2. Significance of the NOI to the Black Freedom Struggle
• Black nationalism and self-determination.
• Rhetoric of defensive violence.
• Language of Black pride and self-love.
• Focused efforts to speak to Black poor and working
classes, particularly those in prison.
3. Here, Elijah Muhammad speaks with Malcolm X (1925-1965) at a
1961 rally in Harlem. Malcolm X was the national spokesperson
and the most influential minister of the NOI from his release in
prison in 1952 until his departure from the organization and
conversion to Sunni Islam in 1964.
4. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
• Popular memory of X’s legacy and significance is largely
shaped by his 1965 Autobiography, as told to journalist Alex
Haley. For decades, the historiography started and ended with
this text as well.
• The autobiography was published in 1965, after his murder.
Haley therefore had the final say in how the work was edited.
• In the past decade, at least three significant biographies have
worked to demythologize and complicate the life story of
Malcolm X, as well as his role and significance in the Black
5. • Malcolm’s parents, Louise and Earl Little, were
• Earl was a Southern migrant and itinerant Baptist
preacher who settled with his family in the midwest.
• After years of harassment by white supremacist
groups, Earl died under mysterious circumstances in
1931; his death was ruled an accident, but Louise
believed her husband had been killed by the Black
Legion, a white supremacist group that had torched
their home two years before.
• Louise was left to care for seven children on her
own. As a result, Malcolm recalled being
chronically hungry during childhood. His family
was supervised by white welfare agencies. Louise
was ultimately institutionalized for mental illness
and her children were dispersed to different foster
homes. Louise spent 24 years in a psychiatric
hospital. Malcolm blamed white supremacy for the
fracturing of his family.
Louise and Earl Little
6. • From ages 14 to 21, Malcolm worked a series of jobs
(e.g. shining shoes, selling sandwiches on train cars)
while living in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston,
and later the Harlem neighborhood of New York. In
his autobiography, he also detailed his exploits during
this time as a hustler, burglar, pimp, and drug dealer.
• He avoided service during World War II by describing
to the draft board his desire to start a race war in the
South; he was rendered unfit to serve.
• After moving back to Boston, he was arrested for
larceny and burglary, a crime in which two white
women were accomplices. Malcolm was sentenced to
eight to ten years in a Massachusetts prison; the white
women served almost no time.
• While he was in prison, Malcolm’s family introduced
him to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah
Muhammad, with whom Malcolm began exchanging
letters. Upon his release in 1952, he immediately went
to work as a minister for the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm Little / “Detroit Red”
8. X had a close friendship with famed champion
boxer and NOI member Muhammad Ali, until
X left the NOI. Ali remained loyal to Elijah
Muhammad and the Nation and spoke out
publicly against X following his departure.
9. Key Themes: Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grassroots”
Speech delivered at the Northern Negro Grassroots Leadership Conference,
Detroit (10 Nov 1963)
• Commonality of the Black experience,
regardless of religious differences.
• “Negro revolution” vs. “Black
• Centrality of land to demands for
• “House Negro” vs. “Field Negro.”
• Critique of prominent Black civil
rights leaders like King and white
liberals like Kennedy in discussing the
March on Washington.
10. Discussion: “Message to the Grassroots”
1. What does Malcolm X mean by the “Negro revolution”? What
critiques does he offer of its goals? What, in X’s mind, characterizes
a true revolution?
2. What is nationalism? What are some examples of “white
nationalism” offered by X?
3. X compares “the house Negro and the field Negro.” In his mind,
what characterized “the house Negro”? What characterized “the field
Negro”? What point was he trying to make with this comparison?
With which group did Malcolm X identify? What does X mean by a
“Tom,” especially a “modern Uncle Tom”? Who is he talking about?
11. Revolutionary Black Nationalism
Malcolm X defined land as “the basis of freedom, justice and
equality,” and declared: “A revolutionary wants land so he can set up
his own nation, an independent nation. These Negroes [liberal civil
rights leaders] aren’t asking for any nation—they’re trying to crawl
back on the plantation… If you’re afraid of black nationalism, you’re
afraid of revolution. And if you love revolution, you love black
14. Malcolm X is often positioned as a foil to or
polar opposite of Martin Luther King Jr., whom
X often dismissed as an “Uncle Tom” foolishly
willing to suffer to be accepted by white society.
Pictured above, King and X spoke briefly in
Washington, D.C. after both attended a Senate
hearing about the proposed civil rights bill (Mar
1964). This was the only time the two men met.
15. By 1963, rivalries and jealousies within the NOI
surrounding Malcolm X’s growing popularity and
influence, as well as X’s impatience with
Muhammad’s insistence that the NOI faithful not
engage in political demonstration or action, caused a
fracture between the Messenger of Allah and his
most famous minister. Tensions were made worse by
revelations that Muhammad had fathered children
with several of his own teenaged secretaries in clear
violation of the Nation’s teachings and code of
ethics, a fact that shocked Malcolm. When X
publically commented on the assassination of
President Kennedy in November in direct defiance
of Muhammad’s orders, Muhammad publically
silenced him for 90 days. On March 8, 1964,
Malcolm announced his departure from the Nation
of Islam. Soon thereafter, he organized two
organizations: the Muslim Mosque Inc. and the
secular, pan-African Organization of Afro-American
Unity (OAAU). In April, he completed the
pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the pillars of Islam,
converted to Sunni Islam, and became known as
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam
17. Observing Malcolm X for three days as he worked to
recruit members for the OAAU, photographer Don
Hogan Charles took this iconic photo of X holding a
rifle while peering through the blinds of his family
home in Queens, New York. After leaving the Nation
of Islam, Malcolm and his wife Betty were targeted by
numerous death threats. This image was published in
Life magazine in March 1964 and in Ebony magazine
18. In the midst of an eviction
process initiated by the
Nation of Islam, X’s home
in Queens was firebombed
while he and his family
slept inside (14 Feb 1965).
No one was physically
harmed, but by many
accounts, Malcolm was
thereafter convinced that
his days were numbered.
20. Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem during a meeting of his new
Organization of Afro-American Unity. His four young daughters and his wife, then pregnant with twins,
were in the audience. Though the three identified gunmen were members of the NOI’s Newark Mosque,
many continue to believe his murder was part of a law enforcement or FBI conspiracy, or at the very least,
that the FBI knew the attack was coming and did nothing to stop it. Two days before his death, X told an
interviewer that members of the Nation of Islam were trying to kill him. In Nov 2021, two of the three
men convicted in his killing were exonerated, leaving many questions about X’s death unanswered.
Assassination of Malcolm X
(21 Feb 1965)
21. Actor Ossie Davis’
Eulogy for Malcolm X
“Here – at this final hour, in this quiet place –
Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its
brightest hopes – extinguished now, and gone from
us forever…It is not in the memory of man that this
beleaguered, unfortunate, but nonetheless proud
community has found a braver, more gallant young
champion than this Afro-American who lies before
us – unconquered still. I say the word again, as he
would want me to: Afro-American – Afro-American
Malcolm, who was a master, was most meticulous
in his use of words. Nobody knew better than he the
power words have over minds of men. Malcolm had
stopped being a ‘Negro’ years ago. It had become
too small, too puny, too weak a word for him.
Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had
become an Afro-American and he wanted – so
desperately – that we, that all his people, would
become Afro-Americans too….”
22. “…Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and
bold young captain – and we will smile…They will say that he is of hate – a
fanatic, a racist – who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle!
And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did
you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him?
Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or
any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew
him you would know why we must honor him.
…Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning
to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves…However
we may have differed with him – or with each other about him and his value as a
man – let his going from us serve only to bring us together, now…And we will
know him then for what he was and is – a Prince – our own black shining Prince!
– who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”
--Ossie Davis (1965)
24. Legacies of Malcolm X
• Developed framework of human rights as opposed to more narrowly defined
• Emphasized Pan-Africanism and anticolonial/anti-imperialist solidarity, fueled
by his own travels to Africa.
• Recognized socialism’s potential to liberate oppressed peoples.
• Toward the end of his life, began to consider the possibilities of working with
white people to combat racism, while still emphasizing the importance of
Black political separation. (He ultimately rejected Muhammad’s teaching that
all white people are evil, a result of his experiences in performing the Hajj.)
• Advocated changing terminology of Black identity from “Negro” (a term
widely used by leaders like Dr. King) to “Black” and, ultimately, “Afro-
• Inspired new wave of activists who rejected the logic of tactical nonviolence
and the desirability of integration.
Malcolm X’s Fiery Speech Addressing Police Brutality (1962): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_uYWDyYNUg
FILE - In this Feb. 28, 1966 file photo, Muhammad Ali listens to Elijah Muhammad as he speaks to other black Muslims in Chicago. Two days after the 1964 fight with Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam and was changing his name to Cassius X. He would later become Muhammad Ali as he broke away from Malcom X and aligned himself with the sect's leader, Elijiah Muhammad. "What is all the commotion about?" he asked. "Nobody asks other people about their religion. But now that I'm the champion I am the king so it seems the world is all shook up about what I believe." (AP Photo/Paul Cannon)
When Malcolm X held this Nation of Islam rally in Harlem in 1963, his loyalty to the group’s leader was weakening. The man who had once punctuated his speeches with “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us ...” now did so less often. Disillusioned by Muhammad’s political strategy and personal morals, he began to share the doubts of followers who were leaving the Nation. (Bruce Davidson / Magnum)
MX on black nationalism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1O-dt0y1tRg