Malcolm X and Intellectual Courage

As a professional student of American history, there are many reasons why I have an enormous respect for Malcolm X. The most powerful of these reasons, however, is also the simplest: he was a man who never feared to change his mind.

Think about that for a moment. How hard is it, sometimes, to admit changing our minds—even to our own trusted family and friends? To say to the people whose opinions we value, “I was wrong, and this is why”? How much harder to say those same words to an audience of millions of strangers; strangers already predisposed to judge your every word, your every weakness?

It would scare most of us. It would scare me. It never scared Malcolm X.

His career was an extraordinary one. Born into a poor African-American household in Omaha in 1925, turning to petty crime as a teen, six years in prison as a young adult, conversion to the Nation of Islam and embarking an ambitious path to self-taught intellectualism while still in jail—and emerging as a national NOI leader within just a year or two of his release. For context, the Nation of Islam was a strict Muslim sect for people of African descent in the United States, led by prophet Elijah Muhammad and preaching total racial separation to protect blacks from white control. The white race was inherently evil, with no hope for change. African-Americans needed to insulate themselves and focus on purification and self-help. The NOI eschewed all participation in the American political system (even in the North, where blacks could vote). As a young man in the early 1950s, struggling to break out of the box his skin color and background placed him in, Malcolm X was convinced the Nation offered the singular path to salvation for himself and all his race.

As the 50s rolled on towards the 60s, however, he became less sure.

It was a slow process. Malcolm wasn’t one to stop and change on a dime, but he was one to carefully and painstakingly question received orthodoxy for its relation to objective truth, if given a reason. And that’s what happened here. Over time, Malcolm came to doubt the wisdom of the NOI’s program of total isolation for blacks, and to question Elijah Muhammad’s integrity as a spiritual leader. He involved himself more in mainstream American politics, and to call on the African-American community to use their votes (where they could) to effect change. The Nation abhorred his new path; and Malcolm was well aware their displeasure could turn violent. But it didn’t stop him.

His ultimate break with the Nation, and Nation philosophy, came in 1964, when he made a pilgrimage to Mecca and experienced the power of Islamic universalism for the first time. Among a global family of Muslims joining to honor their Creator, Malcolm realized, race no longer mattered. In his own words: “I have eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass, slept on the same bed or rug, while praying to the same God … with fellow Muslims whose skins was the whitest of white, whose eyes were the bluest of blue … [and for] the first time in my life … I didn’t see them as ‘white’ men.”

He made words like these public and quoted everywhere. They were the direct opposite of everything Malcolm X had stood for, for so long, in the minds of Americans both black and white. Did America laugh at him for changing his mind? Did America see him as a ‘flake’ or a charlatan who couldn’t take a single stand on anything? Maybe. But that wasn’t what Malcolm cared about. He only cared about finding truth.

This didn’t mean Malcolm ever backed down from his fight for racial justice. His calls for radical change in the American system stayed as loud and forthright as always. He supported socialism; black internationalism; anti-colonial revolution. To many, he was dangerous. To many, he was inflammatory. But now he was inflammatory with a difference: he was willing to accept as comrades members of all races—anyone sincere in their desire to build a better world. White, black, or other. That part no longer mattered. What mattered was a passion for change.

Malcolm paid for his new open-mindedness with his life.

The Nation was an armed cult, and they could not tolerate such a high-profile defection as this. Who gave the order, or who approved the plan, we do not know, but NOI members shot Malcolm X to death on February 21, 1965. He was not quite forty years old.

When Ossie Davis, speaking at his funeral, stood up and proclaimed, “Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood,” he spoke only the truth. Malcolm was a man, in every sense of the word—in all its best senses, from his devotion to hard work, to his disciplined lifestyle, to his assiduous protection of his family from NOI death threats in the year leading up to his murder. There’s a reason why his most famous photograph shows him with a gun in hand, peering through the living-room curtains to scan the street for threats. But when I think of Malcolm, the man, I think of something a little different; no more important, no less important.

I think about his intellectual courage.

I think about his fearlessness in changing his mind.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Prescott is a former homeschool student and current graduate student, pursuing a master’s degree in American history with a focus on immigration studies.  In her (sadly limited) free time, she can usually be found listening to “Hamilton” or Celine Dion or Twenty One Pilots and dreaming up new ideas for historical fiction novels.  Which, she hopes, will someday make her famous.  Someday… She also blogs.

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