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On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X

Louis A. DeCaro
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 344
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    On the Side of My People
    Book Description:

    The mythic figure of Malcolm X conjures up a variety of images--black nationalist, extremist, civil rights leader, hero. But how often is Malcolm X understood as a religious leader, a man profoundly affected by his relationship with Allah? During Malcolm's life and since, the press has focused on the Nation of Islam's rejection of integration, offering an extremely limited picture of its ideology and religious philosophy. Mainstream media have ignored the religious foundation at the heart of the Nation and failed to show it in light of other separatist religious movements. With the spirituality of cultic black Islam unexplored and the most controversial elements of the Nation exploited, its most famous member, Malcolm X, became one of the most misunderstood leaders in history. In On the Side of My People, Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. offers the first book length religious treatment of Malcolm X. Malcolm X was certainly a political man. Yet he was also a man of Allah, struggling with his salvation - as concerned with redemption as with revolution. Drawing on a wide variety of sources, including extensive interviews with Malcolm's oldest brother, FBI surveillance documents, the black press, and tape-recorded speeches and interviews, DeCaro examines the charismatic leader from the standpoint of his two conversion experiences--to the Nation while he was in jail and to traditional Islam climaxing in his pilgrimage to Mecca. Examining Malcolm beyond his well-known years as spokesman for the Nation, On the Side My People explores Malcolm's early religious training and the influence of his Garveyite parents, his relationship with Elijah Muhammad, his often overlooked journey to Africa in 1959, and his life as a traditional Muslim after the 1964 pilgrimage. In his critical analysis of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, DeCaro provides insight into the motivation behind Malcolm's own story, offering a key to understanding how and why Malcolm portrayed his life in his own autobiography as told to Alex Haley. Inspiring and necessary, On the Side My People presents readers with a Malcolm X few were privileged to know. By filling in the gaps of Malcolm's life, DeCaro paints a more complete portrait of one of the most powerful and relevant civil rights figures in American history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2100-1
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    Malcolm X’s role in the Nation of Islam (henceforth “the Nation”) and his later independent role as a so-called militant black leader have to date been portrayed primarily from a political perspective. While Malcolm X was alive, most of what people knew about him was based on news from the mainstream press, and their attention was invariably focused on the Nation’s rejection of integration and the white man—at best a partial analysis that served to sell newspapers. It would have been considerably less shocking if the Nation had been described along the lines of other separatist religious communities. In...

  7. ONE Prophets and Messiahs of a Black God
    • 1 Black Nationalist Religion before the Nation
      (pp. 11-20)

      The organization which Malcolm X brought to national attention in the early 1960s was a far cry from the movement as it existed in its earliest stages. Indeed, the Nation had significantly changed even by the time Malcolm joined it as a newly paroled enthusiast in the summer of 1952. The Nation began, in fact, not in the civil rights era, but in a far less hopeful time in the thinking of African Americans.

      The Nation’s philosophy, which was characteristically oppositional, was born in an era when—and a place where—black people were realizing anew the longevity, adaptability, and...

    • 2 The Nation before Malcolm X
      (pp. 21-30)

      The history of the Nation prior to Malcolm is actually two stories: the foundational organization of a mysterious peddler-turned-prophet, and the revision of that organization by a Southern migrant with aspirations to religious preeminence. In the thinking of the Nation, of course, there was an unbroken continuity between the original founder, W. D. Fard, and his black successor, Elijah Muhammad—just as today’s leading manifestation of the Nation, under Louis Farrakhan, undoubtedly sees itself in unbroken continuity with Elijah Muhammad. However, the continuity that each version of the Nation has enjoyed is not so much organizational, but ideological. In the...

  8. TWO The First Moment
      (pp. 33-37)

      While Malcolm’s conversion to the Nation had its dramatic and even revelatory aspects, it was really not a sudden conversion. He thought that the biblical account of St. Paul’s conversion was similar to his own, though he wrote in his autobiography that he did not mean to compare himself with the saint. “But,” Malcolm added, “I do understand his experience.”¹ Actually, Malcolm X identified with Paul the Apostle much more than he was willing to share with his readers. While he clearly associated elements of his conversion story with Paul’s dramatic rebirth, Malcolm was also quite fond of Paul’s role...

    • 3 A Garveyite Son
      (pp. 38-47)

      Since childhood, Malcolm Little’s life had been characterized by all of the essential themes that would later underscore his message to a generation of black people engulfed in crisis. In the particular sense of racism, Malcolm would come to know from his youth the reality of white racial animosity and insouciance toward the black struggle. That reality would increasingly press in on his human experience as he grew from childhood into manhood.

      Ironically, however, just as Malcolm’s story can easily be said to typify the black experience in the United States—especially the Northern urban experience—his beginnings were not...

    • 4 Early Life and Religious Training
      (pp. 48-58)

      For Malcolm to state “I was born in trouble”¹ was no exaggeration. His childhood was directly and indirectly affected by white racism and the troubles of his Garveyite family. Nevertheless, Malcolm was still a child seeking the things that children seek, getting in trouble and learning the lessons of life through adventures and misadventures. And though it might not be so obvious inThe Autobiography of Malcolm X, it appears that some of his boyhood adventures involved his first religious experiences.

      One of Malcolm’s more thoughtful adventures was his discovery of contemplation, which he seemed to find at once comforting...

    • 5 Wayward Youth
      (pp. 59-71)

      Malcolm was never the seasoned underworld figure he liked to portray, and those following his lead probably embellished his story as well. While his autobiography concentrates a great deal on his wayward years, it is important to note that Malcolm was interested in characterizing his pre-Nation life in the most sensational terms in order to better enhance Elijah Muhammad’s redemptive claims.

      This is not to suggest that Malcolm did not know crime and debauchery. However, by his late teens, he was operating only “on the fringes of the Harlem underworld” and not at the center. “Malcolm,” writes his first biographer,...

    • 6 Crime, Imprisonment, and Redemption
      (pp. 72-89)

      “Looking back, I think I really was at least slightly out of my mind,” Malcolm would say later regarding his life on the streets. Returning to Boston did not, in itself, bring any great change in his life. After a month of “laying dead,” as Malcolm called it, his restlessness returned; his excessive use of cocaine and his white girlfriend’s faithful supply of money did not calm him, or keep him from looking for new hustles. He turned to gambling, and then formed a burglary ring.

      Malcolm said in his autobiography that he thought of burglary because he felt it...

    • 7 Early Ministry
      (pp. 90-98)

      Malcolm remained at Norfolk Prison Colony until March 1950, when he transferred back to Charlestown State Prison, where he was first incarcerated. According to Malcolm, his transfer back to Charlestown occurred because the Norfolk Prison Colony administration wanted him out of there. The official reason was that he had refused a standard inoculation, but Malcolm believed that the prison officials were upset with him for his promulgation of Muhammad’s teachings. Though he was transferred for rejecting the inoculation, it seems that he was quite aware of the consequences of his refusal. It is likely that he wanted to put himself...

    • 8 Evangelism and Nation-Building
      (pp. 99-110)

      Malcolm was always a very energetic person,” Wilfred Little recalled. “He had an exceptional amount of mental energy, so when he came to the Movement, he had a lot to offer—more than what had been realized.” While Malcolm had read much in books in prison, in his new freedom he turned to studying the realities of racial oppression in his own surroundings. Some of these realities were most evident in the first department store where he worked, where he saw firsthand that poor black urbanites often had no alternative but to buy the cheaply manufactured and highly priced products...

