This article is part of our series “Vocate’s Wall of Fame”. Each person described in the series is someone who has inspired the Vocate team and who we believe represents what “unlocking human potential” means. Quite literally, the Wall of Fame exists in our office (printed out images framed on the wall) and every week we vote on a new honoree.
Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little and later known as El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, is no doubt one of the most influential African American civil rights leaders in US History, and this influence came at many a cost. His controversy lies in his uncompromising approach to fighting racism and his relationship with the Nation of Islam (NOI), which ultimately resulted in his early death.
Malcolm X had a tumultuous upbringing in Nebraska. His father, a black rights activist, was assassinated by white supremacists when Malcolm was six. At thirteen years old, his mother was placed in a mental institution. Following these hardships, he bounced around from foster home to foster home. In 1946, Malcolm X was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Before being released early on parole, he used his time in prison to educate himself on the NOI and joined the movement. When he got out of prison, he became a spokesperson and figurehead for the NOI. It is during this time he gained attention from the public eye and momentum in niche groups of black and muslim communities.
Malcolm X was the second most sought-after speaker in the 1960s, invited to join debates on radio, television, and college campuses. An articulate, charismatic speaker, he was a leader who fought for change “by any means necessary.” Crowds and controversy made him a media sensation; some saw him as a separatist, black nationalist, and militant; others saw him as an intellectual, changemaker, and spiritual leader.
His membership with the NOI would be called into question when he learned his leader and mentor Elijah Muhammad had affairs with a number of women in the organization. Crushed by this hypocrisy, Malcolm X left the NOI and founded the Muslim Mosque. His trip to Mecca, however, would mark a major shift in his philosophy and faith. He came back with a new perspective on integration and inclusion, and a vision for uniting Africans of the Diaspora and humanity as a whole.
From the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam, from black separatism to pan-africanism, Malcolm X evolved with what blackness meant to him and never stopped working to uplift the black community. He is a member of our Wall of Fame for his unapologetic search for justice and change. He has always stood by his convictions, and yet maintained a critical mind open to change. Loved or hated, he was always inspiring and always a leader for change – ultimately giving his life for his cause.
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