Horrific life experiences helped shape Malcolm X


El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. He would have been 86 years old on Thursday May, 19, 2011 but he was assassinated on February 21, 1965 three months before his 40th birthday.

His parents Earl Little and Louise Norton Little met in Montreal at a United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) convention. The UNIA was the Pan-African organization founded by the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

El-Shabazz who at various times carried the names Malik Shabazz, Malcolm X and Omowale is an iconic human rights activist whose various name changes was a bid to rid himself of the “slave name” Little. Recognizing that the name he was given at birth was forced on his ancestors by the White people who at some point had owned his ancestors he choose African (Omowale) and Arab (Malik) names to distance himself from the European name he was given at birth.

Omowale is a Yoruba name meaning “the child has come home” and Shabazz was given this name when he visited Nigeria. Jack Rummel and Heather Lehr Wagner write in their 2005 book, Malcolm X Militant Black Leader: “In Nigeria, students flocked to mass assemblies to hear the famed American activist speak, and they bestowed still another name on him: Alhadji Omowale Malcolm X.”

Very fittingly, Malik is the Arabic word for king. For some African Americans, Shabazz was as venerated as any member of royalty. The late African American actor Ossie Davis (December 18, 1917 – February 4, 2005) who gave the eulogy at the funeral on February 27, 1965, referred to El-Shabazz as “a Prince, our own Black, shining Prince.”

Some of the horrific experiences of his family and his early life shaped the person that El-Shabazz eventually became. In the 1965 The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Shabazz shared several of those experiences including one told to him by his mother. “When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan raiders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because ‘The good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my father’s ‘spreading trouble’ among the ‘good’ Negroes of Omaha with the ‘back to Africa’ preachings of Marcus Garvey.”

In Malcolm X, The Man and His Times, published in 1990, African-American scholar and historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke, states: “The racist society that produced and killed Malcolm X is responsible for what he was and for destroying what he could have been. He had the greatest leadership potential of any person to emerge directly from the black proletariat in this century. In another time under different circumstances he might have been a king – and a good one. He might have made a nation and he might have destroyed one. He was a creation of the interplay of powerful and conflicting forces in mid-century America. No other country or combination of forces could have shaped him the way he was and ultimately destroyed him with such unique ruthlessness.”

In 1929, when Shabazz was four years old, a White supremacist group burned the family’s home leaving the Littles, with several small children, homeless. Two years later, in 1931 when he was six, his father suffered a particularly gruesome, racially motivated death. Louise Little, traumatized by the horrific murder of her husband, cheated of the insurance money she should have received at his death and unable to find work to support her children was further victimized when the government imprisoned her in a mental institution, seized and scattered her children into various foster homes.

El-Shabazz spoke about his time spent in White foster homes where he was treated as if he was a pet.

“What I am trying to say is that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position. But it has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be with them, we weren’t considered of them. Even though they appeared to have opened the door, it was still closed. Thus they never did really see me.”

Given the history of his family’s involvement with the UNIA and the influence of the philosophy of the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, it is hardly surprising that El-Shabazz eventually became the iconic human rights activist whose words are quoted by all and sundry even today in the 21st century. The phrase “by any means necessary” has been used and misused by individuals and groups whose actions and philosophies are in opposition to all that El-Shabazz represents. He continues to be an inspiration for oppressed people internationally, his name invoked in their struggle. It is also not surprising that he was under constant surveillance by the American government (FBI) which sought to destroy any and all African-American individuals or groups working to address the unequal and oppressed position to which African-Americans have been relegated since they were first taken to what is now the USA.

In the preface to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, M. S. Handler commented: “No man in our time aroused fear and hatred in the white man as did Malcolm, because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price – a man unreservedly committed to the cause of liberating the black man in American society rather than integrating the black man into that society.”

During this year of the International Year for People of African Descent as we remember those who have gone before us, our ancestors on whose shoulders we stand, on whose backs we crossed over, it is also important to educate ourselves as much as possible about who these people really were. Reading several books about our ancestors (more than 40 books have been written about El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) and thinking critically about the biases of the authors or commentators is an excellent start. In his 1994 book, Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, Walter Dean Myers reminds us: “People do not just ‘happen’ in history. They come along at a certain time, and in a certain place. They react to ideas that have come before them, and to people who have expressed those ideas. The man we know as Malcolm X was no exception.”


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