Malcolm X remains one of the most influential African America whose contributions to the civil rights movement are still celebrated. Born in 1925 in Nebraska, Malcolm X went ahead to become a critical and vehement advocate of the rights of blacks against the systemic discrimination meted out against them. This paper shall examine the life of Malcolm X; highlight his core achievements as well as his role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Malcolm X’s life and beliefs were influenced by his parents and the teachings of Marcus Garvey. He was born to a Christian family and his father was a preacher who advanced Marcus Garvey beliefs, he was also a local prominent figure of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). For this reason, Malcolm’s family had been a victim of the white supremacists wrath and was living in constant fear of attack. Their home was once razed down by the black legion, a white supremacist group that espoused ideals similar to those of the Ku Klux Klan. Earl Little, Malcolm’s father was discovered dead when Malcolm was 13 years old. Although his death was suspected to have been caused by the white supremacists, police investigations established otherwise. His mother was devastated beyond recovery and spent the last of her 26 years in a mental hospital. It is this unfortunate incident in Malcolm’s early life that would push him to delinquency and also help in shaping the person that he was to become in future (Alan 290).
Malcolm X quit school at an early age into his teenage hood. The reason for this was because his teacher ridiculed his ambition of becoming a lawyer, advising him to venture into a career that was more realistic to blacks. Having hopped from one foster home to the other, he relocated to Boston where he eked a living out of odd jobs. This was the lowest periods in his life and led him to crime; jumping from one crime into another, from drugs to petty robbery. He was arrested in 1946 and imprisoned for 10 years in the Massachusetts state prison. It is the time spent in prison that would change Malcolm Little, spiritually and ideologically. He converted to Islam while in prison and joined the Nation of Islam. He switched his name from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X, X being the letter used by black Islam convertees as a symbol of African-ness. (Alan 290)
The Nation of Islam had a unique religious model as it was also seeking to represent the interests of African Americans. It espoused the ideals of nationalism as propagated by Marcus Garvey and was racist to the core. This organisation believed whites to be the source of all evil and held the view that blacks were supreme to the whites. Malcolm X, after his release from prison due to parole joined the high ranks of the Nation of Islam and became a minister. His abilities to mobilize and organize the people behind the liberation call earned him the respect of the leader- Elijah Muhammad and he quickly rose through the ranks. Malcolm was a man of impeccable charisma and great oratory skills and there was a soaring increase in the Nation of Islam’s membership wherever he gave his speech. His message however was not popular with the civil rights movements.
As his prominence rose within the ranks of the Nation of Islam and amongst the blacks, his relations with the top leadership in the organisation as well as with the federal bureau of investigation soured. The FBI had taken a key interest in his conduct due to his avowed support for communism and his association with communist leaders. Within the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was openly criticising the philandering life of the revered leader, Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad was having sexual affairs with his secretaries in secret but Malcolm X saw this as a betrayal of the organisations teachings. There was a simmering rivalry within the organisation mostly centring on what critics came to see as jealousy by Muhammad of the rising star of Malcolm who was becoming a darling of the media, curtly overshadowing the rest of the leaders in the organisation. This rivalry climaxed after the organisation censured Malcolm over his controversial reaction to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. J.F Kennedy had emerged as a darling of civil rights movements and his assassination was seen as a violent reaction of the white supremacists due to the approval he was granting to the civil rights movements. Malcolm out of context reaction of ‘chickens coming home to roost’ did not go well with the public and the Nation of Islam distanced itself from the remark. It further prohibited his public engagements for 90 days. This is what prompted his exit from the organisation forming his own organisation; he cited the rigidity of the Nation of Islam. His exit from this organisation prompted his conversion and he became a Sunni Muslim. He consequently went for a pilgrimage to Mecca and acquired the name Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam. This conversion helped transform not only his religious beliefs but also his ideological conventions, dropping his earlier racist stands to espouse an ideal that went beyond racial beliefs (Goldman 12).
The fall out with the Nation of Islam and the raging rivalry led to increased threats against Malcolm’s life. Black Muslims publicly pronounced their intentions to kill Malcolm and the FBI reported a number of attempts on his life. He was assassinated on February 1965 by black Muslims, ending 39 years of a controversial life. He was eulogised as a leader committed to rooting out the problems facing African Americans.
Indeed, looking at the life of Malcolm reveals a man driven by the conviction that blacks in America were grossly oppressed and had to emancipate themselves even if it meant taking arms. Malcolm X differed in his approach to the liberation of African Americans. Whereas the key leaders in the civil rights movement pursued a non-violence stance, Malcolm was of the opinion that violence was the way out. Malcolm had a racist view of the whites and believed in black’s supremacy. It is these views that had shaped his ideology and his approach to the fight for civil rights before his transformation was premised on such ideals. “Black cant come from white, but white can come from black. That means black was first.” (Cited in Goldman 6).
Indeed his approach to the liberation of blacks differed from the mainstream movements. Although he reconciled his prior beliefs in the evil nature of all whites after his conversion, he still believed that the approach taken by the civil rights movements was self defeatist. By terming it as a struggle for civil rights, the civil rights movements were diminishing the gravity of the problems facing African Americans. Instead they should have pursued the oppression meted out against the blacks as a human rights issue within a global context. As a civil rights issue it was myopic and was only constrained to be a domestic problem (Malcolm 33).
The non violence philosophy espoused by the civil rights movement leaders such as Dr. Luther King Jnr under the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi did not go well with Malcolm X. He saw it as an illusion that the whites led government would recognise the plight of African Americans through demonstrations. To him, it was important to make it clear that blacks were ready to fight for their rights. As William (76) observes, “the question of violence was at the center of Malcolm’s X conception of the international implications of the black mans freedom struggle.” It was in this light that Malcolm rubbished the One Million March to Washington seeing it as founded on convoluted philosophy that was not in reflection of the situation on the ground. As controversial as he was though, he saw the true liberation of African Americans as lying in their ability to organise themselves and claim a stake in their own ethical values. In his speeches, few years before his assassination, Malcolm emphasized on the need of the African Americans to cast their ballots wisely and to also play an active role in shaping the political system. Towards his death, having dropped his earlier stance on racism against whites, he softened his stand on Black Nationalism and he helped create the “organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) in order to address the dilemma that confronted the further development of the civil rights movement at the end of its first decade.” (William 21) His strength and contributions to the civil rights movement lay in awakening a sense of self respect and social mobilization amongst the African Americans.
William W. From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. South End Press, 1994; 7-19
Malcolm X. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1965; 32-36
Goldman P. The Death and Life of Malcolm X: Peter Goldman. 2d Ed. University of Illinois Press, 1979; 6
Alan Axelrod. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History. Alpha Books, 2003; 290