During the years following WWII African-Americans began a long struggle to improve conditions for themselves. This was called the Civil Rights Movement. "With the war's end, many African-Americans came out of the military service determined to fight racism at home" (Collier & Collier 2002, p. 26). During this time blacks in the U.S. were treated like second-class citizens. It was in the South that segregation was especially rampant. Diane McWhorter in her previously mentioned book succinctly defines segregation as "a surreal conspiracy of law, politics, economics, and tradition that trapped black Americans in a lowly corner of society" (p. 13). Blacks had to attend segregated and usually inferior schools, sit in separate sections of buses, trains and theatres and use restrooms and water fountains identified by black-only signs. They had to be treated by black doctors and were not allowed to enter most health clinics or hospitals. It was in the South that lynchings continued and the Ku Klux Klan continued to terrorize many blacks. In addition, throughout most of the South they were denied the right to vote.
One of the fronts on which African-Americans fought relentlessly was in education as they strove to attain equal education for their children. They viewed education as the means by which they would gain economic freedom (Collier & Collier 2002, p. 28). In 1950 the NAACP took up this cause and went to court to challenge this practice of racial segregation of schools. It was as a result of the famous Supreme Court case known as Brown vs. Board of Education under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall that an end was put to legal segregation of blacks in American schools. Change was slow but it had begun.
In 1955 segregation on buses was challenged in Montgomery, Alabama by a black seamstress named Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat in the white section of the bus. Martin Luther King, Jr. took up her case and led a highly successful bus boycott. Collier & Collier state that times had changes and "Black leadership was growing bolder" (p. 37). Although King insisted on using nonviolent tactics to achieve their goals, white opponents to the civil rights movement did not and our country saw violence rear its ugly head over and over again. Many freedom riders fighting segregation as well as those involved in the movement in the 1960s to register blacks met with severe beatings and even death. Demonstrators united with King against segregation endured police use of high-pressure hoses, wild dogs and billy clubs. An event that ultimately led to the passing of the first civil rights act was the Ku Klux Klan church bombing in 1963 in Birmingham that killed 4 innocent young black girls.
A growing number of more militant black leaders, impatient with the many set-backs in the movement and the slow change taking place, started to make their voices heard. They favored a more confrontational approach to protest segregation and racial violence in the South. The Civil Rights Movement was, in fact, splitting up. One of these militant and very outspoken leaders was Malcolm X.
Malcolm X had his first official contact with the civil rights movement in 1965 when he gave a speech in Selma, Alabama to a black audience at Brown Chapel. It was here that he urged people to take their freedom by any means they could. He, for one, did not intend to use nonviolence and criticized King for doing so. McWhorter describes the pose that Malcolm X struck on stage. "He was fierce, aggressive, antiviolence, and not even Christian" (p. 123). His stance was revolutionary. Malcolm X was a clear and ringing voice for social change during the civil rights movement in postwar America. He expressed rage at the slow pace of change for African-Americans in our society. Representing an opposing view to Dr. Martin Luther King's, Malcolm X initially preached racial separation and complete equality by any means necessary. Eventually joining the civil rights bandwagon, he presented himself as the more dynamic alternative to King's moderation. His primary message was to urge African-Americans to close ranks and unite together before aspiring to integrate with white society. Then they might be able to negotiate their relationship more from a position of strength. By highlighting the limitations of the civil rights movement, especially its failure to address the economic deprivation of the northern African-American ghettos, Malcolm X pushed Dr. King toward a more radical and wide-ranging agenda.
Malcolm X was forever listening to and learning from the influences around him. His ability to grow and change because of new life experiences and insights he gained are legendary. Arthur Diamond highlights this ability in his book,
Malcolm X: A Voice for Black America,
when he says about him: "One quality that he consistently showed in his life was his ability to change: to listen, to accept that he was wrong, to learn, and to grow" (p. 114). Malcolm X's rigid stance toward segregation, for example, softened as his knowledge and varied experiences grew. "By 1965 Malcolm's philosophy had grown closer to King's vision of a just, multiracial society" (Whorter 2004, p. 127). As a result of his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca where he interacted with Muslims of many races, he came back to America reconsidering his anti-white stand (McWhorter 2004, p. 127). His changing views also led to his split with the Nation of Islam. One wonders what new growth and changes in philosophy that Malcolm X might have undergone and the impact he might have had on the civil rights movement had he not met his untimely, violent death on February 21, 1965.
