Malcolm X is known to us as one of America's most influential and memorable Black leaders and Civil Rights activist. He is known as a gifted orator with fiery speech and a no-holds-barred attitude when discussing matters related to the Black man's condition in America. His delivery, approach, and philosophies have made him a controversial figure in history. When reflecting on his story, The Autobiography of Malcolm X As Told To Alex Haley, it is certain Malcolm can be remembered by much more than a controversial figure in the Civil Rights Era. In his life story that he left behind, we are taken through a man's deep thoughts that carry several moving and honest messages for today and always.
1. Malcolm's told story is really one of a powerful and compelling raw spiritual journey. His story showed the human evolution of life and spirituality and what he eventually called the transformational nature of the religion of Islam. Here was a Black man from America that in awe and disbelief of those in Arabia-- that there could be a Muslim American. Think of the life he led that brought him to the point of making Hajj (pilgrimage) and accepting true Islam, or otherwise known as orthodox Islam, just 10 months before his death. Only Allah could have written such remarkable story of a man's spiritual journey.
He was tested early on in his life as a young boy when his dad was killed and he was subsequently taken to live away from his mother and siblings. He eventually takes on a life of crime and immorality and spends six years of his young adult life in prison. In prison is where he opens himself up to new things and learns about the teachings of Elijah Muhammad under the Nation of Islam (NOI). His spiritual journey begins as he learns about what he then called the Black man's religion, committing himself to a new life of discipline and leaving behind moral degradation. For 12 years following prison, he preaches the teachings of NOI and is committed to Elijah Muhammad, though he admits in his autobiography that there were moments in his private thoughts that he questioned the narrative of Islam as told by Mr. Muhammad.
During this journey, he describes how he was finally able to "muster the nerve, and the strength, to start facing facts, to think for [himself]" (p. 313). This part of his journey represents how many of us go through life believing and living something, with those lingering questions or doubts that are pushed to the far backs of our mind until one day we can no longer shut it out. Malcolm also recalls the struggle when his faith was stricken after learning the truth about Mr. Muhammad, furthering inspiring his trip to Mecca for pilgrimage.
He spent many years preaching separatism, but found a religion that, if practiced, could eliminate the race problem and embodies true brotherhood. And now, he stood facing the critics and the curious, with a change in a long standing position about the White man, as the public was getting a front row seat at man's evolving spiritual path.
As a frequent part of anyone's spiritual journey, sometimes it means opening up to new thoughts and admitting where one was incorrect. As he describes himself, "Despite my firm convictions I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experiences and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth" (p. 347).
2. Malcolm X is often remembered as a Black Civil Rights activist, but he was also notably a Muslim activist. He wasn't an activist who happened to be Muslim, but he was an activist who preached Black liberation through the backdrop of a religion, Islam. He was uninhibited in using teachings of Islam to promote Black's liberation through their own moral justice. He saw Islam as a solution to Black reform. He believed in Black people's ability to self-mobilize but without the reliance on Whites. He believed Islam was the answer to give the Black man his self-respect, something the Blacks in America had been robbed of. He felt the Black man had "to start self-correcting his own material, moral, and spiritual defects and evils" (p. 281). The Black man in America, he felt, "has to lift up his own sense of values" (p. 281) if they want to achieve their freedom.
Even after his acceptance of true Islam, he was further convinced that Islam could address the race problem. He said in many speeches that, "True Islam taught me that it takes all of the religious, political, economic, psychological, and racial ingredients, or characteristics, to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete" (p. 382). His challenge, however, after returning from Mecca, was how he would represent himself as a Black leader and Muslim activist and position his new organization that was intended to appeal to all Blacks under the banner of Islam. Malcolm knew that many Blacks who ascribed to the Christian theology would not rush to follow him into orthodox Islam. In this way, Malcolm's initial deliberate approach was to not press the Islamic religion in his public invited meetings that were predominately made up of non-Muslims.
3. Malcolm was unmoved by his critics. His demeanor and persuasive manner was charming as some would describe it. But he also was described as having a harsh tone when speaking that made some uncomfortable, even Blacks. He told the truth as he knew it, when he knew it. His willingness to have no fear to speak the truth is what made others see him as powerful and threatening. But his ability to say the things that people believed but were scared to say gave others courage and strength. This is one of the stand-out qualities that immediately made others see him as a leader. As an activist, his philosophy was "raw, naked truth exchanged between the Black man and the White man is what a whole lot more of is needed in this country [America] - to clear the air of the racial mirages, clichés, and lies that this country's very atmosphere has been filled with for four hundred years" (p. 278).
Even some of those who did not agree with his philosophy respected his audacity to criticize White America and what it had done to Blacks. Many respected his fervor for improving the Black man's condition and his sincere belief that it could be done by accepting Islam. Even actor Ossie Davis said about Malcolm:
"And if, to protect my relations with the many good White folks who make it possible for me to earn a fairly good living in the entertainment industry, I was too chicken, too cautious, to admit that fact when he was alive, I thought at least that now, when all the White folks are safe from him at last, I could be honest with myself enough to lift my hat for one final salute to that brave, black, iconic gallantry, which was his style and hallmark, that shocking zing of fire-and-be-damned-to-you, so absolutely absent in every other Negro man I know, which brought him, too soon, to his death" (p. 466).
And this accurately summed up his magnetism to many who loved and abhorred him.
What makes his life meaningful and inspiring is that through his told story we are taken through the inside of what is typically a private spiritual journey that ultimately motivated him to learn more about himself, his people, and his relationship with God; and what appeared to be a quickly evolving new phase as he approached the end of his life. Because he proved to be someone who had to speak and act boldly with urgency on what he knew, through his story we are able to envision the process that brought him to the place of a Muslim activist in America. We can imagine what he could have further contributed to Black America and Islam in America if he hadn't left us on February 21, 1965 at age 39 as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Haley, A. (2015). The Autobiography of Malcolm X As Told To Alex Haley. New York City, NY. Ballantine Books.