Understanding Malcolm X

You should know a man's full life before judging him

May 19th will be the 86th birthday of Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little, he eventually changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He’s known by many, if not most, Americans as the angry, violent, white people-hating, black Muslim. But that’s not him, just as you and I as thoughtful adults today are not the silly, impulsive and immature teens we were yesterday. We grew. Malcolm grew. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not who you are at the beginning of the sprint that counts; it’s who you are at the end of the marathon that really matters.

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? If you had been jailed by a racist criminal justice system?

Interestingly, it was that racist criminal justice system that became the light at the end of Malcolm’s tunnel. When he was young, he had excelled in school. But when, as a straight-A, eighth-grade student he said he wanted to become a lawyer, his favorite teacher told him that becoming an attorney was “not a realistic goal for a nigger.” He dropped out of school and by 1942, he was in Harlem where he became immersed in drug dealing, pimping and gambling. Following a 1946 conviction at age 20 on burglary, larceny and gun charges as part of a crime ring of two men (both black) and three women (all white), he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Two of the white women got suspended sentences. But because she was Malcolm’s girlfriend, the third got jail time. 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.

Once incarcerated, he used prison as a school system. 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 introduced him to the Nation of Islam (NOI), led him to believe that the white man was the devil. He converted to the NOI and by the time he was paroled in 1952, he had shed the ”slave owner” surname Little and taken on X, which signified his “lost tribal” name.

Shortly after just a year out of prison, he was named minister of NOI’s Boston mosque, and then a year later minister of the Philadelphia mosque. He also exponentially increased the NOI’s membership through his compelling charisma. And he did the same for the Muhammad Speaks newspaper that began publication in 1961.

He was described by the New York Times as the most sought-after speaker in America, second only to Senator Barry Goldwater. This was subsequent to the widespread attention he received from the mainstream media following the national broadcast of “The Hate That Hate Produced,” produced in 1959 by Mike Wallace. Dissension arose as some NOI members felt there was too much attention on Malcolm and not enough on the NOI. That dissension was exacerbated in 1963 when Malcolm began to hear rumors of the NOI leader’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 March 1963 and founded the religious-based Muslim Mosque, Incorporated, and in 1964 the secular-based Organization of Afro-American Unity. It was in that same year that he made his pilgrimage to Mecca. As a result of that hajj, he stopped calling the white man the devil. He stopped promoting separatism. As he put it, “I am not a racist … In the past, I (made)… sweeping indictments of all white people … These generalizations have caused injuries to some whites who perhaps did not deserve to be hurt … I wish nothing but freedom, justice, and equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people.” He did more to improve race relations in America than anyone else.

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.” And as stated by his friend, Indiana/Purdue University Professor Herman Blake, Malcolm “always believed the evidence dictates the conclusion. He was willing to analyze and reflect on his views in light of new ideas and evidence, and he came to realize that many of the ideas he espoused were incorrect.”

Accordingly, Malcolm believed that new and better information should lead to a new and better person. He believed that a person must accept such information and not just grow as a result of it but also excel because of it. That’s what to me makes him “Malcolm, Xcellent!”