Malcolm X - Spiritual Leader
Created | Updated Feb 22, 2011
The murder of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz at the Audubon Ballroom, New York, on 21 February, 1965 came as a surprise to no one. Even Shabazz himself had predicted his own death, though his list of suspects had, by the end of his life, come to include any number of people for any number of reasons. For Shabazz, who had been called by some 'the angriest black man in America' had once been the spokesman for one of the most powerful religious movements America had ever seen. Back then though, he had been known by another name - Malcolm X.
'First the Sheep, Next the Shepherd'
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on the 19 May, 1925, the seventh of nine children. His father, the Reverend Earl Little, was a Baptist minister and fervent follower of Marcus Garvey1's UNIA (the Universal Negro Improvement Association). Little's activism drew the attention of the Ku Klux Klan2 and other white supremacy organisations; the Little family were driven from their home in Nebraska, and had their first home in Lansing, Michigan, burned to the ground. Then, on the 28 September, 1931, Earl Little was beaten to a pulp (allegedly by members of the white supremacist group the 'Black Legion') and then thrown onto the railway tracks to die. With six young children to support, Louise Little became more reliant on welfare while she struggled to get work wherever she could. The loss of Earl, coupled with the widespread effects of the Great Depression, eventually took its toll on the family; in 1939, welfare officers decided she was unfit to care for her children and she was committed to the State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo, where she remained for 26 years. Though the eldest of her children, Hilda and Wilfred, were allowed to stay on in their father's house, the rest were placed with various families in the district.
'Rebel Without a Pause'
Even before his family was split apart, Malcolm had been a wayward child. His bad behaviour led him to be expelled from school and placed in a detention home. There, he managed to settle down and once he was allowed to attend Mason Junior High School, he began to excel at his studies. It was with some dismay, therefore, that he told his teacher that he hoped to be a lawyer only to be told that it wasn't a 'realistic goal for a nigger' and that he should consider carpentry. Yet his white fellow students, many of whom were academically his inferiors, were all encouraged to pursue whichever careers they had suggested. Only Malcolm was discouraged.
It has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be with them, we weren't considered of them. Even though they appeared to have opened the door, it was still closed. Thus they never did really see me...
No longer happy at school, Malcolm wrote to his eldest sister, Ella, and soon permission was granted for him to move to her house in Roxbury, near Boston. Though Ella tried to encourage him to mix with 'respectable' black people from her own neighbourhood, Malcolm found himself drawn to the town ghetto sections. It was then that he met a would-be saxophonist known as 'Shorty' who would become one of Malcolm's closest friends in those early years. Shorty worked in a pool hall trying to raise money for his saxophone lessons, and through him, Malcolm got his first job, working as a shoeshine boy at the Roseland State Ballroom. Though his sister made it clear she didn't approve, for Malcolm it was a dream job as it would bring him close enough to hear all the big bands of the time, including Benny Goodman's. It also gave him his first experience of learning to hustle; at first, he sold condoms and reefers on the side, later he became a go-between, leading customers to pimps.
Coming into contact with the snappily-dressed and coiffured jazz musicians had a profound effect on Malcolm. With Shorty's help he managed to buy his own zoot suit (a sharp suit with wide shoulders and baggy trousers that narrow sharply down to the ankles) and Shorty himself gave Malcolm his first 'conk', straightening his black, Afro hair to make it look straight by using hot, scalding lye, vaseline and raw eggs. 'This was my first really big step toward self-degradation,' Malcolm later wrote:
When I endured all that pain, literally burning my flesh with lye, in order to cook my natural hair until it was limp, to have it look like a white man's hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are 'inferior' - and white people 'superior' that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look 'pretty' by white standards.
Hazy Shade Of Criminal
Soon, Malcolm had moved out of Ella's house and into an apartment he shared with Shorty. The recent attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour had dragged the United States into the World War and with many young white men signing up to fight, the jobs that had always been exclusively 'white' were slowly opening up to black people; Malcolm had no trouble finding work. Outgrowing the shoeshine job, he graduated to working on rail-carriages and started travelling each day on the Boston to New York line.
