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A Complex Revolutionary: Remembering the Multi-Dimensional Malcolm X

By Richard D. Benson II | @rbenson458 |with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Thursday, February 7, 2019.

If the written word of news publishing was an avenue to counter mis-information for Malcolm X, then the complementary weapon of choice to capture memory became the camera.

Consummate activist, gifted communicator, introspective strategist, master teacher and Pan-Africanist revolutionary are all but a minor list of descriptors that have been used in the attempts to adequately capture the complex life of Malcolm X. For many Black Americans, his life’s trajectory meant much.

To the transnational audience that Malcolm X attracted through his university lectures, radio & television programs, and public debates, Malcolm X had grown to mean more as his exposure increased beyond the borders of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the United States. Though the life of Malcolm X was cut drastically short on February 21, 1965 at the age of thirty-nine, the popularity of Malcolm X for young people increased and transcended political movements, trends of popular culture and the many attempts to either minimize or distort the impact of Malcolm X to the ‘glocal’ Black world. Nonetheless, the general public continues to perceive Malcolm X as the chief agitator and antagonist to the likes of the more socially accepted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though over 930 books, 360 films & internet sources and 350 sound recordings have been excavated by scholars such as the late Manning Marable, the memory and education of Malcolm X becomes either muddled and/or reduced to his popular catchphrase, “By Any Means Necessary”.

Fifty-four years since his death, the consensus information on Malcolm X has not evolved at greater lengths include an understanding of Malcolm X and his love for education and his unquenchable thirst to acquire information. Lay audiences may be grossly unaware of Malcolm X’s foray into journalism, photography and newspaper editing to disseminate organizational platforms to larger public audiences. However, for the many students, historians and fellow travelers of history, Black Studies, political science, and community activism this essay is aimed at contributing to those who continue to make meaning of Malcolm X and the impact of his multi-dimensionality.  

During Malcolm’s height of national and international popularity, a writer from London contacted him asking questions. One was, “What’s your alma mater?”, Malcolm replied, “Books.” Malcolm X’s reply finds its beginnings much earlier than his prison days in the correctional institutions in Massachusetts. Contrarily, Malcolm X’s  (nee Little) love for literacy and foundational education comes by the instruction and influences of his mother, Louise Little. Louise and her husband Earl Little were devout member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Beyond the rank and file membership of the UNIA, Louise was a writer/reporter for the UNIA news organ, the Negro World. Additionally, Louise Little spoke several languages including English, French, Patois and she taught Malcolm and his seven siblings to read from the Negro World in addition to several other publications from Grenada. Most importantly, Louise Little introduced her children to the power of the dictionary and the impact that words can have on the human existence. Thus, Malcolm X’s proclivities for learning were thoroughly inculcated from the tutedge of his childhood. Progressing into adulthood, he was now faced with the difficult task of having to navigate the tumult of his prison years.

When queried about his academic capabilities upon entering prison in 1946, Malcolm X has been quoted as saying, “The streets erased everything that I learned in school; I didn’t know a verb from a house.” While Malcolm’s statement may have been a slight exaggeration, upon entering into prison he completed several aptitude exams where he was evaluated as ‘good’ for his reading abilities, ‘high average’ for math and he was rated as ‘high superior’ for his abstract reasoning skills. Malcolm began to re-discover his motivations for learning by witnessing fellow prison mates such as ‘Bimbi’, command the attention of other inmates through his intellect.  He soon revisited the tools of his youth that were introduced by his mother, Louise Little, and began to copy the entire dictionary while in prison. As he recalled the activity, “I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some action, I began copying...I was so fascinated that I went on --I copied the dictionary’s next page...during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.” To support the activities of his independent studies, Malcolm also took correspondence courses for writing and in Latin.

While serving out his prison stint, Malcolm was transferred to the Norfolk Prison Colony where he would have access to large library with limited restrictions. Most importantly, while at Norfolk, Malcolm had an opportunity to further increase his scholastic aptitude by participating on the renowned Norfolk prison debate team. Competing against the elite institutions of: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Boston University and Oxford to name a few, the Norfolk Debaters from 1936 to 1952 amassed a record of forty-four wins and fifteen losses. Malcolm spent two years of his prison time from 1948 until 1950.

As he recounted this period of his life for the completion of his autobiography, Malcolm stated that, “I will tell you right there, in the prison, debating, speaking to a crowd, was as exhilarating to me as the discovery of reading had been...once my feet got wet, I was gone on debating.” Malcolm was able to rapidly increase his oratory, public speaking style, and off the cuff quick witted approach to engaging the counter-points of his opponents. This was made obviously evident by enormity of speaking engagements on radio, television, NOI temples, church invitations and most importantly at colleges and universities, By the time of his death, Malcolm X had spoken at over sixty-five colleges and universities around the globe. Thus, his attraction to young people was duly established during his career as a human rights activist.

Malcolm was released from prison in 1952 and upon his release dedicated his service and life to the growth of the Nation of Islam. During Malcolm’s tenure with the NOI from 1952 until mid 1963, he experienced a meteoric rise in the religious sect through his tireless work ethic and regimented lifestyle that he began to develop while in prison. Malcolm continued his practice of relentless study of history, politics, economics cultural studies, biblical studies,sociology, transnational affairs and popular culture of his day. Malcolm’s infectious work ethic led to him establish a number of fruitful organizational endeavors for the NOI. One such undertaking was a public speaking class for NOI ministers in training who would eventually be assigned to various temples around the country.

According to former NOI minister and founding member of Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU),

we had to read every newspaper, the New York Times, the U.S. News and World Report, the Chinese Peking Review, London Times. Every week we had to keep abreast to see how everything came to this point...this was the class that he set up. There is no college class, calculus, trigonometry that was as rough as that Public Speaking Class.

Additionally, those junior minister trainees were required to keep a notebook, dictionary and a thesaurus during the weekly class sessions. Malcolm ensured that those ministers trained by him were adequately qualified to recruit, address the public and spar intellectually with challengers from street corners to college classrooms.

Thus, Malcolm X progressed from a formidable prison student to become (many would argue) “A Master Teacher.” From the classes he developed for the NOI and lectures delivered at numerous nationwide venues to diverse audiences, Malcolm X engaged in critical pedagogy and instruction to garner mass appeal. Peter Bailey, who was a former OAAU founding member and editor of the OAAU news organ, Blacklash, penned a 1985 essay on Malcolm X entitled, “Malcolm X, Master Teacher.” Bailey refers to Malcolm’s uncanny analysis that often dissected domestic and international policies while creating a relatable comprehension for rank and file Black persons eager to discern their place in the world.

For Malcolm, a significant aspect of locating one’s self was found in books and the power of literacy. Further, his self-discovery was also achieved by his ability to investigate and create knowledge via writing and reporting.  While still in prison in 1949, Malcolm began writing articles for The Colony as he began to develop a socio-political analysis reflecting his re-discovery of the world into which he was soon to be released.

He continued his explorations into journalism while dedicating his energies to expanding the teachings of the NOI. He contributed the column “God’s Angry Men” to the Amsterdam News and further developed his interests in both print and photo journalism by taking an “ad hoc apprenticeship at the offices of the Los Angeles Herald Dispatch during the late 1950s determined to reach the widest possible audience.” And this targeted audience was to become the Black masses of America. After developing the necessary skills in print media, Malcolm launched the NOI organ, Muhammad Speaks in 1960, which became one of the most profitable ventures for the NOI. The newspaper became the influential vehicle for the disseminating the NOI teachings while expanding the visibility of Elijah Muhammad beyond conceivable imagination. As an influential public figure, Malcolm X rapidly comprehended the media’s power and influence. Malcolm remarked:

The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses.

Malcolm’s established Muhammad Speaks to enable Black America to provide the domestic and international world with a counter-narrative of Black life in America. During the early 1960s, Muhammad Speaks maintained a weekly circulation of 500,000 while exposing Black Americans to third world liberation movements and the works for W.E.B. DuBois. President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana  was even a frequent guest columnist for the paper. As Malcolm intended, the profound development of Muhammad Speaks gave the masses of Black Americans an avenue to increase their education informally.

If the written word of news publishing was an avenue to counter mis-information for Malcolm X, then the complementary weapon of choice to capture memory became the camera. Legendary photographer Gordon Parks worked extensively with Malcolm X and noted that it [the camera] was Malcolm’s way of “collecting evidence.” Other photographers such as Eve Arnold in her book Flashback: The 1950s  also remarked of how precise and insistent Malcolm was on ensuring that the images captured accurately represented himself and the greater NOI. Malcolm possessed a prodigious eye for detail and was a true visual strategist who was intentional about the messages his photographed image conveyed to larger audiences.

Reviewing the complex life of Malcolm X provides a constellation of opportunities for educational and historical growth. His life continues to be investigated by historians and students of history to find the seemingly missing pieces of his dynamism. Yet, many of Malcolm X’s most endearing and impactful attributes won’t require the investigation of any new primary sources or government documents. The existing plethora of biographies, collections of speeches, audio files and film documentaries provide a wealth of information for exhaustive research. For the world-wide admirers of Malcolm X, the task is simple. Commemorate the legacy of Malcolm X by researching, educating and utilizing creativity to produce a multidimensional revolutionary praxis that will ultimately work to improve the conditions on this planet.


Richard D. Benson II is a historian specializing in education, the Black Freedom Movement and transnational social movements. He completed a PhD in Educational Policy Studies specializing in the history of education at the University of Illinois. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Education Department at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. He has received a number of grants and awards including the UNCF/Mellon International Faculty Residency, The W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholars Fellowship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the New York Public Library Fellowship. He is the award-winning author of Fighting for our Place in the Sun: Malcolm X and the Radicalization of the Black Student Movement 1960-1973 (Peter Lang Publishing, 2015), Dr. Benson is currently working on a book manuscript entitled, Funding the Revolution: Black Power, White Church Money, and the Financial Architects of Black Radicalism 1966-1976 (State University of New York Press, 2019).

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