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Malcolm Little, the son of an African American Baptist preacher, Earl Little, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on 19th May, 1925. Malcolm's mother, Louise Little, was born in the West Indies. Her mother was black but her father was a white man.
Earl Little was a member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and a supporter of Marcus Garvey. This got him into trouble with the Ku Klux Klan. Malcolm later recalled: "When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching in Milwaukee." The Klansmen warned her that we had better get out of town because "the good Christian white people" were not going to stand for her husband "spreading trouble" among the "good" Negroes of Omaha with the "back to Africa" preachings of Marcus Garvey.
The family now moved to Lansing, Michigan. Little continued to make speeches in favour of UNIA and in 1929 the family house was attacked by members of the Black Legion, a militant group that had broken away from the Ku Klux Klan. "Shortly after my youngest sister was born came the nightmare night of 1929, my earliest vivid memory. I remember being suddenly snatched awake into a frightening confusion of pistol shots and shouting and smoke and flames. My father had shouted and shot at the two white men who had set the fire and were running away. Our home was burning down around us. We were lunging and bumping and tumbling all over each other trying to escape. My mother, with the baby in her arms, just made it into the yard before the house crashed in, showing sparks."
In 1931 Earl Little was found dead by a streetcar railway track. Although no one was convicted of the crime it was generally believed that Little had been murdered by the Black Legionnaires. Malcolm's mother never recovered from her husband's death and in 1937 was sent to the State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo, where she stayed for the next twenty-six years.
Little moved to Boston to live with his sister. He worked as a waiter in Harlem and after becoming addicted to cocaine, turned to crime. In 1946 he was convicted of burglary and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. While in prison he was converted to the Black Muslim faith and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad: "The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been whitened - when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out. Mr. Muhammad couldn't have said anything that would have struck me much harder. I had never forgotten how when my class, me and all those whites, had studied seventh-grade United States history back in Mason, the history of the Negro had been covered in one paragraph. This is one reason why Mr. Muhammad teachings spread so swiftly all over the United States, among all Negroes, whether or not they became followers of Mr. Muhammad. The teachings ring true - to every Negro. You can hardly show me a black adult in America - or a white one, for that matter - who knows from the history books anything like the truth about the black man's role."
After his release from prison in 1952 he moved to Chicago where he met Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam sect. He changed his name to X, a custom among Muhammad's followers who considered their family names to have originated with white slaveholders. Malcolm soon became a leading figure in the movement. He went on several speaking tours and helped establish several new mosques. He was eventually assigned to be minister of the mosque in New York's Harlem area. Founder and editor of Muhammad Speaks, Malcolm rejected integration and racial equality and instead advocated black power.
Malcolm X began to advocate violent revolution. In a speech on 9th November, 1963: "Look at the American Revolution in 1776. That revolution was for what? For land. Why did they want land? Independence. How was it carried out? Bloodshed. Number one, it was based on land, the basis of independence. And the only way they could get it was bloodshed. The French Revolution - what was it based on? The landless against the landlord. What was it for? Land. How did they get it? Bloodshed. Was no love lost, was no compromise, was no negotiation. I'm telling you - you don't know what a revolution is. Because when you find out what it is, you'll get back in the alley, you'll get out of the way. The Russian Revolution - what was it based on? Land; the landless against the landlord. How did they bring it about? Bloodshed. You haven't got a revolution that doesn't involve bloodshed. And you're afraid to bleed. I said, you're afraid to bleed."
Malcolm was suspended from the movement by Elijah Muhammad after he made a series of extremist speeches. This included his comments that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a "case of chickens coming home to roost".
In March 1964 Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and established his own religious organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm rejected his former separatist beliefs and advocated world brotherhood. Malcolm now blamed racism on Western culture and urged African Americans to join with sympathetic whites to bring to an end.
Malcolm X argued: "The American black man should be focusing his every effort toward building his own businesses, and decent homes for himself. As other ethnic groups have done, let the black people, wherever possible, patronize their own kind, and start in those ways to build up the black race's ability to do for itself. That's the only way the American black man is ever going to get respect. One thing the white man never can give the black man is self-respect! The black man never can be become independent and recognized as a human being who is truly equal with other human beings until he has what they have, and until he is doing for himself what others are doing for themselves. The black man in the ghettoes, for instance, has to start self-correcting his own material, moral and spiritual defects and evils. The black man needs to start his own program to get rid of drunkenness, drug addiction, prostitution. The black man in America has to lift up his own sense of values."
Malcolm X was shot dead at a party meeting in Harlem on 21st February, 1965. Three Black Muslims were later convicted of the murder. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, based on interviews he had given to the journalist, Alex Haley, was published in 1965.
My father was a big, six-foot-four, very black man. He had only one eye. How he lost the other one I have never known. He was from Reynolds, Georgia, where he had left school after the third or maybe fourth grade. He believed, as did Marcus Garvey, that freedom, independence and self-respect could never be achieved by the Negro in America, and that therefore the Negro should leave America to the white man and return to his African land of origin.
Louise Little, my mother, who was born in Grenada, in the British West Indies, looked like a white woman. Her father was white. She had straight black hair, and her accent did not sound like a Negro's. Of this white father of hers, I know nothing except her shame about it. I remember hearing her say she was glad that she had never seen him. It was, of course, because of him that I got my reddish-brown color of skin, and my hair of the same color.
When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because "the good Christian white people" were not going to stand for my father's "spreading trouble" among the "good" Negroes of Omaha with the "back to Africa" preachings of Marcus Garvey.
My father bought a house and soon, as had been his pattern, he was doing free-lance Christian preaching in local Negro Baptist churches, and during the week he was roaming about spreading word of Marcus Garvey.
This time, "the get out of town" came from a local hate society called The Black Legion. They wore black robes instead of white. Soon, nearly everywhere my father went, Black Legionnaires were reviling him as an "uppity ******" for wanting to own a store, for living outside the Lansing Negro district for spreading unrest and dissension among "the good ******s".
Shortly after my youngest sister was born came the nightmare night of 1929, my earliest vivid memory. My mother, with the baby in her arms, just made it into the yard before the house crashed in, showing sparks.
I happened to be alone in the classroom with Mr. Ostrowski, my English teacher. He was a tall, rather reddish white man and he had a thick mustache. I had gotten some of my best marks under him, and he had always made me feel that he liked me. I know that he probably meant well in what he happened to advise me that day. I doubt that he meant any harm. It was just in his nature as an American white man.
He told me, "Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career. Have you been giving it thought?" The truth is, I hadn't. I had never figured out why I told him, "Well, yes, sir, I've been thinking I'd like to be a lawyer."
Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. He kind of half-smiled and said, "Malcolm, one of life's first needs is for us to be realistic. Don't misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you've got to be realistic about being a ******. A lawyer - that's no realistic goal for a ******. You need to think about something you can be. You're good with your hands - making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don't you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person - you'd get all kind of work."
The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been "whitened" - when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out. I had never forgotten how when my class, me and all those whites, had studied seventh-grade United States history back in Mason, the history of the Negro had been covered in one paragraph.
This is one reason why Mr. You can hardly show me a black adult in America - or a white one, for that matter - who knows from the history books anything like the truth about the black man's role. In my own case, once I heard of the "glorious history of the black man", I took special pains to hunt in the library for books that would inform me on details about black history.
Every month, I went to Chicago, I would find that some sister had written complaining to Mr. Muhammad that I talked so hard against women when I taught our special classes about the different natures of the two sexes. Now, Islam has very strict laws and teachings about women, the core of them being that the true nature of a man is to be strong, and a woman's true nature is to be weak, and while a man must at all times respect his woman, at the same time he needs to understand that he must control her if he expects to get her respect.
Look at the American Revolution in 1776. Because when you find out what it is, you'll get back in the alley, you'll get out of the way.
