Malcolm X 1925–1965
(Born Malcolm Little; changed name to Malcolm X; later adopted religious name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) American autobiographer, orator, and speechwriter.
The following entry provides an overview of Malcolm X's career through 1994.
An influential African-American leader, Malcolm X rose to prominence in the mid-1950s as the outspoken national minister of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad. He opposed the mainstream civil rights movement, publicly calling for black separatism and rejecting nonviolence and integration as effective means of combatting racism. In the 1960s, however, Malcolm repudiated Muhammad and the Nation of Islam and embraced conventional Islam. He documented his various experiences in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), a work prepared with the help of American writer Alex Haley. Published after his assassination, the Autobiography has been called a "compelling and irreplaceable book" comparable to the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass.
Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm was exposed to white racism and the black separatist movement at an early age. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist minister and a follower of Jamaican-born, black nationalist Marcus Garvey. When the Littles lived in Nebraska, the Ku Klux Klan tried to prevent the Reverend Little from conveying Garvey's teachings. The Littles consequently left Nebraska, eventually settling in Mason, Michigan, where they found the racial climate no better. In 1929 members of the Black Legion, a white supremacist group, reputedly burned down the Littles's home and later murdered Malcolm's father. His death, officially labeled a suicide, left Louise Little to care for the children. Unable to cope with the financial and emotional demands of single parenthood, she was placed in a mental institution, and the children were sent to separate foster homes. Despite the traumas of his early youth, Malcolm was among the best students in his class. Malcolm soon became angry toward his white teachers and friends, whom he believed viewed him not as their equal, but as their "mascot." His interest in academic study waning, he quit school after completing the eighth grade. Living in Boston, New York City, and later Detroit, he held several low-paying jobs. To fit into his new urban environment, Malcolm altered his outward appearance, treating his hair with corrosive chemicals to straighten it and frequently wearing a zoot suit. As "Detroit Red," a name derived from his fair complexion and red hair, he made his living as a hustler, pimp, and drug dealer. Malcolm was arrested in early 1946 and sentenced to ten years in prison. Another convict, Bimbi, introduced him to the prison's extensive library, and Malcolm became an avid reader. When his siblings revealed to him that they had become followers of Elijah Muhammad—the leader of the Nation of Islam, popularly known as the Black Muslims—Malcolm pored over Muhammad's teachings and initiated a daily correspondence with the man. Upon his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became a follower of Muhammad. He took the name "Malcolm X" to signify the loss of his true African name and to reject the "slave name" of Little. In 1953 Malcolm was appointed assistant minister of Detroit's Temple Number One of the Nation of Islam. He believed that every black person would gravitate to Muhammad's teachings, for "when he thinks about his own life, he is going to see where, to him personally, the white man sure has acted like a devil." Malcolm rose swiftly in the ranks of the Black Muslims, becoming Muhammad's national representative and, in 1954, the head of a major mosque in Harlem. There he became known as an articulate spokesperson for the radical black perspective. In addition to denouncing integration, nonviolence, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm "identified whites as the enemy of blacks and cheered at tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, airplane crashes, even the Kennedy assassination—anything that might cause them anguish or pain." Malcolm termed the killing of John F. Kennedy a case of "chickens coming home to roost"—a statement that severely damaged Malcolm's career. He later explained that he meant only that "the hate in white men … finally had struck down the President," but he was immediately censured by Muhammad. Muhammad ordered him to refrain from public comment for ninety days, and Malcolm complied. But his remark about the Kennedy assassination gave Muhammad an opportunity to expel his national minister from the movement's hierarchy, for Malcolm had been in conflict with the leader of the Nation of Islam for some time. Malcolm had privately condemned Muhammad's materialism—his expensive cars and business suits and lavishly furnished estate—and was shocked by allegations that Muhammad had seduced several women and sired their children. Proceeding to break officially with the Nation of Islam, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, taking the religious name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. In Mecca he underwent a transformation in his beliefs: "Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds—some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists—some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!" On a diplomatic trip to Africa, Malcolm began the work of uniting blacks across the world, later establishing the Organization of Afro-American Unity in the United States. However, Malcolm now believed that the Nation of Islam saw him as a threat. "Now I'm out," he said. "And there's the fear [that] if my image isn't shattered, the Muslims in the movement will leave." Indeed, Elijah Muhammad wrote in his periodical Muhammad Speaks that Malcolm was "worthy of death." On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated while addressing an audience of four hundred in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Three men associated with the Nation of Islam—Talmadge Thayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson—were apprehended and eventually convicted of the crime.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which details Malcolm X's life from infancy to the time of his assassination, was published posthumously, and although some critics questioned Alex Haley's influence over the work's production, commentators generally agreed that the story is Malcolm's own. Several of Malcolm's speeches have also been published, including Malcolm X Speaks (1965) and Malcolm X: The Last Speeches (1989), but his autobiography remains by far his most noted contribution to literature. As Malcolm X has increasingly been recognized as a leading figure in the African-American struggle for recognition and equality. The Autobiography of Malcolm X has grown in stature. In 1993, filmmaker Spike Lee directed a widely-known screen version of the Autobiography.
Of the importance of Malcolm X's memoir, Charles H. Nichols asserted in 1985: "The Autobiography of Malcolm X is probably the most influential book read by this generation of Afro-Americans…. It is a fantastic success story. Paradoxically, the book, designed to be an indictment of American and European bigotry and exploitation, is a triumphant affirmation of the possibilities of the human spirit." In the decades since its initial publication, the Autobiography has prompted diverse critical readings, including analyses of its properties as a political and rhetorical text, as a conversion narrative reflecting Malcolm's search for identity, and as a work that both affirms and challenges the tradition of American autobiography. Truman Nelson concluded: "its manifold unsolved ambiguities will make it stand as a monument to the most painful of truths: that this country, this people, this Western world has practiced unspeakable cruelty against a race, an individual, who might have made its fraudulent humanism a reality." Malcolm X's abilities as an orator have drawn much praise from commentators who have applauded his capacity for eliciting in his audiences the intensity and dedication that he demonstrated for his beliefs. It has been noted that whether those who heard him speak agreed with his contentions did not determine whether they would be profoundly affected by the delivery of his message, if only in the sense that they marveled at the dynamic wordplay, imagery, and symbolism used by the speaker. John Illo, in an essay published in 1966, illustrated Malcolm X's skill as an orator, and asserted that Malcolm X "emerged from dope, prostitution, burglary, prison, and a fanciful sectarianism to enter a perennial humanist art, to achieve a brilliant facility in oratory and debate, in less time than many of us consume in ambling through graduate school…. In the full Aristotelian meaning he was a rhetorician, who, to be such, knew more than rhetoric: ethics, logic, grammar, psychology, law, history, politics; and his best speeches might be texts for students of that comprehensive science and art."