How Malcolm X Shaped America’s Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement lasted for the better part of two decades, and many would say is making a resurgence in the 2010’s. The civil rights movement was a struggle by African Americans in the mid-1950s to late 1960s to achieve Civil Rights equal to those of whites, including equal opportunity in employment, housing, and education, as well as the right to vote, the right of equal access to public facilities, and the right to be free of racial discrimination. This movement also wished to uphold the fourteenth and fifteenth amendment which had been nullified by the passing of Jim Crow laws in the South. There were many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and they all had different methods and beliefs on how to achieve their dream of racial equality. Martin Luther King Jr. is by far the most famous and well known leader of the Civil Rights Movement, and believed that the goal of racial equality should be achieved through nonviolence and peaceful protests. Many other leaders of the movement including Hosea Williams, Whitney Young Jr. and Baynard Rustin championed the use of nonviolence, peaceful protest and civil disobedience much like Martin Luther King Jr. did. There of course is one major outlier that deviated from the use of nonviolence and civil disobedience; Malcolm Little, better known as Malcolm X. This man was the champion of Black Supremacy, and the use of violence to defend oneself at all cost during the Civil Rights Movement era.
Malcolm X is an extremely unique individual who is without a doubt the most storied and interesting man to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement. His story from being a black kid who grew up in Lansing, Michigan to being a fairly successful criminal in Harlem, New York and then joining the Nation of Islam is quite fascinating. While in prison is where he met Elijah Muhammad, and his life would be forever changed. Elijah would mentor Malcolm X and show him the ideologies of black supremacy and black nationalism. Elijah would also introduce Malcolm to Islam, and this would greatly impact Malcolm X as both a man, and as a leader. Malcolm X’s journey from a violent Black Supremacist, to a believer in racial equality achieved through peaceful means is truly extraordinary, and all really begins in the city of Lansing, Michigan.
Malcolm’s adolescence into young adulthood was difficult, but his views on white people were fairly standard, but through his autobiography you learn that Malcolm really despised not only white people, but a significant portion of black people. He interacted and met various groups of black people from Lansing to Boston and Harlem, but gathered one thing from all of these places; African Americans tried too hard to act like white people, and could never gain independence and equality from them if they continued to try and imitate and please white society. Malcolm X himself was guilty of attempting to imitate white society, especially when it came to style and looks. Malcolm deeply regretted this later in life, calling it stupid and himself a stupid young boy who could hide behind ignorance.
Malcolm’s ignorance started in Lansing, Michigan where he lived until the eighth grade. In his youth, Malcolm lived with his family, which was fairly large, consisting of ten people; his mother, father and seven siblings. His father was killed by a group called the Black Legion, and they were very similar to that of the Ku Klux Klan. With just his mother to look after seven siblings, she eventually began to go senile after a man she was dating left her for fear of looking after eight hungry mouths. The Department of Human Services separated Malcolm and his siblings from their mother and sent her to a Kalamazoo Psychiatric Facility. Malcolm was sent to a reform house, where the Swerling family took him in and treated him extremely well. At school, he was the best in his class, and was fairly popular due to his skin color. He was well treated by the people at the school and at town, but upon meeting his father’s sister Ella, and visiting Boston where she lived, Malcolm came to the realization that he didn’t belong in Michigan, that he wasn’t white and no matter how much he tried, he couldn’t become white. He was still black, he still had a different skin color, and was still a “Negro”, even if he acted white and was friends with many whites in Lansing. He moved out of the Swerling’s house, who were quite shocked at Malcolm’s sudden change, and eventually moved into Ella’s house in Boston.
While in Boston, Malcolm would witness many blacks trying to be and act white, much like himself back in Michigan, and he despised this. While in Boston Malcolm developed a strong criticism of prejudice within the black community early in his life. Malcolm finds irony in the quickness of Roxbury Hill blacks to judge each other and inflate their own status in artificial ways. At a young age, Malcolm identifies the hypocrisy of his neighbors’ tendency to judge each other on the basis of age, home ownership, and length of residency in New England, rather than on the basis of individual actions or character. The conk hairstyle, popular in middle-class and poor neighborhoods alike, represents black self-defacement and loss of identity. The act of conking, which physically forces black hair to resemble white hair, is representative of the way that black people attempt to imitate white society. “I know self-hatred first hand,” claims Malcolm after describing in grim detail the process of straightening his own nappy hair with a powerful lye solution. Malcolm would later use his relationship with Sophia to escape the racial victimization of his youth by becoming a perpetrator of racism himself. He didn’t love Sophia, but was willing to abandon and ruin the life of Laura, his black girlfriend who he did love, in order to make himself look better in front of his friends.
Harlem is where a good chunk of Malcolm’s life is spent, and this small borough in New York City. This city is where Malcolm would become a borderline druggie, and where he met various crime lords, pimps, and musicians. Malcolm’s firmly held belief that white people, and not black people, are to blame for the desperate conditions of the black underclass makes him lenient in his moral evaluation of the Harlem ghetto. Though Malcolm does blame some black people for their actions, most notably the middle-class, Civil Rights leaders, and himself, he tends to forgive residents of the black ghetto for their misdeeds and points instead to the conditions created by white society. Malcolm believes that wealthy white people not only exploit poor blacks on a daily basis, but also contribute to the profound lack of opportunity in Harlem. In talking about the unrealized professional potential of his intelligent black friends, Malcolm implies that white society is to blame for driving them into the spiral of crime, drugs, deceit, and poverty, giving them no other option than the hustler’s life.
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