The Russian Revolution - what was it based on? Land; the landless against the landlord. I said, you're afraid to bleed.
As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people, but when it comes to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls murdered, you haven't got any blood. You bleed when the white man says bleed; you bite when the white man says bite; and you bark when the white man says bark. I hate to say this about us, but it's true. How are you going to be nonviolent in Mississippi, as violent as you were in Korea? How can you justify being nonviolent in Mississippi and Alabama, when your churches are being bombed, and your little girls are being murdered, and at the same time you are going to get violent with Hitler, and Tojo, and somebody else you don't even know?
If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black 'women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.
So I cite these various revolutions, brothers and sisters, to show you that you don't have a peaceful revolution. You don't have a turn-the-other-cheek revolution. There's no such thing as a nonviolent revolution. The only kind of revolution that is nonviolent is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. It's the only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks - on the toilet. That's no revolution. Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.
The American black man should be focusing his every effort toward building his own businesses, and decent homes for himself. One thing the white man never can give the black man is self-respect! The black man never can be become independent and recognized as a human being who is truly equal with other human beings until he has what they have, and until he is doing for himself what others are doing for themselves.
The black man in the ghettoes, for instance, has to start self-correcting his own material, moral and spiritual defects and evils. The black man in America has to lift up his own sense of values.
I'm right with the Southern white man who believes that you can't have so-called "intergration", at least not for long, without intermarriage increasing. And what good is this for anyone?
I don't speak against the sincere, well-meaning, good white people. I have learned that there are some. I have learned that not all white people are racists. I am speaking against and my fight is against the white racists. I believe that Negroes have the right to fight against these racists, by any means that are necessary.
I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man's problem - just to avoid violence. I don't go for non-violence if it also means a delayed solution. To me a delayed solution is a non-solution. Or I'll say it another way. If it must take violence to get the black man his human rights in this country, I'm for violence exactly as you know the Irish, the Poles, or Jews would be if they were flagrantly discriminated against.
By strange coincidence, when the shattering news of Dr. King's slaying came over the radio in the evening of April, 1968, I happened to be reading the final chapters of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and had just finished a passage written shortly before Malcolm's own assassination in 1965. Malcolm had observed: "And in the racial climate in this country today, it is anybody's guess which of the 'extremes' in approach to the black man's problems might personally meet a fatal catastrophe first - 'non-violent' Dr. King, or so-called 'violent' me."
The prophetic power of Malcolm X's reflection was staggering. I had not been a passionate admirer of Dr. King himself because I felt he had not recognized the role of women in the civil rights movement (Rosa Parks was not even invited to join Dr. King's party when he went abroad to receive the Nobel Peace Prize), but I was passionately devoted to his cause. Beneath the numbness I felt after that fatal evening was the realization that the foremost advocate of nonviolence as a way of life - my own cause - was stilled and those who had embraced Dr. King's religious commitment to nonviolence were called upon to keep his tradition alive and to advance the work for which he gave his life.
Dennis Bernstein: What was your sense of the difference between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King?
William Kunstler: Well, I thought Malcolm was a more important figure, because he was sort of the cutting edge. I met him a week before he was killed, at LaGuardia airport. I was with a guy named Mike Felwell who had been with the fight for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party many years earlier, and he told us that he had had a conversation with Dr. King, and that they were going to meet in the future and sort of amalgamate. Malcolm would do the North, because Martin had failed miserably in Cicero; Martin would do the South. They thought they would open up the black movement to a much wider group of people. That very night his house was bombed in East Elmhurst, Queens, and then a week and a day later he was shot to death at the Audubon Ballroom. I thought that maybe this agreement, or putative agreement, had a lot to do with his assassination.
Malcolm X was bisexual. Get over it
October is Black History Month in Britain – a wonderful celebration of the huge, important and valuable contribution that black people have made to humanity and to popular culture.
It is also worth celebrating that many leading black icons have been lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), most notably the US black liberation hero Malcolm X. Other prominent black LGBTs include jazz singer Billie Holiday, author and civil rights activist James Baldwin, soul singer-songwriter Luther Vandross, blues singer Bessie Smith, poet and short story writer Langston Hughes, singer Johnny Mathis, novelist Alice Walker, civil rights activist and organiser of the 1963 March on Washington Bayard Rustin, blues singer Ma Rainey, dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, actress, singer and dancer Josephine Baker, Olympic diving gold medallist Greg Louganis, singer and songwriter Little Richard, political activist and philosopher Angela Davis, singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman and drag performer and singer RuPaul.
Few of these prominent black LGBT achievers are listed on the most comprehensive UK Black History Month website, which hosts biographies of notable black men and women. In the section on people, only Davis is mentioned and her lesbianism is not acknowledged. The website fails to identify the vast majority of black public and historical figures who are LGBT. The Official Guide to Black History Month UK is equally remiss. Why these omissions? Black people are not one homogenous heterosexual mass. Where is the recognition of sexual diversity within the black communities and black history?
In contrast, LGBT History Month, which takes place in the UK in February, devotes a whole section of its website to the lives of leading black LGBT people and links to the websites for Black History Month. Disappointingly, this solidarity is not reciprocated. On the Black History Month websites I could not find a LGBT section or a LGBT History Month link.
Perhaps it is unintentional but Black History Month sometimes feels like Straight Black History Month. Famous black LGBT people are not acknowledged and celebrated. Either their contribution to black history and culture is ignored or their sexuality is airbrushed out of their biographies.
A good example of this neglect is the denialism surrounding the bisexuality of one of the greatest modern black liberation heroes: Malcolm X. The lack of recognition is perhaps not surprising, given that some of his family and many black activists have made strenuous efforts to deny his same-sex relationships and suppress recognition of the full spectrum of his sexuality.
Why the cover-up? So what if Malcolm X was bisexual? Does this diminish his reputation and achievements? Of course not. Whether he was gay, straight or bisexual should not matter. His stature remains, regardless of his sexual orientation. Yet many of the people who revere him seem reluctant to accept that their hero, and mine, was bisexual.
Malcolm X's bisexuality is more than just a question of truth and historical fact. There has never been any black person of similar global prominence and recognition who has been publicly known to be gay or bisexual. Young black lesbian, gay and bisexual people can, like their white counterparts, often feel isolated, guilty and insecure about their sexuality. They could benefit from positive, high-achieving role models, to give them confidence and inspiration. Who better than Malcolm X? He inspired my human rights activism and was a trailblazer in the black freedom struggle. He can inspire other LGBT people too.
Right now, there is not a single living black person who is a worldwide household name and who is also openly gay. That's why the issue of Malcolm X's sexuality is so important. Having an internationally renowned gay or bisexual black icon would do much to help challenge homophobia, especially in the black communities and particularly in Africa and the Caribbean where homosexuality and bisexuality are often dismissed as a "white man's disease".
So what is the evidence for Malcolm X's bisexual orientation? Most people remember him as the foremost US black nationalist leader of the 1960s. Despite the downsides of his anti-white rhetoric, black separatism and religious superstition, he was America's leading spokesperson for black consciousness, pride and self-help. He spoke with fierce eloquence and defiance for black upliftment and freedom.
Malcolm's complex, changing sexuality was never part of the narrative of his life until the publication of Bruce Perry's acclaimed biography, Malcolm – The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. Perry is a great admirer and defender of Malcolm X, but not an uncritical one. He wrote the facts, based on interviews with over 420 people who knew Malcolm personally at various stages in his life, from childhood to his tragic assassination in 1965. His book is not a hatchet job, as some black critics claim, it is the exact opposite. Perry presents an honest, rounded story of Malcolm's life and achievements which, in my opinion, is far more moving and humane than the better known but somewhat hagiographic The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told To Alex Haley.
Based on interviews with Malcolm's closest boyhood and adult friends, Perry suggests the US black liberation leader was not as solidly heterosexual as his Nation of Islam colleagues and black nationalist acolytes have always claimed. While Perry did not make Malcolm's sexuality a big part of his biography – in fact, it is a very minor aspect – he did not shy away from writing about what he heard in his many interviews.
He documents Malcolm's many same-sex relations and his activities as a male sex worker, which spanned at least a 10-year period, from his mid-teens to his 20s, as I described in some detail in a previous article for the Guardian. Although Malcolm later married and, as far as we know, abandoned sex with men, his earlier same-sex relations suggest that he was bisexual rather than heterosexual. Abstaining from gay sex after his marriage does not change the fundamentals of his sexual orientation and does not mean that he was wholly straight.
Towards the end of his life, Malcolm's ideas were evolving in new directions. Politically, he gravitated leftwards. Faith-wise, after his trip to Mecca, he began to embrace a non-racial mainstream Islam. His mind was becoming open to new ideas and values.
Had he not been murdered in 1965, Malcolm might have eventually, like Huey Newton of the Black Panthers and the black power leader Angela Davis, embraced the lesbian and gay liberation movement as part of the struggle for human emancipation. Instead, to serve their homophobic political agenda, for over half a century the Nation of Islam and many black nationalists have suppressed knowledge of Malcolm's same-sex relations. It is now time for Black History Month to speak the truth. Malcolm X was bisexual. Get over it.
Malcolm X (1925-1965)
Malcolm X, one of the most influential African American leaders of the 20th Century, was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925 to Earl Little, a Georgia native and itinerant Baptist preacher, and Louise Norton Little who was born in the West Indian island of Grenada. Shortly after Malcolm was born the family moved to Lansing, Michigan. Earl Little joined Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) where he publicly advocated black nationalist beliefs, prompting the local white supremacist Black Legion to set fire to their home. Little was killed by a streetcar in 1931. Authorities ruled it a suicide but the family believed he was killed by white supremacists.
Although an academically gifted student, Malcolm dropped out of high school after a teacher ridiculed his aspirations to become a lawyer. He then moved to the Roxbury district of Boston, Massachusetts to live with an older half-sister, Ella Little Collins. Malcolm worked odd jobs in Boston and then moved to Harlem in 1943 where he drifted into a life of drug dealing, pimping, gambling and other forms of “hustling.” He avoided the draft in World War II by declaring his intent to organize black soldiers to attack whites which led to his classification as “mentally disqualified for military service.”
Malcolm was arrested for burglary in Boston in 1946 and received a ten year prison sentence. There he joined the Nation of Islam (NOI). Upon his parole in 1952, Malcolm was called to Chicago, Illinois by NOI leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Like other converts, he changed his surname to “X,” symbolizing, he said, the rejection of “slave names” and his inability to claim his ancestral African name.
Recognizing his promise as a speaker and organizer for the Nation of Islam, Muhammad sent Malcolm to Boston to become the Minister of Temple Number Eleven. His proselytizing success earned a reassignment in 1954 to Temple Number Seven in Harlem. Although New York’s one million blacks comprised the largest African American urban population in the United States, Malcolm noted that “there weren’t enough Muslims to fill a city bus. “Fishing” in Christian storefront churches and at competing black nationalist meetings, Malcolm built up the membership of Temple Seven. He also met his future wife, Sister Betty X, a nursing student who joined the temple in 1956. They married and eventually had six daughters.
Malcolm X quickly became a national public figure in July 1959 when CBS aired Mike Wallace’s expose on the NOI, “The Hate That Hate Produced.” This documentary revealed the views of the NOI, of which Malcolm was the principal spokesperson and showed those views to be in sharp contrast to those of most well-known African American leaders of the time. Soon, however, Malcolm was increasingly frustrated by the NOI’s bureaucratic structure and refusal to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. His November 1963 speech in Detroit, “Message to the Grass Roots,” a bold attack on racism and a call for black unity, foreshadowed the split with his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad. However, Malcolm on December 1, in response to a reporter’s question about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, used the phrase “chickens coming home to roost” which to Muslims meant that Allah was punishing white America for crimes against black people. Whatever the personal views of Muslims about Kennedy’s death, Elijah Muhammad had given strict orders to his ministers not to comment on the assassination. Malcolm defied the order and was suspended from the NOI for ninety days.
Malcolm used the suspension to announce on March 8, 1964, his break with the NOI and his creation of the Muslim Mosque, Inc. Three months later he formed a strictly political group (an action expressly banned by the NOI), called the Organization of Afro American Unity (OAAU) which was roughly patterned after the Organization of African Unity (OAU).
His dramatic political transformation was revealed when he spoke to the Militant Labor Forum of the Socialist Worker’s Party. Malcolm placed the Black Revolution in the context of a worldwide anti-imperialist struggle taking place in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, noting that “when I say black, I mean non-white—black, brown, red or yellow.” By April 1964, while speaking at a CORE rally in Cleveland, Ohio, Malcolm gave his famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech in which he described black Americans as “victims of democracy.”
Malcolm traveled to Africa and the Middle East in late Spring 1964 and was received like a visiting head of state in many countries including Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ghana. While there, Malcolm made his hajj to Mecca, Saudi Arabia and added El-Hajj to his official NOI name Malik El-Shabazz. The tour forced Malcolm to realize that one’s political position as a revolutionary superseded “color.”
The transformed Malcolm reiterated these views when he addressed an OAAU rally in New York, declaring for a pan-African struggle “by any means necessary.” Malcolm spent six months in Africa in 1964 in an unsuccessful attempt to get international support for a United Nations investigation of human rights violations of Afro Americans in the United States. In February 1965, Malcolm flew to Paris, France to continue his efforts but was denied entry amidst rumors that he was on a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) hit list. Upon his return to New York, his home was firebombed. Events continued to spiral downward and on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.
Malcolm X – How Did He Inspire a Movement?
After joining the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X became known as a human rights activist whose teachings led the charge of black progression during the latter parts of the 1960s.
Radicalized by a stint in prison, Malcolm X was a warrior who was not afraid to get on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. His sharp contrast from the non-violent approach molded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meant Malcolm X had a clear agenda against anyone in opposition. He and his followers were determined to fight back against injustices by any means necessary, and his teachings laid the framework for the Black Power ideology and uplifted the black community in ways that promoted dignity and respect.
Hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., with additional notes from political commentator Armstrong Williams and Farah Griffin of Columbia University, we celebrate the story of Malcolm X, whose commitment to black people and their advancement is still felt today.
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1943: Malcolm X Spreading his Wings
Being poor and lacking proper parental guidance, by 1943 young Malcolm X had ended up in Harlem, New York City, where he resorted to street crime to make ends meet – everything from gambling, drug dealing, racketeering and pimping was fair game. He began wearing zoot suits and earned the nickname “Detroit Red”.
His rebellious nature and resentment towards white America caused him to be disqualified from military service – Malcolm X defiantly told the draft board that he wanted to go south so he could organize and arm black soldiers against white civilians.
When Malcom X was 20 years old, he returned to Boston and committed a series of burglaries against rich white families. For Malcolm X, the wealthy, opulent whites best represented the unjust, oppressive racial system that permeated the country at the time.
Such status seemed unattainable for a black family, regardless of how hard they worked. In 1946, Malcolm X was apprehended by the police while trying to pawn a stolen watch, and he was sentenced to 8 to 10 years in prison.
Myth: Malcolm X was a violent criminal
Part of Malcolm X's story is his constant evolution: losing his father as a young boy, growing up in poverty, and serving time in prison before emerging as the thoughtful, outraged face of the Nation of Islam — and then evolving again to reject that racist ideology. But his time in prison makes it easy to assume that he was a violent criminal, placing him into a stereotype of the "angry Black man" who later channeled his violence into his incendiary speeches.
