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During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Malcolm X was a driving force for the Nation of Islam, which grew from a minuscule religious movement of four hundred members to a sect of national prominence with forty temples, ten thousand members, a media system of radio stations and a newspaper, and a network of businesses owned and operated by African Americans. Founded in 1930, the Nation of Islam advanced a racial theology that held that blacks were Allah’s chosen race and that whites were the race of Satan. The group believed that whites had constructed a false history to justify their exploitation of blacks. It was the Nation of Islam’s expressed goal to awaken African Americans to their true heritage by freeing them of the values of white culture and directing them on a grand historical quest for freedom, justice, and equality. Unlike the gradualism and pacifism of King’s civil rights followers, the Nation of Islam promoted immediate black self-determination through an increasingly militant stance that totally excluded whites as potential allies. Malcolm became the group’s most productive recruiter in northern ghettoes because of his power as a public speaker, his leadership through his exemplary spartan personal life, and his escalating verbal outrage at overt acts of white racism. By 1963, Malcolm had emerged as the chief rival to King for leadership of the Civil Rights movement. In 1964, Malcolm formally left the Nation of Islam because of a rift with its leader, Muhammad, over strategic policy and personal codes of conduct for the Nation of Islam’s inner ruling circle. Following a celebrated pilgrimage to Mecca (the Holy Land of Islam), Malcolm recanted his universal indictment of whites as inherently evil racists and formed the Organization of Afro- American Unity (OAAU) to transform the struggle for civil rights into a universal struggle for human rights. He changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz and, in 1965, crisscrossed the globe seeking international support for the OAAU. Drawing increased wrath from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm suspected an assassination plot had been ordered against him by Muhammad. On the afternoon of February 21, 1965, the thirty-nine-year-old Malcolm was speaking at an OAAU rally in a hotel ballroom in New York City when he was assassinated. Three fringe members of the Nation of Islam were later convicted of the murder, but no formal proof linking the killing to the Nation of Islam has been found.
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Malcolm X represented the cutting edge of the radical elements in the Civil Rights movement. Generally viewed as the antithesis of King, he strategically used inflammatory rhetoric and manipulated the U.S. news media for coverage in an attempt to get his message across.
In the early 1960’s and after Malcolm’s death, young northern blacks entrapped in the vicious cycle of ghetto life came to perceive Malcolm as an apostle in the battle against the evils of white racism.
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The late 1980’s saw the emergence of a tremendous revival of interest in Malcolm as a cultural force for African American identity and pride. This interest culminated in Spike Lee’s motion picture, Malcolm X (1992).
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Breitman, George. The Assassination of Malcolm X. 3d ed. New York: Pathfinder, 1991. Includes essays by Baxter Smith and Herman Porter; analyzes the trial of those indicted.
Breitman, George. The Last Year of Malcolm X. 1967. Reprint. New York: Pathfinder, 1999. Shows how Malcolm X’s narrow nationalist viewpoint evolved.
Carson, Clayborne. Malcolm X: The FBI File. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1991.
Clarke, John. Malcolm X: The Man and His Times . 1969. Reprint. Trenton, N.J.: African World Press, 1990. A collection of...
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essays on Malcolm X’s life and influence.
DeCaro, Louis A. On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X. New York: New York University Press, 1996. Biographical and interpretive study.
Dyson, Michael Eric. Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Biographical and interpretive study.
Epps, Archie. Introductory essays to The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard. 1968. Reprint. New York: Paragon House, 1991. Survey of Malcolm X’s life and comment on his changing political perspective.
Gallen, David. Malcolm X as They Knew Him. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992. Gallen’s book includes vivid reminiscences of Malcolm from friends and associates, a Playboy interview of Malcolm by Alex Haley before they worked together on the autobiography, and lively essays from writers as diverse as Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and Southern novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren.
Goldman, Peter. Death and Life of Malcolm X. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Biographical and interpretive study, which draws on newspaper reports, interviews, and Malcolm X’s autobiography.
Jenkins, Robert L., and Mfanya Donald Tryman, eds. The Malcolm X Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Contains over 500 essays on all aspects of Malcolm X’s life, politics, and writings.
Johnson, Timothy V. Malcolm X: A Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1986. A good basis for any study of the life and work of Malcolm X.
Perry, Bruce. Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1991. Aggressively revisionist, Perry suggests that a childhood of physical abuse and guilt over an ambiguous sexual orientation partly drove Malcolm’s rage and the sudden shifts in his identity. Critics complain that Perry carelessly evaluates the quality of his evidence. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.
Sales, William W., Jr. From Civil Rights To Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Boston: South End Press, 1994. Sales seeks to shift attention from Malcolm the emotionally powerful icon to Malcolm the political and economic thinker. He sees the post-NOI Malcolm as an almost Marxist revolutionary who clearly articulated the relationship of capitalism and colonialism to the oppression of black people.