"Recognizing every human being
as a human being"
Malcom X and Race in America
Curtiss Paul DeYoung

In the final years of his life, Malcolm X adopted a new focus for his pursuit of freedom—human rights. Human rights took center stage in his message from the time he left the Nation of Islam in March 1964 until his murder in February 1965. He declared in a speech, “Human rights are something you were born with. Human rights are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth (1965a, 35).

A few days after this speech, Malcolm X left on a pilgrimage to Islams holy city of Mecca. This visit accelerated the shift in his understanding of human relations. While in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, he described his experience with orthodox Islam: They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans… displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe could never exist between the white and the non-white (1965a, 59).

Malcolm Xs spiritual transformation on pilgrimage caused a fundamental change in his outlook on reconciliation and social justice. He began experimenting with a new understanding of the human experience. He was moving beyond the limitations of a race-based approach for defining the human family. He stated in an interview a month before his death: I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown nor red. When you are dealing with humanity as one family, theres no question of integration or intermarriage. Its just one human being marrying another human being, or one human being living around another human being(1965b, 186). Malcolm X only came to this view in the final year of his life––a life spent battling dehumanization and exploitation and forging a human identity based in dignity, power, and respect.

Growing Up Malcolm Little

Malcolm Little was born on 19 May 1925, the fourth child of his parents. While Malcolm was in his mothers womb, Ku Klux Klan members surrounded his familys home in Omaha, Nebraska, terrorizing the Little family. This experience foreshadowed Malcolms lifelong struggle against racism, which produced intense issues of identity. Earl and Louise Little were members of Marcus Garveys Back-to-Africa movement—an effort that sought to instill pride in African Americans and make cultural connections to Africa, with the possibility of relocation to the continent. Through Garveys organization, they sought to embrace a black God, a black aim, and a black destiny (DeCaro 1996, 39).

In addition to domestic stress, skin color played a role in the Little household. Earl and Louise Little were fighting for their rights as black people in a racist society, yet they also played out the psychologically damaging impact of color consciousness in their family dynamics. Malcolm felt that his father gave him preferential treatment because of his light complexion, while his mother considered him her least favorite child for the same reason. Earl was very dark skinned. Louise looked nearly white. In his autobiography Malcolm X wrote:

My mother, who was born in Grenada, in the British West Indies, looked like a white woman. Her father was white. She had straight black hair, and her accent did not sound like a Negros. Of this white father of hers, I know nothing except her shame about it…. It was, of course, because of him that I got my reddish-brown marinycolor of skin, and my hair of the same color. I was the lightest child in our family…. I learned to hate every drop of that white rapists blood that is in me (1965c, 2, 3).

After Malcolm was born, the family eventually settled in Lansing, Michigan. Earl Little continued his work on behalf of the Marcus Garvey movement by preaching the Garvey message in local African American churches. A few years after moving to Michigan, the Littles purchased a house in an all-white area. Malcolm was four years old. Shortly after moving into the house, Earl and Louise Little were informed that their deed contained a clause that said, “This land shall never be rented, leased, sold to, or occupied by… persons other than those of the Caucasian race(Natambu 2002, 4). Earl Little refused to leave his property. Their home was set on fire and burned to the ground. The police accused Earl Little of setting the fire himself. The family moved farther outside of the city. This time, their white neighbors hassled them and threw rocks at them, finally causing the Littles to move to a rural area.

When Malcolm was six, his father was found dead, run over by a streetcar. While the authorities called it an accident, some African Americans in Lansing wondered if whites had attacked Earl Little and placed him on the tracks in order to silence a man they considered an agitator. The strain of raising seven children, economic troubles, and an ever-present racism slowly caused Louise Little to lose her vitality and emotional stability. When Malcolm was thirteen years old, his mother was committed to a state mental hospital, where she would remain for the next twenty-four years.

As Malcolm entered his teenage years, his parents were no longer a part of his life. The welfare system separated him from his siblings and placed him in a foster home as a dependent of the state. His placement with a white family served to increase his feeling of otherness. Malcolm was often the only African American in his class at school. He was usually at or near the top of his class academically. In seventh grade, his class elected him class president. Malcolm wrote later reflecting on this occurrence, “It surprised me even more than other people. But I can see now why the class might have done it. My grades were among the highest in the school…. And I was proud; Im not going to say I wasnt. In fact, by then, I didnt really have much feeling about being a Negro, because I was trying so hard, in every way I could, to be white (Malcolm X, 32–33).

What Malcolm X described as the first major turning pointof his life happened in the eighth grade. He was in the classroom with Mr. Ostrowski, his English teacher. Malcolm had received excellent grades in English class and believed that the teacher really liked him. Mr. Ostrowski asked Malcolm about his future plans, saying, “Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career. Have you been giving it thought?Malcolm replied, “Well, yes, sir, Ive been thinking Id like to be a lawyer.Mr. Ostrowski responded, “Malcolm, one of lifes first needs is for us to be realistic. Dont misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But youve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—thats no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. Youre good with your hands—making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why dont you plan on carpentry?Malcolm described how this made him feel: I was one of his top students, one of the schools top students—but all he could see for me was the kind of future in your placethat almost all white people see for black people (1965c, 37–38).

At age fifteen, Malcolm dropped out of school. He saw no purpose in continuing his education. Relentless racism marked Malcolms life. Without the racial pride of his parents, he had no anchor to secure his identity in a sea of dehumanization. He moved to the home of his older half-sister Ella Collins in Boston, Massachusetts. After the death of Earl Little, she had reached out to her half siblings. Malcolm was impressed by the strength of her personality and her race pride: She was the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life. She was plainly proud of her very dark skin. This was unheard of among Negroes in those days(Malcolm X 1965c, 34). Collins hoped to direct her younger brother toward a more positive experience of his blackness through the thriving middle-class African American community in Boston. Malcolm X noted,“I didnt want to disappoint or upset Ella, but despite her advice, I began going down into the town ghetto section. That world of grocery stores, walk-up flats, cheap restaurants, poolrooms, bars, storefront churches, and pawnshops seemed to hold a natural lure for me (44–45).

Malcolm spent the second half of his teen years becoming more and more involved in life on the streets of Boston and New York City as a hustler known as Detroit Red. He sold and used drugs. He directed men to prostitutes, and he used women. Malcolm also burglarized homes, which eventually led to his arrest. He had internalized the racism that oppressed him, and he acted out this depersonalization in his choices.


The court sentenced Malcolm Little to ten years in prison, in February 1946. He arrived in prison a bitter and belligerent man. He regularly expressed his dislike for religion, earning himself the nickname Satan. While Malcolm X served time in prison, several of his siblings joined a small religious group called the Nation of Islam (NOI). The leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, taught that the NOI was the natural religion for persons of African descent and that whites were devils. This teaching appealed to Malcolm X and other African Americans because the possibility that white people are Satan incarnate has the force not only of religious metaphor but of empirical truth—a hypothesis by which one can at least explain why one lives in a rat-ridden slum and works, if at all, carrying the white mans baggage and diapering the white mans babies(Goldman 1979, 34). Malcolm X converted to the Nation of Islam in the spring of 1948.

After his religious conversion, Malcolm X became a new man. He reshaped his life in preparation for a new vocation as a member of the Nation of Islam. He took greater advantage of the prison library to study a wide range of subjects: philosophy, history, world religions, mathematics, literature, etymology, science, the biographies of political leaders, African American history, and more. He wanted to support the teachings of the Nation of Islam using the white manshistory. On the weekends, he would study up to fifteen hours a day. Malcolm X reflected in his autobiography,“I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive…. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America(Malcolm X 1965c, 182).

In addition to extensive study, Malcolm X developed a skill that would become a hallmark of his leadership: public speaking. He joined the prison debate team. Combining his strong debate skills with NOI teachings and the library studies that supported his new worldview, Malcolm X started to witness to other prisoners about his new faith. By the time he left prison, Malcolm X had gained the necessary knowledge and skills to be a minister in the Nation of Islam. Malcolm Xs friend Benjamin Karim writes, “Malcolm had made of prison a seminary(1992, 25). Karim also notes that prison was Malcolm Xs place of salvation: In prison, Malcolm told us, he found his salvation, because in prison he discovered Islam, which gave him a new life (86). On 7 August 1952, he was released from prison.

Minister Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam

When Malcolm Little left prison he joined his family in Detroit. He found a job and entered the life of the Nation of Islam. His brothers were active as ministers. He soon received his Xand officially became Malcolm X. The Xreplaced the slave masters name, symbolized the lost African family name, and anticipated a new God-given name in the future. This act was a powerful reclamation of a lost sense of humanity.

Elijah Muhammad recognized Malcolm Xs passion for the faith and named him the assistant minister of the Detroit temple in June 1953. Soon he was sent to Boston to start a new temple. Next, he went to Philadelphia. Malcolm X was tireless in his work, expanding the ministry of the Nation of Islam. Only one year after he had been selected as an associate minister in Detroit, Malcolm X began to oversee the Nation of Islam in Harlem, the most important African American neighborhood in the largest city in the United States. He also continued launching new temples in other cities. Within three years of leaving prison, he took an organization of four hundred people with less than ten temples and tripled its size.

Malcolm X was a skilled organizer who knew his audience. The new members were poor and working-class African Americans from urban settings. Malcolm X clearly understood their disillusionment, fear, anger, cynicism, rage, unhappiness, isolation, poverty, and desperation, especially as it related to the pervasive and destructive force of white racism on their lives(Natambu 2002, 161). Later the Nation of Islam would attract black middle-class professionals who also recognized the impact of racism. Malcolm X was building a black African nation separate from whites.

The relationship between Malcolm X and his leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad—the Messenger of Allah, was like that of a father and a son. Elijah Muhammad promoted Malcolm X to national spokesman, the person who would represent the leader when needed. Elijah Muhammads message was central to Malcolm Xs preaching and teaching. Malcolm X sought to restore to African Americans their sense of humanity. He did this through telling the NOIs truth about the white man and highlighting blackscultural connection to Africa. He articulated the simmering rage of African Americans about racism.

Malcolm X also wanted African Americans to learn to love themselves as blacks. Many African Americans seemed to accept that the norm of humanity was whiteness. Too many African Americans were striving to be like whites—whether they were conscious of this or not. Regarding what he considered blacksinordinate love for whites he said,“It is not possible for you to love a man whose chief purpose in life is to humiliate you and still be considered a normal human being(Quoted in Lincoln, 1973 69–70).

Leaving the Nation of Islam

Regular disagreements between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad reflected Malcolm Xs growing frustration with the Nation of Islams practice of talking tough but taking no action. You know, we talk about people being bitten by dogs and mowed down by fire hoses, we talk about our people being brutalized in the civil rights movement, and we havent done anything to help them. We havent done anything(Karim 1992, 138). Malcolm X wanted the Nation of Islam to engage in the political arena. Elijah Muhammad only envisioned the NOI as a religious group confined to religious aspirations.

Malcolm X hoped for more than just change in individuals brought about by religion; he desired revolution in society.

The lack of action or political involvement was not the only factor in his growing frustration with the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X also hungered for a closer relationship with worldwide Islam. International students from Islamic communities would approach him after a speech and ask him to consider experiencing what they would call true Islam(Malcolm X 1965c, 325). Elijah Muhammads son Wallace had studied Arabic and the Quran. He recognized that the theology of the Nation of Islam was not consistent with that of orthodox Islam. Wallace shared his concerns and knowledge with Malcolm.

