Malcolm X Was More Than MLK’s Alter Ego

Forty-nine years after his assassination, remember the real Malcolm X.

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Malcolm X

SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

This Friday marks the 49th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X—and the 20th-century icon is still making headlines.

His memory remains contested and debated, as witnessed by the recent controversies over his depiction in rapper Nicki Minaj’s cover art and a Queens, N.Y., public school teacher forbidding students to write about him during Black History Month out of ignorance over his true political and historical legacy, describing Malcolm as too “violent.”

Malcolm, though, stood astride the world stage alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and should be remembered as a working-class hero.

He’s frequently reduced to being King’s opposite number: eloquent, but angry. But in reality, Malcolm X became black America’s unofficial prime minister, a brilliant and prophetic activist, organizer and intellectual whose life reminds us of the possibilities of a liberated future in America and beyond.

Malcolm’s outsized status as one of black America’s most enduring and important icons makes it easy to lose sight of his humble origins. Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Neb., the son of Earl and Louise Little, pioneering black nationalists who followed the teachings of Marcus Garvey. As a teenager he came of age during the global freedom surges of the early 1940s, but drifted, in between short stints at various blue-collar jobs, into the criminal underworlds of Detroit, Harlem and Boston, which eventually landed him in jail for almost seven years. 

Reading the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam while in prison transformed him into Malcolm X, the most authentic black working-class political leader the 20th century has ever produced.

Malcolm’s experiences as an ex-convict, former Pullman porter and furniture-store worker helped him relate to the African-American working-class struggle and to propel the NOI from a small religious sect into a sprawling political empire, whose uncompromising vision of racial dignity and self-determination thrust it into America’s civil rights maelstrom by the late 1950s.

By 1960, Malcolm X had become one of the most well-known and sought-after speakers in America. His biting critique of white supremacy rattled journalists and inspired black activists, including James Baldwin, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

In the public’s imagination, Malcolm, with his unapologetic and eloquent advocacy of self-defense and black power, was seen as offering a counterpoint to King’s philosophical emphasis on nonviolence. He spent much of 1963 offering an alternative perspective on the efficacy of civil rights struggles, and in November of that year Malcolm delivered “Message to the Grassroots,” one of his most famous and important speeches.

Before a Detroit crowd filled with radical activists, Malcolm laid down nothing less than a blueprint for a global political revolution. He connected struggles against Jim Crow in the United States with anti-colonial battles waging in Africa and the wider developing world. “Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms,” he asked, “singing 'We Shall Overcome'? You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing, you’re too busy swinging.”

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