Malcolm X is an African American nationalist and leader. He is regarded as a historical figure because of his contributions in the advancement of a better life for the black community. At first glance, one may not able to understand how Malcolm X became the influential leader that he was. It is only through a thorough discussion of his life can one truly grasp how a black child from Nebraska became one of the most prominent black nationalists in history. Malcolm X lived in an era where there were limitations imposed on his race by society. It was the time and environment in which he lived that defined the man that the world would eventually come to know.
There are those people who were remarkable enough to make a difference in society and contribute to history in the process. These individuals stand out among the rest because they challenged convention and rejected mediocrity. However, these people were not born remarkable. Their greatness was defined by their life experiences and the era in which they lived. One of these individuals was Malcolm X. He was an influential figure of change, just as he had undergone many changes in his life as well. His transition from a criminal to an anti-racist leader is truly remarkable. Nonetheless, his story can only be appreciated and his significance in history can only be fully grasped in the context of his life. This research paper aims to discuss the life and death of Malcolm X.
The man who would be known to the world as Malcolm X was originally named Malcolm Little (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005; Finkelman, 2008). He was born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925 (Lewis, 1992). His parents were Baptist minister Earl Little and Louise Langdon Norton (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005; Finkelman, 2008). The couple had eight children; Malcolm was the fourth child (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005).
Malcolm was born in a time when racial discrimination was prevalent in American society (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005). The situation of the African Americans was worst in the South. In the southern states, society was organized by segregation; that division of society was allowed through legislation. Public infrastructure and facilities were categorized to be either “White” for the usage of the white population, or “Colored” for the usage of the African Americans. The inequality was distinctly apparent with the categorization; those facilities used by the white people were in pristine condition, while the facilities designated for the black community were kept in such poor condition. Segregation in the South was unchallenged because African Americans were restricted from voting. The situation of African Americans in the North was favorable compared to the South, but racial discrimination was also present here. In addition, there were racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan who posed an immediate threat to the black community. Regardless of which state the African Americans located, they lived in suffering (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005).
Because of the discrimination he experienced, Earl Little got involved in efforts to free the black people from the subordination of the white community by suggesting that blacks return to Africa (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005; Finkelman, 2008). He became a follower of Marcus Garvey, an activist who promoted black pride (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005). Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which Little became a part of (Finkelman, 2008).
In 1929, the family moved to Lansing in Michigan to avoid the Ku Klux Klan (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005). At an early age, Malcolm was already exposed to activism as his father brought him along in UNIA gatherings. In 1931, Earl Little paid the price for his activism; he was found dead in the streetcar tracks. This death was significant in the life of Malcolm, as it redirected the life of his family. His mother became mentally ill, and he and his siblings were placed in foster homes (Finkelman, 2008). In 1938, Malcolm had begun to attend West Junior High School (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005). He was a bright pupil, but he was discouraged by his teacher when he revealed that he wanted to be lawyer. In 1940, Malcolm dropped out of school to live with his half-sister Ella in Boston (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005).
Malcolm’s decision to move in Boston proved to be a bad one. He did have decent jobs there; he shined shoes at the Roseland Ballroom and became a clerk in a soda fountain shop (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005). However, Malcolm found that selling marijuana was more profitable than his other jobs. The change in his life perspective led to his departure from Boston to go to Harlem in New York. According to Benson and Cosgrove (2005), Malcolm became more involved in the world of drugs and crime in Harlem. He earned the moniker Detroit Red because of the color of his skin and hair. His start in the world of crime began as a “steerer,” the person who was approached when one was seeking drugs or prostitutes (Benson & Cosgrove, 2005, p. 25). He then moved on to a more serious crime: armed robbery. At the age of 20, Malcolm was sentenced to a decade in prison for burglary (Finkelman, 2008).
Malcolm’s incarceration was instrumental in his development as one of the most significant African American figures in history. According to Finkelman (2008), Malcolm became an avid reader and became interested in the Nation of Islam when he was in jail. The Nation of Islam was a religious movement that promoted black nationalism. The members of this movement were called Black Muslims, and they were lead by Elijah Muhammad (Finkelman, 2008; Lewis, 1992). The movement upheld the belief that white people were essentially evil, and that the black community must break free from their authority (Finkelman, 2008). This required the creation of a new social order which is ruled by African Americans. The movement recruited its members mostly from the urban poor areas as well as prisons. It was in the latter where Malcolm was converted to become a Black Muslim (Finkelman, 2008).
