Daniel Hickey, J.D. Candidate, 2013
The schools, media, and other institutions do not like to discuss the influence El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz – or Malcolm X – had on the civil rights movement. While Shabazz and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. both shared the goal of ending racial discrimination in the US, they had very different strategies on how to attain this goal. Dr. King believed in the principle of civil disobedience and obtaining the goal of racial equality through exclusively non-violent means. Shabazz on the other hand believed in taking a more aggressive approach – achieving equality by “any means necessary”.
This is why Dr. King is portrayed as a hero – which he was – and Shabazz is characterized as a man who preached black supremacy and violence. Due to this perception, it is important to clarify Shabazz’s role in the civil rights movement. Not all his actions were defensible, but there are positive aspects of his character that are rarely discussed. My purpose is not to convince you that Shabazz’s life should be celebrated like Dr. King’s; rather it is to make you realize his role in the civil rights movement deserves our recognition.
Around this time six years ago I was looking for a good book to read. I came across The Autobiography of Malcolm X and started a nightly schedule of reading 20 or so pages of it. I first learned that Malcolm Little had, to say the very least, a difficult childhood. When he was six years old, Little’s father was found dead by a streetcar railway track. No one was ever convicted of his murder, but it is generally believed that Little’s father was murdered by white supremacists. In 1938, Little’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to Kalamazoo State Hospital. This led to Little being separated from his siblings and spending the next few years living in various foster homes.
In junior high, Little was a smart, focused student up until he told his teacher one day that he aspired to be a lawyer. The teacher recommended he be a carpenter instead because, according to the teacher, being a lawyer was not a realistic goal because of Little’s race. He lost interest in his studies, dropped out, worked various jobs in Boston, and then traveled to Harlem where he committed petty crimes. Little was eventually arrested on burglary charges and sentenced to ten years in prison. It was his time in prison that Little furthered his education and converted to the Muslim religion.
In 1952, Shabazz was granted parole and began a rapid ascent in the Nation of Islam. He promoted the nations teachings which included claims of black superiority and that the demise of the white race was imminent. Shabazz advocated the complete separation of African-Americans from whites and proposed establishing a separate country for African-Americans. As Shabazz become more and more prominent, mainstream Americans, regardless of skin color, became alarmed by Shabazz’s vitriolic statements. They were also scared of the influence he had among the African-American population. He was largely credited for the dramatic rise of membership in the Nation of Islam. One estimate is 500 Nation members in the early 1950s rose to 25,000 a decade later.
Shabazz’s rise to prominence in the 1950’s continued into the next decade. Shabazz was invited to participate in numerous debates that included forums on radio stations, television programs, and distinguished universities including Harvard Law School and Colombia University. By 1963, the New York Times reported that he was the second most sought after speaker in the nation. Keep in mind that Shabazz did not have a college education or even a high school diploma. The reason he became such a sought after speaker was because of his charisma, his controversial rhetoric, and that he made African-Americans realize the unequal and unjust treatment they had received from the country’s beginning. It can be said that Shabazz and Dr. King started the process of de-synthesizing the African-American population and had the audacity at the time to tell them they deserved to be treated as equals.
But ironically, Shabazz was highly critical of the civil rights movement and its leaders, including Dr. King. In his autobiography he called the March on Washington the “Farce in Washington”. He said that any student of how “integration” can weaken the black man’s movement was about to observe a master lesson. He rhetorically asked “who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing “We Shall Overcome Some Day” while tripping and swaying along arm in arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against? Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily-pad park pools, with gospels and guitars and “I Have A Dream” speeches?” He concluded that the “black masses in America were – and still are – having a nightmare.”
Shabazz would continue to make controversial and at times inflammatory remarks. A week after the JFK assassination, he said that the tragic event was a case of the “chickens coming home to roost”. The Nation of Islam publicly censured Shabazz and he was prohibited from speaking for 90 days. About six months later, Shabazz announced his break from the Nation of Islam. On March 26 1964, for the first time Shabazz met with Dr. King in Washington D.C. Both men were there to attend the Senate debate on the Civil Rights bill. This would be the only time the two men ever met and it lasted for only about a minute. As brief as their exchange was, it symbolized the change that was coming to Shabazz. Dr. Tyner reminded me that within this same time frame Shabazz visited the South during an occasion when King was arrested. He visited with Coretta Scott King and publicly announced that dealing with King would be the better alternative than for him to begin advocacy in the South. This highlighted the common understanding of urgency for social change between the two leaders.
The philosophical gap between King and Shabazz on how to achieve equal rights began to close. Soon after their meeting, Shabazz converted to Sunni Islam and made a pilgrimage to Mecca. This would be a life-changing experience for Shabazz and forever change his views on the white population. On his trip to Mecca, Shabazz would meet unprejudiced white Muslims which made him reconsider the views he had held against whites. He would come to see white racism as the unfortunate product of particular circumstances rather than as an indication that white people are inherently evil. Shabazz rejected his earlier racism. Days before his death, he recalled his curt dismissal a few years earlier of a white college woman who said she wanted to help and was sent away crying. He said that there “were a lot of things as a Muslim that I am sorry for now”.
Now just because he had softened his views somewhat does not mean that Shabazz no longer remained a civil rights activist after he returned from Mecca. His modified strategy was to make a common cause between the disadvantaged African-American communities of the US and administrations with whom he had forged alliances while he was visiting Africa. He planned to make black America’s fight an international one, pursued through the United Nations. Instead of fighting against it, Shabazz was in favor of using the system to continue the fight. It only took 34 years after his death for mainstream America to recognize the latter contribution when the US Postal Service celebrated Shabbaz’s death and his universal multiculturalism with a commemorative stamp. It might not be the same thing as having a federal holiday named after him, but the issuance of the stamp at least signaled some recognition from mainstream America that Shabazz played a major role in the civil rights movement.
Malcolm X, Malik El-Shabazz, or Malcolm Little, same persons different names, was one of the most controversial and influential leaders in American history. His philosophy could be described as offensive, inflammatory, and at times it was racist. However, the civil rights movement needed Shabazz. He helped to strengthen the confidence of the African-American population by praising self-determination, encouraged them to stand up against racism, and many view his greatest contribution, and it is arguable, that he “appeared” more violent than Dr. King which made King’s passive resistance appear like a rational appeal for equality. If you agree with this theory, then if it wasn’t for Malcolm X, there would of have been no Civil Rights Act, no Voting Rights Act, and perhaps no President Obama. I don’t know what your opinions are of Malcolm X, but hopefully I made you realize that while he made many comments that are certainly tough to get behind, he became a changed man after his pilgrimage to Mecca and no one will ever know what further contributions he could have made if his life had not been taken away too early.