Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska during the height of the discrimination and racial violence against African-Americans. Even after the family moves to Michigan to escape racial violence they still suffer for the simple reason that they are black. Malcolm’s father is murdered and his mother goes insane and is committed to a mental hospital. He ends up in a detention home until he finished 8th grade. Upon completion, he moves to Boston where he becomes involved in the nightlife. He was able to pass for being older by wearing flashy clothes, gambling, drinking, doing drugs, and dating an older white woman at a time when a black person could be lynched for doing so. Eventually, he takes a job as a railway porter and moves to New York to be a Harlem hustler. In Harlem, he indulges in running numbers, selling drugs, and pimping black brothels to white people. In addition, he committed several armed robberies.
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Eventually, life in Harlem becomes too risky even for the adventurous Malcolm. He is arrested and imprisoned. It is in Jail that Malcolm begins his transformation when he converts to Islam under the Nation of Islam group. As a result of his conversion experience, he ceases drug use and he begins to read and pray diligently. Upon release on Parole Malcolm becomes a model citizen and an active member of the Detroit temple of the Nation of Islam. He also drops the name Little and adopts the placeholder “X” as a homage to his now-lost last name from his African ancestry.
Now known as Malcolm X he meets with Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad and rises to the rank of Temple assistant in Detroit to the Nation’s first national minister. Malcolm becomes an advocate for black unity and militancy this disturbs the Nation of Islam’s leadership and they suspend him.
As the Nation of Islam grew more frustrated with Malcolm he begins to receive death threats. After a particularly divisive argument with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm leaves the Nation of Islam and he utilizes his fame to found his own Muslim Mosque Inc. This organization is more politically active than the Nation of Islam and its views on the Islamic faith are at variance with those of his original organization. In 1965 at the height of his fame he is assassinated.
What has it taught me?
The story of Malcolm X taught three things. First, that discrimination against African-Americans was a real, unwelcome, blight in our nation’s history. Second, a conversion experience can change a man from being a corrupt and worldly person who gives his life in the service of others. Third and most important, Malcolm X taught me that humanity is a basic human right.
Malcolm’s father was murdered, his mother driven mad by the violence around them, even after they left the Midwest where discrimination was supposed to be worse and moved to the more benign and tolerant state of Michigan. The specter of discrimination still followed them. This is an unfortunate truth, even though Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves in 1862 even in the mid-1950s there are still people who look down on African-Americans as if they were slaves. They are treated very poorly as if they were not human. They can even be beaten by a mob for dating a white person. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all is that “Colored”, a term that connotes being dirty, people are excluded from fine restaurants and hotels. Segregation was the order of the day. Malcolm X was the contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King jr. Like Dr. King, he suffered many indignities by virtue of the color of his skin.
Prison should have been a low point in his life. Instead, Malcolm was converted to Islam and made a radical turn for the better. He turned his back on drugs and a life of crime. Instead, he chose to serve Allah in the most profound way possible. The Nation of Islam promised hope and unity to the downtrodden “colored” race. Even after his parole, he remained very active in organizing his fellows and leading them to the Nation of Islam. He also began to commit himself to improve his mind that he may better serve his fellow African-Americans. His conversion eventually made him a fiery radical who espoused militancy as a means to assert their rights. He becomes a sort of opposite to Dr. King who insisted on non-violent resistance. Malcolm X was a radical but was nevertheless a serious advocate of his people’s civil rights.
Humanity is a basic human right. This is a contentious lesson even in the modern-day as some people are still discriminated against and treated in an inhumane manner. But for the African-American people this was an essential issue in the time of Malcolm X. Their rights were often denied them. After all, the Bill of Rights applied to all people and the Declaration of Independence claims that all people are created “Free and Equal”. Yet their treatment was far from equal to whites. It is important to remember this lesson as we meet to celebrate diversity in America, not only are there many ethnic minorities already present there are many more who seek to share the virtues of our United States.
Malcolm X and Hayley were biased in their efforts to present a sometimes larger-than-life representation of Malcolm X. The exaggerations broaden his legend and succeed in making him an even more heroic figure. An example that even the author admits is when Malcolm X pulled a stunt where he fired his gun into his head in front of his followers. The stunt intimidated them into obedience and was written into the book. However, later Malcolm X admits that the gun was empty. The fact that the anecdote was printed in its original form, that the gun was actually loaded, shows that Hayley was also interested in exaggerating Malcolm X’s legend.
Malcolm X, Hayley, Alex. The autobiography of Malcolm X.