Malcolm’s release from prison marked the start of his life as a leader and a major political figure. Upon his release in 1952, he stayed in the Nation of Islam temple in Detroit, Michigan (Finkelman, 2008). Because the Black Muslims considered his last name as that of a slave, he decided to drop it and called himself Malcolm X. Malcolm quickly became an important member of the organization, as he was an effective recruiter and minister. He even created the movement’s official publication entitled Muhammad Speaks. Lewis (1992) claimed that Malcolm X eventually became so prominent that he overshadowed Elijah Muhammad to become the leading representative of the Black Muslims.
Though he was also fighting for a better life for the African American community, Malcolm X clashed with the beliefs and ideals of the civil rights movement. Since 1955, the leaders of the civil rights movement have sought to incorporate the black community into the American way of life (Finkelman, 2008). Malcolm X strongly opposed this idea; he considered Western culture as generally racist. Instead, he suggested that African Americans must establish their own society and create their own values. Malcolm X had even criticized Martin Luther King, Jr. (Finkelman, 2008).
In time, the intensity of Malcolm X had gained him fame as a public speaker (Finkelman, 2008). Consequently, it also gained him disapproval from Elijah Muhammad and some Black Muslims. The Nation of Islam was generally a religious movement which aimed to encourage self-help among African Americans. However, Malcolm X had become increasingly political and radical in his beliefs. This caused conflict between him and Muhammad, resulting in his suspension from the Nation of Islam in 1963 (Lewis, 1992). In 1964, Malcolm X went on a pilgrimage to Mecca (Finkelman, 2008). After his journey, he declared that he rejected the teachings of the Nation of Islam and already embraced Sunni Islam. Finkelman (2008) stated that he again changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after he arrived from Mecca.
The new religion of Malcolm X caused a remarkable change in him and his beliefs. Upon his arrival in the United States, he established the Organization of Afro-American Unity or OAAU (Finkelman, 2008; Lewis, 1992). This movement was secular in nature but still advocated black nationalism. The objective of the organization was to unite all African Americans in the struggle against racism. Malcolm X discredited his earlier opinions; he rejected his attacks on white people and advanced the involvement of black people in society (Finkelman, 2008).
Soon, Malcolm X became involved in a project about the story of his life. He started to work with Alex Haley, the writer who would be responsible in publishing his biography (Finkelman, 2008). Malcolm X once said that he may not be able to witness the release of the book. That statement proved to be a prophetic one, as he was killed before the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It seemed that he was aware that his life was in danger, and exerted no effort to escape his fate. He was assassinated on February 21, 1965 at a New York rally for the OAAU. According to Goldman (1979), two weeks prior to the rally, there had already been intelligence reports which indicated that there was a threat on his life. His friends were also encouraged him to leave town for his safety. The police extended their services to protect him, but he refused (Goldman, 1979).
At that point in his life, Malcolm X was already struggling. He was in a desperate situation. He was poor and homeless (Goldman, 1979). He had been evicted from his house. The organization he built was falling apart. The people who came to his Sunday preaching had decreased immensely, and they barely had enough money to pay the rent of the venue. He was supposed to have guests in the rally but no one came. Something was amiss about that afternoon, but Malcolm X proceeded. He seemed ready to accept his death, as he resisted any measures to protect himself. He asked that body-searches be conducted and that security outside the venue was to be removed. He also requested the guards on duty to not bring firearms at the venue. These decisions were risky, as it left him open to attack from his opponents. These same decisions proved to be his downfall. On that fateful Sunday in the Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X was killed by a bullet from a shotgun. Three men were convicted of the murder; two of them were associated to the Nation of Islam (Finkelman, 2008). Many believed that the religious organization which Malcolm X used to be part of was threatened when he established a new movement, undermining their authority in the process (Finkelman, 2008).
Malcolm X remains as one of the most important and influential people in American history. He lived in an era filled with trials and difficulties for his race. He chose to confront these problems in the ways he can. He redirected his life to preach about brotherhood and equality. Indeed, the man the world knows as Malcolm X was a product of the time and social environment in which he lived.
Benson, M., & Cosgrove, M. (2005). Malcolm X. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Lerner Publications, Inc.
Finkelman, P. (2008). Malcolm X. In Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761552252/Malcolm_X.html
Goldman, P. L. (1979). The Death and Life of Malcolm X (2nd ed.). Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Lewis, R. (1992). “Malcolm X.” In Lexicon Universal Encyclopedia. New York: Lexicon Publications, Inc.