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Malcolm X

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What's In a Name?

Malcolm Little. Detroit Red (his “hustling” name). Malcolm X. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. The succession of names is revealing, if only because it demonstrated that their owner was—and understood he was—a work in progress. He changed and grew with time, as he learned more and experienced more in life.

Four decades ago, his rhetoric—which has been described as the kind of language meant to open wounds—won attention and sparked controversy, exactly as it was designed to do. Today, the words are still compelling, and they still inspire, but they can now be seen more clearly as means to an end: freedom.

On the March

Why did Malcolm Little change his name to Malcolm X? The rejection of the last name “Little,” in favor of the placeholder “X”, emphasized Malcolm's intent to sever his connection with his “slave name.” (While slavery ruled, white masters gave their own last names to those they held in subjugation.)

The contemporary portrait of Malcolm X as a fire-breathing apostle of racial hatred may have made arresting copy in the white mainstream media in the 1960s, but it was at odds with those who actually knew the man. After his death, when the papers were full of predictable moralizing about the violent ends reserved for proponents of violence, people who had actually listened to Malcolm's evolving message reminded the world of his compassion, his personal commitment, his commitment to his faith, and his enduring sense of decency. His integrity and his commitment to his cause are what have endured in the years since his passing.

One incident in particular captures his mission and his personality. After delivering a characteristically powerful and frank speech at a noontime mass in Selma, Alabama, in February 1965, Malcolm took his place on the platform, which was near where Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was sitting. (At that time, Dr. King was in jail.) Some on the platform were concerned about the tone of Malcolm's remarks, which did not seem in keeping with the spirit of a nonviolent movement.

Malcolm leaned over to Mrs. King and apologized that his schedule did not permit him to visit Dr. King in jail, as he had planned to do. Then he told the wife of the civil rights leader, “I want [Dr. King] to know that I didn't come here to make his job more difficult; I thought that if the white people understood what the alternative was, that they would be willing to listen to Dr. King.”

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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