There is hardly one credible list of the Top 10 Black Leaders who’ve emerged in the 400 year history of the United States which does not include either Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali or both. Sadly, the name of the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the mentor of both men, is usually missing from those same lists.
Most white people in America, find it hard to understand why Blacks still honor Brother Malcolm now, more than ever before even though in 1999 a U.S. postage stamp was issued in his honor. His family’s “slave name” was “Little,” but in Harlem’s after-hours street life, he was anointed “Detroit Red,” for his complexion, his reddish brown conked hair, his hometown.
In prison he was “resurrected from the dead,” as Brother Malcolm when he accepted the religion of Islam as taught by Mr. Muhammad. He earned the “X” in his name after passing a rigorous examination of Mr. Muhammad’s “Lessons.” he had to recite–with 100 percent accuracy–a list of 23 “Actual Facts” concerning the planet Earth, its astronomy, physics and geography, as well as a list of 10 questions and their answers called “Student Enrollment.”
The “X” symbolized the Blackman’s lost Muslim name and the mathematical term for the “unknown quantity.” It also symbolized rejection of the American culture. He was an “ex” American so-called Negro.
He was neat, clean-cut, articulate. He had the self-assurance born of discipline and reinforced by a strict dietary law that forbids alcohol, all types of smoking, and the eating of unfit food–particularly pork. He knew that thousands of other Black men felt exactly as he did, they were known as the “Fruit of Islam,” the F.O.I.. They were an army, a military class. And Malcolm X was ever a soldier. Like Denmark Vesey perhaps, a stormy bold young captain who died with his boots on, as soldiers are born to die.
Black women adored Brother Malcolm. It would not be unfair to imagine otherwise restrained MuslimÂ sisters literally swooning in his wake, often seeing in him the man they felt they could not find for themselves. Still, he was an upright, faithful husband and father.
To the corner boys, the young men who flocked to the Black Muslim movement heeding his call, he was the altogether worldly and wise father figure many of them never had. From the streets of Harlem by way of the University of Hard Knocks, to the suites of Harvard, Oxford, Brother Malcolm went, championing the cause of the downtrodden Black man and woman in America.
Minister Malcolm X preached Mr. Muhammad’s message of racial separation as a solution to the centuries-old problems caused by slavery like no one had ever done before in the “belly of the beast.”
But he also knew his place in the overall racial equality movement that swept the country in the 1950s and 1960s. He said, in so many words: “…whenever I say something, white America makes a concession to the NAACP…”
Then an ill-wind blew among the Muslim converts in the “Wilderness of North America.” After 12 years as one of Elijah Muhammad’s most trusted disciples, Minister Malcolm grew apart from his leader. First was his public censure for the “chickens come home to roost” statement after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Then an open break, followed by a repudiation of Mr. Muhammad’s doctrines.
Enmity had grown among the seekers of peace. Brother Malcolm–El Hajj Malik Shabazz–was gunned down five days before the Nation of Islam’s annual “Saviour’s Day” observance. Shortly after 2 p.m., Sunday Feb. 21, 1965 a fusillade of shots rang out as he began a lecture in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom.
Unlike almost all of America’s infamous desperados who met violent and bitter ends, Malcolm X had not been charged with any crime for more than 15 years. When he emerged from prison to become a Minister in the Nation of Islam, he had completely paid his debt to society.
Malcolm X’s crime, however was speaking unforgivingly about racial injustice against Blacks in America. He also blasphemed Mr. Muhammad for fathering children by other women while still married to his “first” wife–then of more than 30 years–Mother Clara Evans Muhammad. Mr. Muhammad took these women as wives, many of whom and their children remain active leaders in the Nation of Islam, revived in 1977 by Min. Louis Farrakhan.
Days after Bro. Malcolm’s assassination, two members of the Nation were arrested and eventually convicted of his murder. The men–Norman Butler (Muhammad Abdul Aziz) and Thomas Johnson (Khalil Islam)–steadfastly maintained their innocence. They have now completed their sentences and returned to society and their innocence has been all but publicly confirmed. The third man who was convicted–Thomas Hagan, also known as Thalmadge Hayer–was actually arrested at the scene of the crime.
Mr. Hagan admitted his complicity, yet he defends the innocence of the other men. He says he and four others he identifies by the initials “B,” “L,” “W,” and “K” planned and carried out the killing. Still, the Nation of Islam in general, and Minister Louis Farrakhan, Brother Malcolm’s protÃ©gÃ© and eventual successor as Minister of the Nation’s Harlem Mosque, are still blamed for the crime in the minds of many people.
I never knew Brother Malcolm personally, I never saw him speak in person. I did work for Mr. Muhammad for 2 Â½ years. I was in his presence often.
As a result, I am one of the 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 or so people who have traveled at one time or another in the personal entourage of Muhammad Ali. As then-editor of the Nation of Islam’s newspaper Muhammad Speaks, I went to Jamaica for a month with The Champ in December 1974. That was just weeks after his stunning victory in Africa over George Foreman in what was billed as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”
Having traveled this pathway, when I look at it now, I believe Brother Malcolm was lured away from the safety and the good fellowship of the Nation of Islam by appeals toÂ an exaggerated sense of self-importance, perhaps in his mind, more important than Mr. Muhammad, his teacher. The Nation of Islam unity was cracked. Once outside, their mutual enemies provoked Brother Malcolm on one side, and those inside the nation on the other. Attitudes hardened. The public conflict escalated beyond the point of danger.
Before his assassination, Brother Malcolm may nave wanted to reconcile and return to the Nation I was surprised to learn. Before his book Roots made history as a television mini-series,Â Alex HaleyÂ was the co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He knew Brother Malcolm better than anyone else in the public arena. I flew with him from Washington to New York so I could interview him during the flight about Brother Malcolm and the Nation. He told me that he sincerely believed that just before he was killed, Brother Malcolm wanted to find a way back to the Nation of Islam. Mr. Haley was surprised he said, that no one had ever asked him about that before. I don’t know. That’s what I would like to believe.
Of course that was not to be. There had been too many sharp words. A bold young captain was struck down.
What I must say now, as Brother Malcolm receives the attention and recognition he is due, is that history cannot truly honor either Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali, without fondly lifting up the man who gave them both the special quality and identity that made them icons of respect and Black pride–the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad.