al_calloway_web.jpgEditor’s Note: This is the first of two parts.

May 19 will mark the 87th anniversary of Malcolm Little’s birth. He came to us in the flesh on that date and through an Earth–life of 39 years, extinguished by his murder, had shed personas perhaps more than any other living thing, ever.

While it is somewhat known that during his physical sojourn with us Malcolm Little transitioned to Malcolm X and finally as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, little known are the real life changes he went through to be the wondrous short-lived butterfly he became.

Malcolm X was one of eight children of homemaker Louise Norton Little and Earl Little, a Baptist preacher, civil rights activist and follower of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey in the white nationalist bastion of Omaha, Neb.  Before Malcolm was 4, the family had to move twice due to death threats from white supremacists.

The “Christian” white people who craved democracy and law and order gave Malcolm’s father a final warning by burning down the family’s Lansing, Mich., home in 1929. Two years later, the Rev. Earl Little’s body was found on Lansing’s trolley tracks.  Police officials said that both the house burning and killing were accidents.

Malcolm’s mother, Louise, who was the progeny of a white man who raped her mother in the West Indies, tried to keep the large family together after her husband’s apparent assassination. But, after a few very hard years, she broke down mentally and spent the rest of her life institutionalized.

White nationalists conducted no investigation to find family members who would take the eight children of the Little family and they were split up and sent to various state orphanages and boarding homes for blacks. When Malcolm finally got a chance to go to school, he was older than other youngsters but proved to be very bright and got good grades.

Malcolm harbored a dream of becoming a lawyer and finished junior high school at the top of his class. He dropped out of school at 15 when a teacher he respected most told him that trying to become a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger.” Malcolm got to his elder sister’s place in Boston, Mass., and found work at menial jobs reserved for blacks.

Being resourceful, Malcolm became a dining car crew member on trains to New York and soon became a night club waiter in Harlem, where he observed the hustling game and transitioned to the underworld of gambling, drugs, prostitution, pimping and burglary.

In 1946, not yet quite 21, Malcolm was arrested for burglary in Boston and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served seven years before being paroled. Being bright, he used the time in prison to read incessantly.  Reginald, one of Malcolm’s brothers, regularly visited him in prison and turned him on to the Nation of Islam (NOI). 

Malcolm became a devoted follower of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad and subsequently the leading minister of the movement and official spokesman for “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.” However, Malcolm X continued to grow spiritually and intellectually (which I think are two aspects of the same quality) and, as a result, engendered resentment from others within the NOI hierarchy who looked for an opportunity to bring him down.

They succeeded in doing more. On Feb. 21, 1965, a week before the end of Black History Month, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, New York City, in front of hundreds as he began to speak. The three black assassins convicted of pumping 15 bullets into him were Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, all members of the NOI. They were convicted of murder in March 1966.

Not only should we never forget Malcolm X; we should never forget things he said, such as the following: “Human rights are something you were born with. Human rights are your God-given rights.  .  .  .”

Al Calloway is a long-time journalist who began his career with the Atlanta Inquirer during the early 1960s civil rights struggle. He may be reached at