As History explains, the truth is more complicated. Born Malcolm Little, his father was killed shortly after the family moved to Michigan, and his mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Malcolm was eventually sent to a juvenile detention home and enrolled in an all-white junior high school. Malcolm stole from local stores to try and help his family, but despite the trauma he'd lived through, he did very well in school and was at the top of his class. Encouraged by his success, Malcolm Little expressed an ambition to become a lawyer. One of his teachers angrily discouraged him, saying that becoming a lawyer was "no realistic goal" for a Black man (though the teacher used a different word).
Malcolm dropped out of school shortly afterward. He eventually moved to New York, where he was arrested for a series of thefts and armed robberies which landed him in prison for more than six years — but none of his crimes were especially violent.
The uncomfortable truth about Black Lives Matter, Malcolm X and anti-Semitism
Fifty-five years ago, Martin Luther King delivered a speech to 50,000 Americans in which he demanded justice for persecuted Jews behind the Iron Curtain.
‘The absence of opportunity to associate as Jews in the enjoyment of Jewish culture and religious experience becomes a severe limitation upon the individual,’ he said. ‘Negros can well understand and sympathize with this problem.’
He then stated, in typically uncompromising style, that Jewish history and culture were ‘part of everyone’s heritage, whether he be Jewish, Christian or Moslem.’ He concluded:
‘We cannot sit complacently by the wayside while our Jewish brothers in the Soviet Union face the possible extinction of their cultural and spiritual life. Those that sit at rest, while others take pains, are tender turtles, and buy their quiet with disgrace.’
This speech — released last week by the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCEJ) to mark Martin Luther King Day, and coming just days before we remember the Holocaust — feels particularly poignant in the newly radicalized atmosphere of 2021. Today’s activists in the Black Lives Matter movement would be wise to remember King’s words.
During the Los Angeles riots over the killing of George Floyd, Jewish shops were destroyed, synagogues were sprayed with ‘free Palestine’ graffiti, and a statue of a Swedish diplomat who had saved Hungarian Jews from the Nazis was defaced with anti-Semitic slogans.
In France, a Black Lives Matter rally descended into cries of ‘dirty Jews’, echoing the anti-Semitic chants that filled the same streets during the Dreyfus affair a century ago. Shortly afterwards, the #Jewishprivilege Twitter hashtag sought to lump Jews together with the forces of oppression — until it was subverted by Jews posting accounts of the persecution suffered by their families. Jewish privilege indeed.
This anti-Semitism is hard to countenance in light of the historic bonds between Jewish Zionists and parts of the black community. Golda Meir, Israel’s first female leader, pointed out that ‘we Jews share with the African peoples a memory of centuries-long suffering.’ And she recalled that Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, had vowed: ‘Once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.’
The animating spirit of Zionism — to replace centuries of meekness with self-actualization and national dignity — shared a common denominator with the civil rights movement.
Jews stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr King, and paid a price for it: several synagogues were attacked by the KKK with bombs and guns. Even ‘Strange Fruit’, Billie Holiday’s iconic protest song about a lynching in Indiana, was written by a Jewish high school teacher, Abel Meeropol. In the UK, the British Jewish tennis player Angela Buxton partnered with the African American star Althea Gibson in 1956 to face down racism and win the women’s doubles title at Wimbledon.
Why have some activists turned their backs on this tradition? The answer may lie in the figure of Malcolm X. Last summer, as the BLM riots raged, his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, told journalists that it was her firebrand father’s example that was driving the revolution, rather than that of the nonviolent Martin Luther King. Young people, she said, were ‘much like’ Malcolm X.
‘My father said that it would be this generation that would get sick and tired, that they would recognize the people in power have misused it,’ she said. ‘And that they will no longer sit by idly and allow these injustices to continue.’
