By Lester Asamoah
Malcolm X, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and born as Malcolm Little, is one of the most controversial figures of black history. Yet, he is invaluable in the African-American struggle. Public schools spend time covering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, however, they devote little time to Malcolm X. What is seldom mentioned is how both men believed in a militant approach for acquiring civil rights. Additionally, popular culture overlooks how critical Malcom X was as a civil rights leader, and the sheer impact he had on the civil rights movement.
Malcolm’s life both started and ended violently. Malcolm’s first vivid memory (as stated in his autobiography as told to by Alex Haley) was his house being burned down in Omaha, Nebraska in 1929. He was assassinated on February 21, 1965 in New York City. His childhood and early adulthood were spent in the streets of Boston and Harlem. His survival depended on instinct by dodging the police, learning how to commit robberies, and running prostitution rings. Malcolm’s reality is the reality still experienced today by millions of men and women in low-income areas that are given no choice but survival. Malcolm was arrested in Boston during a robbery and was taken off of the streets and placed in jail. In prison he became educated, reading classical masterpieces and important literary works. It was also in jail where he found Allah and Islam. An inmate who was a part of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam gave Malcolm the inspiration to also join the Nation upon his exit in jail.
Malcolm X had an exceptional mind and unabated passion. Even during his time in the streets, he outwitted his adversaries and had a cunning that very few had. Those two assets helped lead Malcolm X from being a minister in the Chicago Temple to becoming Elijah Muhammad’s spokesperson in the Nation of Islam. The Nation’s temples spread across the country, and Malcolm nurtured a new wave of hope, militancy, and resolve in African-Americans across the United States.
Of course, Malcolm was not met with kindness. One of the primary beliefs of the Nation of Islam is that all white people were created by the devil, as told by “Yacub’s History,” and Malcolm constantly advocated for a complete separation from white society. Malcolm, unlike similar civil rights leaders at the time, did not believe African-Americans could integrate into white society. The Nation’s and Malcolm’s beliefs were met with red-hot hostility from White America. However, Black America became uplifted with a new wave of hope from Malcolm’s vision and leadership. Malcolm led major rallies in Chicago, Harlem, and Boston, and he debated against the best of white and black intelligentsia alike. Malcolm was unafraid to speak about the deplorable conditions the black man in America faced, and, more importantly, he was unafraid to challenge the systemic racism that built America, starting with slavery, and continuing with fast credit, police brutality, discrimination in the classroom, and the hypocrisy of a White America which denied genocide and the catastrophic effects of slavery.
Islam played an important role in Malcolm’s life. He believed that Elijah Muhammad’s brand of Islam was the liberation of African-Americans. And based on the Bible’s story of The Tribes of Ham, along with the often-violent history of Christianity, he believed that Christianity was inherently racist. The Nation of Islam offered an alternative that empowered African-Americans and touted a complete approach to life, whether that was by removing any addictive substances from one’s life, or firmly establishing a community among the all black-membership of the Nation (no white Americans were allowed the join the Nation).
Malcolm’s journey with Islam changed after his pilgrimage to Mecca and his travels across the Middle East and Africa. He discovered orthodox Islam, and he reframed his beliefs about white people after experiencing how Middle Easterners with fair skin complexions treated him and other dark-complexioned individuals as equals. The toning-down of Malcolm’s voracious anger against white people and white America is another rarely mentioned fact. After his visit to Mecca, he referred to himself as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and he broke from the Nation of Islam to create the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated in 1965 after breaking from the Nation and creating his organization.
Malcolm X is remembered most for his fiery opposition of White America and his beliefs from the Nation of Islam which were at times racist or extreme. However, Malcolm’s legacy to Black America should be twofold: he must be remembered for being one of the most influential civil rights leaders during his time, and he must be remembered for his unwavering honesty about institutional racism. Often, the focus on the Nation of Islam is Yacub’s History and Malcolm’s press appearances where he says that “white people are devils.” The sheer influence and presence of the Nation of Islam is worth considering. The Nation’s message was uncouth, but its execution was awe-inspiring. As for institutional racism, no man has ever been as bluntly honest about the deep divide of racism as Malcolm X was. His words about genocide against Native Americans, thoughts on white Liberals, insight on the ways black and white America intersect sexually, the intense struggle of blatant racism, black-on-black crimes and the struggle in the black community, and his words for White Americans serious about helping the African-American cause, to name a few, are all exigent concepts and thoughts that must be immediately and permanently applied to the contemporary struggle of African-Americans.