Who was Malcolm X ?

Malcolm X

(b.1925 - d.1965)

It's a well-known fact that the African people did not go to North America of their own volition; they were taken there by force. But what is not so well known is that the enslavement of black Africans (in the British colonies of North America) began as early as the 1640s and this state of affairs persisted until Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, formally abolished slavery (in the Northern States) by signing the Emancipation Proc­lamation in 1863. The Southern States, however, resisted such measures until the tide of history overwhelmed them.

The ratification of the fourteenth Amendment granted American citi­zenship to all former slaves and, two years later, the passage of the fifteenth Amendment gave them the right to vote. The offer of constitutional rights to the African-Americans represented a fundamental shift in America’s attitude towards its black population, even if this did not make much difference to their social, political and economic conditions at the time. Later, when millions of African-Americans began to move to the North in search of a better life, its white population, fearing increasing competition for jobs and housing, rose up against the black migrant workers. The Depression years of 1930s only helped to exacerbate racial strife and tension across Amer­ica, which led to widespread rioting and racial violence between the whites and blacks in both the Northern and Southern States. Inspired by Marcus Garvey (b. 1887-d. 1940), a Black Nationalist movement then swept America, paving the way for the Civil Rights Movement to emerge during the 1940s. Malcolm X, one of the most charismatic and influential African-American leaders of the twentieth century, rose to prominence during this period and left his indelible marks in the annals of modern history.

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha in the State of Nebraska, Malcolm X was the son of a Baptist Minister. His father, Reverend Earl Little, and his mother Louise, were active members of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improve­ment Association (UNIA). Despite being on the receiving end of white rac­ism and violence, his parents worked hard to improve their socio-economic condition until the Ku Klux Klan (a white supremacist group) forced his family to leave Omaha and settle in Lansing, Michigan; Malcolm was only a youngster at the time. Here the family struggled to overcome their socio-economic difficulties; no doubt their situation was exacerbated by Earl Little’s drinking habits and waywardness, which often created tensions within his family, but Louise remained loyal to her husband.

When Malcolm was six his father died, and this again forced his fam­ily to experience more difficulties. The challenge of raising nine children on her own proved too stressful for his mother who subsequently had a mental breakdown and was confined to a psychiatric institution. Like his brothers and sisters, Malcolm was brought up in foster homes before he enrolled at Mason Junior High school in Lansing, where he completed the eighth grade. At school, his white teacher urged him to become a carpenter since becoming a lawyer, in his opinion, was an unrealistic aspiration for a black boy. Malcolm quit formal education in disgust. From Lansing he travelled to Boston where he was surprised to discover how the black working-classes had become con­tent with the very little wealth and money they had accumulated. He felt that the ideals which had inspired generations of black nationalists and freedom fighters had all but been forgotten by the black working-classes who at the time lived in the suburbs of Boston and New York. Happy with their share of material benefits and comforts, he thought these people were no longer will­ing to fight for the cause of Black Nationalism like the previous generations. This state of affairs troubled young Malcolm, even though he was not in a position to do anything about it at the time.

During this period, he visited Boston and New York regularly, as the urban black working-class neighbourhoods (such as Boston’s Roxbury and New York’s Harlem) became his favourite hideouts. Sucked into the murky world of drugs, prostitution and crime, he soon became a seasoned street hustler and the leader of a gang of thieves, and thereby established his reputation as a fearsome leader of the local criminal fraternity. The one time ‘Detroit Red’ – a nickname given to him for the reddish colour of his hair – was eventually arrested, he was found guilty of armed robbery. Imprisoned for six years, he soon experienced a life-changing transformation.

After years of criminal activity, he now began to think about his life, its meaning and purpose, and also began to ask questions about the higher things of life. Keen to explore these issues, he read books on history, phi­losophy, culture and religion. During this time, he became a something of a hermit and read voraciously with the result that his eyesight became strained and he began to wear glasses. Reading widely enabled Malcolm to explore and understand the true nature and complexities of human life, culture and civilisation. So it was that, whilst still in prison, his brother introduced him to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad (b. 1897-d. 1975) and the Nation of Islam.

Inspired by Wallace Fard Muhammad or Master Fard Muhammad (b. 1877-d. 1943), Elijah (who was the son of a Baptist preacher from Georgia) established the Nation of Islam, a religious-cum-black nationalist movement, during the 1930s. Over time it became a hugely controversial, but powerful, force within the African-American community. According to Elijah, the white people were devils who were created by black scientists, and Fard Muhammad was the incarnation of God. Though his racialistic interpretation of Islam was dismissed by mainstream Muslims, Malcolm found the tone and confi­dence of his message irresistible. As a religious and nationalistic movement, the Nation of Islam was a highly organised and disciplined organisation which championed the rights of poor and disenfranchised black people.

Having experienced much racism and hardship at the hands of the white supremacists, in the Nation of Islam he found a socio-religious movement which was not afraid to speak up for the rights of black people. Indeed, the Nation of Islam was not only a champion of Black Nationalism; it also advo­cated a form of black supremacy over the whites. This proved most attractive to Malcolm who became very fond of Elijah and the Nation of Islam while still in prison.

As expected, on his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became an active member of the Nation. Furthermore, his determination to recruit more dis­enfranchised blacks to the Nation met with instant success. As an eloquent orator and great motivator of people, he took the message of the Nation directly to the people and of course his success won him much-needed rec­ognition and acclaim from the Nation’s hierarchy, including Elijah himself. His hard work, coupled with his indefatigable energy and commitment to his task, soon saw him rise from being an obscure assistant Minister of the Nation’s Detroit Temple Number One, to its national spokesman within a short period.

