Today we honor and celebrate a complex, controversial, and significant figure in the civil rights movement, Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little to a large family in 1925 in Omaha, he had a tumultuous childhood. His father’s association with Black Nationalism and Marcus Garvey resulted in frequent death threats and family moves. After his father was killed in 1929, his mother’s mental health deteriorated until she was institutionalized and the family was split among numerous foster homes and orphanages. Malcolm was a dedicated student until he was discouraged from his career goal — he wanted to be a lawyer — by teachers who said his race would stop him (Sadly, this still happens today). He dropped out of school and moved around until he eventually settled in Harlem. By then he was engaged in petty crime and eventually escalated to coordinating narcotics, prostitution, and gambling rings.
By 1946, Malcolm had moved to Boston. He and a friend were arrested and convicted on burglary charges. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison (and served seven). While in prison, he was visited by his brother, Reginald, who had recently converted to Islam. Malcolm began studying the religion and joined the Nation of Islam. He stopped using his birth name, feeling it tied him to white slave owners, and began going by Malcolm X, symbolizing the family name he would never know.
By the time of his parole in 1952, Malcolm X was a firm believer in the Nation of Islam and the leadership of its prophet, Elijah Muhammed. The two worked closely together and Malcolm became an adherent of the black separatist movement. His charisma and passionate presentation made him a natural leader and he was soon an indispensible part of the the Nation of Islam. His firey but reasoned delivery made him a notorious media magnet. In 1959, he was featured in a week-long television special with Mike Wallace, The Hate That Hate Procuced. From that point on he was a household name across America. He married Betty Shabazz in 1958.
In 1963, he learned that Elijah Muhammed was engaged in affairs with at least six women in the Nation of Islam and had fathered children by some of them. Disgusted with this hypocrisy and blatant disregard for the teachings of his faith, Malcolm X eventually left the organization. He began to rethink his strident separatist position and traveled the world for the better part of a year. Upon returning, he stuck with his message that the white power structure was inherently stacked against African-Americans (ever true today), but began to work on more inclusive ways to break down that power structure.
He was an in-demand speaker and still a charismatic leader. He started his own organization, Muslim Mosque, Inc. and co-founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He made a particular effort to speak on college campuses, believing that students were the foundation for an improved nation. The Nation of Islam was not pleased with his independent success, and he was regularly threatened both by its members and white supremacists. On February 14, 1965, his home was burned to the ground; fortunately the family escaped unharmed. One week later, he was shot to death by three members of the Nation of Islam. He was 39.
Malcolm X is recognized as one of the most significant figures of the 20th Century, especially for improving the situation for African-Americans. His passion — exemplified by his famous line “by any means necessary” — made him a polarizing force. His willingness to speak the truth even when it was inconvenient (such as his remarks immediately after President Kennedy’s assassination) made him many enemies. His understanding of power structures and ability to speak truth to power, coupled with his growing sense of collaboration, however, made him a force for progress. The United States owes a great debt to Malcolm X and I hope we revere has for the National Treasure he is, as his legacy lives on in all of us fighting the intersections of oppression.