Malcolm X was immortalized as a “shining black prince” by Ossie Davis, a well-known African American actor, civil rights activist, and dear friend in his eulogy for the infamous leader. He was a powerful man, who treated his authority like a fine piece of music, lending his whole being – mind, body, and soul – to the task of realizing his dream. Not unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X dreamed of freedom for his people, for black men, women, and children all over the world. There was, without a doubt, something enigmatic about Malcolm X. Malcolm’s approach to African American liberation was controversial, and his involvement with the Nation of Islam (NOI) was pivotal in shaping his thoughts and deeds. However, before Malcolm’s tragic assassination, he broke from the NOI, and truly transformed his fundamental beliefs about humanity, equality, and justice. As the late Columbia University professor and historian Manning Marable wrote in his epic biography of Malcolm X: “He was a truly historical figure in the sense that, more than any of his contemporaries, he embodied the spirit, vitality, and political mood of an entire population – black urban mid-twentieth century America.” The influence of such an embodiment became evident in the success of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Spike Lee’s Academy Award-winning film Malcolm X, and the abundance of literature, art, education, and social justice work that continues in the great man’s name today. His story is fascinating, his metamorphoses illuminating, and his dream empowering. Malcolm X was indeed a revolutionary humanitarian leader.
The Early Life of Malcolm Little
Malcolm X was born “Malcolm Little” in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925. His father was a radical Baptist minister and a Garveyite, follower of Jamaican leader Marcus Garvey, who believed that freedom, independence, and self-respect could never be achieved by blacks in America, and they should therefore return to Africa. His mother was fair-skinned, her mother likely raped by a white man, and Malcolm Little was born with red-hued hair.
Malcolm’s childhood was disturbing and traumatic. His father was frequently threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, who acted on these threats by burning down Malcolm’s home, and later murdering his father. His mother was so distraught by her husband’s death that she was admitted to a mental health facility, leaving Malcolm and his seven siblings to wade through the welfare system. In The Autobiography Malcolm reflects on his early memories:
…the nightmare night in 1929, my earliest vivid memory. I remember being suddenly snatched awake into a frightening confusion of pistol shots and shouting and smoke and flames. My father had shouted and shot at the two white men who had set the fire and were running away. Our home was burning down around us…I remember we were outside in the night in our underwear, crying and yelling our heads off. The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned down to the ground.
When the state welfare people began coming to our house…[t]hey acted and looked at [my mother], and at us, and around in our house, in a way that had about it the feeling – at least for me – that we were not people. In their eyesight we were just things, that was all.
[My teacher] looked surprised… He kind of half-smiled and said…“You’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be… Why don’t you plan on carpentry?” Mr. Ostrowsky’s advice to others in my class – all of them white…had encouraged what they had wanted. Yet nearly none of them had earned marks equal to mine…. apparently I wasn’t intelligent enough, in their eyes, to become whatever I wanted to be…. It was then that I began to change – inside.
Malcolm’s painful childhood affected both his trials and triumphs. He suffered both psychologically and physically as a result of the systemic racism and oppression he was exposed to, and externalized this in the form of anger and hatred. As a result, Malcolm was often in trouble as a young man. He later reflected, “The addict steals, he hustles in other ways; he preys upon other human beings like a hawk or a vulture – as I did. Very likely, he is a school drop-out, the same as I was, an Army reject, psychologically unsuited to a job even if he was offered one, the same as I was.”
This deep internal pain and troubled early life enabled Malcolm to relate to the masses of African Americans, and as importantly, for them to connect to him and follow his radical rejection of hegemonic racism in America. As Marable explains in his biography:
Malcolm…was a product of the modern ghetto. The emotional rage he expressed was a reaction to racism in its urban context: segregated urban schools, substandard housing, high infant mortality rates, drugs, and crime. Since by the 1960s the overwhelming majority of African Americans lived in large cities, the conditions that defined their existence were more closely linked to what Malcolm spoke about than what [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] represented. Consequently, he was able to establish a strong audience among urban blacks, who perceived passive resistance as an insufficient tool for dismantling institutional racism.
“The Honorable Elijah Muhammad”
Seeing no path forward for him in a racist educational system, Malcolm turned to the streets and eventually a life of crime. It was while in prison (1946-1952) that Malcolm discovered a new path though the aid of his brother, Reginald who had recently converted to the Muslim religion, and joined the organization of the Nation of Islam (NOI). Malcolm took to the teaching of the NOI leader Elijah Muhammad who preached self-empowerment, black self-reliance, and separatism from an oppressive white society.