New York opened up a new world to Malcolm, in particular the famous jazz clubs of Harlem, such as the Apollo. The railroads also allowed him to expand his hustles as he began smuggling marijuana into and out of Harlem. He soon found it difficult to balance his hectic social life of reefers, booze and - if possible - white women against a steady job. But even after he was sacked from the railroads for being drunk and less-than subservient to customers, he wasn't too worried. He quickly got a job as a barman in New York, despite the fact that, although he looked much older, he was just 17 years old.
Within a couple of years, Malcolm - or 'Detroit Red' as he became known - was involved in an increasing number of hustles: peddling reefers or harder drugs; soliciting on behalf of pimps; gambling and, eventually, small robberies, which he organised with Shorty, to feed his increasing drug habit. After one such robbery, Malcolm put a stolen watch in for repair. When he returned to collect it, the police swarmed all over him - they'd been tipped off. Searching his apartment, they found a trove of stolen goods. When his case reached court, the prosecution had managed to collate 14 further crimes to be taken into consideration. In February, 1946, Malcolm Little was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Do the Right Thing
Like many of the criminals from the Harlem underworld, Malcolm spent his first year in prison trying to continue his hustle-driven lifestyle, cursing the authorities and getting high on anything they could get smuggled in - marijuana, Benzedrine, even nutmeg! But then he came into contact with an old-time criminal called 'Bimbi'. Malcolm began to notice how Bimbi seemed to be knowledgeable about any number of topics; he was one of the prison library's most frequent visitors and commanded the respect of guards and inmates alike. So when Bimbi told Malcolm sternly to start using his brains to advance himself while a prisoner, he paid attention. He began a correspondence course in English.
Malcolm's brother Philbert first wrote to him in 1948 about a 'natural religion for the black man'. Malcolm had long considered himself not just atheist but vehemently anti-religious and sent a reply to his brother that would later shame him greatly. But a subsequent letter from his brother Reginald managed to catch his interest:
Malcolm, don't eat any more pork, and don't smoke any more cigarettes. I'll show you how to get out of prison...
Thinking this was some psychological trick that might work to his advantage, he did as he was told. Instantly, the fellow prisoners were curious and, he later recalled, seemed to respect him more as a consequence. His sister Ella, meanwhile, had been working to get him a transfer to a rehabilitation jail. On his arrival there, the prisoners were again surprised by this black man who refused to eat pork and didn't smoke. By the time his brother Reginald finally came to see him, Malcolm was eager to learn how this 'ruse' would help him escape - and was surprised to learn that Reginald and all his family (bar Ella) had converted to the Nation of Islam as followers of 'Allah's Messenger, the Honourable Elijah Muhammad'. Reginald explained the principles of this 'new' faith, the main one being that the White Man is the Devil. As Malcolm thought back to the way white people had murdered their father and splintered their family, and all the people he had encountered as a drug peddler and a scout for the prostitutes who catered for white men who sought out black women... the seed was sown.
A later visit from his sister Hilda led to him learning about the religion's alternative version of evolution, how the original people, the black kings and queens of Africa, had founded the Holy City Mecca, but how they had become diluted by a geneticist called Yacub, who had begun a programme of bleaching out the Black race to create the White. All this had been taught to the followers of the Nation of Islam. Though he would later discover that these teachings infuriated the true Muslims of the East, at this crucial time it was the catalyst that began Malcolm Little's conversion to Islam.
Malcolm began to write direct to Elijah Muhammad on a daily basis. His education now took in a complete study of the dictionary, learning every word from 'aardvark' right through. He began taking part in prison debates, while all the while working his way through every book on philosophy and politics he could find. His discoveries about the way world history had been 'whitened' to suppress the rich histories of non-whites left him stunned - the natives of America, the half a billion inhabitants of India, the British-engineered Opium Wars with China - all helped to further solidify in his mind the ideas that he had learned from Elijah Muhammad about the 'evil' of the 'white devils'.
But just as Malcolm was discovering the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, his brother Reginald had apparently suffered a crisis of faith and had begun to doubt the 'Messenger of Allah', leading to his exclusion, at Elijah Muhammad's instructions, from the Nation of Islam. At the time, Malcolm could not comprehend how Reginald could betray Elijah Muhammad by accusing him of hypocrisy. Only years later would Malcolm himself make similar discoveries...
Fight the Power
We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters - Plymouth Rock landed on us!
Leaving prison in 1952, Malcolm moved in with his brother Wilfred and his family and immediately began life as he intended to continue it, as a practising Muslim. Before too long he got to hear the Honourable Elijah Muhammad speak, an emotional experience that, he later admitted, he was 'totally unprepared for'. Muhammad later invited Malcolm to his house to meet his family, slowly integrating him into their society. Around this time, Malcolm applied for full membership of the Nation of Islam and, having been taught that the surnames of the American black people came from their former slave owners, he replaced his own surname with the letter 'X', as so many had done before him. The teachings of Elijah Muhammad told them that followers would retain the name 'X' until Allah himself provided them with a 'Holy Name from His own mouth'.
Malcolm threw himself enthusiastically into recruiting for the Nation of Islam and through his efforts, Detroit's Temple Number One tripled its membership within just a few months. With the encouragement of his Temple's Minister, Lemuel Hassan, he began giving lectures inspired by the teachings of the Honourable Elijah and in the spring of 1953 he was named Detroit Temple Number One's Assistant Minister. He continued to regularly visit Elijah Muhammad and his family in Chicago, and enjoyed learning through Elijah's example.
Having been such a success in Detroit, Malcolm decided to put his training into practice on the streets of Harlem. He found recruiting difficult, largely because the black people there were put off by the strict moral code of the Muslims. Fornication or adultery, for example, was strictly forbidden. This code would be policed by the Fruit of Islam, a force of young, zealous men who would report any indiscretions to Mr Muhammad and it would be he who would judge the punishment, whether that be separation from the Nation, or in extreme cases expulsion, as had happened to Malcolm's own brother.
In the ten years since he had first entered prison, Malcolm had not entertained the idea of being with a woman. Despite recommendations for suitable partners from the female Muslims at the Temples, Malcolm's work remained paramount. But in 1956, he set eyes on Betty X, an intelligent, tall Muslim at Temple Number Seven. Over the space of a year, Malcolm slowly got to know her, until, after consulting Mr Muhammad, he decided he wanted to marry her. On 14 January, 1958, they were married. Betty would subsequently provide him with five daughters.
Up to that point, the Nation of Islam had been able to grow as a relatively secret organisation. But an incident in Harlem one night suddenly brought the full strength of the Muslim movement into the public eye. Dispersing a fight on the streets, two white policemen tried to move onlookers along. When two members of Temple Number Seven refused to be moved, they were set upon by the officers with nightsticks. One of them, Johnson Hinton, received a savage blow to the head shortly before he was taken to a nearby police precinct. In less than half an hour, around 50 of Temple Seven's Fruit of Islam were standing in ranks-formation outside the precinct. Malcolm X made his way to the precinct front desk and demanded to see Johnson Hinton. At first, he was told no such person was in the precinct; then the police admitted that he was there, but that Malcolm could not see him. Malcolm pointed to the rows of ordered Muslims outside - by now they had also been joined by crowds of black residents from the area, swelling their ranks considerably. Malcolm calmly informed the police that the men would remain outside the precinct until they could be reassured that their brother had received medical attention. On Malcolm's instruction, Hinton was moved to Harlem Hospital, at which time Malcolm gave the order for the Muslim followers to disperse.
Although the incident was reported in the press as just another example of unrest in Harlem, the police department began to pay close attention to the Nation of Islam.
Fear of a Black Planet
In 1959, the Mike Wallace Show3 broadcast an edition called 'The Hate That Hate Produced', a documentary about the growth of the 'Black Muslim' movement in America. Suddenly, the Nation of Islam was on the front page of every national newspaper - as a hate-mongering group, 'black fascists', 'anti-Christian' and 'possibly Communist'.
Soon, radio and television stations were calling on Malcolm X, as the most prominent spokesman for the Nation of Islam, to defend these accusations. With Elijah Muhammad's permission, Malcolm began appearing on a number of shows, always as 'the representative of Mr Elijah Muhammad', never solely as himself. Such discussions generally took the form of Malcolm picking apart his critics, displaying a greater understanding of the semantics of the English language and showing himself - and the movement he belonged to - as intelligent and spiritual, yet determined to overthrow the centuries of oppression the black people had endured under white rule.
Not surprisingly, Malcolm became the focus of a great number of questions from all sides. Somehow, his unlisted number fell into the public domain and, taking the show at face value, critics began to call him at all hours to ask him how he could preach such hatred. Some tried to play down the importance of the Nation of Islam by claiming that its numbers were minuscule, to which Malcolm retorted:
Whoever tells you how many Muslims there are doesn't know, and who does know will never tell you...
Seemingly from nowhere, an organisation perceived to be 'anti-white' had emerged, and regardless of whatever he himself might say about Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm was believed to be its leader. With Elijah's blessing, he began accepting invitations to talk on discussion programmes alongside leading academics. Often he would be asked why the Nation of Islam appeared to support the White Supremacist movements in advocating segregation:
We reject segregation even more militantly than you say you do! We want separation, which is not the same! ... Segregation is that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors. But separation is that which is done voluntarily by two equals - for the good of both!
While this media attention brought them many enemies, it also helped swell their numbers with hundreds of people eager to hear the words of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad himself at organised Muslim rallies. Over the next few years, whenever the white press wished to discuss 'black issues' they inevitably came to Malcolm X for a quote and he soon emerged as 'the angriest black man in America'. But Malcolm began to notice that the Nation's own newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, began to report on him less and less, mainly out of resentment on the part of the paper's publisher - Elijah Muhammad's son, Herbert.
Don't Believe the Hype
Malcolm's opinion was sought on all race issues - from the passive campaigns that had surrounded Rosa Parks4 to the March on Washington5. And in all discussions, he repeatedly told people he was but the representative of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad. So it was a major blow, both to the Nation of Islam and to Malcolm personally, when it was revealed in newspapers and television reports that Elijah Muhammad was facing two paternity suits from former secretaries of his who claimed that he was the father of their four young children. At first, Malcolm struggled to accept that his own spiritual leader might be guilty of adultery. Seeking advice from the Qoran6, Malcolm saw a glimmer of hope when he read about David's adultery with Bathsheba being forgotten after he slew Goliath, or how Noah's drunkenness was overshadowed by his building of the Ark. Perhaps a person's good deeds could outweigh their bad?
When he eventually met with Elijah, the 'Messenger of Allah' convinced him that, just as his examples had played their part in the greater prophecies, so too did he. This inspired Malcolm to prepare six of the officials from his own mosque so that they would not be shocked by the revelations that their leader was fallible. He could have no idea that his opposers would see this as an attempt to deliberately damage their leader's reputation further.
On 22 November, 1963, John F Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated. Just a few days later, during a question-and-answer session after a talk, Malcolm commented that he regarded the President's death as a case of 'the chickens coming home to roost', a comment he later claimed was meant as a statement on the way violence breeds violence. Nevertheless, the American press saw this as an ill-timed attack on a much-loved leader. Elijah Muhammad agreed and ordered that Malcolm should be silenced for 90 days.
At first, Malcolm assumed that he would be reinstated after the 90 days were up, but slowly it began to dawn on him that this was just the first steps to keep him out of the way and slowly oust him from the Nation of Islam. There was something in the way Elijah Muhammad spoke about him that made him suspect that once his period of silence was over, his suspension would not be lifted, and instead a story claiming he had refused to apologise for his error would be circulated. After that, all it would take is one ardent follower of Elijah Muhammad to be convinced of his 'religious duty' for Malcolm to find himself the victim of violence.
Though he was forbidden from speaking, he was not yet considered ousted from the nation so he was otherwise allowed to come and go as he pleased. He and his wife accepted an invitation from boxer and recent convert to Islam, Cassius Clay, to join him in training for a fight in Miami, Florida. Clay was due to fight Sonny Liston; it was a fight few expected or wanted to see him win. Few, that is, except Malcolm X.
