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Last Updated: Monday, 21 February 2005, 07:40 GMT
Misunderstanding Malcolm X
Joby Waldman of BBC radio station 1Xtra looks at the extraordinary life of Malcolm X and asks why his message has had such a lasting impact on generations of young people.

Malcolm X
Malcolm X being interviewed in BBC Broadcasting House in January 1964

On 21 February 1965, Malcolm X was gunned down in broad daylight at a political rally at the Audobon Ballroom in Harlem, New York.

The very embodiment of black power, Malcolm X gave his life for his cause. A freedom fighter, he was determined to achieve his aims - "by any means necessary," as he put it.

In the four decades since his death, Malcolm's legacy has been kept alive in many different ways. In 1983, legendary drummer Keith Le Blanc made history by producing a rap record with no rappers. The MC was Malcolm X.

We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, 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 via any means necessary

Malcolm X

A decade later Malcolm hit the big screen with a feature film based on his autobiography.

"Malcolm X stressed education, he didn't hold his tongue. He was blunt, he was honest - he called a spade a spade," says the film's director, Spike Lee.

"He was just a fine human being, a man, as Ossie Davis said in his eulogy - he said Malcolm was a shining prince."

Troubled childhood

Born Malcolm Little in 1925, he was six years old when his father died a violent death, allegedly at the hands of white supremacists.

Extreme hardship came next. When his mother, unable to cope, was committed to a mental asylum, Malcolm went into a foster home.

In school Malcolm found himself at an extreme disadvantage because of the colour of his skin. It wasn't long before he discovered one vocation that was open to a young black man in 1940s America - hustling.

Strangely enough, salvation came when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for burglary. It was here that he discovered the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist group that presented an African American version of the Islamic faith.

We have a common enemy - we have this in common - a common discriminator
Malcolm X
Malcolm's life up to this point had been in many ways typical of the problems facing black Americans in the 1940s. The Nation of Islam taught these problems could be traced to one simple source.

"We have a comon enemy - we have this in common - a common discriminator, so once we realise we have this common enemy we unite on the basis of what we have in common and what we have foremost in common is that enemy - the white man," he said later.

Prison education

After this revelation, Malcolm made the most of his time inside. He memorised the dictionary, read the bible and began studying - everything from archeology to genetics.

When he was released in 1952, he became a minister in the Nation of Islam. He gave up his surname, Little, and adopted the title X, as a protest against what had happened during the days of slavery.

"What is your real name?" an interviewer asked him. "Malcolm, Malcolm X," he replied.

"What was your father's real name?" the interviewer went on.

Malcolm answered: "My father didn't know his real name. My father got his name from his grandfather and he got his name from his grandfather and he got it from the slave master."

Malcolm X
There were many Malcolm Xs. As a result, he has been misunderstood.
Malcolm X made it his mission to show his congregation how they could shake off the chains of slavery once and for all.

But he wasn't the only minister fighting racial discrimination at this time. Martin Luther King was also working tirelessly to change the segregation laws, which were still in place in America until 1964.

But, with his stated non-violent approach, Dr King simply wasn't moving fast enough for the Nation Of Islam. In fact, according to Malcolm, King was going backwards.

"The white man pays Reverend Martin Luther King so that Martin Luther King can keep the negro defenceless," he argued.

"That's what you mean by non-violent, be defenceless in the face of one of the cruellest beasts - the American white man."

Ousted from the brotherhood

With Malcolm as its public face, membership of the Nation of Islam rose rapidly during the 1950s. But while Malcolm was the spokesperson, the group's spiritual leader was the honourable Elijah Muhammad.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Mr Muhammad was preaching one thing and practising another. In 1962 it emerged that he was facing paternity suits from two of his former secretaries and various teenage girls. Malcolm was horrified.

Yet this wasn't the only tension between the two men. Elijah Muhammad had grown jealous of Malcolm's rising international profile and when he made unauthorised comments about the assassination of President John F Kennedy, Muhammad used this as an opportunity to suspend Malcolm X from the Nation of Islam.

Ousted from the brotherhood he had committed 12 years of his life to, Malcolm was in turmoil. His response was to take the ultimate journey for a devout Muslim - to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Spiritual discovery

In the holy city Malcolm discovered a purer form of Islam - one almost unrecognisable from what he had been taught by the Nation of Islam.

On his way back to the States, Malcolm shared his important new insight with his friend, author Maya Angelou.

Maya Angelou
Friend and author Maya Angelou was also heavily involved in civil rights
She remembers that meeting: "When he came to Ghana and said, 'I have found blue-eyed men that I am able to call brother, so my entire statement when I said all whites were devils is erroneous,' it takes an incredible amount of courage to say, say to everybody, 'Remember what I said yesterday? That's wrong!'

"And that's what he was able to do - that was amazing."

While his fresh, inclusive approach made Malcolm many new friends it also made him some very dangerous enemies - particularly within the Nation of Islam. He began to receive death threats from people he had previously called "brother".

On Valentines Day 1965 his New Jersey home was fire-bombed and a week later, when he stood up in Harlem's Audobon Ballroom to appeal for unity within the black community, he was shot repeatedly and died soon after.

Although a man connected with the Nation Of Islam was arrested for the killing, rumours of CIA involvement have persisted down the years.

Confusing figure

The tragedy of Malcolm's death is that it was only in the last year of his life that he was able to open his mind and his heart enough to embrace all people regardless of skin colour.

Unfortunately the image that many - particularly in the media - were left with, was of Malcolm as a vengeful militant, a symbol of hatred.

I think when he said 'by any means necessary' [he meant] you really have to get up and get moving
MC Rakin of Mecca 2 Medina
Looking back on his life, it's clear to see there were many Malcolms: Victim, player, prisoner, hater, anti-racist... As a result, Malcolm X is one of the most misunderstood leaders in history.

Take the phrase "By Any Means Necessary". After his death the slogan began to appear next to a photograph of Malcolm standing by a window holding a machine gun.

The photo was originally taken as a warning against those Nation of Islam members who had threatened Malcolm's life. But placed next to the slogan "By Any Means Necessary", it appeared to be a call to arms for the Black population.

And still, 40 years on, people read Malcolm's teachings in a variety of different ways.

"Malcolm wasn't trying to be non-violent - he was like, 'You hit me and I'm gonna hit you back.' ...

"So from my understanding, as a teenager growing up, if someone slaps you, you slap them back and that's the reason Malcolm's words ring true," says MC Jonzi D.

But MC Rakin of Mecca 2 Medina interprets the message very differently.

Mission accomplished?

"I think when he said 'by any means necessary' [he meant] you really have to get up and get moving. In the black community we tend to be laid back, and you need to be out there, you need to be pushing forward," MC Rakin says.

"In the Koran, God says he doesn't change a people till they change themselves, you need to be doing things for yourself. And so that is the kind of stance I believe he meant when he said, 'By any means necessary'."

We have come a long way since 1965. In the States and in the UK we have got things like black history month and equal opportunities in the workplace.

There is no doubt that Malcolm, at least the final phase Malcolm, would approve of these developments.

But it's important to remember the fullness of Malcolm's vision. He wasn't just fighting for a handful of policies - what he wanted was the overhaul of a system that was institutionally racist on every level - the question that remains today is - how far have we gone to achieve his vision?

Malcolm X: Key quotes
18 Feb 05 |  Americas
How Malcolm X's letters were saved
08 Feb 05 |  Americas


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