One of the first life-changing ideas that Muhammad planted in Malcolm’s mind was that God is black. Malcolm believed this, and found an omnipotent ally in God, and in Muhammad himself. Of course, the idea that man shares a likeness with God is profoundly empowering, and for Malcolm, this was the beginning of the unraveling of years of internalized racism. It was during this time that Malcolm changed his surname from Little, a slave name he came to reject, to X which was meant to signify an African tribal name that could never be known.
Malcolm’s intellectual dexterity swelled as he devoured literature throughout the rest of his time in prison. Upon his release Malcolm became a devoted minister for the Nation of Islam, urging black people to transform their lives in the way he had transformed his own. Malcolm’s charisma, intelligence, and drive saw him quickly rise within the NOI and obtain the eventual appointment as its national spokesman. NOI membership swelled from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963 largely due to Malcolm’s appeal. He preached the need to overthrow oppression by any means necessary and to build a separate black nation. He referred to all white people as “blue-eyed devils”, aligning with Muhammad’s stance. Most whites and some African Americans, who were struggling for racial integration, viewed his teachings as dangerous.
Malcolm X spent twelve years (1952-64) preaching the beliefs of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Toward the end of these years, Malcolm’s relationship with Muhammad deteriorated because of Muhammad’s personal misconduct and inability to follow his own teachings. In 1964, Malcolm decided to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of Islam in Saudi Arabia. Following his travels, and discourses and discussions with people of various cultures, Malcolm returned a changed man with a changed message of self-empowerment tempered by tolerance toward all, preaching this not just to African Americans, but to people of all races. Malcolm severed his ties with the NOI, and founded his own religious organizations, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity which would better reflect his evolving views.
Shortly after embarking in this new direction, Malcolm’s home was bombed and set fire on February 14, 1965 at 2:30 a.m. while he, his wife, Betty Shabazz, and their children were asleep. They managed to escape safely. Even though Malcolm firmly believed the perpetrators to be NOI members, their identities were never discovered.
The next day, Malcolm, tense and sleep-deprived, gave a speech entitled “There’s a worldwide revolution going on” in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, less than a week before his assassination in the same venue. It is one of many examples of Malcolm’s effort to separate himself from the NOI, denounce his former allegiance to the group and its leader, and explain his newfound beliefs:
I had blind faith in [Elijah Muhammad], the same as many of you have had and still have blind faith in me or blind faith in Moses or blind faith in somebody else. My faith in Elijah Muhammad was more blind and more uncompromising than any faith that any man has ever had for another man. And so I didn’t try to see him as he actually was. But, being away, I could see him better, understand many things better.
Yes, he’s immoral. You can’t take nine teenaged women and seduce them and give them babies…and then tell me you’re moral. …Any time you seduce teenaged girls and…make them hide your crimes, why you’re not even a man, much less a divine man.
So, I feel responsible for having played a major role in developing a criminal organization [the NOI]. It was not a criminal organization at the outset. It was an organization that had the power, the spiritual power, to reform the criminal…. I know because I went into the movement with more negative tendencies than anybody in the movement. It was faith in what I taught that made it possible for me to stop doing anything that I was doing and everything that I was doing…. I, for one, disassociate myself from the movement completely.
…what Elijah Muhammad is teaching is an insult to the entire Muslim world, because Islam…as a religion, has nothing to do with color…. it doesn’t use the color of a man’s skin to measure him…. Islam, as a religion, judges a man by his intention, by his behavior, by his deeds.
A Reframing of Racism
One of the most significant impacts of Malcolm’s journey to Mecca was a great shift in his beliefs about race and racism. “Like W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin, [Malcolm] had denounced the psychological and social costs that racism had imposed upon his people…”. However, prior to his trip to Mecca, he had not recognized that unchecked racism can have a deleterious effect on any and all people subjected to it, not just African Americans. Though he remained steadfast in his prioritization of the social, economic, political, and psychological liberation of blacks, he acknowledged that not all white people are evil, and in fact, many can be allies in the global struggle for equality and justice. He wrote to Betty Shabazz, his wife, while in Mecca about his initial realization:
…was the only time in my life that I stood before the creator of all and felt like a complete human being…. Now, you may not believe this, but I have eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass, and prayed to same god with fellow Muslims whose eyes were blue, whose hair was blonde, and whose skin was the whitest of white, and we were all brothers, truly. People of all colors and races believing in one God with one humanity…. Each hour here in this sacred land enables me to have a greater spiritual insight into what is happening in America. The American Negro can never be blamed for his racial animosity. He’s only reacting to 400 years of oppression and discrimination…. In the past I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. And these generalizations have caused injuries to some white folks who did not deserve them…. I am not a racist, and I do not subscribe to any of the tenets of racism. In all honesty and sincerity, it can be stated that I wish nothing but freedom, justice, and equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people.