Plateaus and Pivotal Events
Malcolm X entered his first plateau when as a young teenager he dropped out of school and began a life of street crime. At 16 he began drinking and taking drugs. Never sticking with any job for very long, in Harlem he began to hustle marijuana. He was fascinated by all the con men he met and like them he began to live by his wits, selling drugs and living the 'fast' life. At 21, however, he was arrested for a string of burglaries and was given a ten-year prison sentence at Charlestown State Prison. The pivotal event during this time was his prison experience where he learned about the Nation of Islam. Malcolm was reborn and stated that the teachings of its leader, Elijah Muhammad, "hit him like a blinding light" (Cwiklik 1991, p. 17). While in prison Malcolm X reformed his life and at 27 was released from prison on parole.
Malcolm entered his second plateau when he moved to Detroit and joined the Nation of Islam. He was very impressed with how Nation members followed a strict moral code which included not smoking or drinking. He marveled at the way they took pride in their black heritage. Like them, Malcolm X came to believe white people were all white devils who had brainwashed blacks and kept them in a subservient position. The pivotal event for Malcolm was when he actually met the leader of the Nation of Islam. "Malcolm was not prepared for the wave of emotions he felt when he finally met Elijah Muhammad and heard him speak. 'I worshiped him,' he later said" (Cwiklik 1991, p. 18). Malcolm X was soon named a minister of the organization and gave many fiery speeches. He was responsible for recruiting many new members.
The third plateau that Malcolm entered began with his gradual disillusionment with Elijah Muhammad. Suspended by his leader from the ministry in 1963 for his remarks on the assassination of President Kennedy, Malcolm began to feel the growing tension between them. Other members of the Nation started viewing him as a competitor and the newspaper,
which he had started, began denouncing him as a traitor. What particularly shocked him were the rumors that there was a conspiracy among his Muslim brothers to kill him. Jack Rummel in his book,
Malcolm X: Militant Black Leader,
uses a quote from one of Malcolm's writings to express how devastated Malcolm felt over this turn of events. He said, "I felt like something in
had failed--like the sun or the stars" (p. 90). He resigned from the Nation in March 1964. The pivotal event for Malcolm was when he left the Nation of Islam. No longer influenced by his leader's philosophy, Malcolm began to experience real freedom of thought and in widening his horizons started thinking about the black struggle for independence in international terms. Also, his interest in traditional Islam grew. Malcolm X went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. It was here that he learned abut the ideals of love and of brotherhood of true Islam. He became aware of how Elijah Muhammad had simply changed such teachings to suit his purposes. Although still not an advocate of integration, "he realized that white people weren't all devils, and that peace and understanding among all peoples was the highest goal" (Cwiklik 1991, p. 26). It must be said, however, that even though many of his beliefs changed once he left the Nation of Islam, his primary message stayed the same--that is, that blacks would only achieve freedom by fighting for it.
I will include the following response journal questions for my students to select from during their biography readings:
Write an entry that could have appeared in Malcolm X's journal during the time when
· he was living the fast life in Harlem.
· he was put in prison for robbery.
· he learned about the Nation of Islam from his brother.
How did Malcolm's beliefs about the plight of black people affect his actions? If you could have written Malcolm X a letter during his lifetime, what two questions would you ask him? Describe how Malcolm X changed over time. What type of leader do you think Malcolm was? Use information from the biography to explain your answer.
To help my students better appreciate and understand the momentous changes that Malcolm X went through in his life, I plan to have them record, compare and reflect on the numerous stages of his life after reading a biography in a guided reading setting. I will use a comparison matrix as included in Marzano et. al.'s aforementioned book. Lesson Plan II details this procedure.