The day after Clay won the fight, he announced to the press that he was a follower of Islam. Soon after, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Although he was worried by the predictable split with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was also confident that he had one skill that other black leaders did not - having been a hustler for many years, he could speak to the blacks in the ghettos in their own language (by this time, many commentators had noted wryly that he was the only black man in America 'who could stop a race riot - or start one'). The numbers of people who came to hear him speak showed him the faith that the common man had in him and slowly he began to formulate plans for his own organisation. Eventually, he announced to the press that he would be founding a new mosque in New York called the Muslim Mosque Inc, which had its temporary home in the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. That done, he spoke to his sister Ella (who had founded a school that taught Arabic) about a loan so that he could afford to make the pilgrimage to Mecca.
As he boarded the plane to Mecca, the biggest jolt to Malcolm's expectations was that his fellow travellers were of all races, all colours, all nationalities. On arrival at Jedda, the arrival point for all who go to Mecca, he learned that his claim as a Muslim would have to be put before the Mahgama Sharia - the Muslim High Court that ensures that all converts to the faith are genuine - non-Muslims are not permitted to enter Mecca. In the meantime, he was taken to a dormitory near the airport. It was there that he discovered that in all his years of studying under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad, he had never been shown the crouching prayer posture that genuine Muslims around the world adopt when facing Mecca; with his own gangly frame, the posture was painful. He didn't even speak Arabic aside from prayers and for the first time he began to worry that his appeal to enter the city of Mecca would be turned down. But thanks to the intervention of an Arabic Lord who was aware of Malcolm's international reputation as an American Muslim, Malcolm's case was brought forward, he met with the judge and his name was formerly entered into the Holy Register...
It Takes a Nation of Millions
On his return to the US, Malcolm was a visibly changed man. He had discovered that true Islam erased the problems of race; it displayed a brotherhood to all forms of humanity regardless of colour. This discovery had forced him to re-evaluate many of his previous beliefs and throw away many convictions that conflicted with the true message of Allah. This revelation had finally led him towards the 'Holy Name' that had been promised to him; from then on, he signed his name 'El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz'.
If he'd thought his return to America would be welcomed, he was sadly mistaken. In his absence, the long hot summer of 1964 had led to a number of 'race riots' which the press wanted to attribute, however tenuously, to words spoken or written by Malcolm; a spate of death threats began to arrive via newspapers, the police or even direct to Malcolm's office; and additionally, Malcolm and his family had always lived in a house provided by the Nation of Islam - now that he had been forced to cut all ties with the organisation, they arranged a court order to reclaim the house, an order Malcolm campaigned to have overturned. Regardless, on the morning of 14 February, 1965, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through a downstairs window of the house. Malcolm managed to get his pregnant wife and their four daughters to safety but the house was gutted. Typically, they had no contents insurance.
At 12 noon on Sunday 21 February that same year, Malcolm made his way to the Audubon Ballroom on West 166th Street, New York, to deliver a speech. As he took to the stage, an altercation distracted him. As he tried to quell the crowd, he was shot 16 times by unidentified men. He was pronounced dead at 3.30pm.
Reports of what had happened were confused. Two, maybe three men, had shot him with a mixture of handguns and shotguns. Aware of the growing suspicion towards him, Elijah Muhammad was quick to deny that either he or his organisation had anything to do with Malcolm's death, though he did imply that he believed Malcolm had 'died according to his preaching... he preached war, we preach peace.' Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, meanwhile, sent a telegram to Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, saying:
While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and the root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems we face as a race.
Malcolm was buried according to the Muslim faith as 'El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz'. Funeral prayers were lead by Sheikh Al-Hajj Hesham Jaaber with readings from actor and playwright Ossie Davies.
On 10 March, 1965, Thomas 15x Johnson and Norman 3X Butler7, both alleged former 'Black Muslims' and 23-year-old Talmadge Hayer (aka Thomas Haganwere) were indicted for Malcolm's murder and were sentenced to life a year later.
In November 1965, The autobiography of Malcolm X, which had been written with the assistance of novelist and writer Alex Haley, was finally published to widespread critical acclaim. The book's ending foreshadows the events that would bring an end to Malcolm X, yet also provided him with a fitting epitaph:
If I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help to destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America - then, all of the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine.
In 1992, the life of Malcolm X was celebrated in a controversial film from director Spike Lee.
The Brother Malcolm website is an exhaustive resource for information on Malcolm X. It includes a timeline of events as well as photographs and downloadable audio files of Malcolm's speeches (Real Player software is required).