Malcolm X: From Struggle to Legacy

The Transformative Journey of a Civil Rights Icon and His Enduring Impact on African American and Global Muslim Communities

4 mins read
Black activist Malcolm X on March 1, 1964.Truman Moore / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

The late Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, a Baptist minister, was an outspoken follower of Marcus Garvey, the Black Nationalist leader in the 1920s who advocated a “Back to Africa” movement for African Americans. During Malcolm’s early years, his family had to move several times because of the Ku Klux Klansmen’s continuing threats. As a result of these threats, his home was burned in Michigan, and when Malcolm was six years old, his father was murdered.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, his mother became mentally ill and remained in a mental institution for about 26 years. Malcolm was sent to a foster home, and his sisters and brothers were divided among several families. Malcolm lived in various state institutions and boarding houses, and he dropped out of school at the age of 15.

Malcolm went on to live with his sister in Boston while working as a shoeshine boy, soda jerk, busboy, waiter, and railroad dining car waiter. At this crucial point, he began a life of crime that included gambling, selling drugs, burglary, and hustling. In 1946, Malcolm was sentenced to ten years for burglary. In prison, he began to shape his life, and through his family’s visits, he came to know about the Black Muslim religious movement. The Black Muslims’ official name was the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, and their spiritual leader was Elijah Mohammed, with national headquarters in Chicago.

In prison, Malcolm began to study Elijah’s teachings and to practice Islam faithfully. He also greatly enlarged his vocabulary by copying words from the dictionary, beginning with A and going through to Z. Additionally, he began to assimilate the racial teachings of his new religion—that the white man is evil, doomed by Allah to destruction, and that the best course for Black people is to separate themselves from Western white civilization in cultural, political, physical, and psychological fields.

In 1952, Malcolm was released from prison and went to Chicago to meet Elijah Mohammed. Once accepted into the movement and given the name of Malcolm X, he became assistant minister of the Detroit Mosque. The following year, he returned to Chicago to study personally under Elijah and shortly thereafter was sent to organize a mosque in Philadelphia.

In 1954, Malcolm went on to lead the mosque in Harlem and quickly became the most prominent national spokesman for Black Muslims. He was widely sought as a speaker, and his debating skills and talents against white and black opponents helped spread the movement’s message.

During this time in the United States, there was a major thrust for racial integration. However, Malcolm and the Black Muslims were calling for racial separation. He urged Black people to give up the Christian religion, reject integration, and understand that the high crime rate in Black communities was essentially due to African Americans following the decadent lifestyle of Western white society.

On December 1, 1963, Malcolm stated that he saw President John F. Kennedy’s assassination as a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.” Soon afterward, Elijah suspended Malcolm and ordered him not to speak for the movement for 90 days. As a result of this row, Malcolm publicly announced on March 8, 1964, that he was leaving the Nation of Islam and starting two new organizations: the Muslim Mosque and the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Malcolm made several trips to Africa and Europe, but most importantly, he traveled to Mecca for Hajj in April 1964. This pilgrimage was the culminating point and the great change that enormously affected him. In a letter sent to his assistants and his wife during the conclusion of his pilgrimage to Mecca, as reported by Alex Haley in The Autobiography of Malcolm X:

“Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as practiced by the people of all colors and races here in the ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Mohammed, and all other prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.”

In the same letter, he added: “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans, but we were all participating in the same rituals, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experience in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.”

In an astonishing mind’s metamorphosis, he declared:

“America needs to understand Islam because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white,’ but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color. You may be shocked by these words coming from me, but on this pilgrimage, what I have seen and experienced has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts and accept the reality of life as new experiences and new knowledge unfold. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary for the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”

Thus said in such perennial and heartfelt emotions, this great faith-founder and genuine truth-seeker. Alas! The man who once said:

“I know that any moment of any day or any night could bring me death. To speculate about dying does not disturb me as it might some people, and I never have felt that I would live to become an old man.”

At the age of 39, on a Sunday afternoon, February 21, 1965, as he began to address one such meeting, Malcolm was assassinated and therefore granted the higher status of a true martyr for the cause of his faith.

Surely Malcolm was one of the most fiery and controversial people of the 20th century. Born as a Christian and passing away as a Muslim, it is only a small and modest tribute to this great man through my historic diary. It is he who said about history: “History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower of animals.”

No wonder that he left a worldwide legacy. Malcolm’s influence on the political and social thought of African Americans, as well as of Muslims throughout the globe, has been enormous. The widespread literature about his struggle has proliferated, the monumental film by Spike Lee based on his autobiography in 1992, and the ever-growing number of internet sites about this “common heritage” are but other testimonies to the greatness of this man. True, he has died, but his spirit is still alive!

For that, Hadj Malik El Shabazz certainly belongs to the higher class of Allah’s servants who have attained the best of both worlds: “We gave him his reward in this world, and in the world to come, he shall be among the righteous.” (Holy Quran 29:27).

S. Mohammed Bokreta

S. Mohammed Bokreta is a Freelance Writer and Cultural Consultant based in Algiers, Algeria. Specializing in Islamic values, political issues, historical events, and tourism topics, his work has been featured in international newspapers and magazines for over 36 years. Fluent in Arabic, French, and English, Bokreta also translates significant Islamic manuscripts. With a background as a Bank and Shipping Manager, his extensive experience and communication skills aim to educate and inspire future generations.

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