May 19 will be the 91st birthday of Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Neb., he ultimately changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. And he’s known to this day by most Americans as the angry, violent, White folks-hating, Black Muslim. But that’s not him. Not even close.
Early in his life, Malcolm was bitter and destructive. Wouldn’t you have been if as a kid your family had faced an eviction lawsuit based on a restrictive covenant barring Blacks from buying homes, if your home had been firebombed by racist arsonists, if your father had been killed by racist thugs, if three of your uncles had been lynched and otherwise killed by other racist thugs, if your widowed mother had been thrown into a mental institution for more than a quarter century by a racist mental health service system, if your brothers and sisters had been scattered to various foster families and orphanages by a racist child welfare system, if you had been humiliated in school by a racist teacher, and if you had been jailed by a racist criminal justice system? Well, that’s exactly the hell Malcolm went through.
Interestingly, it was that racist criminal justice system that became Malcolm’s light at the end of his tunnel. Following his 1946 conviction at age 20 on burglary, larceny, and gun charges as part of a two man- both Black- and three woman- all white- crime ring, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. But two of the white women got suspended sentences. And because she was his girlfriend, the third one got jail time, albeit only seven months. Malcolm’s 10-year sentence would have been much longer if the women had complied with the police department’s request to accuse him and his Black co-defendant of rape. Incredibly, it was in prison that he began to blossom- but not as a shrewd criminal. Instead, it was in the same way as when he had excelled to the top of his junior high school class. Unfortunately, he later dropped out and began his downward spiral not long afterward. The event that caused him to permanently leave school occurred when, in response to him saying as a straight A eighth-grade student that he wanted to become a lawyer, his favorite teacher told him that becoming an attorney was “not a realistic goal for a nigger.” By 1942, he had left Lansing, Michigan, moved to Boston, and then traveled to Harlem where he had become immersed in drug dealing, pimping, and gambling.
Once incarcerated, he used prison as the school system that he had dropped out of. He became a voracious reader. That- combined with the lifelong experiences he had with white America and his communications with his brothers Philbert and Reginald who in 1948 introduced him to the Nation of Islam (NOI) headed by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad- led him to believe that the white man was the devil. After all, a devil is what a devil does. He converted to the NOI shortly thereafter and by the time he was paroled in 1952, he had gotten rid of the Little ”slave owner” surname and taken on X, which signified his “lost tribal” name.
Shortly after just a year out of prison, Malcolm was named minister of the NOI’s Boston mosque and then a year later minister of the Philadelphia mosque. He exponentially increased the NOI’s membership through his compelling charisma and powerful eloquence. And he did the same for “Muhammad Speaks” newspaper that began publication in 1961.
Malcolm was described by the New York Times as among the top two sought-after public speakers in America along with Senator Barry Goldwater. This was subsequent to the widespread attention he had received from the mainstream media following the national television broadcast of “The Hate That Hate Produced,” which aired in 1959 with Mike Wallace as host. It was then that Malcolm’s fame began to eclipse everyone in the NOI, including the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. It was also then that dissension arose amongst some members regarding what they viewed as too much attention on Malcolm and not enough on the NOI. That dissension was exacerbated in 1963 when Malcolm began to hear rumors of Muhammad’s alleged relationships with six women and after the “chickens coming home to roost” comment made by Malcolm eight days after the assassination of JFK.
Malcolm left the NOI in 1963 and founded the religious-based Muslim Mosque, Incorporated and in 1964 the secular-based Organization of Afro-American Unity. It was in that year that he took his pilgrimage to Mecca. As a result of that hajj, he stopped calling the white man the devil. But he never stopped condemning the white man’s devilment. He also stopped promoting separatism. But he never stopped promoting Black unity and Black independence.
It was none other than Martin Luther King Jr., the personification of non-violence and desegregation, who said that “right before … (Malcolm) was killed, he came down to Selma and said some pretty passionate things against me … But afterwards, he took my wife aside and said he thought he could help me more by attacking me than praising me. He thought it would make it easier for me in the long run.”
Malcolm is arguably the greatest Black man in 20th century American history. He not only talked the talk. He also walked the walk by getting in the face of this country’s blatant violent racism and never backing down. He was smart. He was tough. He was effective. He was proud. He was culturally regal. This 39-year-old martyr was, as Ossie Davis pointed out in the eulogy six days after the February 21, 1965 assassination, “our own Black shining prince who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”
The words from David Walker’s Appeal, written in 1829, and the words of Christopher James Perry Sr., founder of the Tribune in 1884, are the inspiration for my “Freedom’s Journal” columns. In order to honor that pivotal nationalist abolitionist and that pioneering newspaper giant, as well as to inspire today’s Tribune readers, each column ends with Walker and Perry’s combined quote- along with my inserted voice- as follows: I ask all Blacks “to procure a copy of this… (weekly column) for it is designed… particularly for them” so they can “make progress… against (racist) injustice.”