The Legacy of Malcolm X
He terrified whites and turned Negroes into African-Americans
Those headline-making utterances came from "the pre-Mecca Malcolm," the messenger who blindly followed the teachings of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad and thus, in one historian's words, "scared the bejesus out of white people." Less noticed was what occurred in Malcolm's final year. Breaking with Muhammad, Malcolm traveled to Mecca and discovered Muslims "of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans." He returned to America preaching brotherhood and a hostility to bias in any form. "In the past, I have permitted myself to be used to make sweeping indictments of all white people," he said. "I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of one race."
James Farmer, the civil-rights leader who headed the Congress of Racial Equality in the '60s, remembers a revealing conversation shortly after Malcolm's return from Mecca. Malcolm vowed to devote the rest of his life, Farmer says, to repairing the damage done by narrow-mindedness. "Anyone who will work along with us is my brother," Malcolm told the CORE leader, "and that goes for your three guys, too"--a reference to James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three CORE workers who had been murdered in Mississippi. "Malcolm knew that Schwerner and Goodman were white and Jewish," Farmer recalls. "For a black nationalist and a Muslim to say that those two white Jews were his brothers was a real confession and real change. I asked him why he had not expressed that view in his rallies in Harlem. He said, 'If a leader makes a sudden right-angle turn, he turns alone.' "
When Malcolm began preaching in the '50s, black Americans were represented on radio and television mainly by servants like Jack Benny's Rochester and bumbling connivers like Amos and Andy's Kingfish. The only African hero most black moviegoers saw was a white Tarzan. "You know yourself that we have been a people who hated our African characteristics," Malcolm told a Detroit audience. "We hated our heads, we hated the shape of our nose ... we hated the color of our skin, hated the blood of Africa that was in our veins ... Our color became to us a chain." What Malcolm started--"a cultural revolution to unbrainwash an entire people," he called it--bears fruit today in music, dress, art and literature, all brimming with self-respect and pride in an African heritage. It was Malcolm's influence, many scholars say, that turned "Negroes" into "black people." He fathered the black-power movement that started within a year of his death. Long before the movement faded in the '70s, its disciples were hailing "St. Malcolm."
Many young Americans caught up in Malcolmania are familiar with the highlights of his life. They devour Pathfinder Press's collections of his speeches and are largely responsible for the 300 percent jump that's occurred since 1989 in sales of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," as told to Alex Haley. But many other Malcolm fans know little about him. Until a year ago, some black students were asking their history professors, "Who is this Malcolm the Tenth?" Whites often know even less about the civil-rights era. Alan Stone, president of Michigan's Alma College, says his students "are surprised to learn that separate drinking fountains existed barely 25 years ago. They seem to think these things happened at the turn of the century."