An articulate public speaker, a charismatic personality, and an indefatigable organizer, Malcolm X expressed the pent-up anger, frustration, and bitterness of African Americans during the major phase of the civil rights movement from 1955 to 1965.
Malcolm X, 1964.
Photo courtesy of Ed Ford—NYWT&S/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-USZ62-115058)
He preached on the streets of Harlem and spoke at major universities such as Harvard University and the University of Oxford. His keen intellect, incisive wit, and ardent radicalism made him a formidable critic of American society.
He also criticized the mainstream civil rights movement, challenging Martin Luther King, Jr.’s central notions of integration and nonviolence. Malcolm argued that more was at stake than the civil right to sit in a restaurant or even to vote—the most important issues were Black identity, integrity, and independence.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (centre), and Malcolm X (right), 1964.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (digital file no. 3d01847u)
In contrast to King’s strategy of nonviolence, civil disobedience, and redemptive suffering, Malcolm urged his followers to defend themselves “by any means necessary.” His biting critique of the “so-called Negro” provided the intellectual foundations for the Black Power and Black consciousness movements in the United States in the late 1960s and ’70s (see Black nationalism).
Through the influence of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X helped to change the terms used to refer to African Americans from “Negro” and “coloured” to “Black” and “Afro-American.”