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.”

Advertisement

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. 

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.”

By 1964, after leaving the NOI in a bitter internal dispute over the group’s future direction, Malcolm became an independent political activist. During his last year he spent months in Africa and the Middle East, converting to Orthodox Sunni Islam and taking the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and crafting alliances with former political adversaries. He founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity with hopes of launching a global united front to advocate for what he now called a human rights movement, even while the mistreatment of black Americans living in the U.S. remained at the forefront of his mind.

Advertisement

Federal surveillance and death threats from the NOI shadowed Malcolm’s last frenetic year alive. Malcolm’s unwavering commitment to a black political revolution carried a high cost, including the firebombing of his home.

Malcolm’s journey came to an untimely end on Feb. 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, as he prepared to speak at a political meeting.

Malcolm died, in the end, how he lived: working, teaching and inspiring ordinary black people.

Advertisement

But Malcolm X was more than just a prophet of black rage who galvanized African Americans to reject the political and racial status quo of the 1960s. He was, in fact, an organizer, intellectual and activist whose personal biography mirrored the black community’s pain, tragedy and triumphs. Most importantly, he dared to speak truth to power by offering a revolutionary vision of a new American and global society and, through his own activism, attempted to turn this dream into reality.

Almost a half-century since his assassination, Malcolm’s unapologetic insistence on black liberation, human rights and dignity still resonates around the world.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael, Stokely: A Life, is due out in March. Follow him on Twitter.

Advertisement

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.