of African Americans.

    What did Malcolm X do?

    Malcolm X spread a message of African American self-pride. Prior to his death, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity with the hopes of joining American civil rights leaders together and uniting Africans living in the Western Hemisphere. His goal was to take control over their struggle out of the biased hands of the government and appeal to the international court system.

    How did Malcolm X die?

    Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, by Nation of Islam members. 

    What did Malcolm X believe?

    Malcolm X's beliefs evolved over time. While he was a member of the Nation of Islam, he believed African Americans should separate themselves from white American society and form institutions run by African Americans. After his journey to Mecca, he saw race struggles in the United States as an American struggle rather than a black versus white struggle.

    Why did Malcolm X change his name?

    Malcolm X changed his name from Little to X upon joining the Nation of Islam in honor of his unknown African surname.

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