Shortly after arriving at New York’s Kennedy Airport on May 21, 1964, Malcolm X was greeted by the largest throng of newspaper reporters he had ever seen. At first, he looked around curiously, thinking that they must be there for some celebrity who had been on his flight. But soon he realized they were there for him. Malcolm X had just returned from his trip to Mecca and other parts of the Holy Land. He had also visited several nations in Africa. The reporters knew that the American Muslim leader had made a stir in the world and that from his published “Letter from Mecca,” he seemed to have gone through some sort of transformation or awakening.
Was it true, they asked, that he now accepted White men as brothers? Malcolm responded that his thinking had been broadened and that he had been “blessed … with a new insight.” “In two weeks in the Holy Land,” he explained, “I saw what I had never seen in 39 years in America. I saw all races, all colors — blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans — in true brotherhood! In unity! Living as one! Worshipping as one!”
Malcolm X continued: “I know now that some White people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a Black man. The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all White people is as wrong as when Whites make blanket indictments against Blacks.”
Indeed, Malcolm X had also traveled to the mountaintop, like Dr. Martin Luther King, where he saw something similar, which was a diverse humanity respecting and embracing each other in brotherhood and sisterhood. But for him, it was a literal mountaintop experience, not just a vision, one that he could see, touch, smell and be in communion and relationship with.
A change inside for a change outside
As much as Malcolm was changed by what he had experienced on his spiritual and experiential journey, he nevertheless made it clear that he was now “back in America” and that his attitude toward White people had to be informed by “the White man’s (deeply rooted) racism toward the Black man” in this country. If the press was hoping that day for a message of reconciliation, they were sorely disappointed, as the leader, in a burning critique, lambasted racism in America, along with the racism of Whites globally and their attempts to dominate African and African-heritage peoples. He also made it clear that, “non-White peoples of the world are sick of the condescending White man!” And in what would be his approach in dealing with White racism in the U.S., Malcolm asked the reporters rhetorically, “Can you imagine what would happen … if all of these African-heritage peoples ever realize their blood bonds, if they ever realize they all have a common goal — if they ever unite?”
Malcolm had changed, but just not in the mold of Dr. King, as some were hoping or even anticipating. While his intense critique of White racism in America remained the same, one of the greatest changes for Malcolm was that his toolbox of options for change became larger. While he still advocated for American Black solidarity in the U.S., he now urged for a greater solidarity, or Pan-Africanism, that would include African Americans and Africans. He soon created a formal structure known as the Organization of African American Unity to link with the Organization of African Unity. And although Malcolm believed that national and international unity of Blacks was crucial, he held open the possibility that others, including Whites, could work together for change if they were sincere, though he encouraged them to work to eradicate racism within White communities. In other words, he had now moved from no possibility of Black and White cooperation to alliance-building across racial lines.
And while his critique of racist Whites remained as harsh as ever, he no longer used dehumanizing metaphors about Whites in general. Perhaps most significantly, Malcolm X’s understanding of the nature of race relations moved past the Black-White dichotomy and became an issue of human rights and dignity, though he would still advocate the importance of creating Black identity and solidarity. He began to speak increasingly of human beings, rather than of Blacks and Whites, declaring that “human beings should be respected as such, regardless of color.” In short, some of the dualities that were in tension for Malcolm before his trip, and that were irreconcilable or not considered, were now more fluid and were seen together as a spectrum of possibilities. As Malcolm now made clear, “I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
There were several things that contributed to Malcolm’s change, including his time in Africa after Mecca, and even an introspective journey before his trip. But one of the most important, I believe, was the religion of Islam, both in his study of the Holy Quran, which he had been doing for sometime, and in his experience of the best of an embodied Islam at Mecca and in the Holy Land. As Malcolm explained, “My thinking has been opened up wide in Mecca … It has forced me to rearrange much of my own thought patterns, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions.”
