Malcom X

Malcolm X ( May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965), born Malcolm Little and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Arabic: الحاجّ مالك الشباز‎), was an African-American Muslim minister, public speaker, and human rights activist. To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of African Americans, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans. His detractors accused him of preaching racism, black supremacy,antisemitism, and violence. He has been called one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history, and in 1998, TIME named The Autobiography of Malcolm X one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska. The events of his childhood, including his father’s lessons concerning black pride and self-reliance, and his own experiences concerning race played a significant role in Malcolm X’s adult life. By the time he was thirteen, his father had died and his mother had been committed to a mental hospital. After living in a series of foster homes, Malcolm X became involved in a number of criminal activities in Boston and New York City. In 1946, Malcolm X was sentenced to eight to ten years in prison.
While in prison, Malcolm X became a member of the Nation of Islam, and after his parole in 1952 he became one of the Nation’s leaders and chief spokesmen. For nearly a dozen years he was the public face of the controversial group. Tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam, led to Malcolm X’s quitting the organization in March 1964. He subsequently traveled extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East and founded Muslim Mosque, Inc., a religious organization, and the secular Organization of Afro-American Unity, which advocated Pan-Africanism. Less than a year after he left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was assassinated by three members of the group while giving a speech in New York.
The beliefs expressed by Malcolm X changed during his lifetime. As a spokesman for the Nation of Islam he taught black supremacy and deified the leaders of the organization. He also advocated the separation of black and white Americans, which put him at odds with the civil rights movement, which was working towards integration. After he left the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm X became a Sunni Muslim, made the pilgrimage to Mecca and disavowed racism, while remaining a champion of black self-determination, self defense, and human rights. He expressed a willingness to work with civil rights leaders and described his previous position with the Nation of Islam as that of a “zombie”.
Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, the fourth of seven children to Earl Little and Louise Norton. His father was an outspoken Baptist lay speaker. He supported Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey and was a local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Malcolm never forgot the values of black pride and self-reliance that his father and other UNIA leaders preached. Malcolm X later said that three of Earl Little’s brothers, one of whom waslynched, died violently at the hands of white men. Because of Ku Klux Klan threats, the family relocated in 1926 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and shortly thereafter to Lansing, Michigan.
Earl Little, who was dark-skinned, was born in Reynolds, Georgia. He had three children from his first marriage: Ella, Mary, and Earl Jr.—and seven with his second wife, Louise: Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, Malcolm, Reginald, Yvonne, and Wesley.Louise Norton Little was born in Grenada. Because her father was Scottish, she was so light-skinned that she could havepassed for white. Malcolm inherited his light complexion from his mother and maternal grandfather. Initially he felt his light skin was a status symbol, but he later said he “hated every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me.” Malcolm X later remembered feeling that his father favored him because he was the lightest-skinned child in the family; however, he thought his mother treated him harshly for the same reason. One of Malcolm’s nicknames, “Red”, derived from the tinge of his hair. According to one biographer, at birth he had “ash-blonde hair … tinged with cinnamon”, and at age four, “reddish-blonde hair”. His hair darkened as he aged, yet he also resembled his paternal grandmother, whose hair “turned reddish in the summer sun.”The issue of skin and hair color took on very significant implications later in Malcolm’s life.
In December 1924, Louise Little was threatened by klansmen while she was pregnant with Malcolm. She recalled that the klansmen warned the family to leave Omaha, because Earl Little’s activities with UNIA were “spreading trouble”. After they moved to Lansing, their house was burned in 1929; however, the family escaped without physical injury. On September 8, 1931, Earl Little was fatally struck by a streetcar in Lansing. Authorities ruled his death an accident. The police reported that Earl Little was conscious when they arrived on the scene, and he told them he had slipped and fallen under the streetcar’s wheels. The black community in Lansing disputed the cause of death, believing there was circumstantial evidence of assault. His family had frequently been harassed by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group that his father accused of burning down their home in 1929. Some blacks believed the Black Legion was responsible for Earl Little’s death. One of the adults at the funeral told eight-year-old Philbert Little that his father had been hit from behind and shoved under the streetcar.
