Malcolm X "The Man and His Times

Previous   Home   History & Culture   Contact Us


(from the book Malcolm X, The Man and His Times, By John Henrik Clarke. Published by Africa World Press, Inc.  P.O. box 1892, Trenton, NJ 08607 )

The man best known as Malcolm X lived three distinct and interrelated lives under the respective names Malcolm Little, Malcolm X, and EI-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Any honest attempt to understand the total man must begin with some understanding of the significant components that went into his making.

The racist society that produced and killed Malcolm X is responsible for what he was and for destroying what he could have been. He had the greatest leadership potential of any person to emerge directly from the black proletariat in this century. In another time under different circumstances he might have been a king-and a good one. He might have made a nation and he might have destroyed one.

He was a creation of the interplay of powerful and conflicting forces in mid-century America. No other country or combination of forces could have shaped him the way he was and ultimately destroyed him with such unique ruthlessness.

Malcolm X knew, before he could explain it to himself and others, that he was living in a society that was engaged in the systematic destruction of his people's self-respect. His first memories are of conflict. In this respect his early life was no different than that of most black Americans, where conflict comes early and stays late. In his own words:

When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan raiders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because "The good Christian white people" were not going to stand for my father's "spreading trouble" among the "good" Negroes of Omaha with the "back to Africa" preaching's of Marcus Garvey.

This was how he remembered his father, an ambitious dreamer attempting to maintain himself and his family while bigoted white policemen, Ku Klux Klansmen, and Black Legionnaires were determined to teach him to stay m his place." The father of Malcolm X was killed while fighting against the restricted place that was assigned to his people in this country. Much later, and in many different ways, Malcolm X continued the same fight and was subsequently killed for the same reason. Every major event in Malcolm's life brought him into conflict with the society that still thrives on the oppression of his people.

His mother was born as a result of her mother being raped by a white man in the West Indies. When he was four the house where he and his family lived was burned down by members of the Ku Klux Klan. When he was six his father met a violent death that his family always believed was a lynching.

After the death of his father, who was a follower of the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, his family was broken up and for a number of years he lived in state institutions and boarding homes. When he finally went to school he made good marks, but lost interest and was a dropout at the age of fifteen. He went to live with his sister in Boston and went to work at the kinds of jobs available to Negro youth-mainly the jobs not wanted by white people, like: shoeshine boy, soda jerk, hotel busboy, member of a dining car crew on trains traveling to New York, and a waiter in a Harlem nightclub.

From these jobs, he found his way into the underworld and thought, at the time, that his position in life was advancing. In the jungle of the underworld, where the fiercest r survive by fleecing the weak and the defenseless, he became a master manipulator, skilled in gambling, selling drugs, burglary, and hustling. A friend who had helped him get his first job gave him the rationale for his actions. "The main thing you have to remember," he was told, "is that everything in the world is a hustle."

Malcolm returned to Boston, where he was later arrested for burglary and sentenced to ten years in prison. The year was 1946 and he was not quite twenty-one years old. Prison was another school for Malcolm. He now had time to think and plan. Out of this thinking he underwent a conversion that literally transformed his whole life. By letters and visits from his family he was introduced to the Black Muslim movement (which calls itself officially The Lost-Found Nation of Islam). He tested himself in the discipline of his newly chosen religion by refusing to eat pork. The event startled his fellow inmates, who had nicknamed him Satan. He describes the occasion in this manner:

It was the funniest thing-the reaction, and the way that it spread. In prison where so little breaks the monotonous routine, the smallest thing causes a commotion of talk. It was being mentioned all over the cell block by night that Satan didn't eat pork. It made me very proud, in some odd way. One of the universal images of the Negro in prison and out-was that he couldn't do without pork. It made me feel good to see that my not eating it had especially startled the white convicts. Later I would learn, when I had read and studied Islam a good deal, that unconsciously my first pre-Islamic submission had been manifested. I had experienced, for the first time, the Muslim teaching, "If you take one step toward Allah-Allah will take two steps toward you." My brothers and sisters in Detroit and Chicago had all become converted to what they were being taught was the "natural religion for the black man. "

His description of his process of self-education in prison is an indictment of the American educational system and a tribute to his own perseverance in obtaining an education after being poorly prepared in the public schools. While in prison he devised his own method of self-education and learned how to speak and debate effectively so that he could participate and defend the movement after his release from prison. He started by copying words from the dictionary that might be helpful to him, beginning with A He went through to "Z" and then, he writes, "for the first time, I could pick up a book and actually understand what the book was saying."

This aspect of his story calls attention to the tremendous reservoirs of talent, and even genius, locked up among the masses in the black ghettos. It also indicates what can be accomplished when the talent of this oppressed group is respected and given hope and a purpose.

Within a few years he was to become a debater with a national reputation. He took on politicians, college professors, journalists, and anyone black or white who had the nerve to meet him. He was respected by some and feared by others.

Malcolm was released from prison in 1952, when he was twenty-seven years old. For a few weeks he took a job with his oldest brother, Wilfred, as a furniture salesman in Detroit. He went to Chicago before the end of that year to hear and meet the leader of the Nation of Islam-Elijah Muhammad. He was accepted into the movement and given the name Malcolm X. He went back to Detroit and was made assistant minister of the Detroit Mosque. From this point on, his rise in the movement and in the eyes of the public was rapid.

At the end of 1953, he went to Chicago to live with the leader of the Nation of Islam and was trained by him personally. After organizing a mosque in Philadelphia, he was sent to head the movement in Harlem in 1954 before he was thirty years old.

In a few years he was able to transform the Black Muslim movement into a national organization and himself into one of the country's best-known personalities. As the public spokesman and defender of the movement, he literally put it on the map. This was the beginning of his trouble with his leader, Elijah Muhammad. When the public thought of the Black Muslim movement they thought first of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X had appeal far beyond the movement. He was one of the most frequent speakers on the nation's campuses and the object of admiration by thousands of militant youth.

In his pamphlet "Malcolm X-The Man and His Ideas," George Breitman gives the following description of Malcolm's appeal as a speaker:

His speaking style was unique-plain, direct like an arrow, devoid of flowery trimming. He used metaphors and figures of speech that were lean and simple, rooted in the ordinary, daily experience of his audiences. He knew what the masses thought and how they felt, their strengths and their weaknesses. He reached right into their minds and hearts without wasting a word; and he never tried to flatter them. Despite an extraordinary ability to move and arouse his listeners, his main appeal was to reason, not emotion. . . . I want only to convey the idea that rarely has there been a man in America better able to communicate ideas to the most oppressed people; and that was not just a matter of technique, which can be learned and applied in any situation by almost anybody, but that it was a rare case of a man in closest communion with the oppressed, able to speak to them, because he identified himself with them, an authentic expression of their yearning for freedom, a true product of their growth in the same way that Lenin was a product of the Russian people.

From 1954, when he was made responsible for the Black Muslim movement in Harlem, the history of that movement is essentially the history of the rise of Malcolm X.  In public speeches, where he nearly always prefaced his remarks with the statement "The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us," Malcolm X was teaching lessons about the black American's fight for basic dignity that were more meaningfully logical than anything that Elijah Muhammad had ever conceived. He was the public figure most identified with the movement and most sought after as its spokesman. Louis E. Lomax referred to him as the St. Paul of the Black Muslim movement and added, "Not only was he knocked to the ground by the bright light of truth while on an evil journey, but he also rose from the dust stunned, with a new name and a burning zeal to travel in the opposite direction and carry America's 20 million Negroes with him."

In these years, Malcolm X was preaching separation and frightening more white people than the social protest organizations that were demanding integration. The bold act of refusing integration was a challenge to a society that never intended to integrate the black Americans in the first place. With this act, Malcolm X put American society on the defensive by questioning its intentions toward his people and proving that those intentions were false. Also he made black America question itself and face reality. He identified the enemy of their promise, indicted that enemy, and still did not relieve the victim, his own people, of the responsibility for being the instrument of their own liberation.

