Malcolm X, his wife, Mohammed Ali and their kids. Photo from Washington University, Henry Hampton Collection.
This week marks 54 years since the assassination of El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, militant radical, fiery orator, Muslim leader, evolving but unceasing advocate for justice and what Ossie Davis called "our own black shining prince," who rose from poverty to fight relentlessly against racism and oppression through the 1950s and 60s until his death at 39. Arguing "wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it," Malcolm spoke "the naked truth" as he saw it on behalf of people of color in hopes, he wrote in his seminal autobiography, his “life’s account might prove to be a testimony of some social value.” And it did, via ongoing reinvention and an unlikely narrative arc: The face of the fierce black nationalist whose complex, shifting, fight-fire-with-fire message terrified many white Americans, especially those in power, landed on a 1999 Black Heritage Stamp issued by the postal service of the government he long and passionately resisted; at the stamp's unveiling he was lauded as "a modern-day revolutionary, a man who dreamed of a better world, and dared to do something about it."
He was born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. When he was young, his family moved to Michigan after his father, a Baptist preacher who openly advocated Black nationalism, was threatened by the KKK. After his father was killed, probably by white vigilantes, and his mother was moved to a mental institution, he went into foster care; he left school after the 8th grade when a teacher ridiculed his dream of becoming a lawyer as a "nigger." At 21, after several years of crime as a dope-dealing street hustler, he went to prison for six years for a Boston burglary. There he discovered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a doctrine of theological fundamentalism, black economic self-sufficiency and racial separatism that largely dismissed the mainstream civil rights movement as naïve. Released from prison, Malcolm rose through the ranks of the Black Muslims as a charismatic minister and spokesman. Upright, vehement and snappily dressed, he was often viewed as the angry counterweight to Martin Luther King Jr., who he criticized as ineffective. "I am for violence," he wrote, "if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s (sic) problem.”
In the 1960s, especially after his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm began moving away from black separatism and toward a broader movement against white supremacy. In April 1964, having split from the NOI and with an upcoming election focused on the Civil Rights Act, he called for revolution in his "Ballot or Bullet" speech before 2,000 people at Detroit's King Solomon Baptist Church. "It's freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody," he said, clarifying that "civil rights means you're asking Uncle Sam to treat you right - human rights are something you were born with. All (America's) got to do is give the Black man in this country everything that's due him. Everything." As a Muslim, he urged his listeners to "submerge our differences (and) see each other as brothers and sisters" with a common problem: "We are all going to catch the same hell from the same man. He just happens to be a white man...It doesn't mean we're anti-white, but it does mean we're anti-exploitation, anti-degradation, anti-oppression. I'm not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner." Calling out a colonial Uncle Sam with "hands dripping with the blood of the black man," he insisted, "Being here in America doesn't make you an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism."
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His truth-telling and unwavering fight for freedom - against not white people, but their racism - thrilled supporters who had rarely heard a black man speak his rage. "If a white man called you a 'nigger,' he taught you to call him a 'devil' right back," recalled one. "Because of (Malcolm), suddenly we were somebody. We felt we were recognized and not invisible anymore." Malcolm was giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on Feb. 21, 1965 when he was shot and killed by 19 bullets. Three NOI members were found guilty of his murder and got life in prison; for decades, evidence and rumor have suggested the involvement of other Black Muslims and police who had long tracked him. Malcolm is survived by six daughters, and his enduring legacy - as a proud Muslim, a beacon for increasingly militant Black Power and Black Lives Matter movements, a role model for young black politicians, and, as he made himself anew from punk to ascetic to separatist to humanist, a revolutionary whose "abiding advocacy for blackness (was) a mandate for personal and ultimately collective improvement."
“We declare our right on this earth to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary." - Malcolm X