In honor of Black History Month, introduce your students to the charismatic and controversial civil rights leader Malcolm X. In this video, fifty years after the death of civil rights leader Malcolm X, his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz talks about his life and legacy. The slideshow dives deeper into the evolution of Malcolm X’s message.
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Display this photograph, and ask students if they can identify this person. Ask them what they know about him.
If they are unable to identify him, show this additional image to provide historical context.
Introduce these vocabulary words and key terms to students before viewing the video.
Share this slideshow to provide students with the history of Malcolm X and his involvement in the civil rights movement.
“One of the first principles of non-violence,” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “is a willingness to be the recipient of violence while never inflicting violence upon another.” During the civil rights movement of the 1960s activists who followed Dr. King and other civil rights leaders trained each other to tolerate the abuses they expected to experience without losing their temper.
But not all black leaders embraced nonviolence. “The goal of Dr. Martin Luther King is to get Negroes to forgive the people who have brutalized them for 400 years,” said Malcolm X. “We have thought that it was godlike to turn the other cheek to the brute that was brutalizing us…. We should have the right to defend ourselves also.”
Malcolm X didn’t want blacks to integrate into white society, but to build up black society. “I realized that I couldn’t be anybody by begging the white man for what he had, but that I had to get out here and try and do something for myself,” he said. But his view that blacks were better than whites sparked controversy.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little. His father, Earl Little, was a leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) founded by Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey. Earl Little’s activism came at a cost: he received constant death threats from the Ku Klux Klan and was killed when Malcolm was six. Malcolm believed that white supremacists were responsible.
Malcolm was one of the best students in his eighth grade class, but when a teacher told him that his dream of becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a [expletive],” he dropped out. Convinced there was no way for blacks to succeed legitimately, he became a criminal. In 1946, he was arrested for burglary and sentenced to 8-10 years in prison.
In prison, Malcolm learned about religious leader Elijah Muhammad, who taught that Islam had been the religion of African blacks before slavery and should be a source of pride for American blacks. Malcolm converted and changed his last name from Little, which he called his slave name, to X, which stood for his unknown African name.
In 1952, Malcolm X left prison and moved to Harlem in New York City, where he became a minister of Elijah Muhammad’s black militant organization Nation of Islam (NOI). He began recruiting, increasing NOI membership from 400 to 40,000 and establishing more than 100 mosques throughout the U.S.
But the Nation of Islam’s philosophy of self-defense was risky and brought it into conflict with police. In 1962, Los Angeles police officers stopped and searched NOI members delivering dry cleaning to a mosque. There was a struggle that ended in a police raid on the mosque, the shooting of seven NOI members, and death of NOI official Ronald Stokes.
Malcolm X wanted to work with other civil rights leaders to respond to the incident, but Elijah Muhammad vetoed the idea. The disagreement created a rift between them that only grew. In 1964, Malcolm X called Elijah Muhammad corrupt, left the Nation of Islam, and formed a rival group called the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
That same year he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where other Muslim pilgrims changed his ideas about race. “They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black skinned Africans, but… displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe could never exist between the white and the non-white,” he wrote.
But when he returned home, he was under attack from former NOI allies who now saw him as a traitor. His house was firebombed while he and his family slept. They barely managed to escape. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was speaking to a crowd of OAAU members when he was assassinated by gunmen with ties to the NOI.
Malcolm X was a controversial leader, but he left behind a legacy of pride. At a time when mainstream American culture lacked the perspective of those in the minority, he inspired not just black, but ultimately also Latino, Native American and Gay and Lesbian writers, artists and thinkers to enter the conversation and to each speak in his or her own voice.
Use these discussion prompts for whole class, think-pair-share or small group discussions.
Students work with a partner or small group to create a brief timeline of key events in Malcolm X’s life. Students should use details from the video and slideshow to form responses.
Students read this letter, then answer the questions below.
Ask students the following question and have them share their thoughts on an exit ticket:
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