At a New York college where Malcolm was speaking a year before his death, a black student rose and began attacking Jews…with practiced viciousness. Malcolm wouldn’t let him finish and grabbed the microphone: “What you’re doing is what has for so long been done to us. Bigotry doesn’t help anybody, including the bigot. Listen, I don’t judge a man because of the color of his skin. I don't judge people because they’re white. I don’t judge you because you’re black. I judge you because of what you do and what you practice. I’m not against people because they’re Jews. I’m against racists.”
In his Autobiography, Malcolm further condemns racism: “...to me the earth’s most explosive and pernicious evil is racism, the inability of God’s creatures to live as One, especially in the Western world.”
Malcolm’s desire to see the venomous politic of black-white racism in America destroyed was transformed into the desire to eliminate all of its manifestations:
Malcolm’s revolutionary vision also challenged white America to think and talk differently about race…. Malcolm challenged whites to examine the policies and practices of racial discrimination…. Malcolm spoke about the destructive effects of racism upon both its victims and its promulgators. Toward the end of his life he could image the destruction of racism itself…. He did not embrace “color blindness” but…believed that racial hierarchies within society could be dismantled.
A Global Human Rights Leader in the Making
In his final years, Malcolm certainly embraced a more open and accepting vision of humanity, but it was not without his characteristic firebrand approach to human rights and social change. After he left the NOI, and formed Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964, Malcolm sought through both organizations to make the African American struggle for justice a global one.
In The Autobiography Malcolm proclaimed, “Human rights! Respect as human beings! That’s what America’s black masses want. That’s the true problem. The black masses want not to be shrunk from as though they are plague-ridden. They want not to be walled up in slums, in the ghettoes, like animals. They want to live in an open, free society where they can walk with their heads up, like men and women.”
In his speech at the Audubon in Harlem, not a week before his death, Malcolm elaborated upon how blacks could achieve this type of radical respect:
So the first step that has actually been taken, brothers and sisters, since Garvey died, to actually establish contact between the 22 million Black Americans with our brothers and sisters back home was done by two organizations…. So this has been the purpose of the [Organization of Afro-American Unity] and also the Muslim Mosque – to give us direct links, direct contact, direct communication and cooperation with our brothers and sisters all over the earth. And once we are successful in uniting ourselves with our people all over the world, it puts us in a position where we no longer are a minority who can be abused and walked upon.
The united front Malcolm proposed was meant to revolt against the cultural stranglehold of white Western colonial rule. In the same speech, Malcolm declared:
You and I are living at a time when there’s a revolution going on. A worldwide revolution…. what is it revolting against?... An international Western power structure…. These countries that formerly colonized the dark man formed into a giant international combine. A structure, a house that has ruled the world up until now. And in recent times there has been a revolution taking place in Asia and in Africa, whacking away at the strength or at the foundation of the power structure.
Malcolm was killed before he could realize his revolutionary vision. Until the moment of his death, he advanced its cause with all his might and all his will. As hard as he fought, his intentions were never violent at their core. Marable eloquently illuminates Malcolm’s often provocative stance on violence in his biography: “So the view that there were ‘two Malcolm Xs’ – one who advocated violence when he was a Black Muslim, and a second who espoused nonviolent change – is absolutely wrong. To Malcolm, armed self-defense was never equated with violence for its own sake.” Marable continues, “Malcolm’s personal journey of self-discovery, the quest for God, led him toward peace and away from violence.”
After Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca, he traveled throughout the African continent, meeting with presidents and leaders of many countries. These travels had a profound impact on his sociopolitical aims, and shaped his fundamental beliefs, just as his spiritual journey had in Mecca. Encountering blacks and Muslims from diverse regions of the world also carved a unique public space for Malcolm as black icon and a Muslim icon. Marable expresses the relevance of Malcolm’s exceptional position:
…Malcolm X represents the most important bridge between the American people and more than one billion Muslims throughout the world…. He avoided arguments that pitted Muslims against one another; he emphasized Islam’s capacity to transform the believer from hatred and intolerance toward love. His own remarkable life story personified this reinvention.
