Malcolm's life is a Horatio Alger story with a twist. His is not a "rags to riches" tale, but a powerful narrative of self-transformation from petty hustler to internationally known political leader. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Louise and Earl Little, who was a Baptist preacher active in Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, Malcolm, along with his siblings, experienced dramatic confrontations with racism from childhood. Hooded Klansmen burned their home in Lansing, Michigan; Earl Little was killed under mysterious
circumstances; welfare agencies split up the children and eventually committed Louise Little to a state mental institution; and Malcolm was forced to live in a detention home run by a racist white couple. By the eighth grade he left school, moved to Boston, Massachussetts, to live with his half-sister Ella, and discovered the underground world of African American hipsters.
Malcolm's entry into the masculine culture of the zoot suit, the "conked" (straightened) hair, and the lindy hop coincided with the outbreak of World War II, rising black militancy (symbolized in part by A. Philip Randolph's threatened March on Washington for racial and economic justice), and outbreaks of race riots in Detroit, Michigan, and other cities (see Detroit Riot of 1943). Malcolm and his partners did not seem very "political" at the time, but they dodged the draft so as not to lose their lives over a "white man's war," and they avoided wage work whenever possible. His search for leisure and pleasure took him to Harlem, New York, where his primary source of income derived from petty hustling, drug dealing, pimping, gambling, and viciously exploiting women. In 1946 his luck ran out; he was arrested for burglary and sentenced to ten years in prison
Malcolm's downward descent took a U-turn in prison when he began studying the teachings of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam (NOI), the black Muslim group founded by Wallace D. Fard and led by Elijah Muhammad (Elijah Poole). Submitting to the discipline and guidance of the NOI, he became a voracious reader of the Qu'ran (Koran) and the Bible. He also immersed himself in works of literature and history at the prison library. Behind prison walls he quickly emerged as a powerful orator and brilliant rhetorician. He led the famous prison debating team that beat the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, arguing against capital punishment by pointing out that English pickpockets often did their best work at public hangings!
Upon his release in 1952 he renamed himself Malcolm X, symbolically repudiating the "white man's name."As a devoted follower of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X rose quickly within the NOI ranks, serving as minister of Harlem's Temple No. 7 in 1954, and later ministering to temples in Detroit and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Through national speaking engagements, television appearances, and by establishing Muhammad Speaksthe NOI's first nationally distributed newspaper Malcolm X put the Nation of Islam on the map. His sharp criticisms of civil rights leaders for advocating integration into white society instead of building black institutions and defending themselves from racist violence generated opposition from both conservatives and liberals. His opponents called him "violent," "fascist," and "racist." To those who claimed that the NOI undermined their efforts toward integration by preaching racial separatism, Malcolm responded, "It is not integration that Negroes in America want, it is human dignity."
Distinguishing Malcolm's early political and intellectual views from the teachings of Elijah Muhammad is not a simple matter. His role as minister was to preach the gospel of Islam according to Muhammad. He remained a staunch devotee of the Nation's strict moral codes and gender conventions. Although his own narrative suggests that he never entirely discarded his hustler's distrust of women,...
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