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The African-American Journey: Malcolm X

An Audio Clip of Malcolm X's Speech "On Black Power"

Malcolm X: A Research Site



It's 1960 and X Marks the Spot

Becky plays it cool at Café X in Harlem, New York
After spending the last month of the trek learning about the non-violent protests of the Civil Rights Movement, I knew that researching Malcolm X would provide some real food for thought. I had already learned about Martin Luther King, Jr., the powerful orator who moved thousands of people to take action in peaceful protests throughout the sixties until his assassination in 1968. Because of his speeches and his leadership, non-violent protests, marches and sit-ins gave a rising voice to the black community. This voice pleaded for an end to segregation, and told us that separate is not equal. But at the same time, there was Malcolm X, another young leader whose words were powerful but whose message was different than Dr. King's. Although Malcolm X also wanted a voice for the black community, he believed in going about it in a much different way.


Let Me Buy Lunch Today! ...for $1.50 you can get a hotdog AND a coke

Dr. King was protesting for full integration, meaning that blacks should have equal access to everything that whites had. He believed that both blacks and whites should work together for this common goal in a non-violent and peaceful manner. The black community should break through to the enemy with love and patience, not with violence. But Malcolm X, a poor kid from the streets, didn't believe in "loving your enemy." His background and eventual religious beliefs would stir him to propose a completely different kind of revolution.

Jen visits Malcolm X's prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts
Malcolm Little was born in May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. It would be many years later that he would change his name to Malcolm X. His family was poor and when his father was murdered, his mother went crazy trying to take care of Malcolm and all of his siblings. She was eventually put into an insane asylum. Malcolm grew up in a foster home and only made it through the eighth grade. He ultimately ended up on the streets of Harlem, New York. For Malcolm, dealing drugs, hustling for money, and robbery were a way of life. By the age of 21, he was arrested for armed robbery and served a sentence of ten years in prison. It was in prison that he began to turn his life around. In his autobiography, Malcolm recalls that, "I had sunk to the very bottom of the American white man's society," until "in prison- I found Allah and…it completely transformed my life." He had no idea that this transformation would spur him to becoming one of the great leaders of the black community in their struggle during the 1960's and beyond.

For Malcolm, the transformation came in two forms. The first was getting an education. At the end of his prison term, he was transferred to Norfolk, Massachusetts. With many hours of time on his hands, Malcolm took correspondence courses and read books from the prison library. He worked on his penmanship and his vocabulary by copying page after page from the dictionary. The second transformation came from religion. Malcolm's brother and sister introduced him to the Nation of Islam, a form of the Muslim religion led by Elijah Muhammad who preached black superiority while praying to Allah. Malcolm would not only become a devout follower of Islam but also a preacher. It was the ideas spurred by the Nation of Islam that would help Malcolm develop his philosophy for a black revolution. And it would give him an audience to which he could preach these ideas.

Malcolm X found an education while in prison
After being paroled from prison, Malcolm went to live with his brother and to practice Muslim family life. They lived by a strict moral code, which included no alcohol, no tobacco, no women and no eating pork. They dressed conservatively and were very courteous. They prayed often. But there was something underlying the calm gentle appearance of the Nation of Islam religion and it would make itself known in the preaching of its ministers.

Jen and Stephen are happy they are not behind bars at Malcolm X's prison site
The Nation of Islam's leader Muhammad preached that history had been "whitened." He claimed that the white man was the devil who kept non-whites down. Malcolm learned from Muhammad and followed in his footsteps. Malcolm remembered from grade school that the history books simply left out any black history. He knew that if the black community could come together and build a communal pride in their own history, that they could overcome the poverty of the ghettos. He also believed that it should be done separate from the white community. If blacks were to integrate, he believed, they would not be able to preserve their heritage, which had already been taken away by whites.

The Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X gave his speeches
Malcolm also spoke out against the leaders of the Civil Rights movement who were advocating non-violent means of protest. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. led the March on Washington, where thousands of blacks and whites came together seeking government support for Civil Rights for all. Malcolm X condemned this march, claiming that the blacks were joining forces with the very people who were against them. He believed that revolution was never based on loving your enemy but rather based on bloodshed. Although the nation was taking strides towards integration, Malcolm saw these as only token actions. By opening the doors to some blacks, integration was creating a black middle class who did nothing for the ghetto community.

His opponents accused him of being a teacher of violence. He would preach to his followers, "Seek peace, and never be the aggressor -- but if anyone attacks you, we do not teach you to turn the other cheek." At the same time, Malcolm denied that he was responsible for stirring up the black community. It was not his words, but the poverty, unemployment, bad housing and inferior education that blacks encountered that inspired violence. With the support of the Nation of Islam behind him, Malcolm traveled across the nation speaking these ideas to audiences of students both black and white. He spread the word that blacks should not believe the American government would ever agree to major social reforms without the threat of a black uprising. He wanted black communities to take responsibility for themselves and to protect themselves, with force if necessary. These were strong ideas in an unstable time.

Searching for Malcolm X
For over a decade, Malcolm preached these beliefs with the support of the Nation of Islam. By doing so, he helped it grow into an even larger community. But in the mid-sixties, he had a falling out with its leader and broke with the organization. This break would lead to dangerous times for Malcolm and his family as he could no longer trust the Nation of Islam and what they might do to him. He also had the FBI looking over his shoulder because of his "anti-white" sentiment. During this unstable time, Malcolm made a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, which had a strong impact on his philosophy.

On his pilgrimage, he met many whites who were also practicing Muslims. He saw that it was possible for blacks and whites to live together, and his views on integration changed. He was no longer a believer that the white man was the devil, but he continued to condemn the past actions of whites and to teach the ideas of separatism for black empowerment.

The hotel in Harlem where Malcolm X formed his own organizations
Without the Nation of Islam's support, Malcolm X formed his own organizations that helped spread his beliefs. The Theresa Hotel in Harlem, New York became a meeting place and temporary headquarters for his group, Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. These groups focused on politics, economics, community improvement, self-defense, and education. Whites were not allowed to join his organizations. He questioned, "How can there ever be white-black solidarity without black solidarity first?" Instead, he urged liberal whites to take action in their own communities, to help combat racism among their own people. He often used the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem to give speeches. There, he would lecture to all blacks, not just the Muslims. His speeches would tell of the denial not just of civil rights for blacks, but also of human rights. His audiences continued to grow and his message reached more and more people. However, at this point it was only a short time before his work and struggles came to an abrupt end.

The funeral home where they brought Malcolm's body after his assassination
In 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. He was giving one of his speeches at the Audubon Hotel when a group of gunmen shot him down. Three men were arrested and convicted of the crime, but the question of who supported the murder is still being asked today. It could have been the Nation of Islam, since after Malcolm's falling out, they were a constant threat to him. Or perhaps it was the FBI. Malcolm believed they were tapping his phones and following him for most of his public career. We may never know who was behind his killing, but we do know that when Malcolm died, the nation lost a charismatic and dynamic black leader.

Although Malcolm is gone, we are left with the legacy of his ideas. How do they fit into our race issues of today? Since I personally consider myself a pacifist, Dr. King's peaceful methods appeal to me. I think in an ideal world Americans of any color would be able to live and work side by side. But I also believe, like Malcolm X, that there is strength in unity and that when people of similar backgrounds come together, a great power can be forged. Isn't that what both leaders wanted? If you were living in the 1960's at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, what would you have thought? Even today, the question of equity in jobs, schools, and housing still exists between blacks and whites. What would Dr. King and Malcolm X be preaching now if they hadn't both been assassinated? More than three decades later, the questions still remain and are still as difficult to answer.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley was used as a resource for this dispatch.


Please email me at: jennifer@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Conspiracy, garbage and a living wage: The undoing of a hero
Irene - Violence, tension and struggle: A less than civil Rights Movement
Nick - Protecting the Black community Black Panther style
Stephanie - The night Watts was set ablaze