Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little, also named El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz at the end of his life) (May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965) was a leader of the American Civil Rights Movementnote and contemporary to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., until his assassination in 1965. While King was known for pacifistic civil disobedience à la Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X was known for a more controversial, militantly-oriented response, which he deemed necessary to bring about positive change.
Malcolm was the fourth of seven children born in Nebraska to Baptist preacher and social activist Earl Little and day laborer Louise Little, who instilled Black pride and self-reliance in him. The family moved to Milwaukee and later to Lansing, Michigan, while Malcolm was an infant. After Earl was murdered by local racists who covered their tracks well and Louise was institutionalized, Malcolm became a ward of the state, bouncing around between foster parents and detention homes. Brilliant but defiant of authority, Malcolm dropped out of junior high after a racist teacher told him he would do better to work toward becoming a carpenter rather than a lawyer, and eventually became embroiled with the jazz scene and criminal underbelly of Harlem. Malcolm's intelligence enabled him to become a successful numbers runner and housebreaker, before eventually making a fateful mistake that got him caught and sent to the penitentiary for 15 years. While in prison, a fellow prisoner encouraged Malcolm to use his time in prison to improve himself, study as much as he could, and kick some of his bad habits (such as his addiction to heroin). Malcolm's self-education, which included reading the dictionary cover-to-cover and all eleven volumes of Will Durant's Story of Civilization, convinced him that he and other children were taught a Eurocentric, White-dominated view of history that was being used to maintain the inferior social status of Black people. His life further changed when his brother Reginald invited him to join the Nation of Islam, a religious movement founded in the 1930s that preached the divine origin and supremacy of the Black race. In his correspondence with the Nation's leader, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm eventually joined the movement and was invited to become one of its ministers when he was released. He was given the name Malcolm X, explaining in interviews that the X represented his family's real name, which was lost to history, replacing the name "Little" that he had inherited from White slaveholders. This was actually common practice among members of the Nation, though in many cases it acted more as a placeholder to be replaced by a more traditionally Muslim name (e.g. Cassius Clay renaming himself Cassius X, then renaming himself Muhammad Ali); as mentioned before, Malcolm did indeed adopt the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz late into his life, though is generally known by the placeholder name, largely because he carried it during the majority of his public lifetime.
When Malcolm was paroled, he became the head minister of the Nation of Islam's Temple #7 in Harlem. He actively participated in organizing efforts in major cities such as Boston, Detroit, and Philadelphia, making a name for himself through successful evangelization, tense (but not violent) confrontations with the police, and his willingness to take unpopular positions. Even those who didn't fully agree with his theology approved of his confidence, charisma, and pro-Black ideology. It was even speculated that he could win a seat in Congress if he chose the right district. His apparent advocacy of violence in self-defense and his often repeated refrain — "by any means necessary" — helped to stoke fears that the Nation of Islam was a Black supremacist cult that sought the violent overthrow of White society. Other voices in the Civil Rights Movement disapproved of him as well: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) disliked his inflammatory rhetoric and confrontational approach, while those such as Martin Luther King Jr. disdained his push for separatism, believing that interracial cooperation was still a goal worth fighting for. Ironically, many White segregationists (including the Ku Klux Klan) supported Malcolm X's push for separation, believing him a safe alternative to the supposedly crypto-communist Civil Rights Movement.note
Malcolm achieved international recognition due to his travels abroad, in which he undertook preaching and political activism in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. He was far less controversial globally than he was in the United States, due to America's increasingly troubled reputation across the world. England, France, and other European nations resented America's hypocrisy for presuming to be the "leader of the free world" despite denying basic human rights to a large number of its citizens, and many African nations, which were fighting battles of independence from colonial rule, considered America just another imperial power striving for the dominance of White Europeans. As a result, Malcolm X's message of militant opposition to White supremacy resonated more with Black people abroad than the larger Civil Rights Movement's more conciliatory approach. Meanwhile, Malcolm X's international travel broadened his perspective and stoked his interest in human rights on a global scale. He became more interested in linking the American civil rights struggle to the many African independence movements than simply building a base in America, which that put him at odds with the more domestically focused Nation of Islam.
As time went on, further and clearer differences emerged between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam's leadership. Despite acting as a mouthpiece for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm never lost his independent streak. He was not afraid to deviate from standard Nation teachings as he felt necessary, or even to disobey direct orders if they conflicted with his conscience. And despite venerating Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm often chafed under his conservative, apolitical approach to leadership. Other ministers resented the attention Malcolm received in the media and his prolonged absences during his international travels. This troubled relationship with the Nation eventually boiled over after Malcolm gave a speech celebrating the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which he had been explicitly told not to do. Malcolm was censured by the Nation and placed on probation, prohibited from speaking publicly or entering Nation temples. While supposedly only a 90-day suspension, Malcolm came to believe that the gag order would be permanent. This, combined with his frustration with the Nation of Islam's nonpolitical stance, a series of scandals involving Elijah Muhammad impregnating his young secretaries, and his desire to organize with other human rights activists, caused him to leave the Nation of Islam formally on March 8, 1964. In the next month, he founded his own organizations — the Organization of African American Unity and the Muslim Mosque, Inc. — which were to be, respectively, the political and religious vehicles for his idiosyncratic view of Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism.
