What did malcolm do?

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What did Malcolm X do? For most of Black America that is a rhetorical question at best since the answer is so obvious, and at worst, it is absurd for the same reason. It is like asking, “What’s so important about wearing a seatbelt while driving?” or “What are the downsides to war?” or even, “What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?”. These are seemingly easy questions to most, but are sincere conundrums to others. I did not realize that Malcolm's place in American culture, history, and significance overall was a question for some until a few years ago. I noticed in conversations with liberal friends of mine and in articles posted around MLK day, that in efforts to illustrate Martin’s civil rights achievements, Malcolm gets portrayed as a loquacious firebrand whose social impact never evolved beyond his eloquent speeches to something more pragmatic and lasting. Nothing could be further from the truth. As two of the most prominent figures in the Black American Civil Rights era Malcolm and Martin often get compared to each other by pitting the life’s work of one them against the other’s in an effort to make an argument about which one mattered more. A major problem with that comparison is that it seems to be attempting to oversimplify a dynamic movement. American racism was, and still is, a multifaceted indoctrination that had been manifested into almost every American institution. From politics to pop culture, education stats to incarceration rates, international perspectives to interpersonal conversations, racism for Black America is a Hydra style monster that seems to spread more than it subsides. With that as its opposition it only seems natural that the Civil Rights movement would at least attempt to be varied in their efforts to eliminate racial oppression,advertently or inadvertently. That is one of the many reasons why both Martin and Malcolm were valuable to the movement. They were great representatives of the range of Black America’s discontent. One of their main differences is the treatment White America gives their legacies.  While Martin gets remembered more for non-violence, successful boycotts, and being a major catalyst for the various civil rights bills of the time, Malcolm usually gets remembered as a violent, anti-white, hate monger who did not do anything but agitate and corrupt otherwise good Negroes. A big reason for the deficit and distortion in White America’s remembrance of Malcolm is more than likely due to the fact that his accomplishments cannot be measured by the same white supremacy based litmus test as Martin and others. Malcolm led no mass marches. Malcolm did not receive a Nobel Peace Prize. Malcolm was never invited to the White House.

Despite the disdain and dismissiveness his legacy receives Malcolm is still, as one of his biographers describes, “one of the most important figures of the 20th century,” and “was ahead of the curve in so many ways.”

He was the first prominent Black American to come out against the Vietnam war. Friends of Malcolm described him as a “master teacher” who gave “a perception on how to view the world, and the country.” He carried on the Black nationalist tradition for the benefit of Black America in the face of White racist terrorism because as he stated in his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet,” “Black nationalism is a self-help philosophy.”

Malcolm X changed the nation by changing Black America.

Malcolm was the first major introduction to Muslims and the Nation of Islam for a lot of Americans.

Malcolm X began speaking for the Nation of Islam in 1952 after his release from prison where he was converted to the Nation. He established new mosques in Detroit, MI, Harlem, NY, as well as other major cities in the country. Malcolm helped establish the newspaper, “Muhamed Speaks”, in 1960. The paper would grow to a national circulation of 600,000 by the end of the 60s, becoming the most widely read black owned newspaper in the US at the time. He is largely credited with increasing the NOI’s membership from 1500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963, and helped to not just introduce America to the Nation of Islam, but also provide a perspective on the Muslim religion that is just as relevant today as it was then. Like this anti-war quote:

Under the leadership of Elijah Muhammed the NOI was one of the earliest organizations working for black nationalism during the Civil Rights era. Built upon the philosophies of Marcus Garvey and fostering a sense of black pride, the NOI worked to uplift impoverished black Americans in the ghettos of Detroit and beyond as it spread further east during the 50s.

After a public silencing imposed on him by the NOI, and an unsavory revelation about Elijah impregnating several of his personal secretaries, Malcolm left the NOI in 1964 and converted to traditional Islam. He did his spiritual hajj to Mecca and returned to the United States as, El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. A hajj consist of certain rituals performed while wearing a simple form of white garb. This helps create a demonstration of human brotherhood because you cannot distinguish anyone on account of their status or national origin. This experience seemed to have a profound impact on Malcolm, which he showed in postcards he sent back to friends and family in the United States, and in the interviews he gave when he returned.

Malcolm helped give rise to the Black Militant Movement

One does not have to look much farther than Malcolm’s speeches to find some of the ideological basis for what would become the black militant movement of the 70s and late 60s with the most famous one being “By Any Means Necessary”:

“Since self-preservation is the first law of nature, we assert the Afro-American’s right to self-defense. The constitution of the United States of America clearly affirms the right of every American citizen to bear arms. And as Americans, we will not give up a single rights guaranteed under the constitution. The history of unpunished violence against our people clearly indicates that we must be prepared to defend ourselves, or we will continue to be a defenseless people at the mercy of a ruthless, and racist mob.”

The push for self-defense within the black militant movement was a recurring theme in Malcolm’s public addresses:

The combinations of having parents that were Garveyites and having the Nation of Islam as his original platform surely helped shape his social focus and helped create a philosophy that was incorporated by others. As the historian Manning Marable pointed out,

As early as 1964 the rallying pronouncement of “Black Power” was incorporated into slogans of black American activists. It began to reach mass appeal in 1966 and turned into a movement years after Malcolm’s death when it was sounded by Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael in Mississippi.

During the Black Power movement of the late 60s two major political ideologies and groups emerged. First was “cultural nationalism,” the political style of the US organization, a Los Angeles based group founded by Moulana Karenga, a former student activist who would later go on to develop the holiday, Kwanza. The second ideology was “revolutionary activism,” most famously presented on a global scale by the Oakland, CA based, Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Black Panthers would grow to have chapters all over the world including every major city in the United States. With some of their programs being adopted by the federal government.  Their early slogan, “Black Power to the black people, Brown Power to the brown people, Yellow Power to the yellow people, Red Power to the red people, and White Power to the white people,” would eventually be shortened to, “Power to the People.”

Malcolm could relate to the high number of Black Americans incarcerated

In 1946 was sentenced to ten years in prison for burglary. He entered prison as a street hustler, he left it 10 years later as a member of the Nation of Islam. This part of Malcolm’s life is very similar to the lives of a lot of black men in America. The Bureau of Justice Statistics states that one in three black men in America can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. According to the 2009 U.S. Department of Justice, Black Americans are approximately 12%-13% of the American population but make up 40% of the male inmates in jail or prison.

In a 1962 speech Malcolm commented on the disproportionate incarceration rates of Black Americans:

Like a lot of young black children today, Malcolm was exposed early to American correctional institutions. As a child he was railroaded into youth detention facilities. Harsh school punishments have led to many black youth coming into contact with the juvenile justice system at an early age. The Department of Education has stated that black American students are arrested far more often than their white counterparts.

Decades before the prison industrial complex ballooned into the rapacious capitalist behemoth that helped give America the distinction of being the world’s largest jailer, Malcolm was known for telling audiences, “Don’t be shocked when I tell you I was in prison. You’re still in prison. That’s what America means - prison.”

Malcolm was the first black leader during the Civil Rights era that did not seem to bite his tongue

A. Peter Bailey, a friend of Malcolm’s who helped him found the Organization of Afro-American Unity, and was one of the last people to speak with him before he was assassinated, once described Malcolm as, “...a man who at a time when white supremacy terrorism ran rampant, between 1955 and 1965, was courageous enough to stand up to that.”

Malcolm began speaking for the Nation of Islam in 1952. Almost immediately his speeches addressed the problems Black America was having with White America. They were more religious based than political at the time, but the effect on society was almost the same as his later speeches. He taught Black America at the time things about themselves that mainstream America had failed to teach them.

Even his name helped bring awareness to one of the many culturally devastating effects of American slavery as he explained the reason for the “X” in his name, “My father didn’t know his last name. My father got his last name from his grandfather, and his grandfather got it from his grandfather, who got it from the slavemaster. The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery.”

After Malcolm left the NOI in ‘64, eventually forming other organizations,his speeches became more political, providing bold commentary on the historical events happening during that time. Malcolm pointed out the potential futility of the Civil Rights bills when the 14th Amendment was suppose to already guarantee black Americans the same rights as every other person born in America.

Malcolm also openly criticized the effectiveness of the March on Washington:

Malcolm’s peers in the Civil Rights era mostly did not match his level of explicit and provocative oratortions. In fact some went to lengths to avoid making white America feel uncomfortable. Martin Luther King showed resistance initially to the pronouncement of “Black Power” being incorporated into the Civil Rights struggle because he did not want to risk alienating the white activist who were involved in the movement.


Veteran labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, reportedly assured President Kennedy that a march on Washington will divert the growing grassroots militancy into channels that white America would be more comfortable with. He even pleaded with some of the younger speakers at the March on Washington to not make speeches that were more provocative and confrontational than the speeches that were given. Malcolm addressed the behavior of his peers in various degrees.

Malcolm provided an unspoken ultimatum to the non-violent movement

By the mid 60s signs of discontent with the non-violent movement began to show. Malcolm pointed this out in his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”:

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1965 is seen as a pinnacle for non-violence and the Civil Rights Movement. The day could have taken a more controversial tone had John Lewis, Chairman for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), been allowed to give the original version of the speech he gave that day. In it he voiced criticism of the Kennedy administration and his Civil Rights bill as, “doing too little, too late.”

Two years before, one of the main organizers of the march, A. Phillip Randolph, while proposing the march to Kennedy, argued that, “the Negroes are already in the streets. It is very likely impossible to get them off.”

Malcolm’s meetings with Mrs King was a sign of his commitment to broadening the black freedom movement by working to bring the different black leaders together. Historian and biographer, Manning Marable noted that, “this caused great consternation within the FBI,”.

Malcolm formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) and began reaching out to militant grassroots leaders, met with SNCC representatives, and hosted Fannie Lou Hamer with other Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leaders, as well as many other young activists. Black nationalism was his philosophy for progress as he stated in April of 1964, “Just as it took nationalism to remove colonialism from Asia and Africa, it’ll take black nationalism today to remove colonialism from the backs and the minds of 22 million Afro-Americans here in this country.”

Malcolm was trying to bring together an eclectic yet ideologically black broad base focused on black institutions and black leadership. If he had done that it potentially could have been harder to pit black leaders against each other and easier to see that Malcolm’s ideology was more than an unspoken ultimatum but a declaration of the extent to which black people are willing to go for justice and freedom from the oppressions of white supremacy.

Malcolm made civil rights a human rights issue

Malcolm X consistently called for Black Americans to change the Civil Rights movement into an international struggle for human rights. A. Peter Bailey described Malcolm’s focus during the last year of his life:

Malcolm’s internationalism goes back further than just the last year of his life. In 1955 he tries to make a connection with the Bandung Conference and calls for a Bandung in Harlem. According to a doctoral student of one of his biographers, the first page in his FBI file is a letter he wrote  protesting the Korean War in 1950 when he was in prison.

Malcolm cited examples from the anti-colonial revolutions taking place on the continent of Africa to make a connection to what Black Americans were experiencing at that time:

“Just 10 years ago on the African continent, our people were colonized. They were suffering all forms of colonization, oppression, exploitation, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, and every other kind of ‘-ation’. And in a short time, they have gained more independence, more recognition, more respect as human beings than you and I have. And you and I live in a country which is supposed to be the citadel of education, freedom, justice, democracy, and all of those other pretty sounding words.”

His internationalist focus also served to help make his case for Black Nationalism:

“Well, my purpose here is to remind the African heads of state that there are 22 million of us in America who are also of African descent, and to remind them also that we are the victims of America’s colonialism or American imperialism, and that our problem is not an American problem, it’s a human problem. It’s not a Negro problem, it’s a problem of humanity. It’s not a problem of civil rights, but a problem of human rights.

Malcolm’s involvement in the Organization of African Unity conference as an observer and issuing a statement resulted in the OAU issuing a resolution condemning discrimination in the United States. Malcolm’s international interactions during this time was a concern for the U.S. as Malcolm’s friend A. Peter Bailey explained, “So the United States, they were very concerned about what he was doing to internationalize the movement. He was invited to speak to the king in Parliament. I mean, he was treated almost like he was a foreign minister of black people in America to the world. And this greatly disturbed people in the United States government.”

Malcolm’s internationalist efforts became a forebearer to the internationalism of movements that came along after his death. Prof. Marable stated that, “...it was Dr. King that followed out a path that Malcolm had clearly chartered for him.”

The international attention that Malcolm wanted drawn to human rights violations suffered by Black Americans has continued to be needed decades after his death. Even as recently as 2014, activists in Palestine showed solidarity with protestors in Ferguson, MO. Mike Brown’s family has attempted to bring a case before the UN, and this year the UN released a statement making a case for reparations for Black Americans.

Ranging from being awesomely revered to mercilessly ridiculed, summations of Malcolm X have proven to be as varied as should be expected when talking about such a complex and varied person. He was adamant in his anti-war stance and vehemently believed in self-defense. He preached that the White man was the devil before breaking bread with white men as religious brothers. He was a former criminal who served 10 years in prison but his secret FBI recordings can attest to the fact that he grew to become more religiously adherent than even the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Author, A. Peter Bailey, a friend of Malcolm’s and one of the last people to speak with him the day he was assassinated, was asked how he wanted Malcolm to be remembered:

The late historian and Malcolm X biographer, Manning Marable, described Malcolm as:

“...the most remarkable historical figure produced by black America in the 20th century. That’s a heavy statement, but I think that in his 39 short years of life, Malcolm came to symbolize black urban America, its culture, its politics, its militancy, its outrage against structural racism and, at the end of his life, a broad internationalist vision of emancipatory power far better than any other single individual, that he shared with Du Bois and Paul Robeson a pan-Africanist internationalist perspective. He shared with Marcus Garvey a commitment to building strong black institutions. He shared with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a commitment to peace and the freedom of racialized minorities. He was the first prominent American to attack and to criticize the U.S. role in Southeast Asia, and he came out four-square against the Vietnam War in 1964, long before the vast majority of Americans did. So that Malcolm X represents the cutting edge of a kind of critique of globalization in the 21st century. And in fact, Malcolm, if anything, was far ahead of the curve in so many ways.”

Ossie Davis’ eulogy for him did a great job of articulating the greatness of Malcolm and what he did.

“It was he who rallied our flagging efforts who taught us to stand up off our knees. Especially the black men, but also the whites to address ourselves to the truth, even if we were killed for it.

“We’ve had men, men who were martyrs, men who were mighty, men who set us great and good examples. But they had one advantage that Malcolm did not have. They were men of education. They were men of college. They had had training. Malcolm came from the lowest depth. And therefore, in measuring the man, we have to measure the place from whence he came.

“...as black men we have been the most systematically emasculated people on the face of the Earth. And we have learned, unfortunately, to accept and live with our emasculation as if this is the definition of what we are. Malcolm said, ‘No, you are a man. I will make you see that you are a man.’ He insisted on ripping the lies from our face, our middle class smugness. He talked to all of us.”

In closing his eulogy Mr. Davis expressed a particular feeling about Malcolm and his message that can still ring true today.

“If Malcolm and his message, so strong, so bright and so pure, was too good for those of us who have already reached manhood, there is a generation who is not yet spoiled, not yet degutted, not yet de-bold, not yet emasculated, who when they come into the light of this truth will rise up and redeem him and us and all the rest of the world. That is the meaning of Malcolm X.”