Modern assessments of Malcolm X typically lack nuance. Many fans lazily categorize him as a fiery civil rights leader, evidently unaware that their hero consistently rejected most of the movement’s values and goals. Detractors continue to caricature him as a racist villain, despite his decisive break from bigotry late in life.
The facts of his life provide a sovereign antidote to oversimplification. They reveal a misunderstood man’s evolution first from reprobate to prophet, and then from pariah to martyr.
Born today in 1925, Malcolm Little had a tough childhood. His father — a Baptist lay minister — preached black pride in areas dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. Threats forced his family to move from Nebraska to Wisconsin to Michigan. Then, when Malcolm was four, their house burned down. Two years later, his dad died in a suspicious streetcar accident— ending the threats, but condemning the family to poverty.
In his early teens, Malcolm dreamed of a legal career, until a teacher told him that was “no realistic goal for a nigger.” When he was 13, his mother had a nervous breakdown; Michigan institutionalized her and placed the kids in foster care. He landed in Boston in the custody of an older half-sister.
In his late teens, Malcolm left home and supported himself for several years through robbery, drug-dealing, gambling, prostitution and extortion. When conscription during World War II threatened to interrupt his criminal career, he reported to the Army induction center in a flamboyant Zoot suit and declared, “Daddy-O, I want to get sent down South. Organize them nigger soldiers, you dig? Steal us some guns and kill us [some] crackers.” The draft board classified him as “mentally unqualified for military service.”
By 1946, Malcolm had landed in the state penitentiary, facing eight to ten years for larceny and burglary. Noting his vocal disdain for religion, his fellow prisoners nicknamed him “Satan,” but after a couple of years in the joint, he reversed course, cleaned up his act and joined the Nation of Islam, a sect that advocated racial separatism, moral discipline and self-reliance. Black Muslims believed whites were a species of subhuman devils bred by Yacub, an ancient mad scientist. Accordingly, Malcolm dropped his birth surname, “which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears,” and became Malcolm X — using a variable to represent the African name slavery had stolen from his ancestors.
Upon release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became a minister and rose meteorically through the ranks of the Nation of Islam. He energized the sect, established several temples and attracted thousands of converts.
His impact reached far beyond his small religious movement, however. As an international spokesman for black pride, Malcolm inspired millions while terrifying and alienating millions more. Viewing racial reconciliation as impossible, he demanded a separate country for black Americans. He derided liberals as liars and dismissed MLK as a “chump” and an “Uncle Tom.” Rejecting the peaceful methods of the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm advocated violent resistance to racism: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” Warning of a coming racial uprising, he described a “lake of fire,” a “day of slaughter… for this sinful white world.”
Malcolm earned widespread notoriety for a few particularly hateful statements. Celebrating a commercial airliner crash in 1962, he called it “a very beautiful thing” that God got “rid of 120” whites “at one whop.” Asked how he felt after the assassination of President Kennedy, Malcolm related it to the shooting of Medger Evers and the bombing murder of four girls in a Birmingham church, and declared, “Chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.”
Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, resented the growing prominence of his chief lieutenant — who had in fact become far more famous than his boss. Muhammad bristled when his right-hand man questioned his moral authority and strategic decisions. After Malcolm’s remarks on JFK’s death, the leader ordered his disciple to refrain from public statements for 90 days. He spent the time reading widely and thinking deeply.
In March of 1964, Malcolm broke with the Black Muslims. Borrowing money from his half-sister, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca. There, he began to learn about Islam as a great world religion — a universal faith for people of all colors — and came to reject the racist perversions of the creed peddled by the Nation of Islam.
Through this religious transformation, Malcolm began to transcend hate. He became an orthodox Sunni Muslim. Returning to the US, he modified his message and explored coordination with the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm still demanded racial justice “by any means necessary,” but he urged blacks to focus first on peaceful political change — to try ballots before resorting to bullets. His rhetoric continued to evolve:
“Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds — some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists — some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!”
“I am not a racist. I am against every form of racism and segregation, every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color.”
“In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I will never be guilty of that again — as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man. The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks.”
“Ignorance of each other is what has made unity impossible in the past. Therefore we need enlightenment. We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity. Once we have more knowledge (light) about each other, we will stop condemning each other and a United front will be brought about.”
“I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then — like all [Black] Muslims — I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days — I’m glad to be free of them.”
“I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda. I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
“Islam is my religion, but I believe my religion is my personal business. It governs my personal life, my personal morals. And my religious philosophy is personal between me and the God in whom I believe; just as the religious philosophy of these others is between them and the God in whom they believe. And this is best this way. Were we to come out here discussing religion, we’d have too many differences from the outstart and we could never get together…. If we bring up religion, we’ll be in an argument, and the best way to keep away from arguments and differences… [is to] put your religion at home in the closet. Keep it between you and your God.”
Just as white supremacists had menaced his father in the ’20s for preaching racial pride, Black Muslims threatened Malcolm for quitting the cult and advocating racial equality. In the Nation of Islam newsletter, leaders demanded his death and decapitation. Anonymous callers terrorized his wife with phoned death threats.
Just as his father’s house burned down in 1929, Malcolm’s house also became a target. The Nation of Islam owned the Queens residence and sued to evict his family, but a fire destroyed the building on February 14, 1965 — the night before an important court date.
While his father died under suspicious circumstances, Malcolm got shot down in public on February 21, 1965. Three Black Muslims did time for killing him, but there were no legal consequences for the leaders of the Nation of Islam who presumably ordered the assassination.
Most of Malcolm’s contemporaries failed to notice the positive transformation he underwent over the last year of his life. Time called him “an unashamed demagogue” whose “creed was violence.” The New York Times dismissed him as “an extraordinary and twisted man” who “turn[ed] many true gifts to evil purpose” in a life “strangely and pitifully wasted.”
Someone at the New York Post recognized the tragic hero in Malcolm: “even his sharpest critics recognized his brilliance — often wild, unpredictable and eccentric, but nevertheless possessing promise that must now remain unrealized.”
He was survived by four young children and a wife pregnant with twins.