Whether you love him or hate him you have to admit that Malcolm X was an extremely critical figure who contributed in shaping American social life as we know it today. This paper will assess the significance of Malcolm X’s leadership role in the black people’s fight for power and identity during the twentieth century. It will take the reader from Malcolm’s early years, before his transformation to Islam, to his tragic and untimely death as a national black leader. It will explore Malcolm’s beliefs while in the Nation of Islam as well as his contributions to the civil rights movement and his thoughts on other Negro Leader’s contributions.
Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. 1 His father Earl Little was a preacher. His father’s ideas were not appreciated by the Ku Klux Klan, and they burnt his house down when Malcolm’s mother was pregnant with him. When Malcolm was only six, his father was found dead, with his head bashed in. An incident Malcolm remembered throughout his life is what his teacher once said to him when he was in school in Lansing, Michigan. The teacher was going around the room asking kids what they want to be when they get older.
When it was Malcolm’s turn he told the teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer. To Malcolm’s surprise, the teacher didn’t encourage him, but told him to be realistic about being a “nigger. ” Malcolm only stayed in Michigan to finish eighth grade. Malcolm moved to Roxbury to live with his sister Ella. After living with her for some time, Malcolm moved to Harlem to live on his own. While there Malcolm turned to selling drugs and living a life of crime. While back in Boston, he was arrested for robbery. He was sentenced to five to ten years in prison.
As it ended up, prison turned Malcolm’s life fight around. Malcolm began to read and educated himself while in prison. His brothers wrote to him about a religion for the black man. They told him to stop smoking and eating pork. His brother Reginald visited him and introduced him to Islam, he told Malcolm that the white man was the devil. The leader of this religion, officially called the “Nation of Islam” was Elijah Muhammad. He began preaching in Detroit after getting out of prison, and he was becoming more important in the religion. He changed his last name from Little to X.
The symbol X has a double meaning. It means “ex” because the Muslim is no longer what he was and it stands for the unknown original last name. of the Muslim. After setting up a temple in Boston, he was asked to do the same in Harlem. He was becoming an important figure in the religion. When Malcolm joined the “Nation of Islam” or the “Black Muslims” as the members were commonly called, he adopted all their ideas and beliefs. Malcolm became the articulate spokesman for the Muslims. Up until the late 1940’s, the movement was making very slow progress.
When Malcolm came into the picture, the movement began to “catch fire. “The Nation of Islam was an unique religion indeed. The Black Muslims rejected the word “Negro” because it was to them by the whites. Its members rejected Christianity, because it failed to give the black man justice. Orthodox Muslims in America rejected the principles of the Nation of Islam. The Black Muslims demanded racial separation of blacks and whites. They thought, as Malcolm did, that all personal relationships between blacks and whites must be broken immediately. Economic and political ties would be broken later.
As C. Eric Lincoln put it in his book The Black Muslims in America, the Muslims rejected racial intermarriage “as sternly as any southern white. ” They were convinced of their superior racial heritage. Malcolm emphasized the fact that integration was bad for both sides. He said it would destroy the white race, and it would also destroy the black race. “The only thing I like integrated is my coffee. ” Malcolm stressed that integration with whites wasn’t only undesirable but impossible. He told the public bluntly that without great bloodshed, integration wasn’t going to happen.
In his autobiography Malcolm says that he wasn’t referring to the white man as an individual, when he called whites the devil, but to the white man’s historical record collectively. But it seemed clear when Malcolm was with the Nation of Islam that he was talking about all whites, there were no exceptions. Malcolm believed that the masses of black people didn’t desire integration, only the “so-called Negro leaders” wanted it. The Black Muslims believed that they had the right to land in America for their separation of races. They believed they had the right to land for two reasons.
First, whites stole the land from the Indians, and they are brothers of black people. And secondly, blacks worked 300 years as absolute slaves and 100 years as free slaves, thus earning the right to land in America. Although not much was said about it was clear for the Muslims that if it became necessary, blacks must take up in arms to gain “an eye for an eye. ” The Muslims and Malcolm never actually advocated aggressive armed violence but they made the point clear that violence was acceptable as a means of self defense. In 1959 the Nation of Islam entered a new era.
It was in this year that Mike Wallace did a television show called “The Hate that Hate Made. ” This show didn’t expose anything new to blacks living in the ghettoes, but this was the first time many whites found out about a black group that preached hatred towards whites. In months to follow, the Black Muslims and Malcolm X gained more and more publicity, most of it bad. They were called “hate dealers,” “black racists,” “communist inspired. ” All this recognition created fear in the white community. Malcolm X was always causing and uproar in the white communities by the things he preached.
