He was born Malcolm Little, the son of a Baptist minister murdered by white supremacists when Malcolm was only four years old; grew up Detroit Red, a zoot-suited, numbers-running hustler and pimp with enemies lined up from Detroit to Boston; answered to number 22843—or sometimes, maybe proudly, to the nickname “Satan”—during his six years in a Massachusetts prison; emerged as Malcolm X, a born-again Muslim follower of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam who preached a Back-to-Africa agenda to black assemblies in impoverished Harlem; and by the time of his death 49 years ago today, was El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, a name taken upon completion of his pilgrimage to Mecca from which he returned to teach a new message of racial co-existence. Malcolm X’s continuous reinventing of himself is what kept him alive, and it’s also what got him killed.
“I was a zombie then,” Malcolm X said of his years as a minister for the Nation of Islam. “I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march.” Malcolm’s early oratory reflected a profound love for Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, an organization founded in 1930 that preached black unity with brazen anti-white overtones. In many speeches, Malcolm began each ideological canto with some variation of the refrain, “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that…” Both Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad believed that black people were justified in retaliating with violence if their oppressor used violence. To differentiate himself from Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders who advocated nonviolent resistance, Malcolm used the analogy of the “house Negro and the field Negro.”
Tensions boiled between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam in November 1963, when X made controversial remarks about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. As penalty, the Nation prohibited Malcolm from speaking in public for 90 days. During that period a rift developed between Malcolm and the Nation that would precipitate his departure from the organization and eventual assassination. Malcolm X publicly denounced the Nation of Islam following his imposed silence. But it was his damning revelation about Nation leader Elijah Muhammad’s sexual liaisons that broke the camel’s back. When Malcolm publicized his findings, he officially sealed his divorce from the Nation.
In April 1964, on his own for the first time since joining the Nation in 1954, Malcolm X went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, known as a Hajj. There he saw white- and dark-skinned Muslims praying alongside each other, debunking Elijah Muhammad’s erroneous claim that white people were not allowed at Mecca. Malcolm became convinced that peace between the races could be achieved—a marked departure from his earlier principles. Malcolm explained his epiphany and also announced his plans to bring human rights charges against the U.S. at the United Nations. The moment he returned from Mecca, Malcolm X felt the heat upon him. He condemned the Nation of Islam as a group of liars and criminals. When a reporter asked him, “Are you not, perhaps, afraid of what might happen to you as a result of making these revelations?” Malcolm X replied, “Oh, yes. I am probably a dead man already.”
Malcolm X gave his last official speech in Detroit the day after his house was bombed (allegedly by the organization he turned his back on) and exactly one week before his assassination. Malcolm wore the only clothing he could save from the fire—a rumpled suit over an open-necked sweater with no tie. In another ideological jump, Malcolm declared that all religions believe in the same God. In his final week, Malcolm X addressed the rumors that he had bombed his house himself in a hunger for attention. With eerie prescience, Malcolm told a fire inspector assigned to the bombing case, “I won’t burn to death. I’ll probably be shot to death in the street one day. Or maybe while I’m speaking.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian, Malcolm X a Muslim. King believed in nonviolence, Malcolm in violent retaliation against violent oppressors. What bound them was a common desire to heal the wounds of black America, whether by slow, gradual integration or by wholesale emigration back to the homeland. Following Malcolm’s death, King called for unity within the warring factions of the black community, which could neither advance nor heal its wounds by fighting itself.
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