More than 40 years after his death, Malcolm X is as relevant as he was in the 1960s. He remains a revered figure of defiance against all forms of racist oppression, especially among young people.
Young Muslim men can certainly identify with him. In fact, I’m sure if he were alive today the powers that be would be accusing him of being a terrorist.
So how did he go from his ordinary life in Michigan, US, to become one of the leading icons of the black civil rights movement?
He was born Malcolm Little in 1925, into intense poverty. He soon experienced the deep racism of US society.
His house was firebombed when he was four years old. White supremacists murdered his father – unhappy at his family’s support for Marcus Garvey’s radical movement for black pride and a return to Africa.
Malcolm watched his mother struggle to raise eight kids on her own. Her resolve slowly broke down and she was committed to a mental institution.
Malcolm was a very bright student. But rather than encourage him to follow his dreams of becoming a lawyer, his white teacher told him to become a carpenter instead – how many young black boys face a similar situation in Britain and the US today?
As a teenager, he struggled with his identity, knowing he didn’t really fit into his white-dominated world.
Malcolm dropped out of school at 15 and went to live with his half-sister in Boston. He became known as Detroit Red, for his reddish hair and origin near Detroit. He was a streetwise hustler using all his instincts in order to survive.
He fully embraced his new life, running numbers, pimping, pushing drugs, burglary – whatever he needed to do in order to stay alive. He lived the life that so many young black men were forced to live at that time, and he was fortunate to survive.
His life was one characterised by violence and he grew up thinking that his life would end in violence like his father and five uncles before him.
The deep structural racism black people encountered meant that, for many in the Northern cities, the idea of a non-violent strategy to rid the US of racism was not a viable option.
Violence was how society treated Malcolm and how he in turn would treat society.
Malcolm considered himself lucky to get caught robbing a house because he was subsequently sentenced to between eight and ten years in prison.
It was in prison that he discovered the Nation of Islam, an organisation that was to dominate the next period of his life.
The Nation of Islam and the teachings of Elijah Muhammed led him to believe that all white men were devils who had brainwashed the black man. It made him stop and think about his life and the people he had encountered in it.
The natural conclusion of such thoughts was that black people could only gain true freedom by complete separation from white people.
The theories of black nationalism grew among the black poor in the North of the US who had lost all hope in mainstream society.
The US’s official claims of freedom and justice for all meant nothing to them. The Nation of Islam therefore had a huge resonance in the Northern cities of the US.
Like Garvey’s earlier movement it fostered a sense of pride in being black.
They developed a sense of complete isolation from white society, with Malcolm now heavily involved. He took the name Malcolm X to represent his lost African name, since the name Little would have been given by a slave owner.
Malcolm was never afraid to say exactly what he thought about whites to black and white audiences alike.
At this time he blamed all white people for the suffering of black people in the ghettoes. He wanted blacks to know it and he wanted whites to know they knew it.
Malcolm saw little difference between whites in the North and whites in the South. Those in the South were more open in their hatred of black people, while those in the North pretended to be the black person’s friend.
Malcolm used the most offensive language he could think of to infuriate white people, especially the police and the media.
Next week we will see to what extent Malcolm took his vilification of white people and how people responded to it.
We will also see how the Nation of Islam wasn’t able to offer any solutions to the problems people faced and how this led to Malcolm’s increased frustrations with the organisation.