MALCOLM X (1992)
Historical Context:  Print -- Video -- Online
Malcolm X
 
 
[1]    Spike Lee's Malcolm X is based on Malcolm's autobiography as told to Roots author Alex Haley, published mere months after his assassination in 1965.  While the Autobiography of Malcolm X is widely considered one of the great works of non-fiction in the 20th century, due to the inherent limitations facing all autobiographies, its complete and total historical accuracy is subject to debate.  That being said, Malcolm's personal account of his life remains the foundation for most popular knowledge about the man.  The following historical account of the life and times of Maloclm X is based upon research sources -- print, video, and online -- in addition to the autobiography.

[2]    Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19th, 1925, to parents Earl and Louisa Little in Omaha, Nebraska.  Earl was a traveling, outspoken Baptist minister and disciple of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey.  Garvey's philosophy was that the solution to the problems facing African-Americans was to disassociate themselves from white society and establish their own sovereign state.  This career made Earl Little a target for white supremicist groups who wanted him to stop "inciting all the good niggers."  Malcolm's mother Lousia was an extremely light-skinned woman of Caribbean descent.  Louisa loathed her complexion because it served as a reminder of the white blood in her veins that was most likely the result of a rape of a maternal ancestor.

[3]    Taking after his mother, Malcolm possessed a very fair complexion himself and, as a result, had a reddish tint to his hair.  This physical trait came to have a large impact on Malcolm, who early in life took great strides to "look white."  Malcolm also felt that he was treated harsher than the other seven children by his mother because of his skin color.

[4]      Things started to take a turn for the worse for Malcolm and the rest of the Little family -- already very poor, living off charity and a little farming -- after they relocated to Lansing, Michigan, because of increasing threats by the white supremicist organization Black Legion, the second such relocation in Malcolm's lifetime.  In his biography Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, Bruce Perry asserts that the family's nomadic ways were more a result of Earl Little's criminal record than threats from hate groups.  Perry contests other incidents from the autobiography.  However, in 1929 the family's home was burned to the ground, and two years later Earl's nearly lifeless body was found mutilated on some trolley tracks.  Both were ruled accidents. According to Malcolm's biography, his father's death was ruled a suicide, though he now, as his mother then, believed that Earl was murdered.

[5]     In the years to follow, Louisa Little's mental state began to rapidly deteriorate as the strain of raising eight children in abject poverty without a husband became too much for her.  In his autobiography, Malcolm recalls that at this time most of the household duties were performed by the eldest siblings, Wilfred and Hilda.  With no parental supervision Malcolm became a young delinquent, and the various social services and child welfare officers became a fixture in the Little home.  Malcolm was already boarding with another family by the time his mother suffered a complete emotional breakdown and had to be commited to the Kalamazoo State Mental Hospital in early 1939.  The children were split up among various fosters homes and orphanages.

[6]    At thirteen years of age, Malcolm was moved from his foster family, the Gohannases, to a reform school and detention home in Mason.  Malcolm was a popular and very bright student at the school; he was close to the top of his class and was even voted class president.  At the detention home, run by the Swerlin Family, and like at school, Malcolm was equally well-liked and productive among mostly white people.  In the summer of 1940, he took a trip to Boston to visit his paternal, and adult, half-sister Ella.  Malcolm was fascinated with the way Negroes lived in the big city and became rather restless upon returning to Michigan in the fall.  Malcolm's restlessness was compounded when he was told by his favorite teacher, after asserting that he wanted to be lawyer some day, it was "no realistic goal for a nigger."  Instead, Mr. Ostrowski suggested that Malcolm become a carpenter because he was "good with his hands."  Malcolm dropped out of school shortly thereafter and moved to Boston to live with Ella.

[7]     In Boston Malcolm bounced from one job to the next and eventually landed work on the New Haven Railroad line.  The railroad job afforded him the opportunity to travel, and he became quickly enamoured with the large black community in New York City's Harlem section.  He moved there permanently in 1943.

[8]     Working at the popular nightspot Small's Paradise and known on the streets as "Detroit Red," Malcolm was introduced to Harlem's criminal element and found work with a powerful numbers runner called "West Indian Archie."  Malcolm's criminal career consisted mainly of taking bets people placed on the daily number.  He also sold marijuana and worked as a prostitution liason.  A fallout with West Indian Archie prompted his return to Boston.  Drug addicted and without any prospects, Malcolm embarks on a career in burglary along with his old friend Malcolm "Shorty" Jarvis, his white girlfriend, and her sister.  They had a good run, stealing anything they could fence from Boston's wealthy homes, until in 1946 they were charged with grand larcency and breaking and entering.  Malcolm was sentenced to eight to ten years in a state prison.

[9]    In prison Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam by his brother Reginald, who had become a Muslim.  The Nation of Islam was started in Detroit and taught that the black man could never be accepted into white society, that whites were in fact "devils," and that the only solution to the problem was to dissociate themselves from whites in order to establish a state of their own.  Members of the Nation followed the strict tenets of Islam that included praying five times a day along with mental and physical purification.  The leader of the Nation of Islam was Elijah Muhammad, a man who saw the Nation of Islam as an alternative to the vices of drugs, gambling, and prostitution that plagued black communities across the country.

[10]    Little by little, Malcolm learned the teachings of Elijah Muhammad through the various letters and visits from Reginald, as well as some of his other siblings who had converted.  By the time he was introduced to the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was already utilizing the prison library in order to complete various correspondance courses.  He quickly became immersed in Elijah Muhammad's teachings and sought to further his education in the devilish ways of the white man.  Malcolm read voraciously through the "whitened" histories of world events and philosophy.  In fact, he eventually needed the aid of eye-glasses becaue of his propensity for reading at night.  Malcolm even found himself actively participating in prison debates -- the beginning of his oratory career.

[11]     By the time Malcolm was released from prison in 1952, he was a well-educated and articulate adult, dedicated to "telling the white man the truth about himself to his face."  He dropped his surname "Little," which he considered a slave owner's name, and in its place choose the symbol "X" to represent the lost identity of the blackman in America.  This was common for many member of the Nation to do untill a suitable tribal or Muslim name was found.  He lived in Detroit for a short time with his brother Wilfred, then moved to Chicago to live with Elijah Muhammad as he studied for the ministry.

[12]    Intelligent and charasmatic, Malcolm quickly rose through the ranks of the Nation and was appointed a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam.  Elijah Muhammad also charged him with establishing new mosques in places such as Detroit and Harlem.  Malcolm utilized newspaper columns, radio, and television to communicate the Nation of Islam's message across the United States.  His charisma, drive, and conviction attracted an astounding number of new members.  Malcolm was largely credited with increasing membership in the Nation of Islam from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963.  In January of 1958 Malcolm married Betty Sanders, now known as Betty Shabazz.  She would give birth to all six of Malcolm's daughters, two of which, twins, were born in the November following his death.

[13]    The crowds and controversy surrounding Malcolm made him a media magnet.  He was featured in a week-long television special with Mike Wallace in 1959, The Hate That Hate Produced, that explored fundamentals of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm's emergence as one of its most important leaders.  After the special, Malcolm was faced with the uncomfortable reality that his fame had eclipsed that of his mentor Elijah Muhammad.

[14]    Racial tensions ran increasingly high during the early 1960s.  In addition to the media, Malcolm's vivid personality had captured the government's attention.  As membership in the Nation of Islam continued to grow, FBI agents infiltrated the organization (one even acted at Malcolm's bodyguard) and secretly placed bugs, wiretaps, and camera surveillance equipment to monitor the group's activities.

[15]    Malcolm's faith was dealt a crushing blow at the height of the civil rights movement in 1963.  He learned that Elijah Muhammad was secretly having sexual relations with as many as six women in the Nation of Islam, some of which had resulted in children.  Since his conversion Malcolm had strictly adhered to the teachings of Muhammad, including remaining celibate until his marriage to Betty Shabazz in 1958.  Malcolm refused Muhammad's request to keep the matter quiet.  He was deeply hurt by the deception of Muhammad, whom he had considered a prophet, and felt guilty about the masses he had led into what he now felt was a fraudulent organization.

[16]    When Malcolm received criticism after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for saying, "[Kennedy] never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon," Muhammad "silenced" him for ninety days.  Malcolm suspected he was silenced for another reason.  In March 1964 he terminated his relationship with the Nation of Islam and founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc.  That same year Malcolm went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.  The trip proved life-altering, as Malcolm met "blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers."  He returned to the United States with a new outlook on integration.  This time, instead of just preaching to African-Americans, he had a message for all races.

[17]    Relations between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam had become volatile after he renounced Elijah Muhammad.  Informants working in the Nation of Islam warned that Malcolm had been marked for assassination (one man had even been ordered to help plant a bomb in his car).  After repeated attempts on his life, Malcolm rarely traveled anywhere without bodyguards.  On February 14, 1965, the home where Malcolm, Betty, and their four daughters lived in East Elmhurst, New York, was firebombed.  The family escaped physical injury.

[18]    At a speaking engagement in the Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965, three gunmen rushed Malcolm onstage and shot him fifteen times at close range.  The 39-year-old was pronounced dead on arrival at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.  1500 people attended Malcolm's funeral in Harlem on February 27, 1965, at the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ (now Child's Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ).  After the ceremony at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, friends took the shovels from the gravediggers and buried Malcolm themselves.  Later that year, Betty gave birth to their twin daughters.

[19]    Malcolm's assassins, Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson were convicted of first-degree murder in March 1966. The three men were all members of the Nation of Islam.
 
 

Print Resources

Breitman, George.  The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary.  New York: Merit Publishing, 1966.

This book traces the evolution of the thought and action of Malcolm X in the last eleven months of his life.  Malcolm rejected the anti-Semitism and anti-woman policies of the Nation of Islam, and its refusal to involve itself in the civil rights movement.  He continued to more and more place the Black struggle in this country in the world context: in the context of the struggle of the workers and farmers in Asia , Africa, and Latin America against imperialism.  Breitman shows how Malcolm continued to expose the role of the Democratic Party to fool the masses of working people into thinking that we have a friend among our oppressors and exploiters.  More and more, he spoke out against capitialism as the cause of racism and described himself unabashedly as pro-socialist.  He spoke of the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban revolutions as examples of what we working people must do here for the future of all humanity.  The author covered Malcolm's evolution for The Militant newspaper, the only place Malcolm's speeches were published in full and undistorted after he left the Nation of Islam.

Cone, James H.  Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare.  Maryknoll:  Orbis Books, 1991.

This groundbreaking and highly acclaimed work examines the two most influential African-American leaders of this century.  While Martin Luther King, Jr., saw America as "a dream . . . as yet unfulfilled," Malcolm X viewed America as a realized nightmare.  Cone cuts through superficial assessments of King and Malcolm as polar opposites to reveal two men whose visions were moving toward convergence.

DeCaro, Louis A.  On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X.  New York: New York UP, 1996.

DeCaro focuses on the religious life of the man who became synonymous with black nationalism.  DeCaro finds that the religious side to Malcolm has often taken a backseat to the political component of his life.  Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including extensive interviews with Malcolm's oldest brother, FBI surveillance documents, the black press, and tape-recorded speeches and interviews, DeCaro examines the charismatic leader from the standpoint of his two conversion experiences -- to the Nation while he was in jail and to traditional Islam climaxing in his pilgrimage to Mecca.  Examining Malcolm beyond his well-known years as spokesman for the Nation, On the Side My People explores Malcolm's early religious training and the influence of his Garveyite parents, his relationship with Elijah Muhammad, his often overlooked journey to Africa in 1959, and his life as a traditional Muslim after the 1964 pilgrimage.  In his critical analysis of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, DeCaro provides insight into the motivation behind Malcolm's own story, offering a key to understanding how and why Malcolm portrayed his life in his own autobiography as told to Alex Haley.

Evanzz, Karl.  The Judas Factor : The Plot to Kill Malcolm X.  New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992.

Drawing from fifteen years of research, including hundreds of interviews and the examination of 300,000 pages of declassified FBI and CIA documents, Evanzz provides an in-depth analysis of the role the intelligence community played (through its counterintelligence arm COIN-TELPRO) in the Nation of Islam and in instigating the death of one of its most revered -- and feared -- leaders.  Evanzz details Malcolm X's rise and fall, from his childhood spent in foster homes and reform school, to his introduction to the Nation of Islam while incarcerated in a Massachusetts State Prison, to his extremist preaching campaign across the country, and his historic trip to Mecca.  He reveals how the FBI and CIA monitored Malcolm X, and through agents provocateur and infiltration, manipulated his course.  Evanzz links the drive to silence Malcolm X to the CIA's involvement in the overthrow or assassination of other top African and Arab leaders.

Gallen, David.  Malcolm X: As They Knew Him.  New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992.

This book offers up a celebration of Malcolm X and is a candid and compassionate assessment of his life and influence.  The first section is a  collection of oral reminiscences by a variety of people who knew Malcolm intimately or professionally.  Familiar (Maya Angelou, the late Alex Haley, Kenneth B. Clark, Mike Wallace) and unfamiliar names blend together in this testimony to Malcolm's prophetic and charismatic nature.  There are vivid recollections of Malcolm's public debates, but most striking are the numerous accounts of his assassination.  The second section of the book consists of seven interviews with Malcolm, including Alex Haley's famous 1963 Playboy interview, which may not be available in many libraries.  The third part contains six reflective essays on Malcolm's role in African American history.  Among the views presented are those by Eldridge Cleaver, James Baldwin, and Robert Penn Warren.

Haley, Alex, and Malcolm X.  The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley.)  New York: Ballantine Books, 1964.

Malcolm relates the story of his life to Roots author Alex Haley.  The book was comprised of countless interviews, many of which took place on the phone as Malcolm traveled the world, and many letters and notes, sometimes scribbled on napkins.  Hailed as one of the great autobiographies of the modern era, and recently selected by TIME magazine as one of the ten most important non-fiction works of the twentieth century, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published almost a year after his death.  It was a critical and commercial success.  The book follows Malcolm's life from his earliest childhood memories to the days leading up to his assassination.  In between is a story of personal growth achieved through the powers of faith and self-respect.  The reader is forced to view America through the eyes of a black man and the black race, as they struggle to make their voices heard in "the wilderness of North America."  Often amusing, often painful, and extremely insightful, The Autobiography of Malcolm X paints a comprehensive portrait of a man who is too often represented by images and soudbites.

Perry, Bruce.  Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America.  Barrytown:  Stanton Hill Press, 1991.

Perry's book is extremely controversial because it contests some of what is in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. While he finds the book very good as far as autobiographies are concerned, Perry has a hard time reconciling the differences between its accounts of Malcolm's life and the information he assertains from the oral and written accounts of over 400 people who knew him, as well as government files and Malcom's letters.  Much of what is in question revolves around Malcolm's youth.  Malcolm traces in detail the entire life of this heroic figure, from his birth in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, his youthful struggles with deprivation and drug addiction, his prison experience and conversion to Islam, through his emergence as a Muslim leader and spokesman for a restless America, and finally to his death by assassination.

Wood, Joe.  Malcolm X: In Our Own Image.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

This is a collection of fifteen African American thinkers -- including Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Arnold Rampersad, Cornel West, John Edgar Wideman, and Patricia Williams -- who examine Malcolm's legacy in relation to the present state of African America.  One essays deals with Bruce Perry's biography Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America and its challenges to Malcolm's autobiography.  Another essay focuses on Malcolm as an ideology, and another centers on Malcolm and black rage.
 

See also:

Breitman, George, with Herman Porter and Baxter Smith.  The Assassination of Malcolm X.   New York:  Pathfinder Press, 1988.

Carson, Clayborne.  Malcolm X: The FBI File.  New York: Carroll & Graf, 1991.

Clarke, John Henrik.  Malcolm X: The Man and His Times.  New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Dyson, Michael Eric.  Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X.  New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Jamal, Hakim A.  From the Dead Level: Malcolm and Me.  New York: Random House, 1972.

Malcolm X.  Malcolm X: Speeches at Harvard.  Ed. Archie Epps.  New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Malcolm X.  Malcolm X: The Last Speeches.  Ed. Bruce Perry.  New York: Pathfinder, 1989.

Myers, Walter Dean.  Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary.  New York: Scolastic, 1993.
 
 

Video Resources

Malcolm X: Make It Plain.  Videorecording.  Narrated by David McCullough. Produced and Directed by Orlando Bagwell.  Boston: WGBH; Alexandria: dist. by PBS Video, 1994.

This video chronicles the life and evolution of Malcolm Little into Malcolm X. With rare interviews, archival footage, photographs and an original musical score, Malcolm X: Make It Plain takes the viewer on Malcolm’s own intellectual journey.  Featuring more than 30 interviews with his family, friends and associates, Make it Plain documents the man behind the myth.  Extensive archival footage shows Malcolm X himself, but people close to him also tell his story.  They include Maya Angelou, Ossie Davis, Alex Haley, Wallace D. Muhammad (the son of Elijah Muhammad) and family members who speak on the record for the first time.

