The Legacy of Malcolm X
He terrified whites and turned Negroes into African-Americans
Many young blacks who admire Malcolm deem King passÏe. "Black youth are more in tune with the street ethic than the middle-class ethic," says James Farmer. "If any man hits you, hit him back--the big fist wins. When I travel to colleges, black youth tell me that 'nonviolence may have been all right for Dr. King and y'all in the '60s, but this stuff that's coming down now, we have to fight.' They're referring to the resurgence of racism, the rise of the Aryan supremacist groups, the campus graffiti."
If violent rage is all that Americans detect in Spike Lee's movie--and they shouldn't because the film offers much more--the woes of the inner cities will surely worsen. Already, says James Cone, author of "Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare," many young blacks "with no respect for themselves or for anybody else are dropping out of school, joining gangs, selling drugs, going to prisons and killing each other with a frequency that boggles the human imagination." Cone, who teaches theology at New York's Union Theological Seminary, hopes fellow blacks will pick up a far more useful message: respect for black life. "Malcolm's life and teachings on black self-esteem are the medicine the African-American community needs to prevent its self-destruction." Whites also will understand Malcolm better, Cone says, if they read his speeches and debates. "Malcolm wanted for blacks only what whites wanted for themselves, no more and no less."
Malcolm: The Child Malcolm X inherited his rage. His father, a one-eyed Baptist preacher named Earl Little, was a recruiter for Marcus Garvey, the 1920s black nationalist who claimed that blacks could never win freedom in America and should create their own nation in Africa. Soon after Malcolm's birth in Omaha, the Littles moved to Lansing, Mich., where, Malcolm's autobiography suggests, Earl Little was murdered by white vigilantes. Malcolm's mother went on welfare and suffered a mental breakdown. Her eight children were scattered as wards of the state. Malcolm, at 12, went to a detention home, where he often was called "Rastus." But he excelled in school. His classmates, all of them white, chose him as seventh-grade president--he was their "mascot," he explained. A year later, he told a teacher he wanted to be a lawyer. "You've got to be realistic about being a nigger," the teacher responded. "Why don't you plan on carpentry?" Malcolm recalled: "It was then that I began to change--inside." The week he finished the eighth grade, he boarded a Greyhound for Boston, to live with his half sister Ella in Roxbury. It was 1941, and he was 15.
Malcolm: The Hustler Deeming Roxbury's middle-class blacks "snooty," Malcolm preferred the young "cats" at the pool halls. He got a job as a shoeshine boy at the Roseland State Ballroom, popping his rag to the rhythm of Count Basie's band and whisk brooming "white cats" for nickel tips. He "conked" his naturally red hair--straightening each strand with a scalding mix of eggs, potatoes and lye--bought a sharkskin zoot suit and orange Florsheim shoes and got himself "a fine white woman." At 17, he was a hustler in Harlem--pimping, peddling dope and running numbers. Musicians and jive-joint patrons knew him as "Detroit Red." At 18, he toted a pistol. At 19, he appeared at an Army induction center in his wildest zoot suit and said: "Daddy-O, I want to get sent down South. Organize them nigger soldiers, you dig? Steal us some guns and kill up crackers." His ploy worked: The Army refused to draft him. To support a $20-a-day cocaine habit, he turned to burglary, lifting wallets and jewelry from bedrooms as his victims slept. At 20, he was caught and sentenced to 10 years in the penitentiary.