To place Malcolm X and his roughhewn grandeur in proper perspective, one must first understand the nature of the society that produced him and ultimately destroyed him. To a large extent, the shadow of slavery still hangs over this land, and affects the daily life of every American. Slavery was the black gold that produced America's first wealth and power. Slavery was the breeding ground for the most contagious and contaminating monster of all time-racism.

It was this racism and oppression by white America that convinced Malcolm X of the necessity of black nationalism as the vehicle for black liberation, as opposed to "integration," while he was in the Black Muslim movement. Al-though his black nationalism, while he was in the Muslim organization, was narrow and sectarian, this did not prevent him from playing a tremendously important role in the evolution of the black freedom struggle.

Prior to the arrival of Malcolm X on the scene, most of white America looked upon the established civil rights organizations as "extremist," although most of them were creatures and creations of the white controllers of power. But Malcolm came along and said, "Not only do I refuse to integrate with you, white man, but I demand that I be completely separated from you in some states of our own or back home in Africa; not only is your Christianity a fraud but your 'democracy' a brittle lie." Neither the white man nor his black apologists could answer the latter argument.

Because they could not answer Malcolm in this area, they attacked him where he was most vulnerable-the concept of separatism and that all white folks were "blue-eyed devils"-labeling him a "hatemonger," "racist," "dangerous fanatic," "black supremacist," etc. In reality, he was none of these things. Certainly he didn't preach "black supremacy." Malcolm X preached black pride, black redemption, black reaffirmation, and he gave the black woman the image of a black man that she could respect. The fact that Malcolm X, while in the Black Muslim movement, could reject a white person on any terms caused most of white America psychological turmoil. And instilled admiration and pride in most black Americans. For the egos of most white Americans are so bloated that they cannot conceive of a black man rejecting them.

It can be stated categorically that Malcolm X, while in the Black Muslim movement and out of it, created the present stage of the civil rights struggle-to the effect that he was a catalytic agent-offstage, sarcastically criticizing the "civil rights leaders," popping a whip which activated them into more radical action and programs. He was the alternative which the power holders of America had to deal with, if they didn't deal with the established "civil rights leaders."

On December I, 1963, shortly after President Kennedy's assassination, Malcolm X addressed a public rally at Manhattan Center in New York City. He was speaking as a replacement for Elijah Muhammad as he had done many times before. After the speech, during a question and answer period, Malcolm X made the remark that led to his suspension as a Muslim minister. In answer to a question, "What do you think about President Kennedy's assassination?" Malcolm X answered that he saw the case as "The chickens coming home to roost." Soon after the remark, Malcolm X was suspended by Elijah Muhammad and directed to stop speaking for ninety days. After some weeks, when Malcolm X realized that there were a number of highly placed persons in the Black Muslim movement conspiring against him, seemingly with Elijah Muhammad's consent, he left the movement.

He devotes a chapter in his book (The Autobiography of Malcolm X) to the growth of his disenchantment and his eventual suspension from the Black Muslim movement. He says:

I had helped Mr. Muhammad and his ministers to revolutionize the American black man's thinking, opening his eyes until he would never again look in the same fearful way at the white man. . .. If I harbored any personal disappointment whatsoever, it was that privately I was convinced that our Nation of Islam could be an even greater force in the Amen-can black man's overall struggle-if we engaged in more action. By that I mean I thought privately that we should have amended, or relaxed, our general non-engagement policy. I felt that, wherever black people committed themselves, in the Little Rocks and the Birminghams and other places, militantly disciplined Muslims should also be there-for all the world to see, and respect and discuss.