Most interestingly, when Malcolm first joined the Nation in the early 1950s, it had no more than several thousand followers but under his able leadership the Nation of Islam became a powerful mass-movement with more than a hundred thousand loyal followers. He regularly visited the black ghetto areas of Detroit, Boston and New York and urged the poor and dis­enfranchised black people to join the Nation and fight for their rights and liberty. The locals responded to his call very positively, so that by the 1960s the Nation of Islam had more than forty temples in various cities. Moreover, it owned several local radio stations which, in turn, enabled them to reach yet more people.

Thanks to Malcolm’s sharp intellect, electrifying oratory skills and charis­matic personality, the Nation of Islam’s image of being a fringe fundamental­ist group soon changed for good. Also, when his high-profile attacks on the root causes of economic inequality, social deprivation, political powerlessness and cultural ghettoisation of the African-Americans struck a chord with the masses, his popularity hit an all-time high. His ‘tell it as you see it’ approach soon turned him into a cult figure within the black communities. By the same token, his frank and outspoken attack on the ruling classes began to anger the Establishment. It was not long before the right-wing American press began to brand him ‘the angriest black man in America’.

According to his critics, Malcolm was a racist who preached a concocted, confused message of racial supremacy, religious hatred and cultural separa­tism. Undeterred by such criticism, he continued to champion the cause of the poor and dispossessed black people. Unlike Martin Luther King Jr. (b. 1929-d. 1968), whom he considered to be a ‘chump, not a champ’, Mal­colm became a voice for millions of voiceless African-Americans who had been enduring economic hardship and social deprivation for many genera­tions in the ghettos of Detroit, Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Indianapolis.

By contrast, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., hardly made any difference to the lives of the poor and disadvantaged Afri­can-Americans of the South, but Malcolm’s call for black liberation, economic self-help and political empowerment instantly captured the imagination of his fellow black Americans in the North. Indeed, under his stewardship, the Nation of Islam became a very powerful and influential voice for America’s black proletariat.

As Malcolm’s popularity continued to rise, Elijah Muhammad became concerned by the increasing politicisation of the Nation of Islam. Since he considered himself to be a religious leader rather than a politician, he was not too keen to get involved in politics and public affairs. And although Mal­colm’s loyalty to Elijah was absolute, the latter’s apolitical stance on many important issues of the day dismayed him. A furious and uncompromising Malcolm was itching to go out and openly advocate the need for black resist­ance, if that was what was required to achieve real liberation and freedom for the African-American people.

However, his fusion of religious fervour with political activism horrified a laidback Elijah, who now began to see him more as a liability than an asset. Soon afterwards, when a newsreporter asked Malcolm for his response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, he replied, ‘[I] never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon. Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad. They’ve always made me glad.’

This comment was the final straw which broke the camel’s back: Elijah considered this to be a provocative and insensitive comment and banned him from speaking in public. During this period Malcolm became aware of Eli­jah’s mismanagement of the Nation’s finances, as well as his amoral sexual practices (such as his involvement in extra-marital affairs), which of course shocked and horrified him. This prompted Malcolm to leave the Nation of Islam in 1964. Although this was by no means an easy decision for him, the moral and financial corruption which prevailed under Elijah’s leadership left him with no other choice. After leaving the Nation, he and his supporters inaugurated two separate organisations, namely the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). The former was essentially a religious institution, while the latter became the political wing of the Muslim Mosque.

Thereafter, Malcolm travelled across Africa and the Middle East, and also performed the sacred hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah) where he experienced yet another life-changing transformation. For the first time, he came into con­tact with mainstream Muslims and his experience of the universal brother­hood of man championed by Islam captured his imagination. In response, he openly renounced Elijah’s distorted and racialistic interpretation of Islam and became an orthodox Muslim; from then on he became known by his new Muslim name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. From Makkah, he wrote scores of letters wherein he explained the reasons why he had had a change of heart and clearly spelled out his new thoughts and ideas on race relations, human rights, cultural co-existence and socio-political issues. On his return to Amer­ica, he began to champion mainstream Islam and advocated the need for both racial and cultural tolerance and understanding across all sectors of American society.

Furthermore, he developed an internationalist approach to human rights and Third World politics, and became an advocate of social equality, eco­nomic justice, political independence and freedom for the world’s poor and dispossessed people – especially his fellow African-Americans. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to develop his thoughts on these issues in a rig­orous and systematic way, as he fell prey to an assassin’s bullet on February 21, 1965, three months short of his fortieth birthday (although according to another source, he was assassinated on his fortieth birthday).

As a result, three Nation of Islam loyalists were arrested and found guilty of his murder, although it is not clear whether the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had played a role in his assassination. According to some of his biographers, the CIA and FBI did play a part in his murder, even though this view has not been proved conclusively. Thankfully, just before his death, Malcolm had completed his autobiography with the assistance of Alex Haley (b. 1921-d. 1992). Published immediately after his death, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, provided a detailed and vivid account of his life and thoughts in his unique and inimitable style.

In the final analysis, Malcolm X was a truly revolutionary leader who became an undisputed champion of America’s poor and disadvantaged black people and did so by the sheer force of his extraordinary character and personality. Today, he is not only considered to be one of the founding fathers of the anti-racist movement, but he was also one of the most influential Western Muslim leaders of the twentieth century along with Warith Deen Muhammad (b. 1933-d. 2008), who was his mentor and co-worker (for more information about the latter, see my book, Great Muslims of the West: Makers of Western Islam (2017).

Profile 98 is an excerpt from The Muslim 100 - The Lives, Thoughts and Achievements of the Most Influential Muslims in History - Muhammad Mojlum Khan