Malcolm X, whose birth name was Malcolm Little, was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925. Malcolm X became a very controversial figure during the classic years of the American civil rights movement as he preached race separation as opposed to integration. Malcolm X even angered the leaders of Nation of Islam (NOI) and he left the organisation in 1964 and formed his own movement. In 1965, Malcolm X was murdered by members of NOI.
Malcolm X believed in separatism – blacks living separate from whites in USA. His father was a Baptist minister who had been influenced by Marcus Garvey who believed in separatism and this was inculcated into Malcolm X in his youth. His family was poverty stricken as his father died young. His mother could not cope and he was brought up by white foster parents. Malcolm X grew up an angry young man. In 1941 he dropped out of school and moved to Boston’s ghetto. He became a shoe-shine boy and a railroad waiter. He got involved in drug dealing, burglary and pimping. In 1945 Malcolm X received a 10-year jail sentence for his crimes.
While in prison in Massachusetts, Malcolm X became a member of NOI. He was persuaded to do so by his brothers Philbert and Reginald who were both members of NOI.
Malcolm X He was released from prison in 1952 and adopted the name Malcolm X as he believed Malcolm Little represented a slave name. He worked within the NOI movement. He quickly rose in importance within NOI and as Minister of Temple Number 7 in Harlem (NY) he gathered around him a number of devoted followers all from the ghetto. Malcolm X referred to white people as “devils” and he rejected integration in favour of segregation. His verbal attacks against White America became more and more bitter. Malcolm X became a national/international figure between 1959 and 1965.
However, members within NOI believed that he was using the organisation for his own benefits – to push his name forward at all costs. Some believed that he was scheming to replace Elijah Muhammad as leader of NOI.
In 1963 members of NOI had been told by Elijah Muhammad not to comment on the death of JF Kennedy. Malcolm X refused to obey this instruction and made unsympathetic comments about Kennedy’s murder stating that his assassination was “chickens coming home to roost”. Elijah Muhammad banned him from speaking in public for 90 days and Malcolm X adhered to this. But it was a sign on the tension within NOI.
Malcolm X left NOI in March 1964 as he felt that NOI was too passive as an organisation and that it was waiting for change to come as opposed to trying to force it through, as he wanted. However, he had made enemies in NOI. He set up the Muslim Mosque. Inc. and then the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). The aim of the latter was to unite all people of African origin and to push for full independence – segregation – of black people in USA.
However, as he got older, Malcolm X adapted his beliefs. This was almost certainly as a result of a pilgrimage he made to Mecca.
By the time of his death he had embraced orthodox Islam, which included racial toleration. He started to make contact with white non-American Muslims. His supporters claim that this development was simply a sincere development in his beliefs. His detractors believed that he was reshaping his beliefs to broaden his popularity that up to that point had targeted a very narrow front. But it counted for nothing as Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21st 1965 in Manhattan. Three members of NOI Temple No 25 were arrested, tried and found guilty of his murder – Norman Butler, Talmadge Hayer and Thomas Johnson.
Did he achieve anything?
Malcolm X certainly highlighted what we now view as the classic symptoms of prejudice almost like the legendary civil rights broadcast done by J F Kennedy, when the president highlighted the differences in lifestyle between blacks and whites in USA. The huge difference was the way Malcolm X believed such problems could be solved.
Another argument has been forwarded. Malcolm X knew all along that what he was saying and pushing for would be rejected by Washington and that his views would shock the white political power brokers in Washington and make the views of Martin Luther King seem far more acceptable. By rejecting Malcolm X, it is said that he made Washington accept the views of King – a ploy he was not only aware of but was driving all along.
Thurgood Marshall was highly critical of Malcolm X and claimed that NOI was “run by a bunch of thugs”. However, many young dispossessed black youths followed him as he at the time seemed to be the only one who offered them some form of hope and future.