Malcolm X Legacy Contains Profound Lessons for Struggles Today

Overcoming victimization 20th century figure illustrates the significance of organization and political education

Feb. 21, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Malcolm X, El Hajj Malik Shabazz, who was gunned down by three men at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem in 1965 as he prepared to address a crowd of several hundred people.

This meeting was sponsored by the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), founded by Malcolm X the previous year on June 28, 1964 at the same location.

At the time of his assassination, Malcolm had been working to build two new groups, one religious, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the OAAU, which was secular and committed to Pan-Africanism and Anti-imperialism. During April of 1964, Malcolm made hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, fulfilling his obligation as a devout believer in the religion of Islam.

Since his formal break with the Nation of Islam in March 1964, Malcolm had been working tirelessly to reframe the debate and ideological struggle within the African American freedom movement of the 1960s. During his tenure with the NOI, he had been a strong proponent of the program of Elijah Muhammad, the spiritual leader of the organization which was based in Chicago. Muhammad was originally from Georgia and had relocated to Detroit where he eventually was recruited by the founder of the Nation of Islam Master Fard Muhammad (W.D. Fard), who was known to have resided in the city during 1930-34.

Transforming Victimization to Revolutionary Activism

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19, 1925, as the fourth of eight children. His parents, Earl and Louis Little, were members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (African Communities League) UNIA-ACL, formed by Marcus Garvey and Amy Ashwood Garvey in 1914. The Garveys had moved the UNIA headquarters to the United States when they immigrated here in 1916.

Earl and Louis Little met at a UNIA Convention in Montreal, Quebec in 1919. The following year the UNIA would gain international prominence through its gathering in New York City that attracted tens of thousands of people.

Malcolm’s earlier life was impacted by racism and white mob violence. As a direct result of his parent’s militancy they became targets of the Ku Klux Klan and similar terror groups.

According to, recounting excerpts from the “Autobiography of Malcolm X”, a book that was written by Alex Haley during the last two years of Malcolm’s life, “When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, ‘a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home,’ Malcolm later remembered. Brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out.”

The following year in 1926, the Little family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Later in 1928 they re-located to Lansing, Michigan, the state capital.

It was here where in Sept. 1931 Earl Little was found dead near some streetcar tracks prompting the family to conclude that he was killed by a white racist group such as the Klan or the Black Legion.

Earl Little had been in conflict with the authorities in Lansing when he was ordered to vacate a home in a white neighborhood. Prior to the family moving, the home was torched and Earl Little was charged with arson, a charge that was later dropped. The family maintained that the home was burned down by racists in retaliation for Earl Little’s defiance of the white authorities.

The impact of the death of Earl Little, which was classified as a suicide and therefore preventing the family from collecting insurance benefits, was devastating for the family. His mother’s personal struggle to earn a living during these Great Depression years and constant harassment by the state welfare officials, resulted in Louise Little being declared mentally insane and placed in a psychiatric institution.

Malcolm along with most of his brothers and sisters were sent away to live in youth homes and foster care settings. Although Malcolm was an outstanding student, the overall racist atmosphere of the time period resulted in his dropping out of school after the eighth grade and moving to Boston to live with an older half-sister, Ella Collins, the offspring from a previous marriage of Earl Little.

During the war years in Boston, Malcolm worked menial jobs and engaged in petty criminal activities to survive. He was later arrested and prosecuted for burglary in 1946 serving six years in state prisons in Massachusetts. In 1952 he was paroled and went to live with family members in Inkster, Michigan, near Detroit.

Malcolm converted to the Nation of Islam while in prison in 1948. During the course of his prison tenure he was transferred to Norfolk Prison Colony, a facility Malcolm described as far superior to other institutions with less restrictions and a large library.

He began to read vociferously and participated in debating teams. His brothers and sisters had joined the Nation of Islam while he was prison and eventually recruited him after his initial rejection of all religions.

After he was paroled he became a devout follower and organizer for the NOI. He was appointed as an assistance minister in Detroit in 1952 and eventually a minister over Boston and Philadelphia in 1953 and then New York, where he would be based after 1954.

In 1957, Malcolm X was appointed as the national spokesman for the NOI by Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm played a pivotal role in recruiting members into the organization and enhancing its national and worldwide profile.

By 1959-60, NOI rallies were drawing thousands in major cities around the U.S. A national newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, was launched in 1961 at the aegis of Malcolm X.

The organization advocated the building of an independent Black nation of people of African descent in the U.S. The program of the NOI which was published on the back of the Muhammad Speaks every week said that this nation would be either inside or outside the U.S. and that the federal government should pay reparations to African Americans for decades as compensation for unpaid slave labor over the centuries.

Nonetheless, by 1963, internal problems within the NOI would result in the suspension of the Malcolm X by Dec. 1 and his complete departure by March 1964. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) along with local police agencies monitored and infiltrated the NOI contributing to the heightening of divisions between Malcolm X and other leaders within the organization.

Malcolm X’s Contributions Then and Now

With the formation of the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the OAAU during 1964, Malcolm X pointed the way forward for the urbanized African American working class and poor during the period. His emphasis on the need for mass organization, broad united fronts and political education was paramount in his outlook.

After making hajj in April 1964, Malcolm visited numerous African, Middle Eastern and European states in efforts to both broaden his intellectual horizons but to also form alliances for a renewed struggle by African Americans against the U.S. capitalist and imperialist system. During another trip overseas during July-Nov. 1964, he visited the Organization of African Unity (OAU) second summit in Egypt issuing an eight-page memorandum calling for support by the newly-independent African states for the liberation movement of African Americans.

In addition, the OAAU sought to bring the plight of African Americans to the United Nations to demand sanctions against the U.S. for its refusal to recognize the human rights of this oppressed nation. This effort drew upon the work of William Patterson, Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) in 1951 when they filed an appeal entitled “We Charge Genocide” to the U.N.

Since mid-2014 there has been a resurgence of mass demonstrations and rebellions throughout the U.S. protesting the blatant and unpunished killings of African Americans by law-enforcement agents. These manifestations have prompted the interventions of state police agencies and National Guard units in Missouri. In other areas around the country as well, the Pentagon-sponsored militarization of the police has been laid bare before the world.

Malcolm X remained within an organization from the time of his release from prison in 1952 up until the time of his assassination. He recognized all too well that the liberation of African Americans would require a collective effort based on militancy, anti-imperialism, Pan-Africanism and eventually anti-capitalism.

In order to move the anti-racist movement forward in the U.S. there must be a consolidation and organization of the popular forces fighting police terrorism and judicial impunity. Institutional racism is an integral part of the world capitalist system. One cannot be fought without rigorous opposition to the other.


Mr. Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor, Pan-African News Wire, is one of the frequent contributors for The 4th Media.
African American History Month Series, Part IV

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