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Today marks one of the more complicated celebrations of Malcolm X’s birthday. The New York Times reported earlier this year that the two men who were wrongfully convicted of killing the civil rights leader were exonerated. The exoneration followed the discovery that critical evidence had been withheld during the trial. This event has only stirred up some of the deeply complicated feelings that have long surrounded the life and death of Malcolm X.

The ideologies and practices of this prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement continue to spark debate to this day. Malcolm X spent a period of his life in the Black Nationalist group The Nation of Islam (NOI), which was against desegregation and believed Black people should have a separate nation. He also spent some years opposing Martin Luther King Jr’s peaceful protest approach to achieving equality, but later in his life would work with MLK and leave The Nation of Islam.

Some called Malcolm X a hypocrite for changing his strategy. Others would call him simply human – he was just a person adjusting his politics as he evolved. And shouldn’t we all be willing to grow once we become enlightened? One thing has always been certain: Malcolm X dedicated his life to fighting for equal rights for Black Americans. What didn’t get quite as much attention was his work in uplifting Black women. Here are three times Malcolm X also know the great Malik el-Shabazz supported Black women.

 

He Called Out Sexual Assault In The NOI

America/USA: Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975), born Elijah Robert Poole, Black Rights advocate and leader of the Nation of Islam from 1934-1975, mentor to Malcolm X

Source: Pictures from History / Getty

Towards the end of Malcolm X’s ties with the Nation of Islam, several events caused conflict and tension between X and his mentor Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad had been accused of having sexual relationships with Black teenage girls which resulted in the birth of eight of his children. Muhammed originally denied the accusations, and Malcolm X stood by his side and publicly denied them in his defense. However, Malcolm X opened his eyes to the dark reality of pedophilia and sexual assault that was occurring in the NOI. He then publicly changed his stance and accused Muhammad of his sex crimes – for which he was later, in fact, found guilty.

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Malcolm X’s choice to publicly denounce Muhammad in this way brought on harassment and attacks from the NOI – but it was a risk X was willing to take in order to protect Black girls in the NOI from future assault. He understood that his position as a leader was in jeopardy when he did this, but his position as a protector of women was more important.

 

He Asked Black Women To Love Themselves

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In 1962, X gave a famous speech in Los Angeles, in which he specifically addressed the way America condemned the natural appearance of Black women. X stated that this strong and hateful message had made its way into the subconscious minds of Black women and that they’d even started to hate their own aesthetic – something X implored them not to do. “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?” X asked his listeners. This would be one of many quotes from Malcolm X proving his devotion to empowering Black women.

X was also quoted saying, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Both Black men and women suffered terrible, violent racism during X’s life, but he took several occasions to call out the fact that Black women suffered even greater discrimination during a time in history when not only racism but also sexism ran rampant.

 

Malcolm X Wanted Equality for Women, Too

“You don’t have to be a man to fight for freedom. All you have to do is to be an intelligent human being.”

This quote was more meaningful to Black women during the 1950s and 1960s than one might comprehend today. During a time when society was ripe with the idea that men were the protectors and the authority figures – the rulers of their households – Black women were left unsure of their place in the Civil Rights Movement. On the one hand, they were receiving messages about Black people being equal to whites, but on the other hand, as women, they were still being told they were not equal to men. For many Black women who wanted to join the Civil Rights Movement, hearing these words from X was exactly the inspiration they needed.

X expressed his support for the uplifting of women in another subtle but important way in the video clip above. The NOI had long been known for the segregation of sexes and for putting women beneath men. When asked if X had plans of modernizing this part of the religion, he answered “I think that everything today on this earth is being modernized…religious principles and practices as well as political and other things.” In that moment, X indirectly denounced the segregation of the sexes that was present in his religion.

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