Malcolm X Is Not The Villain We’ve Been Taught He Is

In our stories, Dr. King is good, Malcolm X is bad.

Dr. King was a Christian. Malcolm X was a Muslim.
Dr. King promoted nonviolence. Malcolm X promoted violence.
Dr. King believed in integration. Malcolm X believed in segregation.
Dr. King preached love. Malcolm X preached hate.

Good guy. Bad guy.

Most of us know by now that stories that are this simple, this neat and tidy, probably aren’t telling the whole story. In fact, both stories are false: we’ve whitewashed Dr. King and vilified Malcolm X.

Malcolm Little

Malcolm X was the son of Louise and Earl Little. His father was a Baptist preacher and a leader in the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Malcolm’s parents taught their children to never be ashamed of being Black, but instead to be self-reliant, and therefore, free.

Earl Little and his family were constantly terrorized by White supremacists groups. They had to move several times — from Omaha, Nebraska to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Lansing, Michigan — once, barely escaping their burning house. When Malcolm was 6 years old, his father died under suspicious circumstances almost certainly involving the Black Legion, a White supremacist group akin to the Ku Klux Klan.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the insurance company ruled Earl’s death a suicide and refused to pay out the benefits of his life insurance policy. Louise and the children struggled to make ends meet, and eventually, Malcolm and his 6 siblings were dispersed widely throughout the foster system.

Malcolm was brilliant. He had a hunger and a gift for learning. He was class president in his otherwise all-White school. Nonetheless, his White teacher assured him that his dream of practicing law was “no realistic goal for a nigger.” And Malcolm knew his mind and body, indeed his soul, would go to waste in the jobs his teacher suggested would be more suitable.

Malcolm drifted. Employing his wits to make cash and live large. After all, what else was there? When he finally got caught, he was sent to prison where he regained his appetite for reading everything in sight, and where he was introduced to the Nation of Islam, a Black-American Islamist cult.

Black Muslim Brotherhood

The Nation of Islam (NOI) taught a strict moral code, Black self-respect and self-reliance—and that Whites were actual devils. It gave Malcolm a narrative that finally made sense of his life. He understood the meaninglessness of his former zoot-suit life of crime, sex, and violence. And it made sense of the fact that every encounter he’d had with White people had been defined by dishonesty, malice, greed, and bigotry.

And so, Malcolm Little became Malcolm X, denouncing the slaveowner’s name imposed upon his father’s ancestors. As a minister of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was a fiery and smart public speaker. He was tall, handsome, and charismatic. His influence and prominence both in the NOI and in the larger Civil Rights Movement was meteoric, and to many Whites, alarming.

And this is where the story we get from “mainstream” history books comes in: Malcolm X promoted the racist ideologies of the Nation of Islam (which is true) and advocated for violence against Whites (which is a distortion of the truth).

Spiritual Pilgrimage

What we aren’t taught in White culture is that Malcolm would later reject the Nation of Islam and its racist teachings. Malcolm wrote a series of letters from Mecca that outlined his enlightenment, to use his own word.

To the Egyptian Gazette, August 25, 1964, he wrote:

In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I will never be guilty of that again — as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man. The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks.

A month later to a friend in New York:

For 12 long years I lived within the narrow‐minded confines of the ‘strait‐jacket world’ created by my strong belief that Elijah Muhammad was a messenger direct from God Himself, and my faith in what I now see to be a pseudoreligious philosophy that he preaches… I shall never rest until I have undone the harm I did.

Malcolm’s Dream

Malcolm X returned to the United States and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, where he worked tirelessly to promote civil rights — basic human rights — for all African Americans. Malcolm sought to join forces with all leaders working toward that goal, and especially with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he had previously disparaged as a “house Negro” and an “Uncle Tom.”

Dr. King and Malcolm X would probably have never agreed on nonviolent resistance. Malcolm X believed passionately in self-defense. As he once put it in one of his more famous speeches:

Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone—but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.

Meanwhile, Dr. King was uncompromising in his calling to nonviolent civil action. Though he did not condemn the use of self defense, he believed nonviolent resistance to be ultimately more constructive and effective. Still, he conceded that:

The principle of self defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi.

Even though this significant philosophical divide remained between the two leaders, the two men grew toward each other in nearly every other belief. Who knows what might have been—what they might have achieved together—had both men not been gunned down at the age of 39.

Malcolm X with Maya Angelou

Malcolm X was equally important in America’s fight toward her highest promises and ideals as Dr. King. Both leaders brought a renewed sense of pride and dignity to a people oppressed by hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, terrorism, propaganda, and systemically imposed poverty.

Malcolm’s teachings in particular led to campaigns like “Black Is Beautiful,” aimed at re-learning to love blackness for what it is and to unlearn self-hate taught by a constantly “othering” narrative that said: The color of your skin and the shape of your nose and lips, the texture of your hair… is ugly, even wrong.

America is better for the legacy Malcolm X left us. We’ll be better still the more we begin to recognize it.

Malcolm X upon his return from Mecca.

Further Reading

Malcolm X’s Collected Speeches & Letters, 1960-1965
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1964
Malcolm X Speaks, 1965
Malcolm X (1992 film)