In 1953, Malcolm quit his job with Ford Motor Company to devote all his time to studying with Elijah Muhammad in preparation for becoming a Black Muslim minister. Chapter Thirteen follows the growth of the organization from this time, and Malcolm’s increasing importance in it, until the Muslims first began to attract widespread attention in 1959.
When Malcolm’s study with Elijah Muhammad was complete, Malcolm was sent to Boston, where within three months he opened a temple. During the short time he was minister of this mosque, Ella would often come to hear him speak, but she was never among those who stood at the end of the service to join the Nation of Islam. Ella was interested, but cautious, and as was later proved, she was far too independent to be satisfied in so restrictive a group as the Black Muslims.
Malcolm was next assigned to Philadelphia, then to the temple in Harlem. Here he attempted to look up old acquaintances, but he found that Sammy was dead and that West Indian Archie was dying. The fate of these other hustlers confirmed Malcolm’s opinion that Allah had rescued him from criminal life before it was too late.
As he had done elsewhere, Malcolm emphasized recruitment in the Harlem temple, and here he began to perfect his techniques. Rather than simply approaching people in the streets, he began to rely upon other organizations. He had some success with black nationalist meetings, but his best source for new recruits was the Christian churches. The congregations of these churches were composed mostly of southerners, who were always ready to listen to “good preaching”; they were eager to attend the Muslim services and many joined. Malcolm notes that one problem of recruitment was the strict moral code of the Nation of Islam; most Harlemites were unwilling to give up so much for their religion. In addition to his recruitment activities in Harlem, Malcolm organized several new temples around the country during this time. Still, however, he was dissatisfied with the slow growth of the movement.
At the Harlem temple, Malcolm met a nursing student, Betty X. Since his release from prison, Malcolm had had little to do with women; his previous experiences had made him cynical. But he eventually overcame his reluctance and, with Elijah Muhammad’s approval, they were married in January 1958.
The Muslims were vaulted into national prominence by an incident in which a Muslim was beaten and arrested by the New York police. Malcolm seized upon the incident to provoke a confrontation with the police. This affair ended peacefully, but it made the police aware of the Muslims as a potential political force and prepared the way for the sporadic violence that flared up over the next few years.
Chapter Fourteen deals mainly with the increasing publicity given the Muslims during the years 1959 through 1961. The major sources of this publicity were a television program entitled “The Hate That Hate Produced,” Dr. C. Eric Lincoln’s book The Black Muslims in America, which gave the Nation of Islam its popular name, and the newspaper which Malcolm founded, Muhammad Speaks. Public reaction to the Muslims during this time was highly unfavorable; the image of the organization, and especially of Malcolm himself, was one of irrational hatred of white people and of threat and violence. Malcolm’s frequent television appearances, generally expressing a strong anti-integration position, served to focus the hatred and fear of white America upon him as a spokesman for black separatism.
The television documentary had been arranged by Malcolm through a friendly journalist; in its editing, however, it became a sensationalistic program, contrived to give maximum shock value. Its emphasis was upon hatred, upon the Muslims’ anti-white, separatist attitudes, rather than upon the positive social programs or the overall religious nature of the organization. The sensationalism of the program attracted a great deal of attention; overnight, Malcolm and the Muslims were in the national spotlight.
Public reaction to Dr. Lincoln’s book was much the same. Reviewers praised the book but quoted only those sections of it which emphasized the anti-white attitudes of the Nation of Islam. It served to add more fuel to the flames of anger rising against the organization, and it gave them a popular name which they did not particularly approve of — Black Muslims.
Malcolm had been writing newspaper columns as a Muslim spokesman and had learned something about newspaper publishing. He put this knowledge to work in founding his own newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. This newspaper, sold on ghetto street corners throughout the country, soon built up a large circulation.
It was during this time that Malcolm made his first trip to Africa, as a representative of Mr. Muhammad. He comments very little upon this first trip, which was uneventful and went unnoticed by the press. This contrasts with the publicity given his later trip, after his pilgrimage to Mecca, when he was greeted as a state visitor throughout his travels.
But all during this period, the Muslims were becoming more widely known through their publishing ventures, Malcolm’s television appearances, and by their mass meetings throughout the country — and as they gained publicity, they came under increasing police surveillance. The police were interested in them mostly because of the number of ex-convicts in the organization, but this increased interest set the stage for the series of violent confrontations between the Muslims and the police in the early sixties.
Malcolm emerged during these years as the chief spokesman for the organization. He was even better-known than Mr. Muhammad himself, and he was gradually delegated more authority in the organization, especially after Elijah Muhammad became ill. Along with this increased authority was the knowledge that people were jealous of him. At the time, however, Malcolm little suspected that Elijah Muhammad himself was becoming jealous, and that this jealousy would result in Malcolm’s expulsion from the Nation of Islam.
The title of Chapter Fifteen is taken from Greek mythology. Icarus and his father, Daedalus, escaped from the labyrinth on the island of Crete by flying with wings made of feathers and wax. Icarus was warned not to fly too high lest the sun’s heat melt the wax and destroy the wings. But Icarus did not heed the warning; he fell into the sea and was drowned. At the end of the chapter, Malcolm thinks of the myth as a warning against taking too much pride in one’s personal achievements. And despite his increasing personal recognition and publicity, which is the main subject of this chapter, Malcolm always tried to remember to give credit to Allah and, until his expulsion from the Nation of Islam, to Elijah Muhammad. But his personal reputation had begun to surpass that of Mr. Muhammad; he was “flying too high” and would have to fall.
