Growing up as I did with a fervent interest in the culture of the 1960s, photographs of Malcolm X were very familiar to me. I may not have delved too deeply into his politics at that time in my life, but I certainly knew of his image and I also heard comments made about him from those older than me. Generally, they classed him as ‘bad news’ ‘a radical and a troublemaker’ and accused him of ‘stirring up racial tension.’
Then, one day during a tea break in my offices on Fleet Street, where I worked in the early 80s, I was given his autobiography to read by one of the dispatch riders, Andy, I worked with. He simply told me that he knew I loved the 60s, so maybe I should read the book, and he also told me that I’d get a lot from it.
In truth, I wasn’t too much of a reader back then. My head was filled more with music, clothes and football, rather than literature, but I decided to accept the challenge and read on. I’m glad I did. Written by Alex Haley and Malcolm X himself, it was first published in 1965, and this edition had been updated to take in the end of his life. Within a couple of pages I was well and truly hooked in.
He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, the fourth of seven kids to mother and housewife Louise and father Earl, a Baptist minister and a strong supporter of Marcus Garvey, the leader of Pan-African movement. The couple instilled a strong sense of Black Pride in their children.
The outspoken support of Garvey and for empowerment of the black race, caused Earl severe problems among the towns Klu Klux Klan followers as well as another white supremacist movement called the Black Legion. As a result, the Little family were forced to move twice by the time Malcolm was four. Sadly this didn’t stop the persecution. In 1929, their home was burned down and in 1931, Earl was found dead in Lansing Michigan when Malcolm was aged just six. Police claimed both incidents were accidents, but the family knew better. Mum Louise suffered a breakdown and was sectioned for 24 years. Malcolm and his siblings were fostered.
He was a bright student and wanted to practice Law, but was told in no uncertain terms that this was unrealistic for one of his race. He dropped out of school for a time, before finally graduating.
He then began a life of petty crime. Drug dealing, robbery, working as a pimp and picking up the nickname ‘Detroit Red’ due to a reddish tinge in his hair. Declared ‘mentally unstable’ for military service, he ended up in Boston in 1945, and in 1946 he picked up a ten stretch in Charlestown State Prison.
Whilst in there, he educated himself further and then learnt of the Nation of Islam from his brother Reginald, a recent convert. The movement concentrated broadly on ‘self reliance’ within the Black community and had aims of the eventual return of the African to Africa.
Malcolm studied the words of The Honourable Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the NOI and by the time of his parole seven years into his sentence, he was a convert and a follower with a new surname of X, signifying his lost tribal name.
‘Between Mr Muhammad’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.’
He rose rapidly through the ranks of the NOI and was identified as being a natural speaker and communicator. He was soon named as the national spokesman for the movement. He is also key in establishing new mosques and temples all over the USA. His immaculate appearance and imposing stature, standing at 6ft 3, as well as being a natural orator, got him noticed and soon, he was on radio and TV spreading the word of the NOI. As a result, membership of the group increased from 500 people in 1952 to 30,000 ten years later.
Malcolm was critical of the Civil Rights Movement headed by Dr Martin Luther King, and then came to use a phrase that still resonates today. When talking about their aims for a non-violent struggle, he said instead black people should defend themselves ‘by any means necessary.’
Soon Malcolm became the focus of the NOI, somewhat awkwardly superseding the actual leader Elijah Muhammad. The increase in NOI membership attracted attention from the FBI too. Phone tapping and other covert surveillance equipment was used to keep a close watch on the group.
Tension came to a head in 1963 between Malcolm and Muhammad, when Malcolm discovered stories of sexual relations between his leader and various women within the NOI. Malcolm, a strong and strict follower of the faith, felt betrayed when learning of those affairs.
As a consequence, he left the NOI in March 1964, and set up his own organisation, named Muslim Mosque Inc. He travelled to Mecca that year and he felt changed by the experience. There he met with different cultures including ‘blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers.’
He converted to Sunni Islam and became known as el Hajj Malik el Shabbaz, which in fact was a name he had used since the late 1950s, though the press and media continued to call him Malcolm X.
After further foreign tours, upon his return to the States his message was now one of more inclusion for all races, once declaring ‘I did a lot of things as a Muslim that I am sorry for now.’
The FBI picked up on the growing tension between Malcolm and Muhammad and his followers within the NOI and learned that Malcolm was earmarked for an assassination. In fact, attempts on his life were now frequent. He, his wife Betty and their four daughters were now under constant threat. There was said to have been an air of fatalism around Malcolm X at this point. For a man who took such pride in his appearance, his clothes could now appear shabby and his shoes once gleaming, were now unpolished.
Then, on February 21st 1965, gunmen shot him dead at a podium as he gave a talk in Manhattan. All of his killers were named as members of the Nation of Islam, though debate still rages as to the true identity of the assailants. It is said the actual killer escaped arrest. Elijah Muhammad denied any involvement in the murder.
Despite their obvious differences, Martin Luther King sent a message to Malcolm’s wife Betty declaring ‘While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.’
Malik/Malcolm X was 39 years old.
In 1971, it was declared that a ‘Malcolm X Day’ was to be celebrated each year on his birthday of May 19th.
Then in the late 1980s and early 90s, images of Malcolm X came to the fore once again. Schools, homes and offices had posters of him on display and groups like Public Enemy, celebrated his life and words in song and video. 1992 saw the release of the film of his life, ‘Malcolm X’ directed by Spike Lee with Denzel Washington in the main role.
The Audubon Ballroom, the site of his assassination, was partly redeveloped in 2005 to accommodate the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center.
Schools, colleges, and streets, have all been named in his honour. Postage stamps have been issued with his image upon them.
For me the memory of reading that classic book nearly forty years ago has remained, it was that powerful. Time magazine declared it as one of the 10 most influential non-fiction books of the 20th century and I can see why.
Its impact on me was far reaching. It was the book that opened the door to me reading more. Someone once said, ‘to be a writer you have to be a reader’ and that is certainly true in my own particular case. I also learned from it, to not just listen the opinions of those around you. Do your own research and then judge it all from that perspective.
When he began the collaboration with Alex Haley on the book in 1963, Malcolm told Haley ‘If I’m alive when this book comes out, it will be a miracle.’
The book was published some nine months after the assassination.
The Mumper of SE5
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