Though Earl Little had two life insurance policies, his family received death benefits solely from the smaller policy. The insurance company of the larger policy claimed that his father had committed suicide and refused to issue the benefit. The payout from the insurance policy was $1,000 (comparable to about $15,000 in 2010 dollars), and the probate court awarded Louise Little a monthly “widow’s allowance” of $18. She rented space in the garden to raise more money, and her sons would hunt game for supper.
In 1935 or 1936, Louise Little began dating an African-American man. A marriage proposal seemed a possibility, but the man disappeared from their lives when Louise became pregnant with his child in late 1937. In December 1938, Louise Little had a nervous breakdown and was declared legally insane. The Little siblings were split up and sent to different foster homes. The state formally committed Louise Little to the state mental hospital at Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she remained until Malcolm and his siblings secured her release 24 years later.
Malcolm Little was one of the best students in his junior high school, but he dropped out after a white eighth-grade teacher told him that his aspirations of being a lawyer were “no realistic goal for a nigger.” Years later, Malcolm X would laugh about the incident, but at the time it was humiliating. It made him feel that there was no place in the white world for a career-oriented black man, no matter how smart he was. After living with a series of white foster parents, Malcolm moved to Boston in February 1941 to live with his older half-sister, Ella Little Collins.
Collins lived in Roxbury, a predominantly African-American middle-class neighborhood of Boston. It was the first time Little had seen so many black people. He was drawn to the cultural and social life of the neighborhood. In Boston, Little held a variety of jobs and found intermittent employment with the New Haven Railroad. Between 1943 and 1946, he drifted from city to city and job to job. He left Boston to live for a short time in Flint, Michigan. He moved to New York City in 1943. Living in Harlem, he became involved in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and pimping. According to recent biographies, Little occasionally engaged in sex with other men, usually for money.
In 1943, the U.S. draft board ordered Little to register for military service. He later recalled that he put on a display to avoid the draft by telling the examining officer that he could not wait to “steal us some guns, and kill us [some] crackers.” Military physicians classified him as “mentally disqualified for military service”. He was issued a 4-F card, relieving him of his service obligations. In late 1945, Little returned to Boston. With a group of associates, he began a series of elaborate burglaries targeting the residences of wealthy white families. On January 12, 1946, Little was arrested for burglary while trying to pick up a stolen watch he had left for repairs at a jewelry shop. The shop owner called the police because the watch was very expensive, and the police had alerted all Boston jewelers that it had been stolen. Little told the police that he had a gun on his person and surrendered so the police would treat him more leniently. Three days later, Little was indicted for carrying firearms. On January 16, he was charged with larceny and breaking and entering, and eventually sentenced to eight to ten years in prison.
On February 27, Little began serving his sentence at the Charlestown State Prison in Charlestown, Boston. While in prison, Little earned the nickname of “Satan” for his hostility toward religion. Little met a self-educated man in prison named John Elton Bembry (referred to as “Bimbi” in The Autobiography of Malcolm X). Bembry was a well-regarded prisoner at Charlestown, and Malcolm X would later describe him as “the first man I had ever seen command total respect … with words.” Gradually, the two men became friends and Bembry convinced Little to educate himself. Little developed a voracious appetite for reading, and he frequently read after the prison lights had been turned off. In 1948, Little’s brother Philbert wrote, telling him about the Nation of Islam. Like the UNIA, the Nation preached black self-reliance and, ultimately, the unification of members of the African diaspora, free from white American and European domination. Little was not interested in joining until his brother Reginald wrote, saying, “Malcolm, don’t eat any more pork and don’t smoke any more cigarettes. I’ll show you how to get out of prison.” Little quit smoking, and the next time pork was served in the prison dining hall, he refused to eat it.
When Reginald came to visit Little, he described the group’s teachings, including the belief that white people are devils. Afterward, Little thought about all the white people he had known, and he realized that he’d never had a relationship with a white person or social institution that wasn’t based on dishonesty, injustice, greed, and hatred. Little began to reconsider his dismissal of all religion and he became receptive to the message of the Nation of Islam. Other family members who had joined the Nation wrote or visited and encouraged Little to join. In February 1948, mostly through his sister’s efforts, Little was transferred to the Norfolk Prison Colony, an experimental prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts, that had a much larger library. In late 1948, he wrote a letter to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad advised him to atone for his crimes by renouncing his past and by humbly bowing in prayer to Allah and promising never to engage in destructive behavior again. Little, who always had been rebellious and deeply skeptical, found it very difficult to bow in prayer. It took him a week to bend his knees. Finally he prayed, and he became a member of the Nation of Islam. For the remainder of his incarceration, Little maintained regular correspondence with Muhammad. On August 7, 1952, Little wasparoled and was released from prison. He later reflected on the time he spent in prison after his conversion: “Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.”
