My father kept this picture of Malcolm X framed on the wall, all while I was growing up I stared into his eyes on my way to the dining room. It was as if he was imparting wisdom into me everyday, “Think Amani, learn my story and know your truth.” Today is the day of Malcolm X’s assassination that occurred 52 years ago when he was just 39 years old. How could I let Black History month pass by without recognizing the life and legacy of the great minister and human rights activist who dedicated his life to opening our eyes? I wouldn’t.
Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska May 19, 1925 to his mother, Louis, who was a homemaker and his father, Earl Little, who was a preacher and civil rights activist. Due to his father’s membership in the Universal Negro Improvement Association, led by Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, his family fell victim to harassment from white supremacist organizations such as the KKK and the Black Legion. In 1929 a racist mob set their family’s house on fire, forcing them to move to Lansing, MI where they built their new home. The story of Malcolm’s family is like that of many blacks who lived in the South during the early 90s. My family too refuged in Detroit, MI, forced to leave their home in Georgia after the church they built was burned down by the KKK.
Due to his role in Black nationalist organizations Malcolm’s father was killed in 1931. His body was found dead lying on streetcar tracks, police ruled his death as a streetcar accident although their family was sure it was a result of the multiple death threats Earl had received from white supremacist groups. His mother, as a result of the unbearable grief from the murder of her husband, was committed to a mental institution and their eight children were split up and placed in several different foster homes.
As a result of the loss of stability in his family Malcolm suffered from a troubled childhood. In 1938 he was suspended from school and sent to juvenile detention. Coincidentally, earlier today I spent a few hours assisting with arts and crafts classes in King County’s Juvenile Detention Center. Each Tuesday I volunteer with detained youth placed there and youth of color are grossly over represented. Many, like Malcolm, were suspended from school therefore the responsibility of them has been shifted to the state. It’s a perfect illustration of the public-school-to-prison pipeline.
Malcolm dropped out of school at the age of 15 after being told that his dream to become a lawyer was too ambitious as a young Black man. He moved to Boston to live with his older sister Ella. He described his sister, “She was the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life. She was plainly proud of her very dark skin. This was unheard of among Negroes in those days.” His time spent with his sister was rewarding, she was able to enlighten his perspective on Black women and help him and get him a job. Shining shoes and kitchen work wasn’t enough so to supplement his income he started selling drugs and fell deeper into a life of crime before he was arrested in 1946 for larceny and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. While in prison Malcolm began reading, making up for the time lost after dropping out of high school. He joined the Nation of Islam which embraced the idea of Black Nationalism before changing his last name from “Little” which he viewed as a slave name, to “X” which symbolized the loss of the unknown name of his African ancestors.
After being released from prison in 1952, Malcolm went to Detroit where he worked alongside Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. He was very successful in expanding the movement, his speeches attracted thousands, and NOI’s membership drastically increased from 400 members in 1952 at the time of Malcolm’s release from prison, to 40,000 just eight years later. Malcolm became a leading voice in the ‘radicalized’ wing of the Civil Rights Movement under his phrase, “By any means necessary” which embraced the use of violence as a tool when fighting for the social, political and economic advancement of Blacks, it was a contrasting alternative to Martin Luther King’s nonviolent Civil Rights movement which relied on peaceful demonstration and viewed violence as an unnecessary strategy.
Although Malcolm X was successful under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad he was conflicted and chose to move forward independent of the NOI in 1964; he established his own religious organization, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. After leaving the NOI Malcolm traveled through North Africa and the Middle East which resulted in the transformation of his spiritual and political thinking. He saw the Civil Rights Struggle as a part of a larger global anti-colonial struggle. During this time he also completed the Hajj, converted to traditional Islam and changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. The name change represented his enlightenment and spiritual transformation. This renewal could have dramatically impacted the Civil Rights movement, but it was halted by the leader’s subsequent assassination. Like his father, Earl Little a preacher, powerful speaker and civil rights leader, was assassinated. At the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, just before Malcolm was about to deliver a speech he was rushed by three members of the NOI, and shot fifteen times at point-blank range. He was pronounced DOA at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, he was just 39 years old. His wife, Betty Shabazz, gave birth to their twin daughters later that year. Malcolm’s murderers; Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson; were convicted of first degree murder March of 1966.
Malcolm X’s commitment to his faith and his people is one of the most inspiring aspects of his story. He is usually framed outside of the Civil Rights Movement as the ‘unfavorable’ or ‘extreme’ alternative of Martin Luther King, who was also a man dedicated to his people and his faith. Both men used their faith as a resource to support their views in the civil right’s movement and both men were perfectly valid in doing so. How so? Well, we must look at a key difference between Christianity and Islam before assessing these leaders positions on violence. People on both sides of the non-violence argument like to point out specific scriptures in order to validate each leaders position on violence. In Christianity we see how God reserves revenge for himself a popularly sourced scripture in the Bible,
It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.
If we restrict our understanding to this verse than Malcolm’s phrase, “By any means necessary” that embraces violence as a tool seems unethical from a Christian perspective, but in the Quran reads,
And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds is legal retribution. But whoever gives [up his right as] charity, it is an expiation for him. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.
It’s no surprise that Western society would embrace MLK’s stance over that of Malcolm X, not only because of it’s distinct relationship with Christianity, but also why would an oppressor embrace the idea of revenge? To do that would be shooting white supremacy in the foot. Like countless activists and leaders in Black History I didn’t learn about Malcolm X in primary school, it was only MLK who had a brief section on the Civil Rights Chapter of my US history book. We must go out of our way to learn about the leader that violently called out White Supremacy, was a leader in the NOI and advocated for Black nationalism. However we must remember that regardless of which leader is embraced today, MLK with his own holiday and Malcolm left out of mainstream history books, that both leaders were violently assassinated as a result of their affluent leadership in the Civil Rights Movement.