Shortly afterward, Malcolm went abroad again, including taking the Hadj (Pilgrimage, a central requirement of the Islamic faith to be done at least once in one's lifetime if one can reasonably afford it) to the holy city of Meccanote and various nations in Africa. In Mecca, he began to realize how provincial the Nation of Islam's theology was and how Islam as practiced around the world differed from his own, causing him to gradually revise his religious beliefs. In Africa, he served as an American representative to the Organization of African Unity (which his own organization had been based on) made contacts with important figures with whom he hoped to win political support. His politics began to evolve as well: he shifted his focus from what he perceived as White people's perceived moral depravity, to their role as the global oppressor of non-White people. He maintained his reluctance to allow White people in his organizations, believing that they would attempt to dominate and subvert the agenda of any organization they joined, but became receptive to working with White people within their own organizations. Despite leaving the Nation, he refused to moderate his rhetoric, believing that at the very least his militant stance would make Whites more receptive to those such as Martin Luther King. His efforts as an independent figure culminated in the Oxford Union Debate of December 3, 1964. The speech he gave at the Oxford Union became the fullest exposition of his politics post-Nation of Islam and for the first time broadcast an unfiltered Malcolm X to a world that had only known him through sound bites.
The last year of Malcolm X's life was troubled by a constant barrage of death threats and attempts on his life. Members of the Nation of Islam, including prominent members of its leadership, began calling for his death in graphic terms. This, combined with his growing awareness of FBI surveillance of his home and taps on his phone, convinced Malcolm that he was a dead man walking. He frequently commented that he wouldn't see the end of 1965, about which he was absolutely right. On February 21, 1965, after slightly less than a year of independence, Malcolm X was shot dead while giving a speech in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Three members of the Nation of Islam were implicated in the shooting, and while he denied responsibility, Elijah Muhammad expressed satisfaction at his former pupil's death. Meanwhile, Malcolm was mourned by a variety of civil rights leaders at home and heads of state abroad, all lamenting what he could have accomplished had he fulfilled his goals in life. There have been suspicions that the Nation of Islam may have officially sanctioned the assassination, or that FBI moles within the Nation intentionally provoked animosity towards Malcolm that it knew would get him killed. Nothing of the sort has been confirmed outright, but current Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has expressed regret for his contribution to the climate that got Malcolm killed.
Malcolm's legacy is shrouded as much in myth as it is in controversy, caught between deification by admirers who put him on a pedestal and demonization by critics who consider him a common racist. Further complicating the picture is the relative lack of reliable accounts of his life and beliefs: personal accounts are sparse and oftentimes contradictory, and biographies by other people have their own share of flaws. The only hints we have about what Malcolm X truly believed come from his many, many speeches, debates, and interviews, but oftentimes it is difficult to see where the Nation of Islam ends and Malcolm X begins. Distortions, exaggerations, and parodies of Malcolm's beliefs are common, hence the existence of the Malcolm Xerox trope.
Malcolm X's relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. was somewhat antagonistic, especially at the beginning of their respective careers, but that had more to do with a mutual misunderstanding of each other's philosophies more than anything. Malcolm X mistook Dr. King's pacifism as a too-moderate stance against racism but warmed to him significantly once he more fully understood the radical nature of his nonviolent resistance. Dr. King mistook Malcolm X's harsh invective as inciting his audiences to ill-advised violence that would worsen race relations but came to respect his deep insight into the root causes of racism in America. Their differing approaches also had a great deal to do with the region of the country they came from. Martin Luther King worked in the Jim Crow South, where the formal and legal segregation of the races was the greatest obstacle to civil rights, leading him to focus on integration and the dismantling of racist laws. Malcolm X worked in the North, where the races interacted but Black people were still forced into a position of social subordination to White people, leading him to believe that the latter would never willingly relinquish their dominance even if integration was achieved. Both toyed with the idea of cooperation when they met for the first time in 1965, but Malcolm was killed before anything would come of it. Their children, however, would have a more cordial relationship as they cooperated on social justice activism.
Though his approach remains the subject of debate, especially compared to the more universally-venerated King, Malcolm has earned his place in the annals of American Civil Rights history for his uncompromising militancy, his tireless advocacy for the rights of the oppressed all over the world, and the fact that, paralleling King, his early death invited all sorts of speculation about What Could Have Been.
Appears in the following works:
- Spike Lee made a roughly 3.5-hour biopic about his life, simply titled Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. Earlier, Lee had used the differences between X and King's approaches to Civil Rights as a partial basis for the themes and content of Do the Right Thing in 1989.
- He appears in Roots: The Next Generation as an interview subject of Alex Haley. Ironically, he is played by Al Freeman, Jr., who would go on to play Elijah Muhammad in the 1992 film.
- He and Martin Luther King Jr. were the main characters of a fictional meeting between the two in Jeff Stetson's 1987 play The Meeting. The play would be broadcast on PBS' American Playhouse in 1989, starring Jason Bernard as King and Dick Anthony Williams as Malcolm.
- He briefly appears in Selma, shortly before his assassination, played by Nigel Thatch.
- Mario Van Peebles plays Malcolm in the Muhammad Ali biopic Ali.
- The Ethan Stoller song "BKAB" is named for, and uses, the second quotation above, and suggests similarities and inspiration drawn between Malcolm X and the other quoted leader, Gloria Steinem, and the lead character in the film using the song (in the credits), V for Vendetta. On the official soundtrack, the excerpts were removed, due to rights of use.
- He appears as one of the lead characters in the 2020 drama film One Night in Miami, played by Kingsley Ben-Adir. The film is the fictional story of a meeting between him, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke and football player Jim Brown.