Malcolm X was one of the most passionate and insightful voices of social change in American history. Read on to learn more about the life of a man who influenced so many others in a time of upheaval. Malcolm X Biography
Malcolm’s Early Life
Malcolm Little was born the fourth of eight children in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925 to Earl and Louise Little. His father was a minister who took to the teachings of Marcus Garvey, which were rooted in the idea of self-help and a lack of dependence on White society. In 1931, Earl was killed under mysterious circumstances. With her husband and primary provider gone, Louise Little struggled to keep the family intact. Such mounting pressure brought about a mental collapse, and the eight children were sent to foster homes around the nation.
Even with the family displacement, Malcolm was doing well in school and had earned the respect of classmates and teachers. Unfortunately, however, racist comments and teachings had already cast an impression on the young and insightful boy. Malcolm soon left his new home and moved to Boston.
The Life of ‘Red’ in Boston and New York
Malcolm took to life in Boston, especially the ‘ghetto’ part of town. Earning the nickname ‘Red’, on account of his hair color, Malcolm befriended one of the regular pool players, ‘Shorty,’ and set his sights on the Boston night life. One of the fundamental lessons he learned in Boston was that everything in the world was a hustle. Later, he moved to New York and found a setting in which to take his hustling skills to another level. After a disagreement with another numbers hustler named West Indian Archie, Red returned to Boston to start a burglary ring with Shorty. After some successes, Red was arrested in 1946 and sentenced to eight to ten years in Charlestown State Prison.
Satan, and Then Malcolm X
In the early phases of his prison sentence, Malcolm earned the nickname ‘Satan’ because of his strong anti-religious stances. About a year into his sentence, Malcolm started paying attention to the teachings of another convict named ‘Bimbi.’ Some of these teachings related to religion, and from this, Malcolm took correspondence courses. Malcolm’s brother Philbert encouraged him to join the Nation of Islam, describing it as ‘the only religion for the Black man.’ Malcolm pursued strict austerity. He gave up cigarettes, alcohol and pork, and committed his life to spiritual fulfillment with the guide of Allah and the leader of the Nation of Islam, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
Part of the teachings that Malcolm absorbed included not only a belief in the strength and power of the Black man, but that White people were ‘the devil.’ Malcolm was also taught that people of color were brainwashed to see themselves as inferior, which in turn aided in their enslavement and control and made self-destructive habits easier to embrace. He took the last name ‘X’, because he felt ‘Little’ was reflective of slavery.
Malcom X’s Rise to Prominence in the Nation of Islam
Armed with his new name and identity, Malcolm X began delivering powerful speeches on race relations in America in order to make more people aware of Islam. His target audience was disenfranchised urban youth who had little opportunity for spiritual progress and economic hope. The 1962 speech, ‘Black Man’s History,’ featured lines such as ‘We don’t separate our color from our religion.’ Malcolm believed that the Nation of Islam’s view of religion should serve as the organizing principle for people of color, specifically Black Americans. Finding new audiences became his primary purpose and set the stage for national recognition.
Malcolm became viewed as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam. In 1956, he met Sister Betty X, who in 1958 would become his wife. Malcolm X found himself struggling to balance his new demands as a husband and father along with his tireless commitment to his work with the Nation of Islam.
Disillusion With the Nation of Islam
In 1963, Elijah Muhammad was confronted with multiple paternity suits. Malcolm remarked that the betrayal he experienced was profoundly painful, ‘in a way that I could never describe.’ The disillusion taking a toll on Malcolm, he willingly violated an edict that forbade Nation of Islam ministers from speaking about President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. As a result, Malcolm found himself silenced from the Nation of Islam for a period of 90 days.
New Identity After the Nation of Islam
In March of 1964, Malcolm announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam to form a new socially active organization entitled Muslim Mosque, Inc. One of the first actions he took as leader of this new organization was to undertake the holy pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca, the spiritual home of Islam. It was on the hajj that Malcolm X gained more insight into his own positions on issues of racial identity in America. He backed away from his original position that White people were ‘the devil,’ saying that he had come to understand that ‘all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to Black-skinned Africans,’ could appropriate Islam as a means by which racial problems could be overcome.’
This position of unity and strength in alliances was the rationale behind his founding the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAUU). One of the most significant aspects of the Hajj was his embrace of yet a new name, El Hajj Malik el Shabazz. When Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam, his speeches took on more secular tones. In the 1964 Ballot or Bullet speech, he sought to unify his approach with other African-American leaders in order to find a common ground to work on the issue of racial discrimination in America.
Biography of Malcolm X
In stark contrast to his previous belief that White people were ‘devils,’ Malcolm now sought to articulate a more nuanced position – that no group of people was the enemy as much as the institutional silencing of voice. In his call for ‘new friends,’ partisanship was put aside in the name of something more.
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