Malcolm X: The Impact of a Cultural Revolutionary

By Cone, James H. | The Christian Century, December 23, 1992 | Go to article overview

Malcolm X: The Impact of a Cultural Revolutionary


Cone, James H., The Christian Century


No one had a greater impact on the cultural consciousness of African-Americans during the second half of the 20th century than Malcolm X. More than anyone else he revolutionized the black mind, transforming docile Negroes and self-effacing colored people into proud blacks and self-confident African-Americans. Civil rights activists became Black Power militants and declared, "It's nation time." Preachers and religious scholars created a black theology and proclaimed God as liberator and Jesus Christ as black. College and university students demanded and won black studies. Poets, playwrights, musicians, painters and other artists created a new black aesthetics and ardently proclaimed that "black is beautiful."

No area of the African-American community escaped Malcolm's influence. The mainstream black leaders who dismissed him as a rabble-rouser today embrace his cultural philosophy and urge blacks to love themselves first before they even think about loving others. No one loved blacks more than Malcolm nor taught us more about ourselves. Before Malcolm most blacks wanted nothing to do with Africa. But he taught us that "you can't hate the roots of the tree and not hate the tree; you can't hate your origin and not end up hating yourself; you can't hate Africa and not hate yourself." A simple, profound truth; one that blacks needed (and still need) to hear. And no one said it as effectively as Malcolm X.

Who was Malcolm X? He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925. His father, J. Early Little, was a Baptist preacher and a dedicated organizer for Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. His mother, M. Louise Norton, also a Garveyite, was a West Indian from Grenada.

The Little family was driven out of Omaha by the Ku Klux Klan before Malcolm reached his first birthday. Another white hate group, called the Black Legion, burned down the Little's house in Lansing, Michigan, during Malcolm's childhood. Malcolm described the experience as "the nightmare in 1929." Soon after, his father was killed, thrown under a street car by the Black Legionnaires, Malcolm reported in his Autobiography.

With no husband, without the proceeds of his life insurance policy (the company refused to pay) and faced with constant harassment by the state welfare officials, Louise Little, a very proud woman, broke down under the emotional and economic strain of caring for eight children during the Depression. The Little children became wards of the state. Six of them, including Malcolm, were placed in foster homes. Malcolm's delinquent behavior eventually landed him in a detention home in Mason, Michigan, where he was allowed to attend junior high. He was the only black in his class. Although Malcolm was an outstanding student and extremely popular among his peers, he dropped out of school when his white eighth grade English teacher discouraged him from becoming a lawyer and suggested carpentry as a more "realistic goal for a nigger."

From Michigan, Malcolm journeyed to Boston and then to New York where he became known as "Detroit Red." He was involved in a life of crime--numbers, dope, con games of many kinds and thievery of all sorts, including armed robbery. Malcolm described himself as "one of the most depraved parasitical hustlers" in New York--"nervy and cunning enough to live by my wits, exploiting any prey that presented itself." A few months before he reached his 21st birthday, Malcolm was convicted and sentenced to eight to ten years in a Massachusetts prison for burglary.

In prison Malcolm's life was transformed when he discovered (through the influence of an inmate) the liberating value of education and (through his family) the empowering message of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. Both gave him what he did not have: self-respect as a black person. For the first time since attending the Garvey meetings with his father, Malcolm was proud to be black and to learn about Africans who "built great empires and civilizations and cultures. …

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