Sadly, her father had often associated the ‘people in power’ with Jews. Throughout his life, he attacked what he called ‘Zionist-Dollarism’, deplored Israel and cast Jews as a race of white oppressors.
In his autobiography — which contains examples of the crudest anti-Semitism — Malcolm X poured scorn on the bond between Jews and the civil rights movement. ‘So many Jews actually were hypocrites in their claim to be friends of the American black man,’ he wrote. ‘I gave the Jew credit for being among all other whites the most active, and the most vocal, financial, “leader” and “liberal” in the Negro civil rights movement. But at the same time I knew that the Jew played these roles for a very careful strategic reason: the more prejudice in America could be focused upon the Negro, then the more the white Gentiles’ prejudice would keep diverted off the Jew.’
Dr King and Malcolm X were from very different backgrounds. While the former had an affluent upbringing in upper-middle-class Atlanta, Malcolm X was deeply scarred by racist abuse at a young age, and burned throughout his life with the fire of righteous vengeance.
Dr King, an advocate of nonviolence, famously pursued a world in which the color of one’s skin could be eclipsed by the content of one’s character. Malcolm X took a more militant tack. Violence, in his eyes, was not just justified but necessary. ‘Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks,’ he said. But while his radical politics were potent in the brutal context of segregation America, his legacy cast a shadow of divisiveness across our more tolerant age.
It goes without saying that Malcolm X was a towering figure in the civil rights struggle, and played a major role in enhancing black pride. But he was a figure both of dazzling light and troubled darkness. History has told us that if you want to know a person’s truest nature, examine his attitude toward Jews. If you find this to be malign, be on your guard as the late Lord Sacks put it, ‘the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews.’
Dr King and Malcolm X were both assassinated almost six decades ago. In the years that followed, they have come to inspire the polarized forces that battle for the soul of Western culture all around us. While one sought to defuse racial tensions, the other attempted to force the aggressive ascendency of an oppressed community. The future of this struggle can be seen playing out today, on our streets, on our screens and in our institutions, as statues are toppled and synagogues defaced. It is a conflict that advocates of peace cannot afford to lose, as its outcome will shape society for decades to come.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.
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Malcolm X , born Malcolm Little and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Arabic: الحاجّ مالك الشباز), was an African-American Muslim minister, public speaker, and human rights activist. To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of African Americans, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans. His detractors accused him of preaching racism, black supremacy, antisemitism, and violence. He has been described as one of the greatest, and most influential, African Americans in history. In 1998, Time named The Autobiography of Malcolm X one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska. The events of his childhood, including his father's lessons concerning black pride and self-reliance, and his own experiences concerning race, played a significant role in Malcolm X's adult life. By the time he was thirteen, his father had died and his mother had been committed to a mental hospital. After living in a series of foster homes, Malcolm X became involved in hustling and other criminal activities in Boston and New York. In 1946, Malcolm X was sentenced to eight to ten years in prison.
While in prison, Malcolm X became a member of the Nation of Islam, and after his parole in 1952, he became one of the Nation's leaders and chief spokesmen. For nearly a dozen years, he was the public face of the controversial Islamic group. Tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam, led to Malcolm X's departure from the organization in March 1964. After leaving it, Malcolm X became a Sunni Muslim and made a pilgrimage to Mecca, after which he disavowed racism. He subsequently traveled extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East and then founded Muslim Mosque, Inc., a religious organization, and the secular, Pan-Africanist, Organization of Afro-American Unity. Less than a year after he left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was assassinated by three members of the group while giving a speech in New York.
In the month prior to his death, Malcolm X had been dictating his biography to noted African American author Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965, just months after Malcolm X's murder.
Through his autobiography, Malcolm X’s powerful voice continued to inspire the Black community to advocate for their rights. The Black Panthers, for example, used Malcolm X’s teachings to found their own organization in 1966.
Today, Malcolm X remains one of the more controversial figures of the Civil Rights era. He is generally respected for his passionate demand for change in one of history's most trying (and deadly) times for Black leaders.