Malcolm Little was an unlikely leader. The murder of his father and the psychological breakdown of his mother sparked rebelliousness at an early age. For much of his young life he drifted between Boston and New York City, cultivating his image as "Detroit Red," a dapper pimp and a dangerous hustler. By the age of 21 he had committed petty theft, armed robbery, and spent time as a drug pusher, gambler, and a narcotics addict. He had also managed to avoid military service in the early 1940s by appearing before the draft board in his most audacious zoot suit and declaring his desire to take up arms and "kill some crackers." By 1946, unemployed and self-destructive, Little landed in prison for a series of home burglaries.14
Prison served as a school for Little, transforming him from a numbers-runner and a thief into an avid reader, an intellectual, and a disciple of the God Allah. As a Muslim convert, he considered himself "saved" from a life of shame, and as a new member of the Nation of Islam, a religious organization committed to the uplift of black men and women, he felt he no longer needed to fear white society. To complete his transformation, Little dropped his given surname, a name he associated with the white slave masters of his ancestors, and adopted, instead, the letter "X," a placeholder for the unknown name of his African forefathers.
Upon release from prison in the early 1950s, Malcolm X returned to Detroit, the place of his tumultuous childhood. There he became active in the local chapter of the Nation of Islam and, as a charismatic speaker, quickly rose to the rank of National Minister. In his new role as spokesman for the Nation, he planned to take its message to the urban ghettos, to address the communities he knew best—the black working-class masses, the "wretched of the earth." Crowds responded to his plain yet powerful language, his enthusiasm for change, and, as one historian has called it, his "angry love."
By the early 1960s Malcolm X had grown frustrated with the nonviolent, integrated Civil Rights Movement led by Christian men such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. He believed it was a mistake for these leaders to urge black America to "turn the other cheek" to its enemies. Instead, he said, blacks must be law abiding, respectful people, doing unto others as they would like others to do unto them, and, if attacked, they should defend themselves at all costs, even if this meant taking a life. Peaceful suffering would not do. Revolution, he told listeners again and again, is bloody and uncompromising.
By the summer of 1963, Malcolm X had resolved that integration, like nonviolence, had failed and that black leaders needed new answers. Of the significant white presence at the March on Washington, Malcolm X said bitterly, "They took it over." What might have been a more sobering demonstration of black civil disobedience became something quite different. "It's just like when you get some coffee that's too black, which mean it's too strong," he explained. "What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won't even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus." For Malcolm X, the March on Washington was not the height of the civil rights struggle but, rather, a low point. The event revealed to him all the problems inherent in the nonviolence campaign and the challenges ahead.
In March of 1964, Malcolm X disaffiliated from the Nation of Islam. Although still devoted to the Islamic faith, he had grown intellectually and politically distant from the organization. He also had become disillusioned by the mistreatment of the Nation's women, and the corruption surrounding the group's leader, Elijah Muhammad. He denounced the Nation of Islam as illegitimate and even racist.
As a result of this split, Malcolm X lost some of the power he had within the black community. Still, he continued to give speeches at protest rallies in major urban centers throughout the country. He preached about "human rights" and emphasized brotherhood over black separatism, although he maintained the belief that white racism was enemy number one. He remained committed to black nationalism, that is, the insistence that blacks identify with their African heritage, that they appreciate their African features, and take pride in their ancestral culture. And he no longer advocated violence, but continued to call for self-defense whenever and wherever necessary.
On 21 February 1965, at a protest rally in Harlem, three men from the Nation of Islam shot and killed Malcolm X. His life ended, but the legacy of his message was reborn in the rhetoric of the new generation of black nationalists such as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Fred Hampton. These rising leaders of the second wave of the Civil Rights Movement would utilize—and, at times, distort—the messages of this eloquent, truth-seeking leader.