While Martin Luther King frequently received glowing press coverage and appealed successfully to the conscience of white America, the charismatic militant leader Malcolm X won little but negative attention from the mainstream media during his lifetime—and he terrified most white people.
On the March
Our religion (Islam) teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.
—Malcolm X, “Message to the Grass Roots” speech, 1963
Malcolm briskly rejected talk of nonviolence, pointing out (accurately) that the white supremacists of the day had no commitment to it, and he urged African-Americans to defend themselves energetically when confronted by those who would deny them their rights.
He was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents were followers of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, publisher of the influential Negro World and advocate of the “back to Africa movement.” The Littles' activism appears to have drawn the attention of white supremacists. When Malcolm was four years old, two white men set the family's home ablaze and burned it to the ground. Then, in 1931, Malcolm's father Earl Little was found dead on the Lansing, Michigan, trolley tracks; rumors would circulate for years that the death was no accident. Malcolm's mother Louise suffered a mental breakdown six years later, and the family was separated. Malcolm drifted into a life of crime, and was arrested in 1946 for running a burglary ring.
While in prison, he converted to the Nation of Islam. In 1953, having served his time, he became an assistant minister at the Detroit temple. Charismatic, committed, and eloquent, Malcolm quickly rose through the ranks and established himself as an important figure within the Nation of Islam. His message to African-Americans was stark and bitter: You are enslaved, whether you realize it or not, and only you can take action to change that state of affairs.
A fierce advocate for his people's autonomy and self-awareness, Malcolm lived the message he preached. He had turned his own life around, made the transformation from penny-ante crook to disciplined, eloquent, austere, and pious spokesman for the Nation of Islam. He himself embodied the kind of radical change that he proposed to his audiences. He was a one-man advertisement for an utterly unafraid model of African-American life, a model of life that sought, not reconciliation with whites, but separation from them—and swift retaliation, not passive resistance, in the event of trouble. “We are nonviolent,” he was fond of saying, “with people who are nonviolent with us.”
In 1964, after a dispute with Nation of Islam leadership, Malcolm left the church and began a mosque of his own. He changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
A New Vision
In 1964, the former Malcolm X returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca convinced that his earlier pronouncements that whites were inherently evil had to be revised. The following month, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which rigidly advanced the cause of African-American nationalism—but also left the door open to the goal of interracial harmony.
In February 1965, he was assassinated in New York City; three African-Americans were tried and convicted for the crime, and received life sentences.