The Truth About Malcolm X

Malcolm X was able to change the world because he was able to change himself.

History would have you believe that he died in 1963, before he broke from the Nation of Islam, traveled to Mecca for hajj, and converted to Sunni Islam. History presents Malcolm as a radical — a racist, an instigator, an outlaw — because he had the courage to stand up against a system of oppression.

But Malcolm X was more complex and complicated than the soundbites and photographs. He did not grow up as the opinionated orator that you remember. His childhood was rotten and ruinous, leading to a criminal career and six years in prison. In prison, he changed himself. Malcolm converted to a religion, which is a common reaction for jailed people looking for some sort of comfort. After his release, he accepted a leadership opportunity, which meant more changes. Over the next ten years, he went from parolee to national figure challenging the brutal racism of the United States.

That is where history effectively ends. They ignore the next, more radical, changes that Malcolm underwent — that of realizing that the civil rights movement should be viewed in the context of human rights, that America’s black-and-white racism was not experienced worldwide, and that he was wrong. After he broke with the Nation of Islam, he said:

I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.

Malcolm converted from street hustler to devout Muslim to national leader to emerging international figure. Strong convictions do not prevent a person from thinking or learning or refining ideas. Malcolm X was able to change the world because he was able to change himself. That is part of his legacy and the truth we should pursue in our shared history.

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