Transforming the World: The Transformations of Malcolm X

Perhaps the shortest and easiest way to summarize the life of Malcolm Little, ‘Detroit Red’, ‘Satan’, Malcolm X, and finally El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz is to quote Ossie Davis, who explained to a magazine why he eulogized Malcolm X: “He had been a criminal, an addict, a pimp, and a prisoner; a racist, and a hater, he had really believed the white man was a devil. But all this had changed. Two days before his death, in commenting to Gordon Parks about his past life he said: ‘That was a mad scene. The sickness and madness of those days! I’m glad to be free of them.’” Or, as Columbia professor Manning Marable subtitled his biography of Malcolm X, it was A Life of Reinvention. In his own Autobiography, Malcolm noted that his “whole life had been a chronology of changes.”  His life molded the world, and his legacy still lives on today, both globally and locally.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925, Malcolm Little was the fourth of seven children. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist speaker, an admirer of Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey, and a local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The outspoken Earl Little was obviously not the local whites’ favorite neighbor. When Malcolm was about one year old, he and his family left Omaha after the Ku Klux Klan threatened them and burned down their house. Quite literally, Malcolm was surrounded by racism from the womb. After leaving Nebraska, the Littles eventually ended up in Lansing, Michigan.

When Malcolm was six years old, his father was killed by a streetcar under very suspicious conditions; rumors spread that his father was beaten by the Black Legion, a racist group, then laid on the tracks, but no charges were ever made. This was the one of the first of a long line of tragedies in Malcolm’s life.

Many of Malcolm’s childhood experiences shaped who he became as an adult. For example, in his Autobiography, Malcolm recalls learning the value of protest. He and his siblings would ask their mother for a biscuit, and their mother would reject their requests. “But I [Malcolm] would cry out and make a fuss until I got what I wanted. I remember well how my mother asked me why I couldn’t be a nice boy like Wilfred (his brother); but I would think to myself that Wilfred, for being so nice and quiet, often stayed hungry. So early in my life, I learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise.”

In school, Malcolm was popular and one of the top students in his eighth grade class. However, he was not fully accepted: one day, his white teacher asked him about his career plans, and Malcolm revealed that he hoped to become a lawyer. His teacher looked surprised and replied, “A lawyer- that’s no realistic goal for a nigger.” It was then that Malcolm really understood how entrenched racism was in society.

In late 1938, Malcolm faced another hardship: his mother had a nervous breakdown and was committed to the State Mental Hospital, leaving Malcolm and his siblings to bounce around foster homes.

At the age of 15, Malcolm went to live with his half-sister, Ella Little Collins, in Boston, Massachusetts, before moving to Harlem, New York in 1943. ‘Detroit Red,’ as he was known because of his reddish hair, began his criminal pursuits, including drug dealing and drug use, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and pimping. At that time, he “viewed narcotics as most people regard food” and “wore [his] guns as” he later wore his neckties. He avoided military service after being declared “mentally disqualified” because he told draft board officials that he wanted to “steal us some guns, and kill us [some] crackers.”

During his time in New York, he learned another valuable lesson. When a white, drunk soldier threatened to fight Malcolm, Malcolm laughed and mocked him until the soldier’s peers were all laughing at him. “I never would forget that,” Malcolm wrote, “I couldn’t have whipped that white man as badly with a club as I had with my mind.”

Eventually in 1946, he was arrested at a jewelry shop while picking up a stolen watch he was getting fixed. He was convicted of fourteen counts of crime and sentenced to ten years.

Early in his prison sentence, Malcolm became known as “Satan” because of his antireligious attitude, which he described as “beyond atheism.” Soon, that would dramatically change. While in prison he met fellow black prisoner “Bimbi” (John Bembry), who was “the first man I had ever seen command total respect… with words.” Bimbi inspired Malcolm to pursue learning, and he developed a dedicated love of reading. For example, to work on his vocabulary and penmanship, he copied the entire dictionary, word for word. Later in his life, when he was asked what his Alma Mater was, Malcolm replied, “Books, a good library.” In prison, not only did he work on learning, reading, and writing, he also worked on his speaking skills by participating in debates. Around this time is when Malcolm “made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself – or die.”

In 1948, his brother wrote him about the “natural religion for the black man” called the Nation of Islam. He received another letter that urged him to stop eating pork and stop smoking cigarettes. He was confused by the letters, but since that day in 1948, Malcolm purged himself of “all the ills that afflict the depressed Negro mass: drugs, alcohol, tobacco, not to speak of criminal pursuits.”

Later, his brother Reginald came to visit Malcolm while in prison and explained to him the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. For the first time, Malcolm was told that “The white man is the devil… without any exception,” as was taught by Elijah Muhammad. He was told about “the brainwashed black man,” whose history was hidden from him, the history of kings and riches and civilizations; history had been ‘whitened’ in the white man’s history books. Christianity, the white man’s religion, brainwashed blacks to think the whites were superior, that blacks should “always turn the other cheek, and grin, and scrape, and bow, and be humble, and to sing, and to pray, and to take whatever was dished out by the devilish white man; and to look for his pie in the sky, and for his heaven in the hereafter, while right here on earth the slave-master white man enjoyed his heaven.”

These newly presented ideas changed his life forever; he “was going through the hardest thing, also the greatest thing, for any human being to do; to accept that which is already within you, and around you.” He began to exchange letters with not only his recently converted siblings, but also Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Ironically, because he learned so much during this time, until Malcolm’s time in prison, he “had never been so truly free.”

Malcolm Little began signing his name as Malcolm X in 1950, because “the Muslim’s “X” symbolized the true African family name that he could never know,” and replaced the white slave-master’s name which was assigned to him.

In August 1952, Malcolm was paroled and went to Chicago to work with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. He quickly rose through the ranks, starting in June 1953 when he was named assistant minister of the Nation’s Temple Number One in Detroit and eventually became the leader of Temple Number Seven in Harlem, New York, where he very successfully increased membership.

In 1955, after one of his lectures, Malcolm met Betty Sanders, who would join the Nation of Islam in 1956, subsequently changing her name to Betty X. Proposing over a phone call, Malcolm and Betty married in January 1958, eventually having six daughters together.

Malcolm (middle) with his children, his wife Betty (left), and Muhammad Ali (right).

During this time, the FBI began its file on Malcolm X, after he opposed the Korean War and refused to register for the draft, claiming that he had “always been a Communist.” While Malcolm was working in Harlem, the New York City Police Department began looking into him, and undercover officers were assigned to infiltrate the Nation of Islam.

While with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm, unlike the larger civil rights movement (led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., among others), advocated complete separation of blacks and whites, wanting a separate country rather than integration. Rejecting the strategy of nonviolence advocated by Dr. King, Malcolm strongly advocated the use of self-defense. Malcolm famously said in a speech, “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”

Malcolm and his peers in the Nation of Islam were often accused of promoting hatred and racism toward white people, what white journalist Mike Wallace called “the hate that hate produced.” But for many, including myself, Malcolm’s condemnation of whites was supported by evidence. Malcolm responded to these criticisms by saying, “For the white man to ask the black man if he hates him is just like the rapist asking the raped, or the wolf asking the sheep, ‘Do you hate me?’ … When all of my ancestors are snake-bitten, and I’m snake-bitten, and I warn my children to avoid snakes, what does that snake sound like accusing me of hate-teaching?” Still, Malcolm qualified his “white devils” claim, clarifying that “Unless we call one white man, by name, a ‘devil,’ we are not speaking of any individual white man. We are speaking of the collective white man’s historical record. We are speaking of the collective white man’s cruelties, and evils, and greeds, that have seen him act like a devil toward the non-white man.”

Malcolm kept pushing and pushing, despite what most considered (at least minor) advancements of civil rights. When he heard others talking about such advances, he replied, “Four hundred years the white man has had his foot-long knife in the black man’s back – and now the white man starts to wiggle the knife out, maybe six inches! The black man’s supposed to be grateful? Why, if the white man jerked the knife out, it’s still going to leave a scar!”

Largely due to Malcolm, the Nation of Islam’s membership grew from about 1,200 in 1953 to over 50,000 by 1961. Within the group, Elijah Muhammad, who recruited Malcolm, was arguably the only member as influential as Malcolm. At one point, the Nation of Islam was the richest black organization in American history. Even the famous boxer Cassius Clay joined the movement, becoming Muhammad Ali. In 1963, the New York Times reported that Malcolm was “the second most sought after” speaker at colleges and university campuses, behind only Senator Barry Goldwater.

On December 1, 1963, when asked about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm infamously responded that it was the “chickens coming home to roost,” which “never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” The remarks sparked outrage. Even (if not especially) within the Nation of Islam, the comments were resented; the Nation of Islam, which issued a message of condolence to the Kennedys and had ordered its ministers not to comment on the assassination, prohibited Malcolm from speaking publicly for ninety days.

For Malcolm X, “1964 was,” according to Harlem-based activist Herb Boyd, “extremely important in terms of his political development and his connection to the whole geopolitical situation, the third world.” An opponent of the Korean War, in 1964 Malcolm X became the first prominent American to come out against the Vietnam War, long before the vast majority of Americans.

On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X publicly announced his break from the Nation of Islam. The growing tension with Elijah Muhammad started with Malcolm’s ever-increasing popularity, which some members considered an attempt to overshadow Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm was also greatly bothered upon hearing that Elijah Muhammad, who was so strict in his moral teachings, had been having extramarital affairs with his young secretaries.

