Students will learn about the notable achievements and difficult challenges experienced by Malcolm X. After watching a biographical video, they will analyze a photograph taken during the only face-to-face encounter Malcolm X ever had with Martin Luther King Jr., and they will read and answer questions about a letter written during his momentous pilgrimage to Mecca. To conclude the lesson, students will choose a quotation to analyze as a way to demonstrate their understanding of this charismatic leader.
20 - 40 minutes
- Charismatic - having a great charm or appeal
- Black Nationalist – a person who believes that African Americans should become a self-governing community separate from whites
- Ward of the state – a person, usually a minor, put under the guardianship of the courts
- Avid – Enthusiastic
- Advocate – Publicly recommend or support
- Embody – to represent an idea
Nation of Islam - A religious movement founded in Detroit, Michigan, by W.D. Fard in the 1930s, the Nation of Islam advocates self-reliance and empowerment of the African American community. It shares important principles with the Islamic religion, including the Five Pillars of Islam (belief in one God, fasting for Ramadan, praying five times a day, charity, pilgrimage to Mecca); however, it is an independent religion with its own political objectives, theology, and understanding of history.
Learn more about the Nation of Islam:
- The Five Pillars of Islam, PBS LearningMedia
- What Is The Nation Of Islam? History, Beliefs, Practices Of The Religious Movement, International Business Times
Background on Malcolm X | Minister and Civil Rights Activist
Malcolm Little was born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to a very poor family of eight children. His father was a preacher and a vocal black nationalist, advocating equality well before the start of the Civil Rights movement. Malcolm faced frequent racism and harassment from white supremacists because of his father’s affiliations, witnessing his house burn to the ground when he was only four and, two years later, losing his father, who had received repeated death threats and was found dead under suspicious circumstances. When Malcolm was only 12, his mother had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized.
Despite these circumstances, Malcolm, the only black student in his school, excelled. He was excited and optimistic about his future, determined to become a lawyer, until a teacher told him that the color of his skin made such a dream unachievable. Disillusioned, he dropped out, moved to Boston, and, still a teenager, began selling drugs and engaging in other criminal activity.
In 1946, he was arrested and sent to jail for larceny and breaking and entering. While incarcerated, he read extensively, absorbing works by Kant and Nietzsche. His family members who stayed in touch urged him to join the Nation of Islam. To Malcolm, the Nation of Islam, which embraced ideas associated with the black power movement and black nationalism, gave voice to some of his deepest feelings about living in a highly-segregated and discriminatory society.
Malcolm finished his prison sentence and joined the Nation, adopting “X” in the place of his last name, as was the traditional practice for dissociating from the surnames originally given by slave owners. Membership in the Nation of Islam rapidly increased as Malcolm X, an inspiring and convincing orator, threw himself into its recruitment efforts. He quickly ingratiated himself to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and became the minister of temples in New York City and Boston, while also founding new temples in Hartford and Philadelphia.
In the early 1960s, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent movement for civil rights well underway, Malcolm X rallied support among black Americans who were weary of King’s peaceful approach and reliance on the sympathy of white liberals. Malcolm X advocated fighting back and being armed when attacked by racists. He spoke of blackness with pride and instilled the same pride in the hearts of his followers.
Malcom X married Betty Shabazz in 1963. Later that year, he traveled to Africa and the Middle East and completed a pilgrimage to Mecca where he met and befriended other Muslims, both dark-skinned and light-skinned. He returned to the US having embraced socialism and converted to traditional Islam. His new message was one of tolerance for all races.
Soon after, a personal rift widened between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and after some particularly controversial remarks, Malcolm X was suspended from acting as a minister for the Nation. In 1964, having become disillusioned with the Nation, Malcolm left and created his own religious organization: the Muslim Mosque Inc.
Just as Malcolm was poised to become a catalyst in the nonviolent movement for civil rights, the enemies he’d made through the Nation of Islam caught up with him. On February 25, 1965, when he was about to deliver a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, he was assassinated by three gunmen at close range.
Shortly before his death, Malcolm X had recounted his life’s story to acclaimed author Alex Haley, who published it as The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm has since been remembered as a hero of black America, who fought with a rare and relentless strength to achieve what a racist society had made impossible.
- Ask students: How would you feel if someone told you that you could not achieve a goal that you have your heart set on?
- Introduce Malcolm X:
When Malcolm X was a young teen, he was told by a teacher that his race would keep him from achieving his dreams. After a time of struggle, he found a new path and became an international icon in the fight for civil rights.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Discussion questions after viewing:
1. How might Malcolm X’s childhood have shaped his views that African Americans should strive for self-reliance?
2. In what ways was Malcolm X an inspiring figure to African Americans during the Civil Rights movement?
3. If Malcolm X were still alive today, on what issues would he be speaking out?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the photo to the right. This photograph was taken on March 26, 1964, the one time that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X ever met face to face. This was only two weeks after Malcolm X had decided to break with Elijah Muhammad and leave the Nation of Islam, a decision made in part to enable him to work with other civil rights leaders. When this photo was taken, Dr. King had just participated in a press conference following Senate deliberations about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that was passed on July 2, 1964. Malcolm X had also come to the U.S. Capitol that day to listen to the Senators debate the Civil Rights Act. As King was exiting the building, Malcolm X approached him and they briefly exchanged cordial greetings. Although Malcolm X had for many years been a fierce critic of Dr. King’s non-violent approach to achieving civil rights, during the final year of his life, he came to appreciate much of Dr. King’s message. Between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X is Ralph Abernathy, a close ally of Dr. King.
1. Carefully compare Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in this photo. How are the alike and how are they different in terms of appearance, dress, and demeanor?
2. Based on what you already know about the beliefs of Dr. King and what you have learned about those of Malcolm X, in what ways were they similar and in what ways were they different?
3. In talking about this encounter, Malcolm X said, “The goal has always been the same, with the approaches to it as different as mine and Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent marching that dramatizes the brutality and the evil of the Caucasian man against defenseless Blacks. And in the racial climate of this country today, it is anybody’s guess which of the ‘extremes’ in approach to the Black man’s problems might personally meet a fatal catastrophe first: ‘nonviolent’ Dr. King or so-called ‘violent’ me.” To promote civil rights in today’s society, which strategy do you think is more effective--Dr. King’s inclusive and non-violent approach or the more separatist, confrontational stance represented by Malcolm X during much of his career?
Written Primary Source Activity (15 minutes)
Students will read and answer questions about a letter Malcolm X wrote during his pivotal trip to Mecca in April of 1964. The letter was significant enough that excerpts of it were reprinted in the New York Times. Malcolm X Pleased By Whites' Attitude On Trip to Mecca
Download the Primary Source Activity [PDF].
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
To be completed using the Graphic Organizer.
Look at a collection of quotations attributed to Malcolm X. Choose one that stands out to you, either because you strongly agree or strongly disagree with the idea expressed. Then, write a short essay in which you:
- Interpret the meaning of the quotation
- Make a hypothesis about when it was said
- Relate the quotation to one of Malcolm X’s achievements
- Relate the quotation to a challenge faced by Malcolm X
- Explain why you chose the quotation and whether or not you agree with its message
Possible sources for quotations: