Malcolm X was a hugely influential African-American civil rights activist. During the 1950s and 60s, X preached his Islamic faith and encouraged blacks to stand up for their civil rights by any means necessary. As a naturally gifted speaker, he drew a large following and made huge contributions in the fight for equality both during the twentieth century and ever since.
Malcolm X was born in Omaha to Louise and Earl Little who worked as an outspoken minister believing in equal rights for black Americans. After Klu Klux Klan members threatened their family, the Littles moved to Michigan. When Malcolm was 6 years old, his Father was murdered for expressing his ideas. Louise Little became increasingly mentally ill until Malcolm and his siblings were taken into a foster home when he was 13. After leaving school, he became involved in robberies and was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison. This was a pivotal time for Malcolm as during his 7 years in jail he was introduced to Islam, a religion lead by African-Americans. After leaving prison in 1952, he became more involved in the teachings of the Nation of Islam. This group aimed to promote the education, defence and economic development of the black community. Elijah Muhammad -the head of the Nation of Islam- explained to Malcolm that he was not the criminal. Muhammad told Malcolm that “the criminals are the whites who, through their racism, have forced you into the acts you have committed.” This resonated with Malcolm who had grown up with aspirations of becoming a lawyer. When becoming a member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm cast aside his old ‘slave name’ and took the Surname ‘X’. This was a symbol of the African heritage that had been taken from him. Malcolm X became a minister and began to travel the world delivering his ideas, speaking about the struggles of African-Americans.
Malcolm X believed that only black Americans could bring about real change in gaining civil rights. He thought that in order to achieve equality, African-Americans had to start a revolution. Malcolm believed that all whites were enemies which put him in conflict with white Americans who were promoting equality. Although Malcolm was considered a revolutionary by the 60s, he gained much support from black Americans who were angry and frustrated with the situation. In 1957 a Nation of Islam member named Hinton Johnson was beaten by police. When Malcolm X went to the station he was denied access to see Johnston. Eventually a crowd of 4000 people gathered outside. Malcolm went out, raising his hand he caused the crowd to fall silent and disperse. This shows the huge respect and power X held with his following. As he gained more attention and the movement for black civil rights grew, America began to take notice. His ideas made many white people uncomfortable as he spoke frankly of the horrific crimes against his people carried out by white communities. Although X broke away from the Nation of Islam in 1964, he advocated many teachings of the Nation that alarmed white American society. These beliefs included that white people are inferior to blacks. Although these radical ideas worked against the civil rights movement by worsening the divide between many whites and blacks; They provided African-Americans with a radical public figure who represented them in speaking out and honestly discussing the barbaric treatment of blacks. He preached pride, teaching African-Americans to think about their heritage and have self-worth. Many black Americans believed he better explained their feelings towards the slow and frustrating process of the civil rights movement. X criticised civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr as being part of the white establishment. Malcolm X was outspoken and unforgiving. He stated in one of his passionate speeches, “Power in defence of freedom is greater than power on behalf of tyranny and oppression because power, real power, comes from our conviction which produces action, uncompromising action.” It can be argued that Malcolm X was an advocate not of violence, but of self defence. He taught that blacks should stand up when they are beaten down. However X remained hugely controversial. His views against the slow and steady approach of the civil rights movement put Malcolm X in conflict with Martin Luther King who preached peace. While Dr King believed in a racial-integrated society, Malcolm X believed that blacks and whites should live separately. King stated that “I feel Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice.” Malcolm provided an alternative voice. Although these leaders held different beliefs, following the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, King wrote about Malcolm, “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.” It is argued by some that Malcolm X knew his extreme views would be widely rejected, that he pushed his radical ideas so that the suggestions Martin Luther King was providing would seem more agreeable.
Malcolm X played a crucial role in the growth of black consciousness. He encouraged the awareness of black identity and demanded that blacks should have pride. X not only preached equality but hope. He laid out the groundwork for progress that is still being made today.