By Ryan M. Jones, Museum Educator
April 21, 2015 – 50th Commemoration of Malcolm X
On the night of February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world after he defeated Sonny Liston in the seventh round. Stars from all over the world watched the fight in Miami including football star Jim Brown, and soul singer Sam Cooke. Thirty-eight year old Malcolm X also attended ringside. Malcolm had been in Miami for little over a week to serve as a mentor and spiritual advisor for Clay who was to soon change his name to Muhammad Ali.
A year prior, Malcolm was speaking up to four times a week. Now, he had much more time to spare. Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad had silenced Malcolm for remarks he made after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in November 1963. Malcolm referred to the assassination as “the chickens coming home to roost.”
Shortly after the fight, Clay, Cooke, Brown, and Malcolm X all convened to Malcolm’s hotel for vanilla ice cream and discussions about politics. The FBI carefully logged this “meeting” in their files. Within a year, two would be dead, and Clay would be stripped of his heavyweight title.
What made Malcolm a target? What separated him from the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other African-American leaders?
Born Malcolm Little in May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, the fourth of seven children to Earl and Louise Little, violence seemed to pursue Malcolm. His father, who advocated the teachings of Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement, was violently killed on the railroad tracks. It was believed he was murdered by local whites. After his father’s death, the family was destitute. Distressed by the murder of her husband and the fate of her family, Malcolm’s mother was sent to a mental hospital in Kalamazoo.
In his early adult life, Malcolm led a life of crime and drugs, and he eventually was arrested and sent to prison for seven years. While doing time, Malcolm makes his first transformation in life. A fellow inmate who was a member of the Nation of Islam befriended him and began teaching him the ways of Islam and self-empowerment of black men. He believed that the inferiority complex of the black race was a system used by generations of white supremacist since the 1500s to undermine and neutralize people of color.
Malcolm replaced his last name with the letter X, noting “the X replaced the white slave master with blue eyes who imposed his paternal bearings.” His message gave a new generation a sense of hope.
He rejected nonviolent direct action tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. While the world was outraged at the attacks of Bull Connor’s police dogs and high-powered water hoses sprayed on children in Birmingham in 1963, Malcolm responded, “We will be nonviolent with those who are nonviolent with us. But if a four-legged dog attacks me for demanding rights that I’m deserved because I’m a human being, I’m going to shoot that dog. And then I’m going to shoot the dog’s owner who allowed it to attack me. I don’t call it violence when it’s in self-defense. I call it intelligence.”
Malcolm broke from the Nation of Islam shortly after his 1964 Miami visit to see his friend Cassius Clay win the heavyweight title. He formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity shortly before he made the pilgrimage to Mecca, a Hajj. There he had a philosophical shift. He saw that all whites were not evil, or devils. He saw that everyone, regardless of race or belief, can live together. He even defended Dr. King’s nonviolent campaign, asserting that “the people need to listen to Dr. King, or they will have to listen to my alternative.”
Unfortunately, we don’t see this transformed Malcolm for long. In Harlem he was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam on Sunday, February 21, 1965. He was 39.
Malcolm’s influence was evident in Stokely Carmichael’s message “We want Black Power” and in the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. It was rare during the era of Jim Crow, to hear an intelligent, black man with acute orator skills, wisdom beyond his years, and of great courage.
It is arguable that Malcolm X is one of the most misunderstood figures in American History. What is clear is that he wanted simply what the American Dream stands for: Freedom, Justice, and Equality. His legacy of “By Any Means Necessary” continues to live on.
SHARE THE KNOWLEDGE: Learn more about Malcolm X through books and gifts available at the museum online shop.
Branch, Taylor. Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years. Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Haley, Alex. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Random House, 1965. Available at museum online shop.
“Message to Grassroots,” speech by Malcolm X. November 10, 1963. Detroit, Michigan.
“The Ballot or the Bullet,” speech by Malcolm X. April 3, 1964. Cleveland, Ohio.