The inhuman and human experience
The deep, personal significance of Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca can perhaps be best understood when we contrast it with his own world that not only rejected the oneness of humanity, a foundational teaching of Islam, but intentionally divided and dehumanized others because of their color. The Christian American world that Malcolm had stepped out of had been a profoundly disruptive and painful one from his childhood forward. His family had been the victims of racial violence, as the KKK terrorized them with threats and violence. When Malcolm was only 6, his father, Earl Little, was killed, reportedly by accident, but suspected by some to have been the target of racist Whites. While Malcolm’s mother, Louise, tried to keep the family going, Malcolm recalled her belittlement and humiliation by White officials as she tried to get assistance. Eventually her depression grew overwhelming and Louise went to a psychiatric hospital, where she spent the rest of her life. Having lost his parents, Malcolm soon lost the rest of his family as he and his siblings were split up and shipped off to live in different foster homes. Although Malcolm immersed himself in school, becoming class president of his all-White eighth-grade class, racism reared its ugly head again and was reinforced when he was told that his dream to become a lawyer was “not something for a Negro to aspire to.” Eventually Malcolm’s life spiraled into crime and drugs until he ended up in prison.
Thus, with his own painful and likely traumatic background and racist America as a backdrop and contrast, the diversity and universality of Mecca must have been a personally liberating experience on different levels, allowing him to at least begin to release what he described as blind anger. We get a sense of this from his letters and autobiography, where for the first time in his life, he felt like a “complete human being,” and where he was “utterly speechless and spellbound” by all the colors and nationalities who worshiped and lived together on the pilgrimage.
The sacred text of the Holy Quran and the sacred experience of Mecca and the Holy Land provided Malcolm with a vision, and even a model for a nation and a world where racial coexistence and equality might become a possibility. It had given him “insight and perspective to see that the Black men and White men truly could be brothers.” This was a shift for Malcolm from a vision of strict racial separatism to one of possible racial coexistence.
And while Malcolm would advocate more than ever bringing together peoples of African heritage to build Black solidarity — which seemed exclusive and to contradict the universality taught by Islam, as Muslim leaders had pointed out critically during his time — it was for him a necessary step in the real world, or a means by which to gain respect “as human beings” who have been dehumanized by White supremacy. While there were certainly unresolved tensions in Malcolm’s thinking between Black Nationalism and Islam, he believed that African Americans and Africans had to first come together and break free of White control, physically and narratively. They had to become makers and controllers of their own destiny, reclaim their humanity, eradicate racial barriers and move toward that greater vision of coexistence.
Malcolm’s thought journey
Of course, Malcolm had been on the path of transformation even before his trip to Mecca. At least as early as 1963, almost a year before his pilgrimage, he was cautiously moving away from a blanket condemnation of the Civil Rights Movement and toward the possibility of working with others, some in the mainstream struggle. He was also questioning his view that all Whites were inherently racist and evil, which he had long touted as the spokesman of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. And while Malcolm would always insist on the right to self-defense in response to the physical and psychological violence of White racism, he was willing to accommodate peaceful change. Less than a week before he traveled to Mecca, he offered the possibility of a “bloodless revolution” that could be strategically achieved through the political process, a departure from his earlier insistence that Black freedom could only be achieved by a violent revolution.
This shift was influenced by an introspective journey in which he was drifting away from the exclusionary doctrines of the Nation of Islam toward the universality of Orthodox Islam. This journey appears to have been inspired early on by what Malcolm described as Muslim students who would challenge his “White-indicting statements” as being inconsistent with true Islam. Among them was a determined Sudanese Muslim student from Dartmouth College, Ashk-Mid Os-Mahn, who over the course of two years would share Islamic literature with Malcolm. While Malcolm admittedly bristled at their challenges, these encounters led him into a deeper exploration of Islam.
