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In the late 1950s and the early to mid-1960s, a Muslim minister named Malcolm X rose to prominence in the United States during the struggle for Civil Rights. Malcolm X was a member of and spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, and he was a vocal advocate for Black empowerment. His views differed significantly from a lot of the well-known Civil Rights activists of the day, and his views evolved during his ministry. Today, we’ll learn about Malcolm X’s origins, his work with the Nation of Islam, his break from that organization, and his eventual assassination.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ’ Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, With the assistance of Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine, 1992).
Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking Press, 2011).
Ilyasah Shabazz, Growing up X: A Memoir by the Mother of Malcolm X (Penguin, 2003).

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CC Kids:

 (00:00) to (02:00)

Hi I'm Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course Black American History.

I still remember the first time that I read the autobiography of Malcolm X, back when I was a teenager. I was awestruck by the story of a man who went from being young, lost, and involved in a life of crime to someone who transformed himself into one of the most important civil rights leaders in American history. It was inspiring, to read the story of a man who refused to be defined by the circumstances of his past, and who used self-education to help himself better understand the issues facing Black Americans, so that he could better advocate on their behalf.

And sometimes, Malcolm X can be presented as a foil to Dr. King. "Malcolm vs. Martin." "Violence vs. Non-violence." "Nationalism vs Integration." But, as always, the story is much more complicated than that. Malcolm X was a complex, dynamic person who was constantly evolving. And today we're going to learn some more about the process of that evolution.

Let's start the show.

(Intro Music)

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents, Earl and Louise Little, had been supporters of the activist Marcus Garvey. Garvey's followers believed in Black self-determination and encouraged Black Americans to form their own nation-states in Africa. The political backgrounds of Malcolm's parents were core to the philosophical enlightenment he would experience later in his twenties.

Earl Little's activism brought much unwanted violence from white supremacists. The family regularly received death threats, which required them to relocate twice before Malcolm turned four. Still, they couldn't outrun the terror that followed them, and in 1929 they lost their home in Lansing, Michigan to arson. 

Then, in 1931 Earl Little was run over and killed by a streetcar, and while it was never proven in court, Malcolm always believed that he had been killed at the hands of white supremacists. And if that wasn't enough, in 1939 Malcolm's mother was committed to a mental institution after suffering from a mental health breakdown. 

At thirteen years old, Malcolm fell into the foster care system and had to adopt new methods of survival. He dropped out of school at fifteen years old and turned to a life of crime where he engaged in theft, gambling, and selling drugs.

Let's go to the Thought Bubble. 

In 1946, Malcolm Little was arrested and sentenced to eight to ten years in state prison in Massachusetts on burglary charges. While incarcerated, he was drawn to a newly organized group of Black Muslims called the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the teachings of NOI leader, Elijah Muhammad.

Among Muhammad's teachings were the principal ideas of self-determination and Black enterprise. He also insisted that racism worked specifically to keep Black Americans from achieving political, economic, and social success. The NOI also fought for a state of their own, separate from white people, similar to the earlier teachings of Marcus Garvey that young Malcolm's parents subscribed to.

Following the custom of members of the NOI, Malcolm changed his last name to X. Muhammad's teachings suggested that given surnames were "slave names" bestowed upon them by "the white man." The "X" signified Malcolm's lost tribal name.

And while in prison, Malcolm wrote in his autobiography, that he endeavored to use education to change his life. He said he read every book in the prison library; he said he copied the entire dictionary by hand; and he said that he was always reading late into the night. He later wrote, "Right outside my door was a corridor light that cast a glow into my room. The glow was enough to read by, once my eyes adjusted to it. So when "lights out" came, I would sit on the floor where I could continue reading in that glow."

By the time he was paroled in 1952 after serving 7 years, Malcolm was a devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad. 

Thanks, Thought Bubble. 

After he was released, he assumed a leadership role in the NOI and it didn't take long for Malcolm to become the organization's national spokesman. His charisma, drive, and eloquence attracted an astounding number of converts. The NOI only had 500 members by the time he joined in 1952; by 1963 membership had increased to 30,000. 

Now, the Nation of Islam took a pretty different approach to civil rights activism than other organizers at the time. Racial uplift was core to the organization's philosophy and they had several criticisms of Christian activists who adopted desegregation and nonviolent civil disobedience as their doctrine in the movement for Black liberation.

The Nation of Islam wanted to address the sweeping problems of unemployment, underemployment, and economic injustice that Black Americans faced. There was also the oppressive presence of white political power and police brutality, even in areas where Black people were the majority. The Nation felt that if after ten years of boycotts, demonstrations, sit-ins, and Freedom Rides, Black people had still not achieved freedom, it was time for a new approach. And there was a growing number of Black folks across the country who felt the same way. Malcolm had his own critiques. He believed that Black people needed land, power, and freedom, not desegregation.

He took issue with civil rights leaders he perceived as being sellouts who white liberals had selected to keep Black Americans from demanding actual equality. Desegregation, he believed, may have integrated schools but it did not move Black people closer to actual liberation. It certainly did not address police brutality, unemployment, poverty, or housing shortages greatly impacting Black communities.

An avid Nationalist, Malcolm X was certain Black empowerment could take place if Black people pooled their resources to build their own facilities to meet the community's needs. If they could develop their own hospitals, schools, factories, and clean up their own neighborhoods, they would not need to integrate white spaces or establishments. But most importantly, he believed that this type of empowerment could only happen if Black people learned to love themselves, defend themselves, and establish their own economic system.

In his rhetoric, Malcolm X insisted over and over again that "black is beautiful" and this resonated with many Black people who lived in and had grown up in a society that told them over and over again, directly and indirectly, that they were ugly. That their hair was too kinky, that their noses were too wide, that their lips were too big. The list goes on and on. This self-love approach extended past an appreciation for one's physical attributes, though. 

Malcolm X began to publicly challenge Dr. Martin Luther King's philosophy of nonviolent direct action as they both gained more influence in the early 1960s. More and more Black citizens began to defect from the non-violent movement and join the ranks of the NOI after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. Exhausted from seeing women, children, and peaceful demonstrators abused, tortured, and even murdered, Black Americans began to defend their right to protest and protect their bodies in the line of fire.

As NOI membership continued to grow, the FBI and other law enforcement organizations continued their long history of keeping tabs on Black activists and began infiltrating the organization. They hired Black people to pose as members of The Nation and planted bugs, wiretaps, cameras, and other surveillance equipment all around the organization. And they got really close to the leaders. One of them even served as Malcolm's bodyguard.

But as Malcolm's influence grew, criticisms didn't just come from outside the Nation of Islam, it came from inside as well. And this all came to a head in 1964. Malcolm made public comments about John F. Kennedy's assassination, stating that the murder was a consequence of "chickens coming home to roost." Elijah Muhammad hadn't wanted any members speaking on the assassination, and Muhammad punished Malcolm X by stripping away his ability to do any public speaking for 90 days. But many saw this as an excuse to shut Malcolm up. 

See, Malcolm had become the face of the Nation of Islam. Journalists wrote huge profiles on him. Interviewed him on the news. Put his face on the cover of magazines. And NOI leadership thought that Malcolm had become *too* big, bigger than Elijah Muhammad, bigger than the NOI. And they couldn't accept that. 

Another part of this is that Malcolm was steadily developing his own civil rights framework that was increasingly at odds with that of the Nation of Islam. Plus, he had become disillusioned with its leadership. He had heard rumors of Muhammad's extramarital affairs with young girls in the Nation and there was also evidence of mishandling of finances by higher-ups. So in March 1964, Malcolm parted ways with the Nation of Islam and resigned from his post as minister.

Finally free from the limitations that had been imposed on him, that April Malcolm went on his pilgrimage to Mecca, and there he went through a phase of enlightenment. There he changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. And had some important revelations on his trip.

For example, he no longer thought of white people as the inherent enemy. He wrote in a letter from Mecca, "There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes 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... You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions."

He did however become concerned that differences over religion were preventing a united front against racism. Shortly after returning home, he established the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a name inspired by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) created by the newly independent African states, all of this following a wave of decolonization, as African countries became independent of the European powers that had occupied them for so long. 

Open to folks of all religious backgrounds (but not necessarily all racial backgrounds), the Organization of Afro-American Unity was intended to address Black economic issues and represent Black American politics on an international level. He wanted to ensure that Black Americans' plight was regarded as a human rights issue. Unfortunately, Malcolm X and his organization didn't have enough time to truly set that plan in motion.

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated while giving a speech to a crowd of four to five hundred people at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. A total of 7 shots struck him, killing him immediately. In many ways, this was no surprise, at least not to Malcolm. His lawyer at the time of his death, Percy Sutton, stated that Malcolm "feared for his life" and he carried a gun to protect himself. He knew that members of the NOI were deeply upset with him, and was acutely aware that his life was in danger.

After his death, the autobiography he had been co-writing with the writer Alex Haley was published, and quickly Malcolm X became a cult-like figure. It is a book that continues to resonate with many people who read it today, including me. 

His legacy influenced new organizations like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. These organizations continued much of Malcolm's philosophy, carrying the torch for Black independence, self-defense, self-sufficiency, and racial pride through what were often even more militant approaches. 

His rise from being the young man involved in crime to becoming one of the most important civil rights leaders in American history, continues to serve as an inspiration for millions of people who want to change their lives and circumstances through a process of discipline, self-transformation, and education. 

Malcolm X wasn't a perfect man, in the same way that none of us are perfect people. But he demonstrated a capacity for growth and evolution whose ultimate manifestations we never got a chance to fully see. Who knows where he would have ended up and what he would have accomplished if he had only had a little more time. 

Thanks for watching. I'll see you next time.

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