More than half a century after his death, the singular voice of Malcolm X still resonates across America like a final call to arms. Just look at Beyoncé’s rollicking routine at the 2016 Superbowl where she sung lyrics of “ I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros/ I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils “ to an estimated 111.1 million views as a troupe of black women danced in a provocative X formation. Like the party sequence in Citizen Kane, Malcolm X is so iconic a figure that his views can be compressed into one initial. But just who was he?
Born Malcolm Little on 19th May 1925 in a Nebraskan settlement, Malcolm X struggled through poverty, prison and prejudice before becoming one of the iconic figures of the 1960’s American Civil Rights Movement. Before he even learnt his time tables, Malcolm Little was educated in segregation. He was six years old when his black rights advocate father, Earl Little, was murdered in a hate crime, and as the young boy watched his mother’s mental health slowly decline he quickly became aware of the bubble of segregation that clutched America.
The turning point of Little’s early life was in the classroom. He was easily one of the brightest pupils in his class and dreamed of being a lawyer until his teacher advised him to train as a carpenter, reasoning that a career in legislating was “No realistic ambition for a nigger”. Crushed, Little moved to Harlem in 1943 where he worked alternately as a drug dealer, racketeer, thief, pimp, and occasionally a gigolo.
This criminal lifestyle would have inevitably led to an early death, but a transformative jail sentence in 1946 put Little on a different path. It was in the Charleston State Prison that Malcolm converted to The Nation of Islam, a religious organisation which denounced the whites as a “devil” who actively sought to prosecute the genetically superior black race out of jealous greed. Thus, Little chose to abandon his surname for an X, a common rite in the NOI which symbolised his ancestry name which had been destroyed by white slavers. X also sharpened his mind and tongue at the prison library by reading countless dictionaries and literary classics, developing an explosive oratory style which allowed him to quickly rise through the NOI ranks to minister after his parole in 1952.
Malcolm X was one of the most proactive members the NOI ever had. Although estimates vary, Malcolm X is widely credited for the ballooning of NOI membership from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1964. He personally established new mosques in towns such as Atlanta, Massachusetts, and Hartford, and effectively became the NOI’s official media spokesperson, which had the unfortunate side effect of making X synonymous with a staid movement he was growingly dissatisfied with. He left the religion in 1964, after the disclosure that NOI leader Elijah Muhammed had suppressed many adulterous relationships and due to growing awareness that the NOI taught very different values to Orthodox Islam.
This compelled X to embark on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and the city’s overwhelming diversity shocked X, who as a NOI member had always been in ferocious favour of separation over racial integration. He wrote “The color-blindness of the Muslim world’s religious society and the color-blindness of the Muslim world’s human society: these two influences had each day been making a greater impact, and an increasing persuasion against my previous way of thinking.”
Having finally renounced discrimination, Malcolm X established the Organisation of Afro-American Unity in order to rebuild the ties between African-Americans and Africans which had been severed by slavery, all the time wary that it was unlikely he would live to see his ambitions come to fruition.
On the 21st February, 1965, Malcolm X was tragically proved right. He was assassinated at a speaking engagement at the Manhattan’s Audubon Theatre, the three gunmen all members of the NOI. He was just 39 years old.
As a 17-year-old white male living in 2016- an age where young black Americans are nine times as likely to be shot by police as white men.- I believe that the testament of Malcolm X is absolutely essential to the modern world’s racial struggles . Consider his choice not to allow whites to join the Organisation of Afro-American unity. This wasn’t a product of racial elitism, but an encouragement for more profound change. “I have very deep feelings that white people who join black organisations are really just looking for an easy way to salve their consciences” X wrote in the final chapter of his autobiography, an essential social document co-authored by journalist Alex Haley, which was adapted into an acclaimed 1992 film and later declared by an 1998 edition of TIME magazine as one of the top ten “Required reading non-fiction books of all time”. X continued to decree “Where the really sincere white people have go to do with proving themselves is not among black victims, but on the front lines where America’s racism really is – and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites. That’s the sincere whites who want to accomplish something have got to work”.
Very few public figures have gained such influence despite being active for a mere thirteen years. It’s too painful to have imagined what X, whose life is a true testament to human potential, could have achieved if he lived . Just one year more could have made all the difference.