Throughout Black History Month, we recognize and pay tribute to the many African Americans who have strived and continue striving to create a fair and equitable society. While Dr. Martin Luther King is known as the face of the American Civil Rights Movement, there are numerous other figures who played significant roles in the movement. In fact, many achievements pertaining to civil rights in the 1960’s came about as a result of the differing beliefs and approaches of civil rights leaders.
As a minister of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, preached for black nationalism. He believed that Black people should come together to work towards their own liberation. He advocated for the unity of all people of African descent, regardless of their religion or nationality. He advocated fiercely for justice and equality for Black people in America, arguing that the system was rigged against them and called for the dismantling of institutional racism. Furthermore, Malcolm X believed that Black people should take control of their own destiny and work towards their own liberation. He encouraged the Black community to be self-sufficient and to support Black-owned businesses. He also believed that education was essential for the liberation of Black people and encouraged the Black community to educate themselves and to learn about their history and culture. The values that defined his work – unity, justice, equality, and education– all stemmed from his faith.
In his early years, Malcolm X’s approach to civil rights was combative, instigative, and in the eyes of many, extreme. He decried white Americans as White Devils and was solely concerned with the wellbeing and rights of Black Americans. While Martin Luther King Jr. was committed to nonviolent resistance, Malcolm X was not. That changed in April, 1964 when Malcolm X visited Mecca for Hajj (pilgrimage). Upon seeing every nationality and ethnicity from around the world united in worshiping one God, with no sign of the racism that he had grown up facing in America, Malcolm X converted from the Nation of Islam to mainstream Islam.
With his conversion came a shift in his outlook, ideology, and rhetoric. He abandoned his belief in violence and his calls for separation for Black Americans. He began to hope for brotherhood across all races. Less than a year later, Malcolm X was murdered prior to giving a speech in New York City.
Malcolm X’s activism and advocacy inspired many people to fight for their rights and demand justice not only in the United States, but globally as well. He met with international political leaders and activists, seeking to build solidarity between the Black community in America and the struggles of people of color around the world. He also made significant contributions to intellectual discourses on race, religion, and politics. His speeches and writings continue to be studied and celebrated today.
Malcolm X’s personal journey from a more radical beginning with the Nation of Islam towards a more inclusive, humanistic visionary of social justice should stand as a reminder to us all to consistently question our own beliefs and to seek out new ideas and perspectives. His work also reflects the many intersections between the Islamic faith and social justice, and prompts us to remember that progress for Black Americans is progress for all of us. Malcolm X reminds us that even in the face of adversity, we must never forget our core beliefs while striving to build a better future. In his own words, “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.”