Born Malcolm Little in 1925, he was the son of a lay Garveyite preacher who died when he was six, rumoured to have been murdered by white supremacists. His mother was committed to a psychiatric institution and Malcolm moved between foster homes and juvenile detention. Despite this he dreamed of being a lawyer, only to be told by his favourite teacher at 14 that this was “no realistic goal for a nigger”.
After a stint of low paid jobs in Michigan and Boston and skirting street life, he settled in New York aged 17, working a number of hustles under the name ‘Big Red’ on account of his hair colour. After being imprisoned for burglary at 21, his older brother introduced him to the teachings of an esoteric Black American sect called the Nation of Islam (NOI). Using the prison library, he immersed himself in intense self-education, his subsequent bespectacled image a legacy of the damage to his sight from reading in his cell late into the night.
After his release from prison in 1953, he moved to Chicago to study under the NOI’s leader Elijah Mohammed, changing his name to Malcolm X as per the NOI’s tenets, to symbolise the loss of the enslaved Black man’s history. Becoming a minister in New York, he rose to prominence and notoriety for his fiery and uncompromising sermons excoriating America.
While Martin Luther King’s focus was on winning tangible rights denied to Black people in the South, Malcolm X’s audience was the urban Black America of the North. He derided Dr King and the Black civil rights establishment as Uncle Toms and scorned their approach to non-violent activism, a stance he always maintained, later saying in his famous 1963 speech Message to the Grassroots:
“Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”
Steeped in Nation of Islam cosmology, Malcolm X lambasted white people as literal “devils”, derided integration, trafficked in antisemitism and under the auspices of Black nationalism and a shared belief in racial separation even met with the Ku Klux Klan. Famously, he and the NOI were the subjects of a documentary ‘The Hate That Hate Produced’. Malcolm’s response to these charges was typically unwavering:
“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? To such extent you bleach, to get like the white man. Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? ... Before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God made you.”
By 1963, following increasing friction between himself and Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm was suspended from the organisation after describing John F. Kennedy’s assassination as “chickens coming home to roost”. After making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and experiencing its multi-racial spectacle, he changed his name to El Hajj Malik Shabazz, moved to orthodox Islam and reappraised his ethno-separatist stance, eventually breaking with the Nation of Islam in 1964.
However, he remained radical and formed his own organisation, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, looking towards Pan-Africanism and ‘Third World’ solidarity as the route to liberation for Black America. Though now marginalised, he steadfastly refused to cater to white or liberal sensibilities or seek the approval of either the Black or white establishment.
In 1965, a few months shy of his 40th birthday, he was assassinated during a mid-afternoon speech at the Audubon ballroom in New York by gunmen eventually linked to the Nation of Islam, though accusations of collusion by the police and FBI have swirled around his death ever since.
Writing a condolence to Malcolm’s widow Betty Shabazz, Martin Luther King wrote: “…I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and the root of the problem.”
Malcolm X’s legacy
Though today often sentimentalised, Malcolm X was a complex figure and neither a liberal, integrationist or socialist.
In truth, he and the Nation of Islam were fringe figures of the Civil Rights Movement, beset by in-fighting and not connected to the sensibility of mainstream Black America. It was really after his death and the posthumous publication of his autobiography that his influence grew. Despite many antecedents, Malcolm was arguably the one who crystalised modern Black consciousness and Black pride, that would eventually birth the Black Power movement that followed in the 1970s.
Ultimately, Malcolm’s profound victory was existential rather than material, a man – while not short of many contradictions – had an unapologetic, unsparing and acerbic eye for the failures, lies and hypocrisies of white America, his life dedicated to getting his people to be truly seen: not by whites, but by themselves.