Malcolm X (1925-1965) was one of two main black leaders in America in the 1960s, the other being Martin Luther King, Jr. They were both ministers, King a Christian, X a Muslim, and they both wanted equal rights for blacks, but they disagreed about how it could be achieved: King said it could be done through peaceful protest, Malcolm X said, “Give me a .45 calibre, then I’ll sing ‘We Shall Overcome'”.
Some words and catchphrases that either started with Malcolm X or came to mainstream American society through him:
- the ballot or the bullet: the two ways to achieve power.
- white devils: whites as having an inborn evil nature unlike blacks.
- black power: the only way blacks can control their own destiny.
- by any means necessary: blacks must defend themselves with violence if necessary.
- chickens coming home to roost: why John Kennedy got shot.
For most of his life Malcolm X thought that blacks would never get a fair deal from white society, certainly not so long as they remained poor and powerless. They needed their own businesses, their own way of thinking, their own men with guns and, in the end, their own nation.
Blacks should separate from whites: whites cannot be trusted, whites will not give up power willingly. The way whites think suits them, not blacks. Trying to be white or act white or become a part of white society was not the answer – that was a game where only whites could win.
Much of this thinking he got from his father, a poor country preacher who spread the message of Marcus Garvey. Garvey wanted to build a black society in America independent of white society and then return to Africa.
Malcolm’s father was killed by white men who did not like what he was telling black people. Later his mother had a breakdown and was sent away.
He turned to a life of crime and wound up in prison. There he discovered the Nation of Islam, the black Muslims. It gave his life purpose and direction. It made him proud to be black. He stopped straightening his hair, something black men did back in those days (think James Brown or Al Sharpton). He started reading seriously.
Later, after he got out of prison, he became one of the top ministers of the Nation of Islam. It grew from 500 followers to 30,000. His mosque was at 116th and Lenox in Harlem. It stands there still with its green dome.
Despite his loyalty to Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam, they had a falling out. He left and started his own mosques.
Then he went to Mecca.
And there for the first time in his life he saw black men and brown men and white men living together as brothers, as one. It blew his mind. He now knew that all the racism he had lived under in America all his life did not have to be.
But not long after he was shot dead. At age 39.