It has been nearly 35 years since the assassination of Malcolm X, yet the stature of the man remains in tact, if not even greater today. His war against the white establishment evolved from inner needs just as he had rebelled against symbols of authority early in his life. It was this early rebellion and the phases that followed, that enabled him to adapt to his later environment. Malcolm X coped with painful ordeals by forgetting them or remembering them in a brighter way. He wanted happiness and love, but kept himself from it, and he often defied the very persons from whom he was seeking approval. He defended his people and helped them understand that blackness is not a sign of shame but a symbol of pride. However, throughout his life Malcolm had many issues with his own color and the pride he would take in himself.
Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little was the seventh child, (three from a previous marriage), of Reverend Earl Little, a pronounced minister and dedicated organizer for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the fourth child of Louisa, a native of the Caribbean island of Grenada. When he was born his father wired his parents, ” It’s a boy, but he’s white, just like mama.” (Bruce Perry, 11) Malcolm’s skin color was an obstacle from his very first breath. His eyes were blue-green, his hair was ash-blonde, and his skin light in color. His paternal grandmother was appalled at his appearance, as it reminded her of the white blood in her veins. His grandfather wept and declared that no albino would be named after him.
Because of the great emphasis placed on his physical characteristics by his parents and siblings, Malcolm was very conscious of his fair skin. He was paraded by his father as his light skinned pride and joy. His mother, who was also in conflict about skin color, would boast about Black pride, but in Malcolm’s eyes appeared to favor friends and relatives of lighter complexion. Louisa was so light skinned that she was often mistaken for white. She would at times attempt to scrub Malcolm’s face and neck to try and make him almost look white. His father would often beat the older children, but Malcolm seemed to be spared the brutality. He attributed this to his light skin color. Although his mother administered most of Malcolm’s beatings, her ambivalence toward his skin color was obvious. The favoritism by his father and the attitude concerning his skin color by his mother bred resentment by his brothers and sisters.
Malcolm, on the other hand, envied the other children because he felt they were favored over him, especially by his mother. There were often fights between him and his brother Philbert, who also attributed the animosity to skin color. The actions of his parents led Malcolm to feel a degree of disapproval from both parents. It was at a very early age, in an effort to discourage his mother from whipping him, that he learned verbal protest could achieve results.
In September of 1931, Malcolm came home from school to find his parents arguing. His father left in a rage and was subsequently killed by a street car trolley. Although there was not much supporting evidence, Malcolm believed his father was killed by members of a white hate-group called the Black Legion. Malcolm claimed he had a premonition, as did his mother, about his father’s death Malcolm’s mother would work odd jobs for whites, who usually didn’t realize she was black, and as soon as they realized they would subsequently fire her. Malcolm, now 10 years old, began venturing out more and more. He began stealing from stores and was introduced to gambling. By 12 years of age, Malcolm found himself in the first of what would be numerous foster homes. He remembers, when he was first removed from his home, his mother saying to the state agent, ” Don’t let them feed him any pig” ( Haley, 33).
Malcolm was ambivalent to his mother’s comment, but would later understand the meaning. He could only focus on the pains he was struggling with, both internally and externally. During these times Malcolm’s only interactions with whites were negative and reminded him constantly that no matter what he or his mother looked like, he was black. By 1939, his mother, dealing with the loss of her husband, financial stress, and finally a broken relationship with a man, had reached a point of non-responsiveness, suffered a severe nervous breakdown, and was declared legally insane and committed to the state mental hospital at Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Malcolm’s mother had pushed her children hard academically. She demanded perfection. Malcolm found several of his elementary school teachers to have the same autocratic characteristics. He often had confrontations with teachers and principals, and his grades would suffer. It wasn’t his intellect, but his inattention to class work that caused this problem. He often took on the role of class clown, and would fight ridicule with ridicule. Then, in the second semester of his seventh grade, he was elected class president. By this time his grades were among the highest in the school. He stated in his autobiography when remembering this episode, ” ….by then, I didn’t really have much feeling about being a Negro, because I was trying so hard, in every way I could, to be white. Which is why I am spending much of my life today telling the American black man that he’s wasting his time straining to ‘integrate.’ I know from personal experience. I tried hard enough.”( Haley, p. 22) .
The next year, in Malcolm’s eighth grade year, an incident happened that would be the first major turning point in his life. One of his teachers, Mr. Ostrowski, asked if he had been giving any thought to a career. Malcolm indicated he wanted to be lawyer. Mr. Ostrowski replied, ” Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer–that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with you hands–making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’ t you plan on carpentry. People like you as a person–you’d get all kinds of work” (Gallen, 83). Once again Malcolm’s blackness was reiterated as a negative trait. He was temporarily convinced that the only way for him to get ahead in life, and he goes on to make changes to himself that would show this understanding.