Malcolm X: A Search For Identity.  Narrated by Renee Poussaint.  Produced by Ron Steinman.  New York: A&E Home Video, 1995.

This documentary chronicles the life of Malcolm X.  Based mostly on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, this film does a good job of getting at the heart of Malcolm's life and message.  Journalist Peter Goldman vividly describes the assassination of the charismatic leader.  Finishing with a bizarre coda, in which a grown daughter of Malcolm was charged with plotting to assassinate Louis Farrakhan in the 1990s, this video does an admirable job of presenting a balanced and coherent view of a controversial man.

The Real Malcolm X: An Intimate Portrait of the Man.  Produced by Andrew Lack and Brett Alexander.  Beverly Hills: CBS News;  Fox Video, 1992.

Family, friends, and contemporary artists discuss Malcolm's life and its importance.  Contains rare footage and excerpts from some of his speeches.

The True Malcolm X Speaks. Videorecording.  Compiled by Debra D. Bass.  Las Vegas: Library Distributers of America, 1993.

A two-hour documentary that takes an in-depth look into the life of Malcolm X using rare archival materials.  The footage of his speeches and media appearances allow Malcolm to speak for himself, and shows the evolution of his spiritual and political thinking.
 

See also:

Brother Malcolm: The Assassination of Malcolm X.  Greenvale: 3rd Millennium Entertainment Group Inc., 1994.

The Life and Death of Malcolm X.  Written and produced by James Washington.  Plymouth: Simitar, 1992.

Malcolm X.  Films for the Humanities.  Princeton: Films for the Humanities, 1988.

Malcolm X: His Own Story as it Really Happened. Produced by Marvin Worth and Arnold PerlBurbank: Warner Home Video, 1972.

Malcolm X El Hajj Malik El Shabazz.  Xenon Entertainment.  Xenon Video, 1991.

Seven Songs for Malcolm X.  New York: First Run Icarus Films, 1993.
 
 

Online Resources

Malcolm X: A Research Site
http://www.brothermalcolm.net

This should definitely be the first stop for anyone seeking in-depth information about Malcolm X on the internet.  It's a well designed and well organized web site that offers an extensive bibliography for both print and web resources.  There is also a comprhensive chronology that lists in detail the major (and minor) events of Malcolm's life.  A great photo section contains some rare pictures of Malcolm as a youth, known on the streets as "Detroit Red."  There is even a photo of his mugshot.  A study guide as well as a collection of his speeches round out this excellent website on Malcolm X.

The Official Website of Malcolm X
http://www.cmgww.com/historic/malcolm

Billed as the "official" Malcolm X website, this webpage doesn't match the quality and depth of Malcolm X: A Research Site.  For one thing, the timeline is pretty weak when compared to the prior site.  While there are no full-length speeches contained within the site, it does have a section of good soundbites from Malcolm's orations.  Ossie Davis' eulogy to Malcolm, however, is printed in full.  Something not to be missed.  There is a real nice biography that gives a good overview of Malcolm's turbulent life.  Overall this website is pretty good and would work well as an introduction to the man.

Malcolm-X.org
http://www.malcolm-x.org

This is a really great website, comparable to www.brothermalcolm.net, that offers an excellent timeline and an extensive collection of his speeches and photos, as well as links to material written about Malcolm.  There is nice section on Islam, which sets this site apart from others, and enables the viewer to reach a greater understanding of the religious forces driving Malcolm's actions.  Finally, this website offers a discussion board for people to post their feelings about Malcolm.

Malcolm X Museum
http://www.themalcolmxmuseum.org

This website is dedicated to realizing the goal of constructing a museum reflecting the legacy of Malcolm X.  While the site offers some relevant information on Malcolm, it is not nearly as exhaustive as the previous sites.  The site is very important, however, because the efforts to bring a Malcolm X museum to life are chronicled, and it enables people to help in realizing this dream.

See also:

http://www.gilscottheron.com/malxintro.htm

http://www.thesmokinggun.com/malcolmx/malcolmx.html

http://www.wabash.edu/orgs/mxi/home.htm
 
 

Copyright (c) 2003 by  John "Jaycee" Culhane, Undergraduate Student at Lehigh University.

This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of the U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.