By John Bilello, Albion College
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, was an intellectual thinker, activist for human and civil rights, and high profile member of the Nation of Islam. He transformed himself from a criminal and drug abuser to a prolific speaker on the path of righteousness. His actions and beliefs helped shape movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement today by teaching other African Americans to love themselves and to defend their lives and culture. But before all that, he was just Malcolm Little: a black child born May 19th, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother, Louise, was a mixed woman who worked odd jobs at white people’s homes while Malcolm’s father, Earl, was a Baptist minister and local organizer of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). After being threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Region in Nebraska and Wisconsin, the Little family finally settled in Lansing, Michigan. While living in Michigan, Malcolm’s father was still hounded by hate societies. One day, Earl was murdered. He was found nearly torn in half in the middle of the street. Malcolm experienced the death of is father at just six years old.
In middle school, Malcolm became was one of the top students in his class. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley, X notes that he was “smarter than nearly all those white kids” . Malcolm once explained to his teacher that he wanted to become a lawyer. The teacher did not take X’s intentions seriously, affirming that becoming a lawyer is “no realistic goal for a nigger”. He went on to express that Malcolm is good with his hands and should pursue carpentry. It was this experience that really changed Malcolm Little; he had already experienced discrimination by white people throughout his entire life, but now he learned that even achieving academic excellence meant nothing if you were black.
Over time, Malcolm became more rebellious after this sentiment. In his young adult years he became involved in crimes, did drugs and lived with prostitutes. Little was eventually arrested and sent to prison for larceny and breaking and entering. For most people, prison is a place that can end any future opportunities, especially for a black man, but this was not the case for Malcolm Little. While in prison, he copied to dictionary to enhance his vocabulary, helping to make him an excellent speaker: “With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history,” by the time his sentence ended he stated, “I would guess I wrote a million words” . At the same time, his brother Reginald taught him about African American history and introduced him to the Nation of Islam. Malcolm was released from prison and became engulfed in the religion, changing his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, becoming a leader of the group, and even making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. In 1965 he was assassinated by three other members of the Nation of Islam at a speech in Manhattan.
Nation of Islam
People misunderstand Malcolm X’s teachings and his role during the Civil Rights movement. Many believe that X was a militant racist who hurt Civil Rights. However, Malcolm X taught others about African American history and how black is beautiful. He even changed his last name to X because he didn’t want to have a non-African surname, expressing that ‘X’ “symbolized the true African family name that he never could know” . Later he began to sign his name as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after joining the Nation of Islam.
While in prison, Malcolm was visited in prison by his brother Reginald. “You don’t even know who you are,” Reginald asserted . X then began developing an appetite for historical books and novels, educating himself about Africa and ancient civilizations. He quickly learned that people of darker skin were not only the first inhabitants of the world but built great empires as well. Through his readings he found that explorers unearthed artifacts and craftsmanship “before the white man was out of the caves” . Malcolm absorbed all of this information and began preaching these truths to other inmates and thousands more after being released from prison and officially joining the Nation of Islam. Those who listened to X’s speeches and attended his numerous lecture circuits were astonished by these facts:
History has been so “whitened” by the white man that even the black professors have known little more than the most ignorant black man about the talents and rich civilizations and cultures of the black man of millenniums ago .
Malcolm made it known that black excellence had been kept away from mainstream media; the white-controlled media did not want to acknowledge black accomplishments (except in rare circumstances such as athletics).
In addition to studying about Africa’s “lost” culture, X also learned about the atrocities committed by white men throughout the ages. For example, he discovered that. The British “Christians” had sold China unfathomable amounts of opium during the nineteenth and twentieth century, causing much of the nation to become addicted. Britain and other Allies went to war with China, which led to the rape and decimation of Northern China. A second similar war broke again with China coming up short once again. The British used their new power to open up trading ports and take control of Hong Kong. X remarked on this saying, “the collective white man had acted like a devil in virtually every contact he had with the world’s collective non-white man” . Malcolm also studied the slave trade and how millions of blacks were murdered and enslaved leaving “cannibalistic” white powers to take over the “richest area of the black continent” .
Clearly, X understands the maltreatment of all kinds of people by the “white devil” in history. Malcolm also understands that races, predominantly Africans living in America have been brainwashed to believe that everything not white is wrong. X touches on the subject of Christianity explaining how slave masters used religion to condition slaves to believed that black people were truly inferior:
This “Negro” was taught of his Native Africa that it was peopled by heathen, black savages, swinging like monkeys from trees. This “Negro” accepted this along with every other teaching of the slavemaster that was designed to make him accept and obey and worship the white man .
However after his trip to Mecca, X abandons this view of white people saying that it was primarily whites in America who had opposed claiming that white folk outside of America were more brotherly and caring. Still, Malcolm used all of this information to help recruit others (primarily young people) to join the Nation of Islam. He emphasized that the white man expected the black man to be sinful, and that if black men continue to not live by a moral code: “we will keep on begging him and he will control us” . Malcolm’s religion helped pave the way for the destruction of the image of the “immoral” black man through the implementation of moral codes such as respecting others and living a healthy lifestyle (substance free). Respect is a key aspect in the Nation of Islam when it comes to women; X expresses that “the black man never will get respect until he first learns to respect his own women” . The religion proved to be a good place for black women because of the respect they were shown and the fact that they were not treated as sex objects due to the moral codes of the members and the dress code of women members.
Impact and the Black Lives Matter Movement
Through his teachings and speeches, Malcolm X a key predecessor to the Black Lives Matter Movement. While he was not alive to see the new movement take place, his ideas and philosophies have definitely influenced it. During his lifetime, he taught black people about the rich history of Africa, the beauty/pride in being black and the importance of self-defense. A key component of the Black Lives Matter Movement is being unapologetically black; Malcolm spoke about the great African civilizations years ago that had artifacts and intelligent craftsmanship that predated European civilizations. Another principle of the movement is being proud to be black, which is prevalent throughout X’s autobiography. Before joining the N.O.I., he conks his hair in order to straighten it to be more like a white person’s. He later expresses shame for doing so, leaving him to wonder “how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk-the emblem of his shame that he is black” . However arguably the most important building block of the movement is defending one’s self. Too often do we hear about the killing of young African Americans, primarily males. According to Malcolm: “When the law fails to protect Negroes from whites’ attack, then those Negroes should use arms, if necessary, to defend themselves” . Black lives matter just as much as any lives, but in our society there are figures that think differently and get away with their actions. Ferguson and numerous similar events have showed us that the law is not protecting all of its citizens. Although the movement does not teach self-defense, valuing human life is of the utmost importance. Earlier in my paper, I discussed Malcolm X’s emphasis on human rights. X believed that black people needed to realize their importance before gaining Civil Rights; he wanted African American people to understand that they were a part of a rich race and culture:
How is the black man going to get “civil rights” before first he wins human rights? If the American black man will start thinking about his human rights, and then start thinking of himself as part of one of the world’s greatest peoples, he will see he has a case for the United Nations .
X’s teachings are well alive today in our music. We see it in today’s music such as in rapper Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly. In his song “i”, Kendrick speaks to the listener at the end of the song sharing with us the word ‘Negus’ meaning black emperor. He goes on to say that the history books have tried to hide words like that, very similar to what X said about ancient African civilizations in history textbooks.
Kendrick Lamar, “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” featuring Rapsody. Explicit content.
In “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” featured rapper Rapsody describes how being dark-skinned is beautiful and more importantly that black people should all be on the same team. The Black Lives Matter Movement and similar organizations have benefited from wisdom of Malcolm X through the ideas of the significance of black history and pride as well as self-defense. These ideas spread and help others to become socially aware of how different people are viewed in the world today. Then those socially aware people create organizations such as the Black Lives Matter Movement. I truly believe that the more people become socially aware of the discrimination towards African Americans and other minorities, the closer we’ll come to true equality.
 Alex Haley and Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told By Alex Haley (Random House Publishing Group, 1964), 38
 Haley and Shabbazz, The Autobiography of Malcolm X 38
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 Kendrick Lamar, 2015, To Pimp A Butterfly “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” featuring Rapsody, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AH6qPuPSZHU