Who is Malcolm X?
The name Malcolm X evokes a wide range of responses, from those who view him as a revolutionary activist for black rights, to those who view him as a dangerous extremist.
But who is Malcolm X that he has such a wide presence in our history and culture? What is the Black Power movement of the 1960s that he championed?
The Background of Malcolm X
Malcolm X’s real name is Malcolm Little. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19th, 1925 to a family of 8 children. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist Minister and supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Black nationalism was a political movement that sought to promote and maintain a black race identity, empower black communities, and resist assimilation into white culture. The emphasis was on maintaining a distinct black identity, and was promoted in the 20th century. The Black Nationalist ideas that his father supported would later serve as the foundation of the ideas that Malcolm X supported and helped solidify into the minds of many.
As Malcolm grew older, he began to study the teachings of the religious organization, the Nation of Islam (NOI). The NOI’s leader was Elijah Muhammad, who taught that the society ran primarily by whites was actively restricting African Americans from empowering themselves and from achieving success. Therefore, the NOI stated, there was a need for black people to form a state of their own that was completely separate from white people.
Malcolm became a devoted follower of this ideology, and renamed himself to Malcolm X, because of the thought that his last name “Little” was a slave name given to his family by white supremacist slave owners. Malcolm soon became a national spokesperson for NOI and established new mosques, and wrote in newspaper articles, and spoke on radio and television about the organization’s ideas. His work catapulted the NOI into prominence, with over 30,000 members by 1963. He was a gifted and passionate speaker, encouraging blacks everywhere to stand up for themselves and “cast off the shackles of racism by any means necessary”, even if that meant violence. The message was passionate but extreme in the eyes of some.
Despite this allegiance, Malcolm X separated from the NOI in 1964 after being silenced by Muhammad for two main reasons: his controversial remarks about JFK’s assassination, and Malcolm’s discovery of Muhammad’s extramarital affairs that went against the NOI’s doctrines for its congregants.
After his separation from the NOI, Malcolm created his own organization, called the Muslim Mosque Inc. From this point, his perspective on racial relations changed, and he expressed that different races and cultures can share and integrate with one another and even call each other brothers. He no longer focused on a separate black state, but advocated for peaceful relations between all races.
Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965 by three gunmen who belonged to NOI. They shot him 15 times at close range. Malcolm X was 39 years old at that time when he died.
5 Facts That You Did Not Know About Malcolm X
Although Malcolm X is known widely for the passionate statements about black nationalism and black identity that he spoke during his affiliation with the NOI, his life was much more complicated than that.
Here are 5 facts about Malcolm X and his life that may surprise you.
1. MALCOLM X WAS ARRESTED FOR LARCENY AND JAILED FOR 10 YEARS.
In 1946, Malcolm X was charged with larceny and sentenced to 10 years in jail. During this time, Malcolm educated himself through books available from the prison’s library, and devoted this time to giving himself an education since he was not able to complete high school. He dropped out of high school at the age of 15 after being told by his teachers that he did not need to pursue higher education since he was black.
2. MALCOLM X WAS NOT THE FIRST OF HIS FAMILY TO JOIN THE NATION OF ISLAM
Actually, his siblings were the first to join the Nation of Islam (NOI) amongst his family. While he was in prison, Malcolm was visited by these siblings who had joined NOI and embraced the ideologies of black nationalism and wanted to see blacks get their own separate state from the white Americans.
3. HE FOUNDED A NATIONAL NEWSPAPER CALLED MUHAMMAD SPEAKS
Malcolm X founded a national newspaper called Muhammad Speaks in 1960, as a spokes piece to promote the nation and ideology of NOI. This was one of the methods that the NOI employed the talents of Malcolm X to bring members into their religious organization.
4. MALCOLM X CHANGED HIS NAME TWICE.
Malcolm X’s original name was Malcolm Little, following his family’s surname. When he joined the NOI, however, Malcolm renamed himself into Malcolm X, throwing away the family surname as he considered it a remnant of the slavery that his people endured. Later in 1964, Malcolm X changed his name once again to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after making a pilgrimage to Mecca and converting to traditional Islam.
5. MALCOLM WANTED A PEACEFUL RESOLUTION TO RACIAL DIVISION
Although his initial messages were about violence as a means to bring about a separate black nation and raise up the black community, Malcolm later promoted peaceful resolutions between blacks, whites, and people of all colors. He stated “the true brotherhood I had seen had influenced me to recognize that anger can blind human vision. … America is the first country ... that can actually have a bloodless revolution."
Although his views drastically changed throughout the course of his lifetime, and his comments evoked strong responses from both sides of the racial divide, Malcolm X undoubtedly left a strong legacy in the history of the U.S. civil rights movement and his speeches still continue to inspire people today.