On March 8, 1964, he publicly announced that he was starting a new organization. In fact two new organizations were started, the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Malcolm X was still somewhat beholden to Elijah Muhammad in the weeks immediately following his break with the movement. At his press conference on March 12, he said, in part:

"I am and always will be a Muslim. My religion is Islam. I still believe that Mr. Muhammad's analysis of the problem is the most realistic, and that his solution is the best one. This means that I too believe the best solution is complete separation, with our people going back home, to our own African homeland. But separation back to Africa is still a long-range program, and while it is yet to materialize, 22 million of our people who are still here in America need better food, clothing, housing, education, and jobs right now. Mr. Muhammad's program does point us back homeward, but it also contains within it what we could and should be doing to help solve many of our problems while we are still here.

"Internal differences within the Nation of Islam forced me out of it. I did not leave of my own free will. But now that it has happened I intend to make the most of it. Now that I have more independence of action, I intend to use a more flexible approach toward working with others to get a solution to this problem. I do not pretend to be a divine man, but I do believe in divine gtiidance, divine power, and in the fulfillment of divine prophecy. I am not educated, nor am I an expert in any particular field . . . but I am sincere and my sincerity is my credential."

"The problem facing our people here in America is bigger than other personal or organizational differences. Therefore, as leaders, we must stop worrymg about the threat that we seem to think we pose to each other's personal prestige, and concentrate our united efforts toward solving the unending hurt that is being done daily to our people here in America.

"I am going to organize and head a new Mosque in New York City, known as the Muslim Mosque, Inc. This gives us a religious base, and the spiritual force necessary to rid our people of the vices that destroy the moral fiber of our community.

"Our political philosophy will be black nationalism. Our economic and social philosophy will be black nationalism. Our cultural emphasis will be black nationalism.

"Many of our people aren't religiously inclined, so the Muslim Mosque, Inc., will be organized in such a manner as to provide for the active participation of all Negroes in our political, economic, and social programs, despite their religious or non-religious beliefs.

"The political philosophy of black nationalism means: We must control the politics and the politicians of our community. They must no longer take orders from outside forces. We will organize and sweep out of office all Negro politicians who are puppets for the outside forces."

Malcolm X had now thrust himself into a new area of conflict that would take him, briefly, to a high point of international attention and partial acceptance.

During the last phase of his life Malcolm X established this Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the non-religious Organization of Afro-American Unity, patterned after the Organization of African Unity. He attempted to internationalize the civil rights struggle by taking it to the United Nations.

In several trips to Africa and one to Mecca, he sought the counsel and support of African and Asian heads of state. His trip to Mecca and Africa had a revolutionary effect upon his thinking. His perennial call had always been for black unity and self-defense in opposition to the "integrationist's" program of nonviolence, passive resistance, and "Negro-white unity." When he returned home from his trip he was no longer opposed to progressive whites uniting with revolutionary blacks, as his enemies would suggest.

But to Malcolm, and correctly so, the role of the white progressive was not in black organizations but in white organizations in white communities, convincing and converting the unconverted to the black cause. Further, and perhaps more important, Malcolm had observed the perfidy of the white liberal and the American Left whenever Afro-Americans sought to be instruments of their own liberation. He was convinced that there could be no black-white unity until there was black unity; that there could be no workers' solidarity until there was racial solidarity.

The overwhelming majority of white America demonstrates daily that they cannot and will not accept the black man as an equal in all the ramifications of this acceptance-after having three hundred and forty-five years of racism preached to them from the pulpit, taught in the primer and textbook, practiced by the government, apotheosized on editorial pages, lauded on the airways and television screens. It would be tantamount to self-castration, a gutting of the ego. It would be asking white America completely to purge itself of everything it has been taught, fed, and has believed for three hundred and forty-five years.

It was this recognition of what racism had done to the white man and to the mind of the black man that the following paragraph was and is a keystone of the Organization of Afro-American Unity's program: "We must revamp our entire thinking and redirect our learning trends so that we can put forth a confident identity and wipe out the false image built up by an oppressive society. We can build a foundation for liberating our minds by studying the different philosophies and psychologies of others. Provisions are being made for the study of languages of Eastern origin such as Swahili, Hausa, and Arabic. Such studies will give us, as Afro-Americans, a direct access to ideas and history of our ancestors, as well as histories of mankind at large." More so than any other Afro-American leader, Malcolm X realized that there must be a concomitant cultural and educational revolution if the physical revolution is to be successful. No revolution has ever sustained itself on emotion.