It is not clear when Malcolm began to assiduously read and study the Holy Quran, along with other Orthodox Islamic literature. There is a well-worn and marked up copy of his Quran in a vault at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, but it is not clear when he began to read it. Shortly after his break with the Nation of Islam in March 1964, and a little over a month before his trip to Mecca, Malcolm became reacquainted with Dr. Mahh-Mood Shawarbi, an Egyptian Muslim scholar and director of the Islamic Foundation. Shawarbi served as a tutor to Malcolm in the weeks leading up to his pilgrimage, helping to deepen his knowledge and understanding of Islam. Shawarbi was impressed by Malcolm’s devotion and commitment to learn about Islam and how he would sometimes “cry while passages of the Holy Quran were being read.”
Malcolm’s study appears to have continued on the plane ride to Jeddah, which was the place of embarkation for his journey to Mecca. Shawarbi had given him a newly released book, The Eternal Message of Muhammad, written by the former secretary-general of the Arab League who had requested that the book be given to Malcolm. In his autobiography, Malcolm mentions that he had read the book during his flight, although it is not clear how much or how little. Whatever the case, The Eternal Message of Muhammad is a slim but substantive volume that both highlights and stresses with eloquence and clarity many of the important themes and teachings of Islam, along with its history. Importantly for Malcolm’s journey, this book emphasized the teaching of universal brotherhood and equality in Islam. Both brotherhood and equality were two things denied to Blacks in Christian America, but in Islam, stressed the author, they were essential to being a Muslim, which, of course, resonated deeply with Malcolm. He would have also read or been reminded of, among other things, the importance of peace and mercy in Islam, as well as the right to self-defense in response to oppression and persecution. And if Malcolm had made it to the last part of The Eternal Message of Muhammad, he would have seen his own opinions expressed in the author’s thoughtful indictment of the evils of colonialism and racism, and how they were inconsistent with true Islam.
Mecca and the exploration of Islam inspired Malcolm, by his own admission and his subsequent actions, to make his way from the margins of separatism into the greater world of humanity
Malcolm had also been interacting with Sunni and Ahmadiyya Muslims for years, according to a contact at Schomburg. All things considered, he was essentially already an Orthodox Muslim who was questioning and releasing many of the exclusive teachings of Elijah Muhammad, while moving toward a broader worldview. This has led some critics to suggest that Malcolm exaggerated the change that took place in Mecca, particularly when he declared that his trip had forced him to change his thinking. Some have also been critical of Malcolm’s idealistic and overly romantic descriptions of the Muslim world by generalizing its social leveling through the lens of Mecca, rather than the more complex realities of everyday living within Muslim lands and societies.
Malcolm was concerned with changing his image, and Mecca was the opportunity to do that, particularly as a way to announce his definitive shift from the sectarianism of the Nation of Islam to the universality of Orthodox Islam. Nevertheless, I believe his journey to Mecca and other parts of the Holy Land was undertaken in a spirit genuine reverence and that it was every bit of the eye- and heart-opening event that he bountifully describes in his letters, diaries and autobiography. It was a life-altering event whose significance he shared with several friends, including Maya Angelou when he spent time with her in Africa after his pilgrimage. Before then, his journey to Orthodox Islam had been mostly by reading and learning from others here and there, as we have seen. And before that, while in the Nation of Islam, it had been intertwined with and even supplanted by the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. In short, Malcolm had experienced Islam in fragments. By contrast, Mecca presented Malcolm with an embodied Islamic experience that was, as he described it, “a single, vast whole.” It was a living and vibrant experience that led to a recovery of a greater sense of his own humanity as well as his religious identity as a Muslim. Shortly after his return, Malcolm told an interviewer, “The religion of Islam actually restores one’s human feelings — human rights, human incentives — his talent.” Far away from racist America, Mecca was an open space where Malcolm was absorbed into a great unity of humanity, not as a Black man, but as a man and, even more, as a human being. It was the world and the vision that until then, he had doubted was possible. The spiritual experience at Mecca freed him, moreover, to think and to act more broadly and strategically on behalf of African Americans when he returned to the U.S.