He likened the Jews in WWII to the slaves, and said they were no big deal. “Everybody talks about six million Jews, but I was reading a book the other day that showed me one hundred million of us were kidnapped and brought to this country- one hundred million. Now everybody’s wet eyed over a handful of Jews who brought it on themselves. ” The Muslims also had political weight. Fidel Castro invited Malcolm to a private conference in the summer of 1960. Malcolm was extremely influential in Harlem. He often worked with drug addicts and his work was envied by Harlem’s social service workers.
It was said in Harlem, Malcolm X was the only person who could start a riot or order a riot to stop. Malcolm never actually incited any riots, nor did he welcome riots, but he saw them coming and where they were coming from. It was often said in Harlem that Malcolm was all talk and no action. Malcolm proved his critics wrong when a Black Muslim named Hinton Johnson was beat up by police in Harlem. Malcolm called people and he had other Muslims call people, and soon there were 2,600 people protesting. The police then complied with Malcolm’s requests and he settled the ordeal.
Then, with a wave of his hand, he made the crowd disappear. Said on police officer “this is too much power for one man to have. ” Clearly, Malcolm was very powerful. Much of America was beginning to believe that Malcolm was the Black Muslims. Within the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad was like a father to Malcolm. Rumors were going around that people were sick of him taking the spotlight, and they wanted him out of the Nation of Islam. It all came to a head when Malcolm called President’s Kennedy’s assassination “a simple case of the chickens coming home to roost. Malcolm was suspended from the Nation for this remark, and he didn’t think they would him back.
So he started his organization, Muslim Mosque Inc. At the press conference announcing the break from the Black Muslims, he said blacks should get guns and organize and use them in defense whenever the government failed it’s duty to protect. Judging from this statement it doesn’t seem as though the break from the Nation of Islam changed Malcolm much, but many changes would take place in the months to come. He decided to take the “Hajj” or holy pilgrimage to the city of Mecca.
Before going he had some verses from the Qur’an translated to him by a friend. Malcolm was moved when he found that the verses said that Muslims were brothers regardless of race or color, and that Allah judged men solely by their deeds. Of course Malcolm knew that there were some white Muslims, but he tried to ignore the fact. After he made the “Hajj” some of his attitudes and former beliefs changed. He came back to America with a slightly moderated view of white people, and that didn’t go over too well with some of his followers. While in Mecca, he realized you can’t judge a man only by his skin color.
This didn’t change his conviction that most white Americans and all American institutions were hopelessly racist. He knew if a white man was capable of brotherhood with blacks, then they weren’t as evil as he used to believe, but the American white man remained guilty of a collective historic devilishness. Until the whites proved otherwise they were still the enemy of the black man. He recognized the fact that there were some sincere white people in the world, and some that were capable of brotherhood. He even confessed that racial intermarriage was merely one human being marrying another.
The reason for this drastic change in his racial philosophy was that Muslims of every color treated him as a human being in Mecca. Some people suspect that Malcolm never hated whites as much as he said in his black Muslim days, and still others believe his change was sincere. Another thing Malcolm came to believe after visiting Africa was that there was no longer a Negro problem or American problem, but there was a world problem, a problem for all humanity. He said that when he was in Mecca, he felt like a complete human being for the first time in his life.
He thought the so-called Negro in America should forget civil rights and fight for human rights instead. As speeches he made after his break show, Malcolm was no longer anti-white but pro-black. Along with this change in philosophy came a change in roles. He rose above his position as an American Black Muslim leader to a leader and symbol to blacks around the world. This change in beliefs did cause problems back home. He lost some of his old following when he changed his views and he had not yet gained a new audience yet.
I’m not a racist and I’m against racism and against segregation. I don’t judge a person according to the color of his skin, I judge a person according to his deeds and intentions. ” Where was Malcolm’s place in the civil rights movement? He didn’t really have a place in the movement because the mainstream leadership didn’t accept him. The differences between his ideas and those of the mainstream civil rights leaders were too great. Malcolm was color conscious while they were colorblind. They submitted willingly to a pain whereas Malcolm was nonviolent.
Integration was a goal of the civil rights movement, and Malcolm didn’t accept integration in America as the leaders wanted it. He challenged the leaders and orthodoxes of the civil rights movement. The price of unity between Malcolm and mainstream leadership would have been too high for either party to pay. Malcolm was the first to offer an alternative to the nonviolent path of the civil rights movement, and both militant blacks and nonviolent blacks gained form his presence on the scene.
To most of the mainstream leadership, he was someone they could hold up and say “look who is waiting in the wings if you don’t deal with us. Some mainstream leadership envied Malcolm’s easy access to television and radio. They also wished Malcolm wouldn’t dwell on the violent self-defense so much, they saw no reason to make white people so nervous. Malcolm saw nonviolence as a way of disarming the blacks.
The worst thing he saw with the established black leaders was that they were afraid to be irresponsible. “They have kept you on the plantation. ” He also noticed and didn’t like the fact that the leaders were preoccupied with the South, and not at home in ghetto as Malcolm was. Malcolm owned Harlem.
Civil rights leaders rarely strayed on his turf. Once, a day before King was to speak in Harlem Malcolm suggested Harlem might want to show Mr. King what they thought of him. He was pelted with eggs. Few people would debate him. King wouldn’t, nor would Roy Wilkins or Whitney Young. He was isolated from the front-line struggle, recognized leadership wanted nothing to do with him. He did share some ideas with the civil rights movement, on voting. “Even I prefer ballots to bullets. ” The difference is that Malcolm didn’t rule out bullets as an option.
Even when advances were made, Malcolm didn’t see them as most people did. He referred to the incident in Little Rock as an example of token integration “to keep these awakening black babies from crying too loud. ” He dismissed the Kennedy -Johnson Civil Rights Bill as a “paycheck he (blacks) couldn’t cash anywhere. ” An interesting analogy that compares Malcolm to the mainstream leaders says Malcolm was to “responsible” abolitionists. Malcolm X was hardest on Martin Luther King Jr. The press saw them as adversaries, light vs. dark.
Within the black community, before Malcolm split with the Nation of Islam, blacks had to either follow the path of King and work towards integration, or they could follow the Muslims, who preached separation. Martin Luther King was the opposition to Muslim thinking. Malcolm and Martin stood at opposite poles. One a Christian the other color conscious. One Forgiving the other incapable of forgiveness. These differences led Malcolm to constantly criticize Martin Luther King. He called King “the best weapon of the white man. ” He said the “March and Washington,” led by King was a waste of time.
He challenged Martin to come to Harlem and prove that “peaceful suffering” is the answer. Once, when Malcolm was speaking in Alabama and saying that he didn’t believe in nonviolence, he told King’s wife Coretta he wasn’t trying to make it harder for her husband, but easier by showing people the alternative. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was shot sixteen times as he addressed about 400 people at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Although the man died, his ideas and contribution lived. His assassination upset a good part of the American public because he was the symbol of resistance.
The black people’s love for Malcolm showed after his death. Kids wore T-shirts and buttons, some black public schools closed on the day of his death, a college in Chicago was named after him, there was a Malcolm X Democrat Club in Harlem, and a Malcolm X association in the military. In 1964 the New York Times reported he was the second most sought after speaker at colleges and universities, second only to Barry Goldwater. He did things no other black man in America had ever done. He didn’t let the white man speak and defend for him, he wanted blacks to fight their own battle and win back their self respect.
He could convey black rage to a white audience with civility and charm. Instead of lying to himself about the condition of the black man in America, he shouted the painful truth which neither race wanted to hear. He would make blacks angry and proud in his presence. His biggest contribution was that he showed blacks their own beauty, competence and worth. Black and whites who resented Malcolm X should have resented the society that produced him. His philosophies made him unacceptable as a participant in peaceful social change. He altered the style and thought of the black revolt even though it denied him a spot in its certified leadership.
The black man’s freedom struggle was altered because of Malcolm X. He was a man driven, haunted, and captured by his anger. No matter how much his principles changed, he was always sincere and true to his blackness. “Brother Malcolm’s contribution is tremendous. What Brother Malcolm contributed to the black man’s struggle in America and throughout the world can not be equaled or surpassed by the life of any man. What attracted people to Malcolm most wasn’t’ necessarily his politics, but the fact that he was black and fighting the way things were. Ahead of his time, ahead of his people, at the forefront of their struggle was Malcolm. ”
By comparing him with other black leaders of his time, and revealing some of his ideas, I have tried to show that Malcolm X was indeed an important figure in the struggle for black power and freedom. His name is often overlooked when speaking of the great black leaders in America, and his efforts often overshadowed by those of Martin Luther King Jr. I hope I have made clear that Malcolm was not a man to be overlooked and his efforts should not be forgotten.