Malcolm X was an African-American human rights activist, activist, and Muslim preacher. He experienced perhaps one of the greatest transformation stories of his era. He emerged from a life of crime and violence and turned into a strong leader who defended human rights. This was a striking example of a person’s search for himself and the ups and downs on this path.
His biggest wish as a child was to be a lawyer. But he dropped out of school after a white teacher told him, “A lawyer is not a realistic goal for a black man.” He may not have been a lawyer, but he became one of the greatest human rights defenders of all time and influenced millions.
So how did this story begin?
Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, the fourth of seven children of Earl Little and Louise Norton Little. His father, Earl Little, was a supporter of Pan-Africanism and a Baptist who admired the Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey in his community. According to Marcus Garvey, the African diaspora had to establish an independent nation-state in Africa in order to determine its own destiny. This was an idea that Malcolm would later defend. Earl and his family’s activism brought with it exposure to violence. The family moved to Milwauke and then Lansing in 1926. Here, too, he was subjected to frequent attacks by the racist organization “Black Legion”, which was anti-black. Finally, in 1929, when Malcolm was four years old, their house was burned down. According to his father, the Black Legion was in charge.
Two years later, in 1931, when Malcolm was six years old, his father died in a streetcar accident, according to official records. However, in his autobiography, Malcolm says, according to eyewitnesses, his father was injured and thrown under a tram. According to his mother, his father had not been in an accident, he was killed. Malcolm grew up hearing that anti-black racist white people were responsible for his father’s death, and this undoubtedly left a deep impact on him.
“I remember waking up to my mother’s screams again. When I went out, I saw the police, they were trying to calm her down. My mother grabbed her clothes to go with them. And as we watched them, we children knew, without anyone telling us, that something terrible had happened to our father.”
In 1939, when Malcolm was thirteen, his mother was admitted to the Kalamoza mental institution, Michigan, for her worsening condition, and Malcolm was placed in foster care. Self-defense, being physically strong was something that black people had to learn in their situation, and black children who grew up with this reality tended to get involved in crime with thoughts of being strong, and of revenge. Malcolm also started to face the police from an early age.
Towards the end of 1945, Malcolm was involved in multiple robberies in Boston where they targeted wealthy white families with four accomplices. In 1946, at the age of twenty, he was imprisoned for burglary and trespassing. During this period, he became interested in reading and educated himself. He joined the black movement called “Nation of Islam”, which he heard from his brother during his visits. As a child exposed to racism, who had grown up hearing of his father’s murder by whites, and who had witnessed his mother’s mental health deteriorate, he was captivated by anti-white and black supremacist sentiment. At the same time, the ideas advocated by the Nation of Islam were similar to the views of the Pan-Africanist leader followed by his parents.
Nicknamed “Iblis” in prison for his hatred of religions, Malcolm experienced the first major transformation of his life, converting to Islam and becoming a staunch follower of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam group. Thus, Malcolm Little became Malcolm X. The letter X represented an unknown African surname, and the abandonment of existing surnames was one of the teachings of the Nation of Islam group. It was argued that these names came from white slave traders and did not represent blacks.
While in prison, Malcolm X read at every opportunity and began to write his autobiography.
“There was a hallway light just outside my room reflecting on the room. The light was enough to read a book once my eyes got used to it. When all the lights were off, I would sit by the door and continue reading in that light.”
He met Elijah Mohammed when he was paroled in 1952. He quickly became a shining name within the group and became one of the leaders of the group. The group, which had 500 members in 1952, had reached approximately 30 thousand members by 1963, under the influence of Malcolm X. He also helped boxer Cassius Clay, who took the name Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam, to join the movement. In June 1953, Malcolm X became a co-preacher at the No. 1 mosque of the Nation of Islam movement in Detroit. In this year, he established mosque number 11 in Boston. In March 1954, he enlarged and expanded the number 12 mosque in Philadelphia, and two months later was named director of mosque number 7 in Harlem. His rapid rise in the Nation of Islam movement drew attention, and the FBI began to follow Malcolm.
In his speeches, Malcolm emphasized that civil disobedience is not a solution to economic inequality and racism that causes black people to hate themselves. At this point, his thoughts differed from Martin Luther King, another black human rights defender of his time. “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin to such an extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to? So much so that you don’t want to be around each other. Before you come to ask Mr. Muhammed, does he teach hate, you should ask yourself, who taught you to hate being what God gave you?”