When Malcolm X returned from his trip to Mecca and Africa, he completely repudiated the Black Muslims' program of separation, their acquisitive thirst for money and property and machine idolatry. He felt that they were merely imitating the racist enemy. He still believed in separation from his racist enemy, but his was an ideological separation.

To Malcolm X, the Afro-American must transcend his enemy, not imitate him. For he foresaw that both the Black Muslims and the "integrationists" were aping the oppressor; that neither recognized that the struggle for black freedom was neither social nor moral. It was and is a power struggle; a struggle between the white haves and the black have-nots. A struggle of the oppressor and the oppressed. And if the oppressed is to breach the power of the oppressor, he must either acquire power or align himself with power.

Therefore, it is not accidental that Malcolm's political arm, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, was patterned to the letter and spirit after the Organization of African Unity. Nor should it be surprising that he officially linked up the problems of Afro-Americans with the problems of his black brothers and sisters on the mother continent. Malcolm X's vision was broad enough to see that the Afro-Americans were not a "minority" as the enemy and his lackeys would have us believe. Afro-Americans are not an isolated 25 million. There are over 100 million black people in the Western Hemisphere-Cuba, Brazil, Latin America, the West Indies, North America, etc. Malcolm knew that when we unite these millions with the 300 million on the African continent the black man be-comes a mighty force. The second largest people on earth. And so Malcolm's perennial theme was unity, unity, unity.

The formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity and the establishment of an official connection with Africa was one of the most important acts of the twentieth century. For this act gave the Afro-Americans an official link with the new emerging power emanating from both Africa and Asia. Thus, Malcolm X succeeded where Marcus Garvey and others had failed. Thus, doing this, Malcolm projected the cause of Afro-American freedom into the international arena of power.

When he internationalized the problem, by raising it from the level of civil rights to that of human rights and by linking up with Africa, Malcolm X threw himself into the cross fire of that invisible, international cartel of power and finance which deposes presidents and prime ministers, dissolves parliaments, if they refuse to do their bidding. It was this force, I believe, that killed Malcolm X, that killed Lumumba, that killed Hammarskjold.

There is another and more potent reason why the American oppressors feared Malcolm X and desired him dead. And that is the publicized fact that he was going to bring the oppression of Afro-Americans before the United Nations, charging the United States Government with genocide. Many of the oppressors had conniptions when confronted with the prospect of a world body discussing the problems of Afro-Americans.

In the introduction to Malcolm X's autobiography, M. S. Handler has said: "No man in our time aroused fear and hatred in the white man as did Malcolm, because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price-a man unreservedly committed to the cause of liberating the black man in American society rather than integrating the black man into that society."

He was, more precisely, a man in search of a definition of himself and his relationship to his people, his country, and the world. That a man who had inhabited the "lower depths" of life could rise in triumph as a reproach to its ills, and become an uncompromising champion of his people, is in itself a remarkable feat. Malcolm X went beyond this feat. Though he came from the American ghetto and directed his message to the people in the American ghetto first of all, he also became, in his brief lifetime, a figure of world importance. He was assassinated on February 21, 1965, while on the threshold of his potential.

About the men of his breed, the writer John Oliver Killens has said: "He was a dedicated patriot: DIGNITY was his country, MANHOOD was his government and FREEDOM was his land."

John Henrik Clarke

New York City-November 1968

Other references:

Book: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley
Book: Malcolm X - The Man and His Times, edited by Dr. John Henrik Clarke
Book: Malcolm X - The Last Speeches, edited by Bruce Perry
Book: The Judas Factor - The Plot to Kill Malcolm X, by Karl Evanzz
Book: Malcolm X - By Any Means Necessry, edited by George Breitman
Book: The Last Year of Malcolm X, edited by George Breitman

Revised: August 23, 2018 .