Despite leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm remained a Muslim and continued to work for human rights. He founded a religious organization, Muslim Mosque Inc., and a secular group promoting Pan-Africanism, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Finally free from Elijah Muhammad’s strict rules, Malcolm was able to work with other civil rights leaders. On March 26, 1964, for the first and only time, he briefly met Dr. King in Washington D.C. In April, he made his famous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” advocating the importance of black people voting as a unified bloc, saying, “A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.”

He also began learning more about Islam, and soon realized that much of what the Nation of Islam taught “infuriated the Muslims of the East,” because it was not the ‘real’ Islam. Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam and made his Hajj, his pilgrimage to Mecca in April 1964. While on his pilgrimage, he denounced his previous racism, noting that there were people “of all complexions … from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans.” Because of this, he began to change his beliefs, perceiving the ‘white man’ as not a description of skin color, but of attitudes and actions; Malcolm concluded that “the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly.” The former racial-separatist member of the Nation of Islam named Malcolm X had become a racially tolerant Sunni Muslim named El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

After visiting Mecca, he traveled around the Middle East and Africa, doing interviews and meeting leaders. After a speech at the University of Ibadan, the Nigerian Muslim Students’ Society named him an honorary member and the name “Omowale,” meaning in Yoruba, “the son who has come home”; Malcolm considered it his most treasured honor. Before returning to the United States, in November 1964, Malcolm visited and spoke in Paris, France, and Oxford, England.

Throughout 1964 and 1965, the Nation of Islam, including its top leaders, made threats against Malcolm, to the point where “Every morning when I [Malcolm] wake up, now, I regard it as having another borrowed day.” On February 14, 1965, while attempting to postpone his eviction from the house that the Nation of Islam had sued to reclaim, Malcolm’s house was burned to the ground. He and his family survived and no one was charged with any crime. A week later, unfortunately, he would not be so lucky.

On February 21, 1965, before a speech in front of nearly four hundred people in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X was shot twenty-one times by three men with shotguns and handguns. At 3:30pm, he was pronounced dead. Three Nation of Islam members were convicted for the murder, although controversy still surrounds the assassination.

Over 22,000 people attended the public viewing before the funeral took place in Harlem, New York on February 27, 1965. Many civil rights leaders attended, and actor and activist Ossie Davis gave the eulogy.

Like in his lifetime, Malcolm continued (and still continues) to be a controversial figure after his death. For example, while he noted that they “did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.” The New York Times, after his assassination, wrote, “The life and death of Malcolm X provides a discordant but typical theme for the times in which we live. He was a case history, as well as an extraordinary and twisted man, turning many true gifts to evil purpose.” But as the New York Post noted, “even his [Malcolm’s] sharpest critics recognized his brilliance.” More sympathetically and positively, the international press considered Malcolm a “martyr” who “was murdered because he fought for freedom and equal rights.”

His legacy extends beyond the civil rights movement. Hip-hop culture has been greatly influenced by Malcolm X, and many rappers have alluded to him, such as Public Enemy, The Game, The Roots, and KRS-One. In his song “Words of Wisdom,” Tupac (also known as 2Pac) Shakur explains how Malcolm X appealed to many people that other civil rights leaders could not connect with (which is also partly the reason why Malcolm X is still controversial), rhyming, “No Malcolm X in my history text, why is that? / ‘Cause he tried to educate and liberate all blacks. / Why is Martin Luther King in my book each week? / He told blacks, if they get smacked, turn the other cheek.” This reflects Malcolm’s strong appeal to the lower classes, having experienced many of their struggles himself.

Many, including Malcolm himself, recognized Malcolm’s more radical connection with the less economically successful, arguing that his controversial stance actually made it easier for whites to accept the more moderate proposals of other civil rights leaders, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Love him or hate him, Malcolm X has a huge role in history. Beginning in 1963 and eventually published in 1965 after Malcolm’s death, The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley was named one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century by Time Magazine. In 1992, Spike Lee directed a film version of the book, starring Denzel Washington, which went on to be named one of the ten best films of the 1990s by famous critic Roger Ebert and famous director Martin Scorsese.

While definitely not an angel, the man once known as ‘Satan’ fought passionately, incessantly, and admirably for human rights until his death. In his Autobiography, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz wrote, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” During his troublemaker days, one of his relatives told him, “You’re no good, but you don’t try to hide it. You are not a hypocrite.” Throughout his life, he proved these statements; he battled for truth, for justice, and for humanity, and he did so without hypocrisy, often finding himself changing his ideas and actions to adjust to new facts. Through a life of many changes, Malcolm X was able to truly change the world.

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