    • 9 From Harlem to the Dark World
      (pp. 111-126)

      Malcolm X and his Muslim parishioners made a startling appearance in the public eye of New York City in April 1957, after one of the Temple No. 7 members was seriously wounded in a confrontation with policemen in Harlem. Malcolm related the event in his autobiography, noting that two Muslims had interrupted a police action during which two white officers were violently breaking up a sidewalk argument. When the policemen told a gathering group of spectators to disperse, the Muslims refused. According to Malcolm, the police then brutally attacked Brother Johnson X (Hinton) with a nightstick, leaving him with a...

  9. THREE The Second Moment
      (pp. 129-132)

      In the spring of 1964, Malcolm X found himself moving along in a vibrant human stream of pilgrims, a multicolored, multicultured mass of travelers who seemed to move as a single body and whose only purpose it was to worship the One God in absolute unity. This was the Hajj, the pilgrimage made (if possible) by all true Muslims to Mecca, the holiest of all holy sites in the Islamic world.

      Dressed in the humble and mandatory outfit of the pilgrim, Malcolm wore two white towels wrapped around his body. Theridawas wrapped at the neck and shoulders, leaving...

    • 10 The Making of an Emissary
      (pp. 133-144)

      While the Nation had been steadily growing in popularity within the African American community, it was not until 1959 that the mass of whites in the United States became aware of the movement. Unfortunately, when the white public did learn of its existence, it was in the most sensational and astonishing terms that the media could create.

      Since white society has always chosen to be fundamentally unfamiliar with black culture, the revelation of such an organization as the Nation was all the more shocking to whites, though it disturbed a good many blacks as well, albeit for different reasons. Without...

    • 11 Religious Apologist
      (pp. 145-158)

      Both Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X would undoubtedly have preferred that the issue of the Nation’s Islamic integrity not be discussed. However, the Muslim door they had sought to enter opened two ways: the more Malcolm X influenced the Nation toward a broad identification with the Muslim world, the more he unintentionally subjected the movement and its leader to religious analyses and criticism.

      A discerning observer has noted that “Malcolm X was a strong advocate of the internationalization of the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad never was.” And while Muhammad “may have wanted the legitimacy of orthodoxy, the possibility of...

    • 12 Foreshadowing Mecca—Between Cult and Orthodoxy
      (pp. 159-170)

      At the end of March 1963, Malcolm X appeared on a late-night television program,The Ben Hunter Show, in Los Angeles, California. The talk show featured a group of panelists that included the black journalist Louis Lomax, who had first introduced the Nation to television viewers in 1959. On this occasion Malcolm X did not immediately invoke “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad” when he was asked about being a Muslim—something quite uncharacteristic of his other media interviews. Instead, Malcolm X declared: “One becomes a Muslim only by accepting the religion of Islam, which means belief in one God, Allah. Christians...

    • 13 Fame and Fury
      (pp. 171-188)

      When he was asked about social equality for blacks on the WCBS radio program,Let’s Find Out, Malcolm X decried the notion of racial equality based on white standards. “The white man is not the yardstick by which equality is measured.” The yardstick, Malcolm maintained, was Elijah Muhammad’s program of moral uplift, not the notion of achieving civil rights. He boasted of his Muslim rejection of the black status quo, and did so in a manner that was bound to keep even his black admirers at arm’s length: “I deny my name and my background because I don’t know enough...

    • All illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 14 Banished from the Nation
      (pp. 189-198)

      Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, has said that her husband preached to others that Elijah Muhammad was morally infallible. Indeed, according to Malcolm’s reasoning, “Allah had gone into [Elijah Muhammad], taken his heart out, overhauled and cleansed it, and then put it back in so he could do no wrong.” However, she has also said that Malcolm was aware of Elijah Muhammad’s moral weaknesses for a long time before he would admit to them, perhaps because he was afraid it would ruin the Nation. According to Betty Shabazz, when Malcolm was willing finally to acknowledge that Elijah Muhammad was contradicting his...

    • 15 The Pilgrim Convert
      (pp. 199-210)

      “There was one further major preparation that I knew I needed,” Malcolm recalled in his autobiography. “I’d had it in my mind for a long time—as a servant of Allah. But it would require money that I didn’t have.” That preparation was the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city of the Muslim world. Malcolm noted that he took a plane to Boston, “turning again” to his elder half-sister, Ella Collins, whom he had often turned to as a youth. Malcolm recalled this particular visit, noting that despite the fact that he had made Ella angry with him...

    • 16 The Realities and Ideals of Witness
      (pp. 211-220)

      It is essential to take note of an important background element in Malcolm’s religious story that reveals itself particularly in his conversion to traditional Islam. Despite the great differences between the teachings of the Nation and those of Sunni Islam, there appears to have been a kind of “Muslim continuity” in Malcolm’s thinking throughout his adult life, and from the time of his prison conversion he had a definite sympathy for the Islamic world. This orientation toward Islam not only buttressed his consuming faith in Elijah Muhammad but propelled him toward the genuine Islamic religion when his faith in Muhammad...

    • 17 The Final Year
      (pp. 221-229)

      From the end of his Hajj in April 1964 until his assassination in February 1965, Malcolm X’s story—already a challenging and detailed study—blossoms into a substantially more complex and fascinating account. This complexity is not due merely to the fact that he spent the last months of his life developing both a religious and a political organization. Nor is it due to the fact that he was simultaneously struggling against the Nation—a conflict which became quite heated by the summer of 1964.

      Rather, Malcolm’s last year was complex because he spent a good portion of his final...

    • 18 Religious Revolutionist
      (pp. 230-245)

      As it was conceived and created in March 1964, the Muslim Mosque had no authentic religious standing in the Muslim world. Malcolm X and two of his followers signed the prepared papers of incorporation on March 9, 1964—the day after Malcolm’s independence announcement. The papers speak of the study and propagation of “the Islamic Faith and Religion,” but do not make any theological distinctions between the religion of the Muslim Mosque and that of the Nation. However, one of the articles did specify that the Muslim Mosque was established to impart the “Islamic Religion in accordance with the accepted...

    • 19 Fighting in the Way of God
      (pp. 246-261)

      One writer who observed Malcolm X very closely outside of the United States recalled that he “was a very explicit man, and his analysis of the spiritual and material condition of his people was nothing if not searing in its objectivity and explicitness.” However, the searing analysis of Malcolm’s political thought, all too often excised and appropriated by revolutionists, must be reset into the framework of Malcolm’s religion and spirituality if it is to be fully understood.

      Malcolm fundamentally perceived religion as a wholistic experience that “included every aspect of one’s life—economic, political and social.” That he grew frustrated...

    • 20 Closing the Book
      (pp. 262-270)

      During the interview in Cairo by Milton Henry, Malcolm noted that “very narrow, backward, almost childish” attitudes seemed to prevent the unity of African Americans. In this regard, Malcolm emphasized what he considered to be the selfishness of religious groups: “Any group, any group that can’t work with all other groups, if they are genuinely interested in solving the problems of the Negro collectively—why, I don’t think that that group is really sincerely motivated toward reaching a solution.”

      Malcolm was clearly making a broad criticism that included all major black denominations, sects, and cults. However, it is likely that...

  10. EPILOGUE Now He’s Gone
    (pp. 271-294)

    In 1965, the Audubon Ballroom stood between two distinct neighborhoods. South of the ballroom was a black and Puerto Rican area where people lived in jammed apartment houses, left unoccupied after whites fled from the upper Manhattan area to the Riverdale section of the Bronx and beyond. North of the ballroom were the “old-time tenants,” including many ethnic and religious groups. The Audubon was situated on 166th Street, bordered on the west by Broadway and on the east by St. Nicholas Avenue. Running north and south, these avenues meet just north of the ballroom and then diverge again—framing the...

  11. Author’s Note
    (pp. 295-296)
  12. A Note on Biographies
    (pp. 297-300)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 301-344)
  14. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 345-358)
  15. Index
    (pp. 359-364)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 365-365)