These final efforts cemented Malcolm’s role as first a leader of human rights, as well as an African American leader, and a Muslim leader. This was captured in the final scene of Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X
where South African hero Nelson Mandela’s words offer a resounding affirmation of Malcolm’s place as international humanitarian leader: “As brother Malcolm said, we declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, to be respected as a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intended to bring into existence.”
A Tragic Hero
Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote of Malcolm X, “Malcolm’s life was tragic on a heroic scale. He had choices, but never took the easy or comfortable ones.” This was true until the very hour of his death. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm “insisted that none of his security team, with the sole exception of [his personal bodyguard] should carry arms…[d]espite the recent firebombing and the escalating threats of violence.” Whether a more vigilant approach could have saved his life is uncertain. Had his assassins failed to complete their task that Sunday, it is likely that they would not have rested until they stopped him in his defiant tracks.
Of the murderers’ identities, Marable asserts:
Although in 1966 three NOI members were convicted of the murder, extensive evidence suggests that two of those men were completely innocent of the crime, that both the FBI and the NYPD had advance knowledge of it, and that the New York County District Attorney’s office may have cared more about protecting the identities of undercover police officers and informants than arresting the real killers.
It is possible, therefore, that Malcolm’s assassins have not been brought to justice, despite the public arrests made after his death. This lack of judicial transparency and integrity only adds to the tragedy of Malcolm’s death, and underscores his fight against oppression.
Malcolm X was a passionate leader, a lucid minister, a devoted Muslim, and a steadfast champion of the disenfranchised. He is remembered in his many incarnations, and often celebrated for these transformations. Despite the mass success of The Autobiography, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, and countless other retellings of his life, Malcolm remains a controversial and enigmatic figure in American history. His purpose and faith are frequently misunderstood and for this reason, his legacy seems to continue to unfold.
Nevertheless, friends and followers have beautifully encapsulated his memory through words, art, music, and action time and again. Civil Rights visionaries James Baldwin and Ossie Davis remember the complete Malcolm X.
James Baldwin moderated a radio program panel in 1961 during which Malcolm debated a young civil rights activist who had just returned from desegregation protests in the South. Baldwin was astonished by their interaction: Malcolm “understood that child and talked to him as though he was talking to a younger brother…. I will never forget Malcolm and that child facing each other, and Malcolm’s extraordinary gentleness. And that’s the truth about Malcolm: he was one of the gentlest people I have ever met.”
Ossie Davis’ eulogy for his dear friend captured Malcolm X’s spirit, and is one of the best examples of why the legacy of Malcolm X is celebrated and remembered:
…this Afro-American who lies before us – unconquered still. I say the word again, as he would want me to: Afro-American – Afro-American Malcolm, who was a master, was most meticulous in his use of words. Nobody knew better than he the power words have over minds of men. Malcolm had stopped being a “Negro” years ago. It had become too small, too puny, too weak a word for him. Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had become an Afro-American and he wanted – so desperately – that we, that all his people, would become Afro-Americans too.
…Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain – and we will smile…. And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.
Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. Last year, from Africa, he wrote these words to a friend: “My journey,” he says, “is almost ended, and I have a much broader scope than when I started out, which I believe will add new life and dimension to our struggle for freedom and honor and dignity in the States. I am writing these things so that you will know for a fact the tremendous sympathy and support we have among the African States for our Human Rights struggle. The main thing is that we keep a United Front wherein our most valuable time and energy will not be wasted fighting each other.” However we may have differed with him – or with each other about him and his value as a man – let his going from us serve only to bring us together, now.
…we will know him then for what he was and is – a Prince – our own black shining Prince! – who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so.
Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
(New York: Viking, 2011) 13.
Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964) 3.
Malcolm X, Malcolm X: The Last Speeches, Bruce Perry, ed., (New York: Pathfinder, 1989) 111-112.
Malcolm X: The Last Speeches 117.
Malcolm X: The Last Speeches 127.
Malcolm X: The Last Speeches 141.
Malcolm X, Dir. Spike Lee, Warner Brothers, 1992.
Clarence B. Jones and Joel Engel, What Would Martin Say? (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008) 135.
Malcolm X: The Last Speeches 125.
Malcolm X: The Last Speeches 122.
Malcolm X, Dir. Spike Lee, Warner Brothers, 1992.