Black America is currently re-examining the legend of one of its most complex heroes. That man is Malcolm Little aka Malcolm X. In his brief 40 years, Malcolm X had an enormous impact on race relations and in his own way was as influential as his vastly different contemporary Martin Luther King. To understand why Malcolm X is significant, it is necessary to understand his past.
His story goes back to Christmas Eve 1924, when a gang of hooded Ku Klux Klansmen complete with trademark torches surrounded a house on the outskirts of Omaha, Nebraska. They were at the home of outspoken African-American leader Earl Little. White racists targeted his house because of his outspoken beliefs. Luckily, he was not at home. Instead the men threatened his pregnant wife Louise, smashed some windows and moved on. Five months later Louise gave birth to her third son, Malcolm.
Earl and Louise married in 1919 in Montreal. It was Earl’s second marriage. Louise grew up on the Caribbean island of Grenada. Her father was white and Louise was often taken for a White Briton. Earl Little was from Georgia and grew up in desperate poverty. As a young man, he heard Marcus Garvey speak. Little was impressed by what he heard and joined Garvey’s movement the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
Young Malcolm grew up in Lansing, Michigan. The estate agent sold the Littles the house thinking Louise was white. When he discovered his “error”, he unearthed a document saying the house should not be sold to non-whites. They were told to move with no offer of a refund. But before they moved, the house was burned down in the night with the family just escaping the flames. Firefighters showed no interest in putting out the fire. The scarred (and scared) family moved to a new house outside Lansing.
In 1931 Earl stormed out of the house one night after an argument with his wife and failed to come home. He was later found dead crushed by a tram which cut his body in half. His insurers refused to pay out saying it was suicide but it was more likely to be murder. Malcolm was barely 7 years old. Louise struggled to raise her eight children and ended up on welfare. She eventually suffered a mental breakdown and the children were fostered out. A distressed Malcolm was expelled from school and sent to a juvenile detention home. He decided he wanted to become a lawyer but was told that was "no realistic goal for a nigger".
Aged 15, he moved to Boston to live with his half-sister Ella (one of three children from Earl’s first marriage). Here he got a job as a shoeshine boy and ended up as a drug supplier. Two years later Malcolm met a white women named Bea with whom he moved to Harlem in New York. There he got a job as a waiter. He worked as a drug dealer and lived as a criminal for the next three years ending up in a burglary gang. He was arrested in 1945 and sentenced to eight to ten years in Boston’s Charlestown prison. Malcolm believed the heaviness of the sentence was due to the fact that he was with a white woman. After two years he was transferred to Concord, MS where he first heard of a Muslim organisation called the Nation of Islam.
The Nation of Islam was founded in 1930 in Detroit by Wallace Fard Muhammad. It was a political religion which borrowed beliefs and practices from Islam but was specifically designed for black Americans to free themselves from white domination. Fard Muhammad mysteriously disappeared in 1934 and was replaced as leader by Elijah Muhammad. Elijah believed negros were descendents of the ‘original’ people who were advanced beings capable of communicating with another race on Mars.
Despite some of its more outlandish beliefs, Malcolm was entranced by his new religion. He got in touch with Elijah Muhammad and spent his remaining years in prison in self-education. He was released in 1952 aged 27. He went to Detroit and joined the Nation of Islam at the local temple. He finally met Elijah Muhammad at his headquarters in Chicago. Muhammad publicly praised Malcolm as a follower from prison. Shortly after, Malcolm changed his surname to X and renounced the name Little as a name a white man gave to one of his slave ancestors.
Back in Detroit, Malcolm started to find converts. He was a good and persuasive speaker. He was unafraid to express controversial opinions. “The white man was the devil” he told his crowd. He also spoke of the slave trade and white domination. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock,” he said, “Plymouth Rock landed on us!” Malcolm quickly rose through the ranks and was appointed the temple’s assistant minister in 1953. Then Elijah Muhammad sent him to Boston to recruit new members. He went on to Philadelphia and then to Harlem. This was his biggest challenge. Malcolm’s message of renunciation of alcohol, drugs, gambling and sex outside marriage was not popular. But he set up Nation of Islam businesses and gradually gained success. By 1956, he was Elijah’s unofficial deputy carrying his message across the country.
In 1956 he met and eventually married Betty Sanders. The Nation provided them a house in Queens and they soon had their first child. By now he was famous, writing a column in several newspapers and running the Nations own periodical “Muhammad Speaks”. He was invited onto TV shows where his ability to be articulate on controversial matters earned him a wide audience. In 1959, Mike Wallace produced a five-part TV series on him called “The Hate that Hate Produced”.
X’s anti-white diatribe shocked mainstream America. But the Nation of Islam expanded under his watch from 400 members in 1952 to 40,000 ten years later. The FBI started to pay attention to him after he met Fidel Castro who was in New York for a UN meeting. Meanwhile his extremism set him apart from fellow black leaders like Martin Luther King. Malcolm called King’s 1963 civil rights march the “farce on Washington”. The two men only met once (in 1964) and got on well despite their differences.
But Elijah Muhammad was jealous of the success of his protégé. He and X fought more often. Elijah asked his ministers to make no comments after the assassination of JFK but Malcolm couldn’t resist saying he thought “the chickens had come home to roost”. Finally Malcom X left the organisation in 1964 and founded a new group called Muslim Mosque Inc. He went on the Haj to Mecca and also went to Egypt.
His travels softened his opinions on race and he came back to the US no longer believing all whites were evil. In 1964 he founded the Organisation of Afro-American Unity dedicated to the interests of all blacks whether in the US or Africa. He travelled to Africa for five months on a successful tour of 11 countries. But when he returned home, he was faced with the same old bigotries.
His home was firebombed in February 1965. He and his family escaped through the windows. One week later he was scheduled to speak at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. He started his speech when he was interrupted by a scuffle in the front row. Malcolm shouted out “let’s cool it brothers”. But then three men in the front row armed with revolvers and a shotgun rose to their feet and opened fire. Malcolm died in a hail of bullets. He was 39 years old.
22,000 people attended his funeral five days later. Actor Ossie Davis delivered his eulogy: “Malcolm was our manhood” he said. “Our living black manhood!” Three members of Nation of Islam were charged with his murder. All were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. One of the accused said they were hired but refused to reveal who hired them.
Malcolm’s death unleashed a wave of racial intolerance. Militant groups like the Black Panthers filled his void for a while. Martin Luther King fell to an assassin's bullet three years later. But Malcolm X’s lasting legacy is the truth he told about US race relations. He spoke for the disenfranchised urban poor and made many white Americans aware of a past they would have preferred to ignore. Not without justification, Time magazine chose his autobiography as one of the ten most important non-fiction works of the 20th century.