Malcolm X: The Son of Preacher to the Father of a Movement
This blog post was written by volunteer community member James Van Ormer
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925 to Louise and Earl Little. His father was an outspoken preacher who believed strongly in Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa movement. In 1926, Malcolm’s family left Omaha for Milwaukee due to threats and attacks from the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
As a child, Malcolm did well in school, but ended up dropping out of high school after being actively discouraged by his white teachers. On one occasion, a teacher was counselling students about their future career paths. The instructor eagerly supported all the goals of the other students, but when Malcolm suggested he wanted to be a lawyer, he was told this was unrealistic due to his race.
As Malcolm reached young adulthood and became independent, he began engaging in criminal activity including pimping, dealing drugs, and burglary in Harlem. During his time as a fixer, it was already clear that Malcolm had little to no fear in him. Once, when he was preparing for a burglary with a group of accomplices, he made a point to display his conviction and fearlessness of death by pointing a revolver to his head and playing two rounds of “Russian roulette.” Eventually, the law caught up with Malcolm and he was arrested for burglary in 1945 and sentenced to 8 to 10 years in prison. While his energy and drive may have been directed unproductively up until this point, his resolve would eventually find an outlet that continues to have an impact on the world today.
Nation of Islam
When Malcom was serving time in prison, his siblings, primarily his brother Reginald, introduced young Malcolm to the Nation of Islam and the prophet Elijah Muhammad. Though at first Malcolm was hesitant to join the Nation of Islam, he soon began to connect many of its teachings to his past lived experiences with racism. By the time Malcolm was released from prison, he was regularly exchanging letters with Elijah Muhammad and had become a devout member of the Nation of Islam. He had shaved his head, changed his wardrobe, and changed his last name—abandoning his slave-name Little for “X”, signifying the African identity taken from him. In addition to his beliefs, he had developed an enormous reservoir of trust in the leader of the religion.
After meeting Muhammad and displaying his great deal of loyalty, Malcolm rapidly rose in prominence within the NOI; he was appointed to the position of minister and placed in charge of establishing and growing numerous temples across the country. Malcolm was a deeply curious and charismatic man and had spent much of his time in prison developing into a voracious reader—these facts made his influential growth virtually inevitable. He quickly became the primary representative of the faith aside from Elijah Muhammad himself, helping induct thousands of people to the faith, including heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
After over a decade of service to the NOI as a prominent preacher for the faith, and one of its core figureheads, tensions began to brew that would ultimately lead to Malcolm’s departure. Malcolm openly discussed many of the issues that lead to the break between him and the organization.
- Malcolm had been reprimanded and publicly silenced for his comments on JFK’s assassination, when he suggested that it was an example of “chickens coming home to roost.”
- Malcolm had grown to be a nationally recognized figure of great importance, and Elijah Muhammad did not want his position as face of the NOI to be challenged by him.
- Malcolm had discovered that Elijah Muhammad had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with aides, both taking advantage of subordinate women and hypocritically violating NOI dogma.
- Malcolm had grown disillusioned with the NOI’s failure to address issues facing non-Muslims in the Black community; he preferred to seek justice for all Black people facing adversity.
Shortly after leaving the NOI, Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam, but even though he had broken with the faith, the tensions were still very much present. Malcolm was all too aware of the ever-increasing hostility of the NOI towards him, including numerous threats, which eventually culminated in his assassination.4
In April 1964, Malcolm X had one of the most formative experiences of his life when he took his pilgrimage to Mecca. Malcolm, previously a staunch advocate for Black separatism, reconstructed his worldview during his Hajj.
“There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.”
In short, his pilgrimage convinced him that racial unity was indeed possible through the faith of Islam.
It is a common misconception, however, that post-Hajj Malcolm was a “calmer” or “moderated” force. Many of his fundamental views did not change, such as his rejection of gradualism, his insistence that Black freedom can only be attained by fighting for it, his assertion that the government is deeply racist and will not simply grant freedom, that “Uncle Toms” must be called out and exposed, and that Black people must select their own leaders and determine their own strategies. His experience simply revealed to him that it is possible for white people and Black people to cohabitate in the same society and treat one another as equals. Seeing this was a driving force for his future activism.
Just before setting off on his Hajj, Malcolm founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which advocated for Pan-African unity and sought to bring the case of Black Americans to the United Nations for intervention and condemnation. The OAAU strove to fight for freedom, equality, and justice by “any means necessary.” The organization also firmly advocated for Black self-defense, encouraging people to take advantage of all the rights afforded to them in the Constitution, including the 2nd Amendment. (This stance would greatly inform the Black Panther Party only a few years later.) Both Malcolm and the OAAU strongly promoted Black self-reliance, rejecting the need to seek allies in the white community. Importantly, the OAAU did not reject allyship outright, rather it endorsed seeking justice and freedom for Black people on their own terms, rather than relying on the white population. Malcolm’s story is one of personal growth and an unyielding demand for justice, and it is one which resonates throughout the country today.
“Whites can help us, but they can’t join us. There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no worker’s solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting others, until we have first united among ourselves.”
 X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Random House Publishing Group, 1965.
 X, Malcolm. Letter from Mecca. April 1964.
 Breitman, George. Malcolm X: The Man and His Ideas, 1965, pp. 6–21.
 X, Malcolm. “By Any Means Necessary.” Organization of Afro-American Unity Founding Rally, 28 June 1964.
 Breitman, George. Malcolm X: The Man and His Ideas, 1965, pp. 6–21.