The Legacy of Malcolm X
He terrified whites and turned Negroes into African-Americans
Malcolm: The Convert I was the personification of evil," Malcolm said of his first months in Charlestown state prison. He hurled obscenities at every white in authority and cursed God so much that inmates named him "Satan." But his brothers and a sister told him they had found the "natural religion for the black man"--a doctrine spread by an obscure sect known as the Nation of Islam claiming that the white man was the devil and the source of all evil. This struck Malcolm like a "blinding light." He gave up cigarettes, pork and profanity and began writing letters to his ghetto pals and to politicians, including President Truman, telling them the white man caused the black people's woes. Frustrated by his inability to express himself, he embarked upon "homemade education." He copied every word in the dictionary. Long past the nightly "lights out" command, he read Herodotus, Kant, Spinoza, H. G. Wells and the works of black Marxist W. E. B. Du Bois by the dim glow from a corridor. "Ten guards and the warden couldn't have torn me out of those books." After 6 1/2 years in prison, he walked out a new man, "completely transformed."
Malcolm: The Messenger Fresh from prison, Malcolm "fished" the streets of Detroit for Nation of Islam recruits. Elijah Muhammad, the sect's leader, rewarded him by replacing the "slave name" of Little with an "X," symbolizing the African family name Malcolm never knew. Before long, as "Minister Malcolm X," he was presiding over the influential Harlem mosque. As Elijah Muhammad's chief missionary, he created temples across America. By the early 1960s, he was a minor national figure. "My hobby," he said, "is stirring up Negroes." Whites heard Malcolm's messages as a threat; his followers heard a credo of self-respect and self-improvement. Malcolm remained Elijah Muhammad's messenger until Dec. 1, 1963--nine days after John F. Kennedy's murder. He publicly gloated about the president's death, which he attributed to the climate of hate whites had created. The press was outraged, and Muhammad ordered Malcolm to remain silent for 90 days. Malcolm, meanwhile, was distressed to learn that Muhammad had been having affairs with his secretaries. In March 1964, Malcolm bolted the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm: His Own Man No longer a mouthpiece, Malcolm spent his final year trying to think for himself. Visiting Mecca, he discovered that Elijah Muhammad's teaching--that whites were devils by nature--contradicted orthodox Islam. He saw Muslims of all races. In a "spiritual rebirth," he declared that "all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color." Malcolm often predicted that his leaving the Nation of Islam would lead to his death. On Feb. 13, 1965, he and his family were chased from their home by a fire--caused, he said, by Black Muslim gasoline bombs. Eight days later, as he opened a service at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom, a ruckus broke out near the back row. As people turned to look, Malcolm said, "Hold it! Hold it! Don't get excited. Let's cool it, brothers--." Gunfire erupted. Malcolm, hit by 16 shotgun pellets and revolver slugs, died at age 39. Three Black Muslims were sent to prison for his murder.