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Malcolm X

February is Black History Month. Each day this month, some historical aspect of black people in America will be featured in a Black History Month Moment. Today's moment looks at the life of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X was born May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Neb., as Malcolm Little, the son of a Baptist minister who supported the militant Universal Negro Improvement Association of activist Marcus Garvey.

His family moved to Lansing, Mich., when he was small. He lost his parents when he was young. His father was run over by a streetcar and his mother was committed to a mental institution.

Malcolm quit school after eighth grade and moved to New York, where he worked as a waiter in Harlem. He began selling and using drugs and in 1946 was sentenced to prison for burglary. In prison, he converted to the Black Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. He became a defender of Muslim doctrines when he was paroled in 1952, changing his name to Malcolm X. He became the sect's first "national minister."

He preached black unity and separation from white people and Christianity, using images of Garvey's back-to-Africa and black pride movement of the 1920s. He had little use for the moderate civil rights movement, saying violent self-defense was justified.

But he became disenchanted with Muhammad's teachings, and the relationship between him and his mentor became very strained. He was suspended from the Black Muslim movement in 1963 after he said the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a case of the "chickens coming home to roost."

He soon formed his own protest group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated on this date in 1965.

The name on his gravestone is not Malcolm X. After making a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 and becoming a follower of traditional Islam, he changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Alex Haley gained his first literary fame by working with Malcolm X on writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book remains the best work on his life and philosophy.

In recent years, Malcolm X's fame has grown, especially among the young. Some historians now rank his contributions with those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Booker T. Washington.

In Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, historian Peter Goldman writes:

"He was a dissonant and mostly misunderstood figure in his own public lifetime, a bitter and cynical counterpoint to the orthodox civil rights movement in its romantic high of the 1950s and 1960s; he stood apart, dimly perceived as a racist and demagogue inflaming the black lumpenproletariat to revenge its grievances in blood. Only with his death and the movement's discouraged exhaustion could Malcolm be seen more nearly as he was: a revolutionary of the soul who, by word and charismatic example, helped awaken a proud and assertive new black consciousness among the grandsons and granddaughters of slaves."

Today, T-shirts and hats featuring the stylized "X" are popping up around the Tampa Bay area, symbolic of the pride that more and more youngsters have in Malcolm's legacy. A movie about Malcolm X, produced and directed by Spike Lee, is slated for release later this year.


Sources: Negro Almanac, African-American History, Webster's American Biographies

Discussion questions

1. Why was Malcolm's last name changed from Little to X? What does the "X" mean?

2. What is the "lumpenproletariat"?

3. Discuss the similarities and differences between Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association and Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam.