22 - 02
A shoeshine, a burglar, a waiter, a real hustler; a pious man, a fiery advocate for black rights, Martin Luther King Jr.’s alter ego. Like most great men, Malcolm X has worn many different masks, and many contradictory adjectives would describe him.
A Little, An X, A Shabazz
The complexities of his persona can be seen from the appellations he used in his 39 short years, brought to an end by three gunmen fifty years ago yesterday; born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, the man grew to be not so little anymore, and crossed out his last name, supplanting in its place an X, following in the tradition of the Nation of Islam, which he had only recently joined.
It was while with the Nation of Islam that his notoriety as a staunch advocate of the separation of black folks from the white folks game him worldwide prominence, and his militant rhetoric calling for the creation of a black state within the US made him as many enemies as it made him known.
Nominally a Muslim after joining the Nation of Islam, his world views changed a bit after undertaking the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, that any Muslim who is physically capable and financially able to undertake must fulfill; contrary to the teachings of the Nation of Islam that the white man is the devil incarnate, he discovered during his challenges in making his pilgrimage that what he should be fighting a set of habits and attitudes manifested by a significant portion of white men in America’s racially segregated society, not just white men for having a different complexion.
Armed with a better understanding of Islam, Mr. X, converted to Sunni Islam, as manifested by his name change to Al-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz, and significantly moderated his stance on the creation of a separate state for people of color, coming to ultimately concede that it is a possibility to have a society in which people of different colors could coexist.
His stature is remarkable, considering the travails he passed through in his earlier years; the 7th of nine children, Malcolm’s childhood was anything but idyllic, in part because his father was an organizer for Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, and a target for many white supremacist groups. It is actually believed that Earl Little’s death was no accident, orchestrated by such groups.
His mother was shortly sent to a mental facility, and the Littles began a life in foster care, before Malcolm was taken under the care of his half-sister in Boston, where the allure of the street life drew him to the underworld, a better forgotten phase of his life in which he dabbled in all manner of vices from Boston to New York; in the end, he paid for his crimes with a seven year jail time.
It was in prison that he transformed beginning with a reignition of a passion for books, a passion that had been dulled by an eighth grade teacher who dampened his ambitions of being a lawyer by encouraging him to be a carpenter, seeing as a n****r couldn’t practice the law, in the teacher’s opinion.
The Nation of Islam
His introduction to the Nation of Islam began in prison, and he became a devout member of the organization after getting out, making contact with the founder, Elijah Mohammad, and helping establish several centers for the NoI.
A firebrand during his involvement with the NoI, he was renowned for his great oratorical prowess and his fiery rhetoric, so much so that he came to outshine Elijah Muhammad, and the two stalwarts fell out.
Prominent in the same time as Martin Luther King Jr., he was seen by some as the antithesis of MLK, whose advocacy of a nonviolent approach to demand equal rights contrasted with his more forceful approach; indeed, in an interview he discussed Luther’s stance, describing it as “disarming the black people of America of their God-given right”, and describing the nonviolence movement in America as “a mouse sitting on an elephant” and thinking it will be moved.
Despite this seemingly hostile perception of Martin Luther King Jr., (he effectively labelled him a traitor in this interview), were occasionally spotted together in public.
His agitations won him some enemies, including France, which barred him entry into the republic in 1965 for being an ‘undesirable’ character; upon his return to his home in New York, his house was firebombed, though his family escaped unscathed. Nine days later however, he wasn’t so lucky; while getting ready for a speech organized by his organization, the Organization of African-American Unity, OAAU, a scuffle broke out and in the confusion, three gunmen lunged at him, and Malcolm X was felled at the Audubon Ballroom, now renamed the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center.
While the civil rights that were being fought for by leaders such as Malcolm X and MLK are now enshrined in America’s constitution, the reality on the ground, as demonstrated by the fates of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Professor Gates, John Crawford, and countless other incidences, all pinned down to the crime of “walking/running/ driving/waiting while black.”