On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X experienced his second major transformation by leaving the Nation of Islam movement. He left the group because of its harsh stance that sees white people as evil. He was disappointed with Elijah Muhammad’s attitudes and the allegations he heard about him. Elijah had crimes to hide, he told in his autobiography. He said that this attitude was the turning point of his disappointment. Then, with his pilgrimage experience, he reinforced the idea of equality.
“This is how I began to realize for the first time that I believed in Mr. Muhammed more than he believed in himself. That’s how, after not thinking about myself for five minutes for twelve years, I finally found the courage and strength to start facing reality and thinking for myself.”
In fact, it was a political teaching based on black nationalism rather than a religious teaching that led Malcolm X to meet Islam. Because this was the main point on which the Nation of Islam group was based and emphasized. However, Malcolm became acquainted with Sunni Islam after performing the Hajj, and perhaps this is how he met Islam for real. With the financial support of his stepsister Ella, he went on a pilgrimage in April 1964. There he took the name El-Hajj Malik Eş-Shabazz.
In his own words, he saw that the white-skinned Muslims he met during the Hajj did not have the same attitude as the people who were called white in America, that they regarded themselves as a human being and as part of a family, not as “white”. He thought that if Islam gave them that perspective, it could do the same to white people in America. Malcolm said that his days spent in the Islamic world, where Muslims accept him as their brother, resolved his personal problem with race. However, he stated that he would continue to use the surname “X” instead of “Shahbaz” as other blacks in his country continued to have problems.
While on Hajj, he sent letters to his wife, brother and the Muslim Mosque, of which he was the leader. He requested that the letter he sent to the Muslim Mosque be distributed to the press as well.
“There were hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world. There were people of all colors; from blue-eyed blondes to African blacks… But all of us were united by performing the same worship, adhering to the understanding of unity and brotherhood. Whereas in America we looked at what we saw and believed that there would never be such a thing as brotherhood between whites and others. America needs to recognize Islam. Because the religion of Islam is the only thing that can save America from its racial scourge. During my travels to Muslim countries, I met, talked to, and even ate at the same table with people who would be called “white” in American society. Thanks to the religion of Islam, there is no thought in these people’s minds that would be labeled “white”. I have never witnessed such sincerity and true brotherhood among people of various colors; They don’t even care about each other’s colors.”
Also in his letter, Malcolm X says what a person needs to experience a transformation:
“Who knows, you will be surprised by these words you hear from me. But what I saw and encountered during the pilgrimage made it necessary for me to reorganize many of the old thought patterns and to push aside many of the wrongs I had perpetuated for a long time. These were not difficult for me. Despite my firm beliefs, I have always been a seeker of facts and someone who accepts the principles of life revealed by new information and new experiments.The mind that is chasing the truth is expected to maintain a certain flexibility in every breakthrough it will make. Here I am a person who keeps my doors wide open to this flexibility.”
Malcolm X planned to organize a black nationalist organization that would “raise the political awareness” of African-Americans. He also stated that he wanted to work with other human rights leaders and had considered doing so in the past, but Elijah blocked him. After leaving the Nation of Islam movement, he founded the religious organization Muslim Mosque and the non-religious Organization of Afro-American Unity, which advocates Pan-Africanism.
Throughout 1964, he was repeatedly threatened by the Nation of Islam movement, with which he was constantly at odds. In February, the leader of Mosque No. 7 bombed Malcolm X’s car. On April 10, a cartoon depicting the decapitation of Malcolm X appeared in the Muslim Newspaper, published by Elijah supporters.
“Everywhere I went—in the streets, in the workplaces, in the elevators, on the sidewalks, in the passing cars—I began to see the faces of the Muslims I knew, and I knew that one of them might be waiting for an opportunity to put a bullet in me.”
He was assassinated on February 21, 1965 while preparing to deliver a speech at the Audubon Hall in Manhattan, but his story did not end there. His autobiography is still read, his speeches are still listened to, and he continues to inspire millions of people on their own paths of transformation and perseverance to stand up to the injustices they witness.