What contributions did Malcolm X make to society?

Malcolm X contributed greatly to civil rights and helped shape the Black Power movement of the 1960s. As a Muslim minister and a human rights activist, Malcolm X was a controversial figure who dedicated his life to advocating for Black rights and promoting Black pride. He was a separatist and opposed racial integration, believing that true equality and empowerment for Black people could never be achieved through integration into white society. Malcolm X often criticized the mainstream civil rights movement's focus on nonviolence and integration.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

While Malcolm X was imprisoned in the late 1940s, he converted to the Nation of Islam. He embraced the Nation of Islam's philosophy that Black Americans needed to separate from Christianity, believing that this religion was forced on Black slaves by their white masters. When Malcolm X was released from...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

While Malcolm X was imprisoned in the late 1940s, he converted to the Nation of Islam. He embraced the Nation of Islam's philosophy that Black Americans needed to separate from Christianity, believing that this religion was forced on Black slaves by their white masters. When Malcolm X was released from prison in 1952, the Nation of Islam had just 400 members. Because of his vocal position and advocacy, the Nation of Islam swelled to over 40,000 members in 1960. Malcolm X's voice calling for an independent Black nation had a direct influence on the Nation of Islam, making it a more visible and noteworthy segment of American society.

Malcolm X also became a prominent voice for Black Americans who were increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress toward equality and justice. In Malcolm X, they found a leader who insisted that the road to equality should not seek integration into white society, chiding those efforts as settling for sharing "coffee with a cracker." In fact, he publicly rejected his own identity as an American. He also presented a different option for Black people who disagreed with Martin Luther King's philosophies of non-violence; Malcolm X believed that King's vision left Black people utterly defenseless to white violence and insisted that they use any means necessary, including violence, to achieve much-needed justice.

Later in his life and after a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X's vision began to shift, finding some common ground between his own quest for Black freedoms and the principles espoused by King. He even stated that "America is the first country … that can actually have a bloodless revolution." He gradually began to welcome allies from various cultural backgrounds to aid in the ultimate goal for Black social freedoms.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In answering the question of what contributions Malcolm X made to society, we first must ask, what society? Malcolm X, who died on the cusp of landmark civil rights legislation, lived his life in an American society that was split into two clear parts by segregation. Wholly by white design and wholly to serve white interests and prejudices, there were two worlds within one country, one Black, one white. The dominant white society oppressed and exploited Black people within its borders, using its labor but forcing it to live apart and in poverty.

Malcolm X unquestionably contributed enormously to Black society, instilling it with pride in its Black heritage and offering it a vision going forward of building a robust culture and economy by turning its back on whites. He provided a compelling alternative narrative to Martin Luther King's dream of an integrated society based on non-violent resistance to white supremacy. Malcolm forcefully articulated Black doubts that such an assimilationist vision could succeed against white violence, hatred, and treachery. He built a strong platform for Black self sufficiency and autonomy, modeled Black self education and self discipline, and fearlessly justified the need for Black people to be armed and powerful. This was unquestionably threatening to white society.

Malcolm's contribution to white society is more problematic and made even more contradictory by his late life changes in attitude towards whites. Through most of his life, he held up a mirror of white violence against Black people by wholly adopting the white ethic of justifying physical force against a feared "other." He faced white people with an organized group willing to use violent tactics against white people just as they had used against Black people. He made a compelling case that the only language whites understood was the language of violence and pain. In so doing, he arguably pushed whites into the arms of King, which led to a much overdo and needed and beneficial attempt at integration and redressing wrongs.

However, Malcolm's transformative experience on pilgrimage to Mecca, where for the first time he was treated as an equal to whites, opened up the possibility that he would have been willing, had he not been killed, to be creative in engaging in beneficial forms of collaboration with white culture.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Malcolm X's main contribution to society was in inspiring the development of Black consciousness and Black empowerment. Believing that American society was inherently racist and would continue to remain so, Malcolm urged African Americans to embrace a radical ideology of separateness instead of fighting for equality with whites.

Relatively few African Americans openly supported Malcolm X compared with Martin Luther King and his non-violent civil rights movement. Even so, in the years following his death, Malcolm's ideas of Black empowerment and Black self-consciousness gradually became more mainstream among the African American community as a way of supplementing the hard-fought gains of the civil rights movement in relation to voting rights and racial segregation.

Although significant progress had been made in the realm of civil rights by the mid-1960s, African Americans remained subject to widespread racial discrimination. In response, a new generation of African Americans, inspired to a large extent by Malcolm's ideas, took up the cause of Black militancy and agitated for more radical change.

Even those African Americans who didn't actively get involved in the struggle of Black militant groups, such as the Black Panthers, sympathized with the positive picture of Black cultural and ethnic identity that they put forward, a picture that they had largely inherited from the teachings of Malcolm X.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Malcolm X was a separatist who argued that African Americans will never achieve equality in a society dominated by whites.  As a result, he encouraged blacks to “fight back” in an armed revolution or at least to do so when attacked. He believed that blacks should form a new society of their rather than try to integrate within dominant white society. While he preached violence, he also preached pride, and in that way contributed greatly to the black power movement of the 1960s. His autobiography explained how he had been corrupted by white society and had found meaning in Black Islam. James Baldwin talks about the contributions of Malcolm X, criticizing some of his ideas, in his memoir Fire Next Time.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team