Malcolm X began to change the way he presented his message. On a television interview show in March 1963, a reporter asked what it meant to be a Muslim. Malcolm X answered, “One becomes a Muslim only by accepting the religion of Islam, which means belief in one God, Allah. Christians call him Christ, Jews call him Jehovah. Many people have many different names but he is the creator of the universe(Malcolm X 1963, 159). He also spoke about the practices of Muslims in ways that mirrored the practices of Islamic people around the world. This was quite a departure from his normal fare of presenting his faith in terms of black separation and the exalted status of Elijah Muhammad as one who had seen Allah in human flesh.

Malcolm Xs growing dissatisfaction with the Nation of Islam would more than likely have led him to attempt to reform the NOI from within. But he departed from the NOI when he learned that Elijah Muhammad had engaged in a series of extramarital affairs with his young secretaries. The leader of a religion that forbade sex outside of marriage and excommunicated those who had committed such offenses was guilty of this same immoral behavior. Malcolm Xs wife Betty Shabazz said that her husband told her, “The foundation of my life seems to be coming apart(DeCaro 1996, 190). His older brother Wilfred Little, also a minister in the NOI, noted, “All the wind was taken out of his sails when he realized what the Messenger had done (Evanzz 1999, 261).

Malcolm X did not immediately leave the Nation of Islam after learning of Elijah Muhammads cover-up of his adultery. He struggled to stay in an organization that had profoundly changed his life and the lives of many others. His disappointment with his leader, as well as his desire to move closer to traditional Islam and to engage with the civil rights movement, were not the only factors affecting his standing in the Nation of Islam. Malcolm Xs popularity and influence threatened Elijah Muhammads inner circle of leaders and family members at the NOI headquarters in Chicago. Their jealousy led them to sabotage Malcolm Xs credibility with the Messenger and to plan for his demotion or expulsion.

Malcolm X provided them with an opportunity in a speech he gave after President John Kennedys assassination in November 1963. Elijah Muhammad told him to make no comments on the presidents death. Kennedy was popular with African Americans and Muhammad did not want any bad press for the NOI. In a question-and-answer session following his speech, Malcolm X responded to a question about the death of Kennedy. Using an illustration from farming, Malcolm said that, given the involvement of the United States in the assassinations of other world leaders, Kennedys assassination was a case of the chickens coming home to roost. This remark gained national attention. In response, Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm X for ninety days. Soon, the ninety-day suspension was extended indefinitely. Clearly, Malcolm X was no longer welcome in the organization he helped build.

Malcolm Xs new freedom caused him to appear like a man coming out of a lightless cellar and blinking at the day(Goldman 1979, 136).He himself said,“I feel like a man who has been asleep somewhat and under someone elses control. I feel what Im thinking and saying now is for myself. Before, it was for and by the guidance of Elijah Muhammad. Now I think with my own mind(Malcolm X 1992, 173). Malcolm X embraced an agenda much broader than that of the Nation of Islam and became an agent for change in the entire African American community—not just as a minister of the Nation of Islam. The break with the NOI gave him time to reflect on how he had changed and the freedom to embrace a new path. His last fifty weeks of life were to be his most creative.

Joining World Islam

On 8 March 1964, Malcolm X announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam and launching a new mosque in New York City called the Muslim Mosque, Inc. This gives us a religious base and the spiritual force necessary to rid our people of the vices that destroy the moral fiber of our community…. The Muslim Mosque, Inc., will remain wide open for ideas and financial aid from all quarters. Whites can help us, but they cant join us. There can be no Black-white unity until there is first some Black unity(Malcolm X 1990, 5). The launch of a new mosque more closely linked him to the Muslim world. Establishing links with Sunni Islam invariably meant that he had to become more global in his approach to matters of race, religion, and politics (Al-Hadid 2002, 74).

In April 1964, Malcolm X traveled to Mecca to make the hajj, the pilgrimage required of all Muslims who are physically and economically able to make it. This act sealed his relationship with traditional Islam and gave him credibility as a Muslim leader. The pilgrimage was also a time of personal conversion. It offered him the opportunity to embrace the fullness of his own humanity. In my thirty-nine years on this earth, the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being(Malcolm X 1965c, 372). His vision for his lifes work was also refocused. Im for truth, no matter who tells it. Im for justice, no matter who it is for or against. Im a human being first and foremost, and as such Im for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole (373).

Malcolm Xs embrace of orthodox Sunni Islam allowed him to accept his own sense of self without dismissing the humanity of others. The pilgrimage showed him that whites were not inherently evil racists, and this permitted him to accept the full humanity of whites. They were not born devils. This first struck him on his way to Mecca, surrounded by Muslims of all races, including whites.

Packed in the plane were white, black, brown, red, and yellow people, blue eyes and blond hair, and my kinky red hair—all together, brothers! All honoring the same God Allah, all in turn giving equal honor to each other…. In America, “white manmeant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men. But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been. That morning was the start of a radical alteration in my whole outlook about whitemen (1965x, 330, 340).

Malcolm X became inclusive concerning race and religion. He made speeches around Harlem and elsewhere proclaiming, “True Islam taught me that it takes all of the religious, political, economic, psychological, and racial ingredients, or characteristics, to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.He declared that even his understanding of friendship had changed. Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds—some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists—some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white! (1965c, 382)

The pilgrimage to Mecca was also part of Malcolm Xs overall strategy to prepare for ministry in orthodox Islam. When he returned to the United States, following his conversion in Mecca and his changed view of whites, he was asked if he would start calling himself by his Muslim Arabic name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He replied, “Ill continue to use Malcolm X as long as the situation that produced it exists. Going to Mecca was the solution to my personal problem; but it doesnt solve the problem for my people(Malcolm X 1964, 310). Malcolm X never changed his mind that white American society was deeply and perhaps irretrievably racist—that our past and present together had so poisoned all of us, black and white, that we could not even look at one another independently of color and all that color meant between us. Mecca remained one thing for him, America another (Goldman 1979, 226).

Reaching Out to Build New Partnerships

After the pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X visited several African countries. What Mecca provided spiritually, the African continent provided culturally and politically. Mecca offered his soul a homecoming. Africa gave his African identity the emotional bath of the homecoming(Goldman 1979, 172). In Nigeria, a student organization gave him the name Omowale, which means the child has come homein the Yoruba language. Malcolm X had previously exclaimed to students in Ghana, “I dont feel that I am a visitor in Ghana or in any part of Africa. I feel that I am home(Malcolm X 1965d, 11). Malcolm X was on the African continent nearly half of his last year of life.

Upon his return from Mecca and visits to several African countries, Malcolm X launched a second organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Whereas Muslim Mosque, Inc., was a religious organization, the OAAU provided a vehicle for organizing that did not require members to become Muslims. Malcolm X declared at the founding of the OAAU, “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary(Malcolm X 1970, 56).

Malcolm X focused on recruiting three groups to carry out his vision for the OAAU. The first group was composed of progressive segments of the Black middle-class and working-class activists in Harlem united around a community-based agenda of and struggle against the common forms of ghetto exploitation.The work for unity among Harlem blacks was an outgrowth of Malcolm Xs years as a minister of the Nation of Islam in New York City. The second group was the result of his trips overseas to engage allies in Africa and the Third World who could get international recognition for his organization.Finally he sought to build bridges to leaders in the Civil Rights movement who supported Malcolms desire for reconciliation.Through reaching out to African American students in the civil rights movement he also gained access to the radicalized White students (Sales 1994, vii, viii).