This bothered Malcolm tremendously. His entire attitude changed; he abandoned his schoolwork and became defiant and self-defeating. At the end of his eighth grade year, Malcolm went to live with his half sister, Ella, in Boston. Malcolm was fascinated with life in Boston. It was here that he felt at home. One of the first people he met was a guy named Shorty, who became one of the best friends he ever had. Shorty quickly introduced Malcolm to the lifestyle of the big city. Before long, he learned the hustle way of doing things. He began smoking marijuana and gambling. Then he bought his first zoot suit and got his hair conked so it would not look African. Shorty applied the concoction to Malcolm’s head, and according to Malcolm his head caught fire. However, with his hair now as smooth and straight as any white man, it was worth the pain. His hair turned bright red, and he was now proud of his nickname ‘Red’. Malcolm was blinded by the notion that he might be better off the whiter he looked and fell in love with the idea.
Over the next few years, Malcolm spent much of his life bouncing around from job to job, continually hustling, and having as much fun as he could. He wound up in New York, a place he had heard a lot about as he was growing up. Harlem was his kind of place. He liked being around the regular kind of people and had no tolerance for the bourgeois. He considered the bourgeois to be the people who treated him as though his color was a problem and would prevent him from being what he wanted. He was happy with who he was and didn’t want to be around anyone who tried to make him otherwise. Malcolm surrounded himself with people who looked past his color, although he didn’t recognize it, and saw him for a black man who just happened to be lighter than the rest. He soon felt comfortable and let the city life get the best of him.
During his spell in Harlem Malcolm’s color didn’t seem to come into play. Everyone around him was black, or at least nonwhite, and his light skin seemed to fade. He was scared that he would not be able to talk his way out of the trouble he had been causing and made a run for it. His new endeavors also downplayed his color for they involved whites and blacks alike, or so he thought. Back in Boston, Malcolm now became involved in a new scheme; house burglary.
He persuaded his friend Shorty and a white girl named Sophia, with whom Malcolm had a special relationship, to join in on the hustle. There was also Shorty’s friend Rudy, and Sophia’s sister. They meticulously planned their operation and went to work. They were quite successful for a while, but eventually were caught. Malcolm was sentenced to 10 years at Charlestown State Prison. Most whites were sentenced to no more than two years for the same crime. But, he was black and involved with two white girls.
Malcolm felt as though he was sent to jail for being black not for the crimes he committed. He quickly recognized that his interactions with the white girls were considered a crime even though there were no official laws against them. It is in jail that Malcolm begins to finally look past his skin color and look at the color of his race, black.
He achieves the understanding that the whites are looking deeper than his skin color and seeing one thing, he isn’t white, no matter the color his skin or the straightness of his hair. After trying to live the same lifestyle and a spell of hatred, Malcolm is shown the light and quickly abandons his quest to be associated with whites through his looks and actions.
Initially, Malcolm continued the same lifestyle, as much as anyone could in prison, as he had on the outside. As he recalls, of the seven years he served, when he tries to separate the first year-plus, “it runs all together in a memory of nutmeg and other semi-drugs, cursing guards, throwing things out of my cell, balking in the lines, dropping my tray in the dining hall, refusing to answer my number-claiming I forgot it-and things like that” ( Haley, 117).
He preferred the solitude that this behavior gained him. He would pace and curse aloud to himself, with his main targets of aggression being God and the Bible. His attitude was so antireligious, the men in his cellblock nicknamed him Satan. The first man of positive influence Malcolm met in prison was an inmate named Bimbi. It was Bimbi that ended his vicious cursing attacks on the Bible and God. He also told Malcolm that he had
brains and should use them. Bimbi encouraged Malcolm to take advantage of the correspondence courses and the library in prison. Within a year, Malcolm was able to write a decent and legible letter, and began taking Latin.
In 1948 he was transferred to Concord Prison. During his short stay at Concord, he received a letter from his brother Philbert, saying he had discovered the natural religion for the black man. He later received a letter from another brother Reginald, telling him not to eat any more pork or smoke any more cigarettes, and he would show him how to get out of prison.
Later that year Malcolm was transferred to the Norfolk, Massachusetts Prison Colony, which was an experimental rehab jail. It was here that he learned about and became a part of the Nation of Islam. Reginald, during a visit to Malcolm in prison, told him there’s a man who knows everything, God is a man, and his name is Allah. He went on to tell him that the white man is the devil. Malcolm thought of every white person he had encountered, whites who, from the start , touched in some way, his or his family’s life. He was urged by his family to accept the teachings of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who they described to him as the Messenger of Allah. Malcolm wrote to Elijah Muhammad.
He received a reply welcoming him into the true knowledge. Malcolm began reading the dictionary in an effort to broaden his knowledge. He then started reading every thing he could get his hands on, and more importantly understanding what he was reading. Much of his reading opened his eyes to how, historically, “the world’s white men had indeed acted like devils, pillaging and raping and bleeding and draining the whole world’s non-white people” ( Ibid, p.167 ).
In 1952, Malcolm wrote to his family and Elijah Muhammad that he was being paroled. Later that year he was released from prison and moved to Detroit. Malcolm moved in with his brother, Wilfred. He found this to be a warm place in comparison to prison, but especially because of the Muslim atmosphere. At his first Muslim meeting, Malcolm was ecstatic. To see non-Christian-believing Negroes behaving in a completely respectful manner was something new to him. He said he hadn’t dreamed of an atmosphere where black people had learned to be proud to be black. They learned to love each other as black people and not be jealous or suspicious of each other.
Malcolm got the chance to meet Elijah Muhammad at a meeting in Chicago, and later that day, had dinner in the house of Mr. Muhammad. While in Chicago, Malcolm made official application for acceptance into the Nation of Islam. He was accepted, received the ‘X’, of which the significance was that it symbolized the true African and replaced the white slave master name given to black slave families. The ‘X’ would remain until God returned and gave you a Holy Name from His very own mouth.
Malcolm immediately began recruiting for the Nation of Islam. In a short period of time he tripled the membership of the temple in which he was a member, and received praise from Mr. Muhammad. Mr. Muhammad was very interested in the potential of Malcolm X, and Malcolm worshiped him in return. Malcolm X soon became interested in becoming a minister. He began addressing the Temple, and in 1953, he was named the Temples number one assistant minister. Elijah Muhammad continued to teach Malcolm X in the ways of the Muslim beliefs and ways.
Of all the teachings of Mr. Muhammad, Malcolm X recalls one that stands out most in his mind. One day, I remember, a dirty glass of water was on the counter and Mr. Muhammad put a clean glass of water beside it. “You want to know how to spread my teachings?” he said, and he pointed to the glasses of water. “Don’t condemn if you see a person has a dirty glass of water,” he said, “just show them the clean glass of water that you have. When they inspect it, you won’t have to say that yours is better” ( Ibid, p.192). Malcolm understood, but his love for a battle didn’t allow him to always follow this teaching. He wanted to let you know if your glass of water was dirty.
Malcolm went on for the next few years spreading the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and recruiting, ‘fishing’ as they called it, to encourage blacks to join the Nation of Islam, telling them about the so-called Christian white man’s crimes and enlightening them about a religion for the black man. He was becoming more and more known and respected in the Nation of Islam.Mr. Muhammad sent Malcolm all over the country to start new temples and enlarge the membership of the Muslim religion. His greatest challenge, in his mind was “fishing” in New York city, a city of a million black people.
Through heaves of negative media attention the Nation of Islam was brought even more into the limelight. As the Nation of Islam was brought more into the limelight, so was Malcolm X. Malcolm X had a way of getting as much media attention as he wanted. He would publicly make anti-white statements, yet behind the scenes he was quite courteous to whites. He would often accuse the media of misquoting him, yet at the same time he thrived off his bad reputation. He was outspoken, and often invited to speak at colleges, such as Yale, Harvard, Boston University, and many others, despite only having completed the eighth grade. When Malcolm X was asked what his alma mater was, he would reply, “Books!”
In November of 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. Muhammad asked Malcolm X take his place at a speaking engagement in New York. When asked what he thought about the assassination. Malcolm said he saw it as a case of “the chickens coming home to roost”. For this statement, he was silenced by Mr. Muhammad for what was to be a period of 90 days. As Malcolm later found out, this was just the beginning of the end of his relationship with the Nation of Islam. Claims were made that direct orders for his death was issued, and this was when he began his psychological divorce from the Nation. Malcolm X had been set up by the very man he would give his own life to protect. Malcolm X now set out, knowing he was a key leader in the black struggle for civil rights, to create an organization, separate from the Nation of Islam, and ready to embrace all faiths of black men. Many of the Nation’s followers broke with Mr. Muhammad and followed Malcolm X. He announced the forming of the organization, and prepared himself for one more major event in his life; a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964.
Malcolm X was treated with great honor during the pilgrimage. It was here that Malcolm began to alter his outlook on the white man. He saw men with white complexions who were genuinely brotherly. Men of all colors, from many different nations together in the Holy land. Malcolm thought that if the white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, that they might be able to accept the same feelings toward all men. He stated in a speech, upon his return to the United States, “Yes, I have been convinced that some American whites do want to help …….And now that I am back in America, my attitude here concerning white people has to be governed by what my black brothers and I experience here………” (Ibid, p. 329).
It is during his trip to Mecca and upon his return home that Malcolm makes what will be his final transition of the color issue. He learned to look past the color of all men, from race to race or within his own. Malcolm no longer saw himself as a leader for civil rights but human rights. He was now on a quest to bring the Black man up rather than bring whites down, and equalize men of every color along the way. Malcolm now saw every man for a man. It was not until now that Malcolm realized that there should be no separation between men for any reason. He returned with the idea of looking past all qualities, from race to religion, and status to health, and even beyond foolish actions.
The attitude change of Malcolm X toward the white man contributed to his break with Elijah Muhammad. In addition, was his growing doubt in the authenticity of Mr. Muhammad’s version of the Muslim religion–a thought that became more of a reality as he gained more knowledge and experience within the religion. Malcolm delivered several attacks on Elijah Muhammad, about his religious fakery and immorality. A rash of death threats were telephoned to the police to the family home. Malcolm X accused the Black Muslims saying that no one was more able to carry out this threat than that group. Malcolm, speaking to a crowd at the Audubon Ballroom, February 15, 1965, said he was at the end of the line. He wouldn’t care for himself, he just didn’t want his family harmed.
Malcolm X was killed a week later at a public rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. As he began addressing the crowd, he was initially interrupted by someone in the back of the audience. Several seconds later, several shots were fired from someone near the stage, and Malcolm X fell. Three men were tried and sentenced to life in prison. Elijah Muhammad denied any attempt on Malcolm X. “Malcolm X fathered no legislation. He engineered no stunning Supreme Court victories or political campaigns. He scored no major electoral triumphs. Yet, because of the way he articulated his followers’ grievances and anger, the impact he had upon the body politic was enormous. He mobilized black America’s dormant rage and put it to work politically. He made clear the price that white America would have to pay if it did not accede to black America’s legitimate demands. By transforming black fears into white fears, he irrevocably altered America’s political landscape. His ability to conquer his fear–and to inspire his followers to conquer theirs–suited him uniquely to his vital historical impact and position.
From birth to death, the only thing more important in Malcolm’s life than his color was his leadership in Black America. This too was greatly influenced. Malcolm X was best known as the violent leader of the times. He was much more. He was a man who struggled with men of other races and those of his own in a quest to define himself. He initially was unsure as to whether or not his skin color was a problem greater than his race and in many instances proved to be so. He witnessed his parents opposite actions towards him and noted that his light-skinned mother seemed to have a bigger problem with him being similar in tone. His father was fair-skinned and seemed to favor Malcolm over the darker complexion of the others.
During the middle years of his short life Malcolm’s problems came from being Black period. Malcolm had many problems with this. He conked his hair to make him appear closer to the whites, whom he was having the most problems with. Malcolm struggled for years with this. First trying to appear white and then associating himself with whites, to the point of dating a white girl. At this point, he acts as though he will be better off being white than attempting to build a better life for himself within the Black community.
The highest points in Malcolm life come after he is accepted into the Nation of Islam and becomes almost unaware of his light skin. He is full of Black Pride and wants to spread this pride to every black man and woman in the nation. He ends up having problems with the Nation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, and disassociates himself from him and his teachings. Malcolm’s greatest conversion came after his trip to Mecca. He returned with a new outlook towards color. It simply didn’t matter. He became an advocate for human rights and spoke of this at every chance. After transcending the color barrier on all levels, Malcolm was able to focus on more important problems. He still had great pride in his race and highly disagreed with the actions of white America, but believed that fixing these problems had to be done on higher level.
It takes every man to look past race and color and this would not happen anytime soon. He did believe, however, that it was well past time to start. He was above all else when it came to drawing attention to society’s problems. Every black and white that was tired of waiting for Dr. King’s passive movement to take its toll decided to back Malcolm X by any means necessary. X was killed shortly after his return from Mecca but his ideals and principles were never forgotten and used by many others. Malcolm proved to many critics that progress could be made without direct use of politics and laws, but when fear is felt, actions will be taken to improve the situation, if only to the point of agreement rather than satisfaction.
In the end, Malcolm had no internal struggle with color, he developed the ability to look far beyond and was able to use this eased tension to channel his attention to the global problems that were occurring.
Gallen, David and others. Malcolm As They Knew Him. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1992.
Haley, Alex. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, As Told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992
Ibid, Henry. Collection of Thoughts and Speeches by Malcolm X. Atlanta: Clarity Press.,
Perry, Bruce. Malcolm, the Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. New York: Station Hill, 1991.