Today is the birthday (1925) of Malcolm Little who became known to the world as Malcolm X when he became a member of the Nation of Islam, but also took the name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz after he went to Mecca for the Hajj in 1964, but was, and still is, best known as Malcolm X. For most of his public career he was known as the public voice of the Nation of Islam which, under leader Elijah Muhammad, preached radical racism and separatism, along with violent rebellion when necessary. This is the persona that many people in the United States remember him for. Both his criminal background before the Nation of Islam, and his fundamental change of heart after his break with the Nation of Islam have largely been forgotten, although there are several movies concerning his life that accentuate this period. The best reference point is The Autobiography of Malcolm X which was actually written by Alex Haley based on numerous taped interviews with Malcolm between 1963 and his death in 1965, and published posthumously. It was one of the first books I taught as a brand-new assistant professor in a Freshman Studies program in 1980, and I found it completely mesmerizing. Back in the 1960s (when I was living in Australia), the images we got of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States were limited and extremely one sided. Malcolm’s murder in 1965 seemed like yet another political murder in a bloody decade that included two Kennedys and Martin Luther King along with Malcolm. I had not the remotest idea what it was all about. Reading the Autobiography set me straight in so many ways.
My simple suggestion is that if you want to understand Malcolm X you should read the autobiography. It is crafted, of course. All autobiographies are. In this case it is crafted as much by Haley as by Malcolm himself, but Haley does use Malcolm’s own words and does follow the general thread of his life through his development as a criminal in Boston and New York, after being more or less orphaned in Michigan, how he had something of an awakening in his 6 ½ years in prison which crystallized when he came under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad, but which he then put behind him when he converted to Sunni Islam and embarked on a much more universalistic call for human rights that set aside the violent separatism of the Nation of Islam. This final period was tragically short, cut short because he was murdered by members of the Nation of Islam, most likely under direct orders from Elijah Muhammad, although the details may always remain shrouded in obscurity. Three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of the murder, but only one, Talmadge Hayer, admitted guilt. The other two protested innocence and Hayer also refused to point the finger at them. He claimed that other members of the Nation of Islam were involved but initially he would not name them. The police did not re-open the case, when Hayer in the late 1970s filed sworn affidavits naming four men – not those convicted – of being complicit in the murder; nor did the FBI even though they had undercover agents working with the Nation of Islam. It has even been suggested that the FBI was aware of the Nation of Islam’s intent to kill Malcolm but did nothing to prevent it, nor to warn him.
The inherent problem with assessing Malcolm’s philosophy is that it changed dramatically after his journey to Mecca when he became aware of what traditional Islam was about, as opposed to the heavily politicized and contorted version that Elijah Muhammad had created. For most of Malcolm’s public career he was little more than the charismatic mouthpiece (he called himself, the “ventriloquist’s dummy”) for the doctrines of the Nation of Islam. These doctrines included the belief that black people were the original people of the world, and that white people were a race of devils who were created by an evil scientist named Yakub. The Nation of Islam believed that black people were superior to white people, and that the demise of the white race was imminent. When questioned concerning his statements that white people were devils, Malcolm said: “history proves the white man is a devil. Anybody who rapes, and plunders, and enslaves, and steals, and drops hell bombs on people … anybody who does these things is nothing but a devil.”
Malcolm called Islam the “true religion of black mankind” and that Christianity was “the white man’s religion” that had been imposed upon African Americans by their slave-masters. He said that the Nation of Islam followed Islam as it was practiced around the world, but the Nation’s teachings varied from those of other Muslims because they were adapted to the “uniquely pitiful” condition of black people in the United States. He taught that Wallace Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation, was Allah incarnate, and that Elijah Muhammad was his Messenger, or Prophet.
While the civil rights movement fought against racial segregation, Malcolm advocated the complete separation of blacks from whites. The Nation of Islam proposed the establishment of a separate country for African Americans in the southern or southwestern United States as an interim measure until African Americans could return to Africa. He also suggested the United States government owed reparations to African Americans for the unpaid labor of their ancestors. He also rejected the civil rights movement’s strategy of nonviolence, advocating instead that black people should defend themselves. In these days he was a vocal opponent of Martin Luther King and his non-violent protests.
In the early 1960s tensions between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad arose, almost certainly because Elijah Muhammad perceived Malcolm as a threat to his leadership, but also because Malcolm became disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad. In the 1950s Malcolm was by far the most important force for recruitment for the Nation of Islam – by one estimate increasing its membership from 500 to 25,000 in a matter of years. He was responsible, for example, for the conversion of the boxer Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali on conversion, which, in turn inspired more converts. Malcolm’s increased public prominence in relation to his own certainly sparked jealousy in Elijah Muhammad, but Malcolm also began to question Elijah Muhammad’s authority. For one thing, Elijah Muhammad was suspected of improper sexual relations with a number of his secretaries which he ultimately admitted and justified by pointing to the habits of the patriarchs. This did not sit well with Malcolm’s strict ethical code, nor did Elijah Muhammad’s efforts to be conciliatory to Martin Luther King’s movement. After Malcolm made imprudent remarks about the assassination of JFK and was ordered silenced for 90 days by Elijah Muhammad, he split from the Nation of Islam and became an orthodox Sunni Muslim.
In keeping with standard Islamic tradition, in April 1964, with financial help from his half-sister Ella Little-Collins, Malcolm flew to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, as the start of his Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca obligatory for every Muslim who is able to do so. He was delayed in Jeddah when his U.S. citizenship and inability to speak Arabic caused his status as a Muslim to be questioned. He had received Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam’s book The Eternal Message of Muhammad with his visa approval, and he contacted the author. Azzam’s son arranged for his release and lent him his personal hotel suite. The next morning Malcolm learned that Prince Faisal had designated him as a state guest. Several days later, after completing the Hajj rituals, Malcolm had an audience with the prince. Malcolm later said that seeing Muslims of “all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans,” interacting as equals led him to see Islam as a means by which racial problems could be overcome.
This transformed Malcolm was not the man that many people came to know. He was perceived as a traitor by the Nation of Islam, and the mainstream press continued to characterize him as a violent black supremacist. Throughout 1964, as his conflict with the Nation of Islam intensified, Malcolm was repeatedly threatened. In February, a leader of Temple Number Seven ordered the bombing of his car. In March, Elijah Muhammad told Boston minister Louis X (later known as Louis Farrakhan) that “hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off”; the April 10 edition of Muhammad Speaks featured a cartoon depicting Malcolm’s bouncing, severed head.
On June 8, FBI surveillance recorded a telephone call in which Betty Shabazz was told that her husband was “as good as dead”. Four days later, an FBI informant received a tip that “Malcolm X is going to be bumped off.” (That same month the Nation of Islam sued to reclaim Malcolm’s residence in East Elmhurst, Queens, New York. His family was ordered to vacate but on February 14, 1965—the night before a hearing on postponing the eviction—the house was destroyed by fire.) On July 9 Elijah Muhammad aide John Ali (suspected of being an undercover FBI agent) referred to Malcolm X by saying, “Anyone who opposes the Honorable Elijah Muhammad puts their life in jeopardy.” In the December 4 issue of Muhammad Speaks, Louis X wrote that “such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death”. The September 1964 issue of Ebony dramatized Malcolm’s defiance of these threats by publishing a photograph of him holding an M1 carbine while peering out a window.
What might have become of his nascent new movement that was true to Sunni Islam, and opposed to the violent, separatist rhetoric of the Nation of Islam is anyone’s guess. It was cut short by his murder, although certainly its seeds can be seen in the Autobiography which, again, I highly recommend (despite its own limitations).
Malcolm was true to standard Islamic dietary practices in avoiding pork, and was generally opposed to Soul Food, not only because it is rich in pork fat, but because he thought of it as generally unhealthy. By all accounts, his favorite dish was roast chicken, steamed kale, and rice. I scarcely need to remind you that when I roast a chicken I cook it on the highest heat possible – 500˚F/260˚C. I usually cook kale by washing it thoroughly in several changes of water, and then placing it in a pot with only the residual water from washing, and steaming on medium-high heat for about 30 minutes.