The partnerships with leaders in Africa were quite successful as a result of his trips there in his last year of life. His vision included movements for social change and human rights throughout the world. He recognized similarities in liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America with civil rights movements in the United States. His goal of better relationships with the civil rights leaders in the United States required humility on his part. He had been a harsh critic of the civil rights movement and its commitment to nonviolence. But he reached out and asked to be given a second chance at relationship, noting that he was a different person, independent of the Nation of Islam and post-Mecca.

Most civil rights leaders welcomed Malcolms entreaties, including Martin Luther King Jr. A few weeks after Malcolm X announced his independence from the NOI, he and King were both in the visitors gallery of the United States Senate building for the debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the session, they spoke to each other and were interviewed jointly by a reporter who just happened to see them standing next to each other (see Evanzz 1992, 226f). King made contact with Malcolm X through his lawyer, Clarence Jones, suggesting the two meet to discuss the petition Malcolm X planned to present to the United Nations. A meeting was scheduled but did not occur (Cone 1991, 207). But they did speak several times by phone. According to William Kunstler, a lawyer who served both Malcolm X and King, “There was sort of an agreement that they would meet in the future and work out a common strategy, not merge their two organizations—Malcolm then had the Organization of Afro-American Unity and Martin, of course, was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—but that they would work out a method to work together in some way (Gallen 1992, 84).

Malcolm X was also seeking to build broader alliances with whites. He began proclaiming a more inclusive view of whites. You will find that [Blacks and whites] will eventually meet down the road…. So were not against people because theyre white. But were against those who practice racismMalcolm X 1992, 143, 150). Speaking in England to students at Oxford University he declared: In my opinion the young generation of whites, Blacks, browns, whatever else there is—youre living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when theres got to be a change… and a better world has to be built, and the only way its going to be built is with extreme methods. And I for one will join in with anyone, I dont care what color you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth (Malcolm X 1965d, 25–26).

Malcolm Xs Last Days

Malcolm X did not live long enough to see his vision realized in concrete form. I can capsulize how I feel—Im for the freedom of the 22 million Afro-Americans by any means necessary. By any means necessary. Im for a society in which our people are recognized and respected as human beings, and I believe that we have the right to resort to any means necessary to bring that about. So when you ask me where Im headed, what can I say? Im headed in any direction that will bring us some immediate results (quoted in Goldman 1979, 222).

The last few weeks of Malcolm Xs life were stressful. He was under intense surveillance from local, national, and international governmental agencies. He received regular death threats from members of the Nation of Islam because he stated publicly that their theology was bad and their leader was an adulterer. On 14 February, his house was set on fire by Molotov cocktails as he, his wife Betty (four months pregnant with twin girls), and their four daughters were sleeping. Malcolm X was nearly bankrupt. He tried to obtain life insurance to protect his family in case he was murdered. He was denied.

Malcolm X was scheduled to speak at an OAAU rally at the Audubon Grand Ballroom in Harlem on Sunday afternoon, 21 February 1965. He arrived about 3:00 pm. Malcolm X had called his wife, Betty, earlier and asked that she and the children come for the rally. Just before he went out into the ballroom to speak, Malcolm X said to one of his colleagues, “I just dont feel right(Goldman 1979, 4). After he greeted the audience, three men near the platform shot Malcolm X as his family and friends watched. He died shortly after being shot.

Prince Mohmaed Al-Faysal of Saudi Arabia had met Malcolm X on his pilgrimage to Mecca. He said of Malcolm Xs death: I think he was a great loss, especially to America. Because here is a man who has, in spite of his starting as a racist, sectarian person, developed into a force of reconciliation. And had he been given a chance, Malcolm would have changed American society, more than anybody else in recent history (Strickland 1994, 230). A

Curtiss Paul DeYoung is Professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. This essay is a condensed version of Chapter 5 of his book, Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice (Fortress Press, 2007). Used by permission of Augsburg Fortress. Copies of the book are available at www.augsburgfortress.org.


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