How Great an Effect Did Malcolm X Have on the Struggle for Civil Rights?

Between 1960 and 1965, Malcolm X emerged as a leading voice in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Originally a minister in the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcolm[1] later set up his own mosque, while developing his own ideas regarding religion and race.  At a time of great social change for black Americans, he arguably proved to be tremendously significant in many respects, not least as an orator, an organiser, a religious reformer and an inspirational figure for so many. Malcolm was assassinated on February 21, 1965, but had played an essential part in advancing civil rights both before and after that date.

Malcolm was a significant figure in advancing civil rights in America because of his eloquence. The speech for which he is perhaps best known – “God’s Judgement of White America” – is a good demonstration of this trait. Its nature is one which lends itself to intellectual honesty, especially when collecting personal responses to events. In “God’s Judgement of White America”, Malcolm eloquently railed against the violence created by whites in the US,[2] saying that the assassination of President Kennedy came from the same essential violence.[3] Phrases such as ‘This little, meek, humble, inarticulate ex-slave is a modern Noah … a modern Moses … a modern Daniel’ contain a great deal of rhetorical and emotional force – especially for a black audience, many of whom were descended from slaves. (And the most famous element of Malcolm’s oration was not even intended to feature; it was effectively a footnote in the speech itself.) The speech brought him national and international prominence and afforded attention for himself and the civil rights movement; his profile was raised, and allowed the promotion of Malcolm’s ideas. The speech, delivered against the wishes of Elijah Muhammad, also served as the reason for his dismissal from the NOI.[4] Elijah Muhammad had wanted to remove Malcolm for some time due to his fame; this incident only served as an excuse, demonstrating Malcolm’s increasing prominence and significance. A speech represents a vehicle to persuade, and Malcolm was seen as ‘eloquent and charismatic’ by many;[5] this perception lends him significance as an orator. His eloquence, which is attested to in the speech and his appearance at the Oxford Union, which is commemorated by a series of photographs[6] – he was ‘too eloquent to be ignored’, according to contemporary journalist Dick Schaap[7] – had a transformative effect, rallying thousands to his banner. By giving African-Americans a voice, Malcolm had great significance in the advancement of civil rights.

Similarly, a New York Times article – written directly after his assassination – praised, if partially, his ‘gift for bitter eloquence’.[8] The Times piece is particularly useful because it was written as an act of public documentation. This is important in demonstrating the effect Malcolm had on public opinion and the extent to which he was a public figure. However, this picture was not wholly accepted by other areas of the US media: Time called Malcolm a ‘demagogue’ whose ‘creed was violence’.[9] But again, the very fact that he was deemed worthy of reporting upon attests to his significance in gaining attention and support for civil rights advancement.

Malcolm X at the Oxford UnionMalcolm attained worldwide prominence, and this was important in spreading the message of the civil rights struggle beyond the United States. Consider a particular photograph: one of Malcolm outside the Oxford Union.[10] Oxford, one of the great and ancient universities of England, was and still is seen by many as a bastion of privilege. In his presence alone, Malcolm could be seen to have broken these artificial barriers between the powerful and the under-privileged. This is why the photographic records we have of his appearance and the debate it represents are so important; they attest to his having had a tremendous effect. The photograph itself is a mode of public documentation, marking a significant event, and this inference heightens Malcolm’s own importance; he was internationally known and able to speak on the most celebrated platforms and to the most august chambers in support of civil rights. It is a public photo, used for promotion, and it can be seen to emphasise Malcolm’s prominence – he is standing with the President of the Union and conversing in an easy manner;[11] this demonstrates his personal charm, an important component of his eloquence. One photograph, however, does not contain much evidence on the debate itself. One easy conversation does not a genuine civil rights victory make. But from other sources it can be ascertained that the debate took place before a packed hall and was broadcast live by the BBC to millions. According to Saladin Ambar, Malcolm’s speech is little remembered – ‘few of those who heard him … that night can recall him’.[12] But this is contradicted in that those present were also said to have been ‘mesmerised’.[13] The students also ‘gave [Malcolm] a standing ovation’, signifying the success he had in winning them over and convincing them of the proposition that ‘Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice’.[14] Perhaps this positive reception – away from the US and in front of a profoundly privileged audience – could seem distant from African-Americans, thereby diminishing Malcolm’s immediate significance. But this argument is countered by the fact that the debate was broadcast around the world, spreading Malcolm’s message of the importance of advancing civil rights worldwide.

Another way in which Malcolm was significant for the civil rights movement – one which is too often overlooked – was through his organisational skills. In a famous letter to Martin Luther King, Malcolm mentions ‘5000 to 7000 Harlemites’ who were likely to turn out to his protests and to hear him speak.[15] This ability to mobilise large numbers of people attests to Malcolm’s importance in the civil rights movement; and due to the nature of the source – Malcolm needed the support of another prominent civil rights leader and wanted a ‘United Front’[16] – he might have little reason to manipulate the truth. But it could also be suggested that, in pursuit of a ‘common solution’, Malcolm may have been willing to write selectively in order to garner support for his cause.[17] This interpretation suggests that Malcolm’s impact was less great than suggested, as it might cast doubt on the number willing to gather under his banner; and in the struggle for civil rights, mass movement was a vital part of the campaign. However, Malcolm was significant because he was an effective strategist and organiser of individuals. He began his political involvement as a local co-ordinator for the Nation of Islam (NOI);[18] this experience gave him his ‘organisational edge’, which aided Malcolm’s ascent to national influence.[19] This evidence suggests that Malcolm played a significant part in the advancement of civil rights in terms of his organisational skill.

Malcolm X Declaration of FaithMalcolm could also be seen as significant in the advancement of civil rights because of his personal adaptation, both ideological and religious. In his speech, the notion of ‘chickens com[ing] home to roost’[20] is a hard-line suggestion, but Malcolm came later to view this and other issues through a different ideological prism, and indeed continued evolving his ideology until the end.[21] He saw white men as ‘devils’ less because of their intrinsic character and more through their collective actions.[22] This allowed for greater flexibility and relevance in the struggle for civil rights, particularly as demonstrated in his famous declaration of faith, which set aside his previously held contentions.[23] The declaration is an important document because it demonstrates the profound changes which Malcolm underwent in his life. But that gives rise to a debate: was Malcolm important because of his change of heart, or in spite of it? Ideological consistency is often a key factor in individual importance, and Malcolm did not exhibit it, as demonstrated by the source at hand. This lack of ideological continuity could be seen to damage Malcolm’s credibility and his ability to convince others about the importance of civil rights. However, historians have also described his ‘consistency of character and commitment’, which began during his Nation period and continued throughout the rest of his life.[24] Even if some elements of his politics did change, a deeper sense of mission – especially that which could be communicated religiously – remained a constant. In that at least, there is some element of ideological continuity.

There is a countervailing view, also derived from Malcolm’s declaration of faith.[25] The declaration was signed at a mosque other than Malcolm’s own and appears written with the brevity of haste; indeed, its text – a standard Muslim religious statement, ”there is no God but Allah … and Muhammad is … His Last Prophet” – seems a little perfunctory. Similarly, Malcolm’s conversion was said to have led to ‘ideological confusion’[26] among many of his followers as to his motivations and direction; this may have led to his murder.[27] Ideological suspicions led to his message not being more widely heeded; and his life was cut short in the process, denying him time to proselytise and spread his new worldview. Therefore, the action this document displays could be considered detrimental to the advancement of civil rights. A New York Times article written after his death[28] does not contain reference to his change of heart; had he lived longer, perhaps Malcolm could have allayed some impressions about him and his politics which gave him negative significance.[29] It could be argued that Malcolm’s conversion and death cut short the mitigating work he could have done in diminishing the negative way he was viewed by some at the time, thus deprecating his significance in advancing civil rights.

Malcolm’s declaration of faith was not a mass media event; it was meant only for those at his own mosque, and that independent organisation – Muslim Mosque, Inc. – was a reasonably small operation, lacking the funding or membership of larger bodies such as the Nation. This fact diminishes his significance in the advancement of civil rights. Even some of its members did not initially believe his conversion upon undertaking the hajj.[30] Indeed, the mosque did not long survive Malcolm’s death, disbanding in the aftermath of his assassination.[31] All of these factors seem to suggest that Malcolm’s civil rights significance was limited by the time of his conversion and independence from the Nation. It could therefore be contended that Malcolm was rescued to some extent from obscurity by the violent means by which he died.

This impression is furthered by the aforementioned New York Times article, which does not grasp the extent of the spiritual and political change Malcolm underwent before his death. It is just as important, for the sake of the story, to declare him a ‘black nationalist’.[32] This demonstrates that his political transformation was not well-known at the time, thus seemingly diminishing his ability successfully to communicate his views in the pursuit of civil rights. The article contains a great deal of detail about the murder itself, but it cites outdated evidence when attempting accurately to profile the victim’s political views. It appears therefore that his mainstream significance had lessened by the end; in working with a mosque whose members numbered less than 130 people in 1964, Malcolm could have distanced himself from the mainstream civil rights struggle, thus decreasing his own significance.[33] The declaration of faith – as previously stated – corroborates this perception. But this view is not conclusive; as has been shown, other contemporary documents suggest firmly that Malcolm had a positive influence on the struggle for civil rights.

In conclusion, from 1960 to 1965 Malcolm X was a figure of great significance in advancing civil rights in the United States. His eloquence, organisational skill and political and religious evolution were all vital in the short term. Of them, his rhetorical power was his greatest asset in this regard. Malcolm gave a voice to the ‘little, meek, humble, inarticulate ex-slave’; and he spoke on some of the world’s most celebrated platforms, using his words to bring the movement’s message to millions.[34] While this success is to some degree limited by his ideological shift, which underlined the negative significance some of his more bellicose words had exhibited, Malcolm’s importance in advancing civil rights remained constant and growing throughout his life, only to increase yet further after his untimely death. All of the contemporary sources surveyed attest to this to some extent; and they do so in different ways and for different reasons. Malcolm’s organisational skills were supplemented by his rhetorical ability – thousands of ‘Harlemites’ turned out not just to protest but to hear him speak; he spoke to the Oxford Union, and to the wider world, spreading the message of the civil rights movement; and even the hastily-written obituary in The New York Times attested to his eloquence in proposing and defending the cause of civil rights with vigour. While debate remains about many aspects of his life, it can be stated with certainty that his short-term significance in advancing the cause was very great indeed.

[1] For ease of expression I refer to Malcolm X as ‘Malcolm’ henceforth. Like Saladin Ambar, in doing so I ‘beg the reader’s indulgence for any presumed familiarity’. (Ambar, Saladin: Malcolm X at the Oxford Union: Radical Politics in a Global Era, p. xiii)

[2] “God’s Judgement of White America (The Chickens Come Home to Roost)”, delivered December 4, 1963.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hall, Timothy, L.: American Religious Leaders, p. 229

[5] Ambar, Saladin: Malcolm X at the Oxford Union: Radical Politics in a Global Era, p 171

[6] Photograph of Malcolm X outside the Oxford Union, taken December 3, 1964.

[7] Schaap, Dick. quoted in Wainstock, Dennis D.: Malcolm X, African American Revolutionary, p. 91

[8] “Malcom X Shot to Death at Rally Here” from The New York Times, published February 22, 1965.

[9] Time: “Death and Transfiguration”, March 5, 1965.

[10] Photograph of Malcolm X outside the Oxford Union, taken December 3, 1964.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ambar, Saladin: Malcolm X at Oxford Union, p 142

[13] Ibid. p. 144

[14] Wainstock, Dennis D.: Malcolm X, African American Revolutionary, p. 135

[15] Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., sent July 31, 1963.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hamilton, Neil A.: American Social Leaders and Activists, p. 250

[19] Joseph, Peniel E. (ed.): Neighborhood Rebels: Black Power at the Local Level, p. 25

[20] “God’s Judgement of White America (The Chickens Come Home to Roost)”, delivered December 4, 1963.

[21] Smallwood, Andrew P.: An Afrocentric Study of the Intellectual Development, Leadership Praxis and Pedagogy of Malcolm X, p. 127

[22] Curtis, Edward E.: Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History, p. 351

[23] Declaration of faith, signed April 8, 1964.

[24] Gomez, Michael A.: Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas, p. 364

[25] Declaration of faith, signed April 8, 1964.

[26] Wood, Joe (ed.): Malcolm X: In Our Own Image, p. 12

[27] Curtis, Edward E.: Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History, p. 353

[28] “Malcom X Shot to Death at Rally Here” from The New York Times, published February 22, 1965.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Marable, Manning: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, pp. 319–320

[31] Ibid. pp. 460-2

[32] “Malcom X Shot to Death at Rally Here” from The New York Times, published February 22, 1965.

[33] Ibid. p. 333

[34] “God’s Judgement of White America (The Chickens Come Home to Roost)”, delivered December 4, 1963.