The Mecca experience
In regards to Malcolm idealizing Mecca, it is unlikely that he was oblivious that Muslim societies, like any other society, had their own problems and were not utopias. According to one of Malcolm’s colleagues, Malcolm would “not be fooled by the window dressing of Mecca,” a simplistic statement made by someone painfully unacquainted with the significance of Mecca, but it perhaps reveals that Malcolm was anything but naive. Malcolm certainly took advantage of giving the impression that the Muslim world was “colorblind” to offer an indicting contrast to the racist Christian world in America.
But the reality was that Mecca did present something vastly different and unprecedented in the U.S., or anywhere in the fractured Christian world for that matter: It offered a global unifying event that brought together people from all over the Muslim world stripped of any outward sign of social or economic status. And while the Islamic world was not without its problems, Malcolm believed that Islam came much closer than Christianity in transcending racial distinctions and by calling for the unity of all human beings. This did not mean that Malcolm did not hold his faith and its adherents accountable for what he perceived as shortcomings. Back in the U.S., he challenged Muslims globally for not doing more to combat the racism and injustices faced by African Americans and Africans, calling on Muslims to not only be concerned about orthodoxy, but to also make a greater commitment to making Islam a living reality.
When Malcolm stepped back into America after his return from Mecca and Africa, he stepped beyond the limitations of the past
Mecca and the exploration of Islam inspired Malcolm, by his own admission and his subsequent actions, to make his way from the margins of separatism into the greater world of humanity. As he explained in his autobiography, “True Islam taught me that it takes all of the religious, political, economic, psychological and racial ingredients, or characteristics, to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.” Malcolm’s world had shifted significantly from the narrow-skin of the Nation of Islam to one that stretched toward inclusion and ecumenism. “Since I learned the truth in Mecca,” Malcolm wrote, “my dearest friends have come to include all kinds — some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists. … My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!”
Bringing something different to the table
When Malcolm stepped back into America after his return from Mecca and Africa, he stepped beyond the limitations of the past. The diverse unity he witnessed and participated during his pilgrimage to Mecca, along with the teaching of unity and brotherhood in Islam, transformed his heart and inspired him to seek unity in the Black struggle in the U.S. and abroad. He now gave full support to all Black organizations fighting segregation and working to empower African Americans. Malcolm made a public appeal to Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement: “I am not out to fight other Negro leaders and organizations,” he explained. “We must find a common approach, a common solution, to a common problem.” He also spoke of common ground where they all wanted the same thing, which was the “recognition and respect as human beings.”
What Malcolm now brought to the struggle, as we mentioned earlier, was an expanded framework and more possibilities. He called for linking the American Civil Rights Movement with the struggles for liberation in Africa “to establish direct lines of communication between the independent nations of Africa and the American Black people.” He importantly began to recast civil rights as human rights. With this call for a greater sense of unity and cohesion among oppressed and formerly oppressed peoples, and the struggle now broadly defined with a framework of human rights, Malcolm believed that together they could take the violation of human rights of African Americans before the United Nations and bring global pressure to help eradicate racial injustice in America. While he still supported Black nationalism, during the last several months of his life, he was using this reference less, and employing the language of human rights more and more.
When Malcolm called for unity among African Americans and Africans, while this included Blacks, it also transcended color, which is often overlooked. His awakening in Mecca and trip to Africa convinced him that his Pan-Africanism must include Whites as well as Blacks. Islam was made up of peoples of all colors; and some African and Middle Eastern nations included Muslim peoples and leaders who were White or White-complexioned, which reinforced his Mecca experience. While in Ghana, for example, Malcolm had met with the Algerian ambassador, whom he described as a White man. The ambassador challenged Malcolm for casting the struggle of liberation in the language of Black nationalism and explained how that left people like him out, “alienating … revolutionaries dedicated to overturning the system of exploitation.”
Thus, Malcolm came back to the U.S. still committed to a version of Black nationalism while moving the struggle into a broader and more inclusive context. His outspoken advocacy to transform the Civil Rights Movement into a Human Rights Movement captured the imaginations of many Civil Rights participants in America, including Dr. King. In an interview, Dr. Cornell West talked about an FBI phone recording between Dr. King and Malcolm, dated June 27, 1964. Dr. King had called Malcolm in hopes of collaborating. He told Malcolm that he wanted to join him in putting the U.S. on trial for the violation of human rights.
