Malcolm X is widely regarded as the second most influential leader of the Nation of Islam after Elijah Muhammad. He was largely credited with the group's dramatic increase in membership between the early 1950s and early 1960s.
If there has ever been a great human rights activists, an advocate for the equal treatment of blacks, it has been Malcolm X. His name is incontestably inscribed indelibly in the books of history as one of the greatest and most influential African-Americans.
And like many celebrated human rights activists, he had supporters and detractors. To his admirers he was a courageous advocate for the rights of blacks, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans; detractors accused him of preaching racism and violence. But the most noteworthy factor is that his contribution in the fight for blacks getting recognition in America was of a huge magnitude. His level of black consciousness was exceptional, impeccable and highly enlightening. The emphasis he put in eradicating identity crises must never by underestimated.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. He was born into a Black Nationalist family as his father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and avid supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Earl’s civil rights activism prompted death threats from the white supremacist organization Black Legion, forcing the family to relocate twice before Malcolm’s fourth birthday. His father was killed when he was six and his mother was placed in a mental hospital when he was thirteen, after which he lived in a series of foster homes. In 1946, at age twenty, he went to prison for larceny and breaking and entering. While in prison, he became a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI), changing his birth name Malcolm Little to Malcolm X because, he later wrote, Little was the name that "the white slave-master ... had imposed upon my paternal forebears." After his parole in 1952 he quickly rose to become one of the organization's most influential leaders, serving as the public face of the controversial group for a dozen years.
Malcolm had an insatiable hunger for possessing more knowledge and for seeking self-enlightenment. He got intrigued by Islam, particularly the Nation of Islam. When Little was in prison, he met fellow convict John Bembry, a self-educated man he would later describe as "the first man I had ever seen command total respect … with words". Under Bembry's influence, Little developed a voracious appetite for reading. Several of his siblings wrote to him about the Nation of Islam, a relatively new religious movement preaching black self-reliance and, ultimately, the return of the African diaspora to Africa, where they would be free from white American and European domination.
Initially, he showed very minimal interest in the new movement. His brother, Reginald, belonged to the NOI. It was his brother who converted him to the movement. Reginald wrote in 1948, "Malcolm, don't eat any more pork and don't smoke any more cigarettes. I'll show you how to get out of prison." He immediately stopped these, and after a visit with his brother, he concluded that every relationship he'd had with whites had been tainted by dishonesty, injustice, greed, and hatred. By the time he was paroled in 1952, Malcolm was a devoted follower with the new surname “X” (He considered “Little” a slave name and chose the “X” to signify his lost tribal name.) He was inspired by NOI leader Elijah Muhammad and adhered to his principles.
From his adoption of the Nation of Islam in 1952 until he broke with it in 1964, Malcolm X promoted the Nation's teachings. These included the beliefs: that black people are the original people of the world, that white people are "devils," that blacks are superior to whites, and that the demise of the white race is imminent. Malcolm and the movement attracted sharp reprisals from both whites and blacks. He and the Nation of Islam were described as hatemongers, black supremacists, racists, violence-seekers, segregationists, and a threat to improved race relations. He was accused of being anti-Semitic.
Malcolm X advocated the complete separation of African Americans from whites. He proposed that African Americans should return to Africa and that, in the interim, a separate country for black people in America should be created. He rejected the civil rights movement's strategy of nonviolence, expressing the opinion that black people should defend and advance themselves "by any means necessary." His speeches had a powerful effect on his audiences, who were generally African Americans in northern and western cities. Many of them—tired of being told to wait for freedom, justice, equality and respect—felt that he articulated their complaints better than did the civil rights movement.
Malcolm later grew disillusioned with the Nation, and ultimately it was the Nation which plotted his gruesome assassination. In his lifetime, he toured Africa and the Middle East. He had also started his own religious movement, the Muslim Mosque, Inc.
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