Born Malcolm Little to parents who were followers of the Jamaican black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, Malcolm learned early about the tribulations of being an outspoken black man. His father, an ardent opponent of white racism, was killed in 1931 by—his family believed—the Ku Klux Klan. The death of his father precipitated the breakup of his family, and Malcolm grew up with relatives and in foster homes. In his early twenties he was arrested for burglary and sent to prison, where he discovered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. During the 1950’s he became a minister of the sect and began speaking out publicly in favor of black separatism.
Many people consider that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) activities amounted to an abridgment of Malcolm’s First Amendment rights and that they helped to “demonize” him via mass media. A special FBI Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) was established in order to disrupt black nationalist organizations. As a leading spokesperson of the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcolm was a prime target of FBI attempts to destroy African American leadership. Most vocal African American groups and individuals had come under FBI scrutiny and harassment long before the establishment of COINTELPRO, and mass media were often used by the FBI to carry out its activities.
One element of censorship was that the mass media often focused on Malcolm’s self-defense rhetoric, obscuring his broader message of black self-determination and self-reliance, thereby depicting him as a hatemonger. He was fully aware of this, asserting in his posthumously published autobiography that he would be used, dead or alive, as a symbol of hatred so that white Americans could avoid accepting responsibility for racial discrimination. An editorial commenting on Malcolm’s 1965 assassination in a Wisconsin newspaper illustrated his point in declaring that Malcolm was one of the “most violent of racist leaders” of an “ultra-racist Organization of Afro- American Unity” and that “he died as he lived, in violence and bloodshed.”
Undoubtedly, Malcolm recognized the power of the media in forming public opinion. Throughout his public career, he used the podium, rallies, television, radio, and the press to spread the Nation of Islam’s message and—after his break with the NOI—the messages of his own Muslim Mosque and Organization of Afro-American Unity. In 1957 he founded Muhammad Speaks, a newspaper which was to be the positive voice of the Nation of Islam and a tribute to its spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad. The paper’s circulation outside of NOI membership helped to gain support for the organization, and Malcolm, in the larger African American community.
Ironically, the newspaper was to be used later to censor Malcolm and, some suspect, lead to his death, the...
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