When Little was released from prison in 1952, he had more than a new religion. He also had a new name. In a December 1950 letter to his brother Philbert, Little signed his name as Malcolm X for the first time. In his autobiography, he explained why: “The Muslim’s ‘X’ symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”
Shortly after his release from prison, Malcolm X visited Elijah Muhammad in Chicago, Illinois. In June 1953, Malcolm X was named assistant minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number One in Detroit. Soon, he became a full-time minister. By late 1953, Malcolm X established Boston’s Temple Number 11. In March 1954, he expanded Temple Number 12 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.Two months later Malcolm X was selected to lead Temple Number Seven in Harlem, and he rapidly expanded its membership.
The FBI had opened a file on Malcolm X in 1950 after he wrote a letter to President Truman stating his opposition to the Korean War and declaring himself to be a communist. It began surveillance of him in 1953, and soon the FBI turned its attention from concerns about possible Communist Party association to Malcolm X’s rapid ascent in the Nation of Islam.
During 1955, Malcolm X continued his successful recruitment efforts on behalf of the organization. He established temples in Springfield, Massachusetts (Number 13); Hartford, Connecticut (Number 14); and Atlanta, Georgia (Number 15). Hundreds of African Americans were joining the Nation of Islam every month. Beside his skill as a speaker, Malcolm X had an impressive physical presence. He stood 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 m) tall and weighed about 180 pounds (82 kg). One writer described him as “powerfully built”, and another as “mesmerizingly handsome … and always spotlessly well-groomed”.
Malcolm X first came to the attention of the general public after the police beating of a Nation of Islam member named Johnson Hinton. On April 26, 1957, two police officers were beating an African-American man with their nightsticks when three passersby who belonged to the Nation of Islam tried to intervene. They shouted: “You’re not in Alabama or Georgia. This is New York!” One of the officers began to beat one of the passersby, Johnson Hinton. The blows were so severe, a surgeon later determined, that they caused brain contusions, subdural hemorrhaging, and scalp lacerations. All four men were arrested and taken to the police station.
A woman who had seen the assault ran to the Nation of Islam’s restaurant. Within a few hours, Malcolm X and a small group of Muslims went to the police station and demanded to see Hinton. The police captain initially said no Muslims were being held there, but as the crowd grew to about 500, he allowed Malcolm X to speak with Hinton. After a short talk, Malcolm X demanded that Hinton be taken to the hospital, so an ambulance was called and Hinton was taken to Harlem Hospital.
Hinton was treated and released into the custody of the police, who returned him to the police station. By this point, about 4,000 people had gathered; the police realized there was the potential for a riot and called for backup. Malcolm X went back into the police station with an attorney and made bail arrangements for the other two Muslims. The police said Hinton could not go back to the hospital until he was arraigned the following day. Malcolm X realized things were at a stalemate. He stepped outside the station house and gave a hand signal. The Nation of Islam members in the crowd silently walked away. The rest of the crowd dispersed minutes later. One police officer told the editor of the New York Amsterdam News: “No one man should have that much power.”
The following month, the Bureau of Special Services and Investigation of the New York Police Department (NYPD) began its surveillance of Malcolm X. The NYPD’s Chief Inspector asked for information from the police department in every city where Malcolm X had lived, and from the prisons where he had served his sentence. In October, when a grand jury declined to indict the officers who had beaten Hinton, Malcolm X wrote an angry telegram to the police commissioner. In response, undercover NYPD officers were placed inside the Nation of Islam.
On December 1, 1963, when he was asked for a comment about the assassination of President Kennedy, Malcolm X said that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost”. He added that “chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” The New York Times wrote, “in further criticism of Mr. Kennedy, the Muslim leader cited the murders of Patrice Lumumba, Congo leader, of Medgar Evers, civil rights leader, and of the Negro girls bombed earlier this year in aBirmingham church. These, he said, were instances of other ‘chickens coming home to roost’.” The remarks prompted a widespread public outcry. The Nation of Islam, which had issued a message of condolence to the Kennedy family and ordered its ministers not to comment on the assassination, publicly censured their former shining star. Although Malcolm X retained his post and rank as minister, he was prohibited from public speaking for 90 days.
On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X publicly announced his break from the Nation of Islam. He said that he was still a Muslim, but he felt the Nation of Islam had “gone as far as it can” because of its rigid religious teachings. Malcolm X said he was going to organize a black nationalist organization that would try to “heighten the political consciousness” of African Americans. He also expressed his desire to work with other civil rights leaders and said that Elijah Muhammad had prevented him from doing so in the past.
One reason for the separation was growing tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad because of Malcolm X’s dismay about rumors of Muhammad’s extramarital affairs with young secretaries. Such actions were against the teachings of the Nation. Although at first Malcolm X ignored the rumors, he spoke with Muhammad’s son Wallace and the women making the accusations. He came to believe that they were true, and Muhammad confirmed the rumors in 1963. Muhammad tried to justify his actions by referring to precedents by Biblical prophets. Another reason was resentment by people within the Nation. As Malcolm X had become a favorite of the media, many in the Nation’s Chicago headquarters felt that he was over-shadowing Muhammad. Louis Lomax’s 1963 book about the Nation of Islam, When the Word Is Given, featured a picture of Malcolm X on its cover and included five of his speeches, but only one of Muhammad’s, which greatly upset Muhammad. Muhammad was also envious that a publisher was interested in Malcolm X’s autobiography. After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X founded Muslim Mosque, Inc., a religious organization, and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism. On March 26, 1964, he met Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C., after a press conference held when both men attended the Senate to hear the debate on the Civil Rights bill. This was the only time the two men ever met and their meeting lasted only one minute—just long enough for photographers to take a picture. In April, Malcolm X made a speech titled “The Ballot or the Bullet” in which he advised African Americans to exercise their right to vote wisely. Several Sunni Muslims encouraged Malcolm X to learn about Islam. Soon he converted to Sunni Islam, and decided to make his pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).
On February 21, 1965, in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X began to speak to a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity when a disturbance broke out in the crowd of 400. A man yelled, “Nigger! Get your hand outta my pocket!” As Malcolm X and his bodyguards moved to quiet the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot him in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men charged the stage and fired handguns, hitting him 16 times. Furious onlookers caught and beat one of the assassins as the others fled the ballroom. Malcolm X was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm, shortly after he arrived at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
Talmadge Hayer, a Nation of Islam member also known as Thomas Hagan, was arrested on the scene. Eyewitnesses identified two more suspects, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, also members of the Nation. All three were charged. At first Hayer denied involvement, but during the trial he confessed to having fired shots at Malcolm X. He testified that Butler and Johnson were not present and were not involved in the assassination, but he declined to name the men who had joined him in the shooting. All three men were convicted.
Butler, now known as Muhammad Abdul Aziz, was paroled in 1985. He became the head of the Nation of Islam’s Harlem mosque in 1998. He continues to maintain his innocence. Johnson, who changed his name to Khalil Islam, was released from prison in 1987. During his time in prison, he rejected the teachings of the Nation of Islam and converted to Sunni Islam. He maintained his innocence until his death in August 2009. Hayer, now known as Mujahid Halim, was paroled in 2010.
A public viewing was held at Harlem’s Unity Funeral Home from February 23 through February 26, and it was estimated that between 14,000 and 30,000 mourners attended. The funeral was held on February 27 at the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ in Harlem. The church was filled to capacity with more than 1,000 people. Loudspeakers were set up outside the Temple so the overflowing crowd could listen and a local television station broadcast the funeral live.
Among the civil rights leaders attending were John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, James Forman, James Farmer, Jesse Gray, and Andrew Young.[176][179] Actor and activistOssie Davis delivered the eulogy, describing Malcolm X as “our shining black prince”.
There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile. Many will say turn away—away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man—and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate—a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.
Malcolm X was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. At the gravesite after the ceremony, friends took the shovels from the waiting gravediggers and completed the burial themselves. Actor and activist Ruby Dee (wife of Ossie Davis) and Juanita Poitier (wife of Sidney Poitier) established the Committee of Concerned Mothers to raise funds to buy a house and pay educational expenses for Malcolm X’s family.

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