Much of the chapter is devoted to contrasting Malcolm’s ideas with those of the integration-oriented “Civil Rights Movement” of the early sixties. Malcolm felt that integration was an impossible goal: at best, white Americans would accept educated, middle-class blacks, but they would never accept the poor, uneducated blacks of the ghettoes. Malcolm was one of the first black militants to point out that the situation in the North was little better than that of the South. The civil rights movement was aimed primarily at improving conditions in the South with the help of northern white liberals. These allies of the civil rights movement were not eager to have the battleground brought home to the North, and they and the black moderates attacked Malcolm for extremism. Part of Malcolm’s tactic was to increase support for the moderates — by taking a more extreme position. He was always careful to distinguish between himself and them in order to force his critics into approving them.
Malcolm’s ideas began to find a wider audience when rioting broke out in the northern ghettoes. Many of his “extreme” statements were confirmed, and more and more blacks began to take similar “separatist” positions. Malcolm’s position, like that of the Nation of Islam, was basically that the black race should be given control of its own communities and institutions, given a chance to form its own separate society — with as little dependence on whites as possible. He saw those blacks who embraced integration as fleeing from themselves out of self-hatred.
Yet Malcolm’s attitude toward whites had begun to moderate. He now considered the white man, collectively, to have acted as the devil; individually, whites could be cleared of responsibility if they held proper attitudes. He had begun to place the blame, not on the individual white man, but upon the structure of society itself. He had begun speaking on college campuses during this time and was surprised to find the audiences less hostile than he expected. He was now beginning to communicate with educated whites and was beginning to realize that some of them did wish to help solve the problems he was dealing with.
Chapter Sixteen, like the preceding chapter, deals with the years 1961 to 1964. But whereas the preceding chapter dealt with Malcolm’s rising reputation and intellectual development during these years, Malcolm now deals with the causes of his split with the Nation of Islam — primarily Elijah Muhammad’s jealousy over his popularity. The chapter deals with his “physical divorce” from the organization, with the “psychological divorce” due to the order for his assassination, and with his decision to found his own independent organization and to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Malcolm’s betrayal by the Muslims led to the final major transformation of his life: as a member of the Nation of Islam, he had spoken on behalf of Elijah Muhammad and had acted according to his will. After his separation from the organization he was, as it were, his own man — able to speak and act for himself.
At the beginning of the chapter, Malcolm re-emphasizes Mr. Muhammad’s absolute control over the Nation of Islam and mentions again the forms of discipline to be used on offenders at Muhammad’s personal discretion. This information is essential to understanding Malcolm’s personal reaction to the rumors about his silencing and the assassination orders. Because all disciplinary powers rested with Elijah Muhammad, there could be no doubt that he was personally responsible for the orders concerning Malcolm. For his own part, Malcolm again reasserts his personal fidelity to Elijah Muhammad at this time. Apart from some reservations about the organization’s hesitance to take direct action upon its beliefs, Malcolm was completely faithful to the Nation of Islam until he learned of the assassination plot against himself.
During the early part of this period, Malcolm began to notice that his role in the organization was being underplayed and that he was being openly criticized for his notoriety by other ministers. For a time, he did his best to avoid notoriety, and this tactic seemed to work. Late in 1963, Elijah Muhammad proclaimed Malcolm the first National Minister of the Nation of Islam, but this meeting was the last occasion at which the two men were to appear in public together.
The rumors of Elijah Muhammad’s adultery surfaced again — and Malcolm confirmed that they were true. But rather than reject his leader, Malcolm assisted him in finding justifications for his sins in the Bible and the Quran (the Muslim holy book). These arguments were used, but they were coupled with attacks upon Malcolm by other Muslims, to help draw attention away from the publicity concerning Elijah Muhammad.
The occasion for Malcolm’s silencing came on December 1, 1963, when he described the assassination of President Kennedy as a case of “chickens coming home to roost.” By this, he meant that the climate of violence in America had begun to claim the nation’s leaders. But, out of context, it was taken by the press as a statement of Malcolm’s personal hatred for all whites and his satisfaction with Kennedy’s murder. Because of the publicity, Elijah Muhammad had him silenced.
Malcolm’s period of silence was to last ninety days, but it soon became apparent that he was ready to be ousted. Rumors were circulating that he would be permitted to speak again, “if he submitted.” But he had already submitted and had agreed to the terms of his silence. The impression was being given that he was denying Elijah Muhammad’s authority. His physical divorce from the Nation of Islam began with this incident, but his psychological divorce did not begin until one of his assistants told him of the assassination plot. Now Malcolm knew he was on his own, and after a period of consideration, he decided to remain active in the black liberation struggle. He had no resources except his own mind; even the house he lived in belonged to the Nation of Islam. But he was a recognized black leader and one of the few with an international reputation. The one thing that made him unique was that he had the respect and admiration of the poor blacks in the urban ghettoes. He was the only leader who could speak to all audiences — from the national press to the individual hustler on the street corner.
Malcolm felt that the ghetto had entrusted him with its leadership, and he planned to build an activist organization, designed to cure the sickness of black people in North America. Black people, he felt, were mentally, spiritually, economically, and politically sick — and the only cure for them was to start with the political disease. Bloc voting by black people, he felt, could reorganize America overnight. First, however, a feeling of solidarity had to be developed. Malcolm felt that he could build an organization which would serve as a rallying point for black solidarity, and which could politically educate the black man and provide effective leadership in his fight for freedom.
Early in 1964, Malcolm was back in action again. He held a press conference to announce his new organization, Muslim Mosque, Inc. Despite the religious implications of the title, the group was to be secular and politically oriented; Malcolm wished to pull in black people of all faiths. Before he was ready to begin seriously organizing, however, he felt he must reaffirm his personal spiritual beliefs by making the pilgrimage to Mecca.