Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, has been criticized by mainstream media and historians for his radical and violent rhetoric. Now, however, many scholars are revisiting Malcolm X's influence on the civil-rights struggles and concluding that his presence gave political leverage to the non-violent movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"I always looked at Malcolm as advocating an 'eye-for-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth'," said James E. Newton, chair of the African-American history department at the University of Delaware.
In 1946, Malcolm X went to prison for burglary and served seven years of a 10-year sentence. It was during his time in prison that he joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) and upon release became the NOI's chief spokesperson. The NOI members were fervent advocates of a separate nation for blacks and whites, while advocating self-reliance for African Americans. Malcolm X later broke from the NOI and denounced its separatist philosophy after his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, where he witnessed for the first time, multiracial Muslim brotherhood.
Although Malcolm X denounced the separatist philosophy of the NOI, he always maintained the option of using violence in seeking justice for African Americans.
In a speech at Michigan State University in 1963, he gave the audience a history lesson in revolutionary thinking. "If Patrick Henry and all of the Founding Fathers of this country were willing to lay down their lives to get what you are enjoying today, then it's time for you to realize that a large, ever-increasing number of black people in this country are willing to die for what we know is due us by birth."
Newton said that ironically, even though Malcolm X espoused violent rhetoric, he never drew much real violence, but King's non-violent movement attracted violence. "Rarely did we see a lot of violent eruptions take place because of Malcolm's hard talk, but on the other hand, with King, there were bricks, rocks, billy clubs, dogs, hoses, all kinds of things erupted as a result of testing the waters of non-violence."
For example, in 1965, Malcolm X sent a letter via telegram to white-supremacist leader George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, threatening retaliation for any harm to King or and other would-be victims of terrorists.
"This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad's separatist Black Muslim movement, and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Rev. King or any other black Americans who are only attempting to enjoy their rights as free human beings, that you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who are not hand-cuffed by the disarming philosophy of nonviolence, and who believe in asserting our right of self-defense — by any means necessary, Malcolm X wrote.
The perception is that Malcolm X said, "Don't think we won't be there to protect brother King," said Newton. "This is symptomatic of the black community, when the chips are down, and black folks have to come together, you see us rally as a group."
Malcolm X, whose full Muslim name was El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, was had an aura of violence by mainstream media during the civil-rights movement, but in some ways, this actually made him more revered in the African-American community, said Prof. Lorenzo Morris, chair of Howard University's political-science department.
"I remember when growing up in upstate New York and Malcolm's people would come to my small town, with very few blacks, and we had fear, we thought they were violent or something, even though had not seen or heard their words exactly," he said.
Morris said his father refused to be influenced by the newspapers. "He said even though they seemed strange, 'I'm not going to believe what the papers say.' So even in the most hostile environment, Malcolm X became a symbol of power because of the white media hostility."
"Certainly, he has been maligned, both in the media and clearly misunderstood because of his life of controversy," said Newton, adding that Malcolm's challenges and triumphs very much mirrors that of the collective African-American experience.
"Just think, he started out as Malcolm Little, hits the streets and becomes 'Detroit Red,' ultimately becomes a member of the Nation of Islam, and becomes Malcolm X, and then he goes to Mecca, comes back El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. Just those four phases of his life tell us something about the challenges that he faced in his lifetime," said Newton.
Malcolm X was assassinated February 21, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City while giving a speech.