The life and struggles of Malcolm X


The name of Malcolm X still evokes mixed feelings. Some people classify him along with the black radicals advocating ´inside out´ racism, others seen him as a mere demagogue who turned all in favour of his views. However, there are also those for whom he is the immortal legend of the struggle for human rights.


Malcolm X. Illustration: Barbora Sajmovicova, 2016.
Malcolm X. Illustration: Barbora Sajmovicova



The findings from the underworld

Malcolm Little (1925-1965) was born in Nebraska at the time when the strict laws of J. Crow of the United States were regulating the relations between ´black´ and ´white´ citizens. In the foreground is a new progressive and, throughout all social circles, an openly supported science – eugenics. The prevailing discourse of the United States is clear – black people are already accepted as fact as being ´valueless´ members of society. The hate directed against black people is presented almost everywhere. The ominous phenomenon of the southern part of the United States looms as organized village lynchings, in which black people are tortured by brutal methods, and killed before the eyes of onlookers.

Malcolm has faced this open racism since his birth – for example frequent threats and attacks from the Ku Klux Klan are targeted directly and primarily against his father, who is a Baptist preacher and is advocating the ideas of Garvey about the inevitability of the independence of black people and the establishment of their own states. In 1927, the family moves, due to incessant pressure, to East Lansing in Michigan. Nevertheless the Littles did not find peace. Their house is burned down in 1929 by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Law enforcement officers along with firefighters just, according to later Malcolm´s words ´stood around and watched as the house burned to the ground.´ The biggest shock comes with the death of Malcolm´s father, officially classified as a suicide, by investigating authorities. The family has no doubt that this is the fulfilment of the threats of the white supremacists. In 1937, Malcolm´s mother is in a mental institution after this psychological shock. The children are sent to children´s homes. During these trying times, the young Malcolm looks to the vision of becoming a lawyer and he certainly has the scholastic aptitude for it.

Despite this, a discouraging moment for him is a conversation with his class teacher, who gives him some advice: ´Lawyer – this is not a realistic goal for a nigger. (…) Why not try a carpenter?´ He leaves frustrated from school in 1941 and joins his older sister in Boston. He bounces from one job to another and finally moves to New York in 1943, where he encounters the Harlem underworld. Malcolm starts selling and consuming drugs. Moreover, he does not miss the lucrative profession of a guide to nightclubs and he notes one thing: all ´customers´ seeking his ´brokering services´ are older white men seeking the blackest women. ´In all the time in Harlem, I have never seen a white man touch the white prostitutes.´ Malcolm himself establishes a casual sexual relationship with a married white woman named Sophia. After a short time, he changes his profession to be a whiskey smuggler from Long Island, then he embarks on a minor robbery. Nevertheless, it does not take a long time until he is taken into custody for the theft. During the investigations, others are also arrested, Sophia, her friend and accomplice of Malcolm.

´The social workers seized us. The white women in a society of niggers, it was their main obsession. (…) That bothered social workers and judicial authorities more than anything else



A spokesman of Elijah

Undoubtedly, Malcom attains complete purification of body, mind and spirit only in prison, between 1946 and 1952, in contrast to his previous life in the ghetto. Now, he has time to reflect on and reconsider his fate. His favourite place is the prison library, where he catches up on everything missed in his life. During visiting hours he begins to hold talks with his younger brother Reginald, a member of the Nation of Islam. Reginald asks questions constantly to Malcolm and Malcolm starts to think about the world and cosmology of the world. Over the time, he begins to fully identify with the ideas of the Nation of Islam and begins to correspond with Elijah, the head of the Nation of Islam movement. For the first time, he learns that Allah is God, and God was revealed in a black man called Fard and Elijah Muhammad, who is also a black man and a prophet of Fard. So, Malcolm accepts the idea that the first man on planet Earth was a black man and white people are the devils, who had, for centuries, been controlling and utilizing black men and women.

´(…) When I heard the sentence: The white man is the devil and I played my own life experiences, I had to respond positively

Finally, he converted to the Nation of Islam just before the expiration of his prison sentence. Following this, he removes his last name and replaces it with the letter X, which symbolizes the unknown origin African name. Consequently, Malcolm X is becoming the closest aide of the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, after his release. Malcolm X makes efforts to expand the movement nationwide and, only under his influence, the Nation of Islam grows from 400 members in 1952 to a group comprising of tens of thousands. Malcolm´s name and prestige spreads throughout the United States. He soon becomes minister of temple no. 7 in Harlem, no. 11 in Boston and he founded several new centres himself. He is an energetic, eloquent and enthusiastic main spokesperson for Elijah. He is angry at the whole white society and proclaims uncompromising ideas of black nationalism and separatism to the world. During his fiery speeches, he urges others to shed the shackles of white racism by ´all available means´ and he becomes an increasingly controversial personality. For these reasons, he is labelled as a mere demagogue or black racist by his critics. Indeed, in comparison with M. L. King, he stands at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. King finds a solution in integration, peace and a united American society – Malcolm X is convinced of the contrary. Therefore, Malcolm X called King an Uncle Tom, a worthy little black boy serving his white masters. On the other hand, King has a feeling that: ´Malcolm does disservice to ourselves and to our people