Malcolm also moved from criticizing Dr. King and civil rights leaders to publicly defending them, essentially letting them and their enemies know, in the words of Dr. West, that he and his fellow Muslims had their backs. This was the other option that Malcolm wanted to include with nonviolence in the movement. But I believe Malcolm used defensive threat force very skillfully and strategically to persuade Whites to respond to Dr. King’s nonviolent demands, which places him more deeply within the currents of the Civil Rights Movement. He wanted the White opposition to believe that he was the alternative they did not want, and thus his use of defensive threat-force was his way to bolster the possibility of nonviolent change and thus a deterrent to violence. As he said to Coretta Scott King in Selma, “If the White people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”
There is also something in this that may be consistent with Islam, which may have also influenced Malcolm. The Holy Quran supports the right of those who are persecuted and oppressed to defend themselves using force. But the physical force is to be balanced and proportional and only used defensively against injustice. Also, when a person is given permission to respond to wrongs committed against them, they are also taught that it is still better to forgive. “This is one of the things that I love about the Muslim religion,” Malcolm explained in an interview. “It’s a religion of peace … don’t initiate acts of aggression; don’t attack people indiscriminately. … But at the same time, the religion of Islam gives one the right to fight when he’s fought against.” It seems likely that Malcolm’s options of physical self-defense and finding a way to work within the political system as well his use of tactical threat to essentially end persecution without bloodshed, were inspired by his renewal in Orthodox Islam and injunctions in the Holy Quran. In short, his expanded options seem consistent with the permissibility of options found in this sacred text.
Let me also stress that Malcolm never advocated wanton or offensive violence. I like the way Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. rescues this distorted image in his book, On the Side of My People. He writes, “Malcolm X lived an essentially nonviolent life without committing himself to philosophical pacifism. Contrary to all the distorted, sensational characterizations by the press, Malcolm was consistently committed to dialogue, education, debate, and religious critique — all constructive, civilized, and acceptable forms of dissent.”
During the last year of his life — in between trips to Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and while rejecting strict nonviolence — Malcolm lent his voice and body to nonviolent dialogue and protest. In addition to his support for working within the political system, one of his biggest steps into the movement occurred when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee invited him to go to Selma, Alabama, to address gatherings of young activists involved in a voting rights campaign.
And it was in Selma, less than three weeks before his assassination, where Malcolm, I believe, more fully merges with the Civil Rights Movement while at the same time pushing it beyond its limitations. Indeed, just his presence in Selma, particularly as a guest of the SNCC, was a sign that the movement was outgrowing its shell. Here Malcolm publicly advocated for the ballot, even declaring that, “Dr. King is absolutely right” in fighting for the right to vote. But at the same time, he made it clear that he supported the right to self-defense in the face of White aggression, that nonviolence is unacceptable when people are being attacked, and he sent a message to the local White power structure that it would do well to give Dr. King what he wanted or the ballot would be achieved another way. Malcolm then moved from the domestic sphere to the international one while in Selma, declaring publicly that he would be working to take the U.S. before the United Nations on charges of violating the human rights of African Americans. Finally, in this area of racial strife, Malcolm dovetailed into a call, which is really the vision that he had carried back from Mecca, for “a society of human beings that can practice brotherhood.”
In conclusion, while there are many important social and political forces that shaped Malcolm’s thinking, it was his journey to Orthodox Islam, particularly the diversity of an embodied Islam, that had touched the very core of his being. It freed him like nothing else could to think more broadly and within a greater international and humanitarian context, while at the same time remaining the evocative critic of racism in the United States and world.
*Essay presented at the 2014 Earlham College Mississippi Freedom Summer Conference, 1964-2014
*Image: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X on March 26, 1964. Photo via Marion S. Trikosko.