Was Malcom X a Misunderstood Figure?

by Christopher Clark

Malcolm X (right) with Martin Luther King
Malcolm X has emerged as one of the most debated-about African-American Civil Rights Leaders from the era of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He can be viewed as having inspired millions of African-Americans in the struggle against racism; however, others have viewed him as violently racist, making it easier for Whites to label African-Americans as angry and aggressive. 

Whilst he was born in Nebraska in 1925, his birth into the Civil Rights Movement began as he was serving a jail term in 1946. He joined the Nation of Islam during this time and, due to his natural charisma, rapidly rose through the ranks to become their most significant public speaker. He was preaching the segregationist ideology of the NOI, which at one point was linked to the US Nazi Party in that both institutions wanted the races to be separate. His speeches at this point were extreme and militant, garnering the most support in inner-city areas of the North of the USA, where civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King failed to gain traction.

The birth of what would become the 'Black Power' movement can be partly found in his words that African-Americans could and should prosper on their own. These words were inspirational and also were contributors to the ideal of an African-American self-help movement. However, he became increasingly disillusioned with the NOI, especially its leader, Elijah Muhammad, and split from the movement in 1964. Subsequently, he set up the Muslim Mosque Inc (MMI) and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), following from his beliefs in black nationalism - one was a religious group and the other secular.

He went on a Hajj to Mecca, where he saw Muslims from all around the world and concluded that his religion did not discriminate. He continued to travel throughout Africa. Malcolm X adopted a slightly more conciliatory attitude towards white people; he began to argue that, if they could help the African-American cause, any white person should be welcomed. However, shortly after he began this ideological shift, Malcolm was assassinated by several NOI members while making a speech in 1965; this, he did not have the opportunity to continue in the new direction he started.

He was viewed by many white contemporaries, and even some African-American leaders, as a dangerous, extremist figure; however, over the ensuing decades, evaluations of Malcolm's legacy have shifted, his contributions to black nationalism and the future Black Power movement recognised as successful, crucial to the overall impact of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. Malcolm X is now viewed as an inspirational and transformative figure. We cannot know how much further he would have gone, possibly rising to the same level of fame as MLK, someone he saw as both ally and rival; Malcolm's brutal assassination robbed the world of someone who could have been influential in American politics for many decades - yet his legacy lives on.