Martin Luther King, Jr. about Malcolm X and nonviolence movement


To be able to understand, Malcolm´s radicalism is based on his previous experience, from the environment in which he had lived and from distrust of any cooperation between blacks and whites. It should be noted that on one count he was right. Although the practice of racial segregation is different from state to state and gradually attains certain concessions (eg. In 1955, in reaction to the cases of R. L. Parks or E. Till), for the majority of African Americans living in urban ghettos and the rural southern there is little variation – and Malcolm X points to this. He finds meaningfulness in the Nation of Islam in offering help to escape from the harsh reality of street. Nonetheless, Malcolm´s increasingly militant speeches are starting to unnerve the Nation´s leader Elijah and Malcolm X is dissatisfied with Elijah´s character. In 1963, it is leaked to the public that Elijah has, despite to his strict moral appeals to others, illegitimate children with young girls. It is a real shock for the undoubting Malcolm X and he started to quickly sober up, which subsequently accelerates the findings of corruption in the leadership of the Nation of Islam. Elijah begins with a boycott of Malcolm X after his acerbic speech on TV about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. To be honest, Malcolm X becomes simply uncomfortable to the leader of the movement. In conclusion, he leaves the Nation with his wife Betty X (Sanders) in March 1964, shortly after receiving the most famous member for the Nation, the boxer Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali.



The true Islam

Just after the leaving from the Nation of Islam, he founds a new organization – the Muslim Mosque and OAAU (Organization of Afro-American Unity). In the same year, he personally meets with the previously despised King during preparations for the proposed Senate amendments ensuring racial equality. During April 1964, Malcolm X embarks on a tour of the Middle East and North Africa. He fulfils the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, where he experiences a complete reversal of mind and absolute transformation of consciousness. He sees the huge variety of nationalities around him, who combines as one – Islam. Finally, he starts to think about the life mistakes that he committed. ´I was not less angry than before, but the true brotherhood, which I saw in the Holy Land, influenced me to understand how anger can blind the human eyes´. In this manner, he sees the potential recovery of American society through true Islam, which ensures the equality of all people. In his view, the Christian faith has never been able to allow black citizens of the United States and he compares segregated churches with the multicultural atmosphere of a mosque.

Surprisingly, he goes much further later and concludes that it ´requires all religious, political, economic, psychological and racial ingredients or characteristics that the human family and society will complete.´ He gives lectures and speeches in Lebanon, Nigeria and Ghana and meets with G. A. Nasser and is open to all opinions and help in the struggle for the human rights of African-Americans. He comes back as Al-Hajj Malik Al-Shabaz with a vision of big plans for the establishment of equal society in America. Nonetheless, in early 1965, the house of Malcolm X explodes and a week later, on February 21st, Malcolm X is murdered by three followers of the Nation of Islam just before the beginning of his speech in Harlem.


  Malcolm X´s speeach after returing from Mecca



The complexity of life and necessity of death

Undoubtedly, Malcolm X is rightly regarded as one of the most prominent African-American human rights activists. However, he became an icon for emancipation movements for many African Americans during the 60s, not only for his radicalism, but also for the revelation of his life´s journey, captured in The Autobiography of Malcolm X that he related to the journalist, A. Haley shortly before his death. In his testimony published in 1965, he became a flawed man and searched back into his conscience, passing though the different developmental phases. The distinctiveness of Malcolm X lies in his absolute zeal and a kind of sincerity and willingness to carry out the next step forward. The meaning of Malcolm´s life can be revealed only in his sheer complexity. Malcolm´s life experience has made him a legend that in the end, died for his moderate vision by the hands of black radicals. Well, he counted the fulfilment of his destiny:

´Thinking about death doesn’t knock me off balance as it does for other people. (…) I always thought that I would die a violent death. In fact, it runs in the family. (…) To come to the point when I will consider what I believe in, and add my temperament, plus one a hundred one percent commitment to everything that I believe in – such qualities do not practically allow one to die in old age.´



The Autobiography of Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley. Grove, New York, 1965.

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Ethnologist, Editor in chief of The Ethnologist

MA et BA Barbora Zelenkova (Sajmovicova) was born in 1985 in Prague. She graduated in Middle Eastern Studies (Near Eastern Studies) from the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen in 2013 and also in Ethnology from the Charles University in Prague in 2015. During her studies in Pilsen she focused on Somalia and Somali people and in Prague on Czech Orientalist and Arabist professor Alois Musil. Since 2014 she has been living in London, where she founded the website The Ethnologist, where she is editor in chief. She is also involved in translating (English/Czech, Czech/English). During her university studies visited Middle East, for example Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan.