Malcolm X Stood Up for Black Women When Few Others Would

How he showed up for Black women is an essential part of who he was as a civil rights leader

American civil rights leader Malcolm X at an outdoor rally. Photo: Bob Parent/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“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.”—Malcolm X

On May 22, 1962, Malcolm X delivered a speech in Los Angeles, California, in which he spoke to and about Black women. There, he gave one of his most-quoted statements about his observation of what it means to be a Black woman in America. During this speech, he spoke to the negative ways in which Black women are treated, and he called on us, Black women, to think deeply about the harmful internalization of society’s loathing of who we are, particularly when it comes to our natural appearance. “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?” Malcolm asked his audience. This remains not only a collection of potent quotables but also a testament to his commitment to the upliftment and empowerment of Black women.

I discovered the teachings of Malcolm in my youth. My mother introduced me to The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley before any school did. In high school, I was able to take a class called “Malcolm and Martin,” during which we delved deep into the lives and work of both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was in that class where I began to understand not only how similar the two men were, despite years of rhetoric pitting them against each other, but also how Malcolm came to be the leader he was with the views he held. I also learned a lot about Malcolm’s engagement with women’s issues and how his marriage to Dr. Betty Shabazz and his respect for her as a woman and their partnership guided him in his pro-women stances and actions.

Outside of the words quoted above, I don’t think we talk enough about how Malcolm X showed up for Black women and why that’s an essential part of who he was as a civil rights leader. In a movement ripe with sexism and misogynoir, centering women and speaking up for them stands out as radical action, and we need to acknowledge it.

His marriage to Dr. Betty Shabazz and his respect for her as a woman and their partnership guided him in his pro-women stances and actions.

One thing that stands out to me about Malcolm, with regard to his advocacy for women, is when he confronted his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, about allegations of sexual assault of teenage girls within the Nation of Islam (NOI). At first, Malcolm denied the accusations in defense of Muhammad, the man Malcolm had once credited with helping him, through his teachings, become the great man that he was. Malcolm eventually publicly accused Muhammad of having improper sexual relations with six teenage girls, which produced eight children. This accusation came after rumors swelled throughout the NOI, and Betty encouraged him to listen to their stories. Muhammad admitted to what he had done but attempted to justify his actions through religious teachings. When the NOI attempted to evict Malcolm and his family from their home in Queens, New York, Malcolm spoke out about Muhammad’s behaviors, bringing their rift to the public.

This was explosive and rocked not only the NOI but also the larger civil rights movement. So much of Malcolm’s rhetoric was rooted in propping up Muhammad as a revered holy man whose teachings were key to Black liberation. In his defense of Black women, Malcolm risked his position as a respected leader and his connections within the NOI, and he and his family lost so much of what they had gained when he played along with Muhammad’s hypocritical mission. Integrity mattered more to Malcolm, though, and when he embarked on his holy pilgrimage to Mecca, a requirement for all Muslims who are able to do so, he had an awakening that served as a catalyst for his philosophical transformation.

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

Like many of his peers, Malcolm’s liberation words often focused on using the language of “man” and “men,” which was standard at the time. This particular quotation, however, diverted from the idea that men were to be the primary freedom fighters. No doubt, his enlightenment around women’s issues was heavily influenced by his brilliant wife, Betty, but in this statement, Malcolm stood out from those who constantly harped on the Black man’s experiences with racism, and he evolved from his own previous gendered commentary. This might not seem all that important, but as a 21st-century Black feminist who is keenly aware of the erasure of women from Black liberation history, it stands out to me as something worth noting.

When we speak of Malcolm X, we would be remiss if we don’t also acknowledge his complicated legacy. Over the course of his life, Malcolm went through many life-changing events that shaped his worldview; he lived through ups and downs from which he learned and grew, like most of us do, and it’s important to note this when we discuss his life and work. What he experienced, from growing up exposed to violent acts of White supremacist terrorism to being incarcerated after engaging in criminal activities, endeared him to so many people. What he learned from his experiences made him the empathetic, relatable leader that people came to love and respect. He seemed real and less like an unapproachable icon or untouchable demigod, as some national and global leaders have been regarded throughout history.

What I know and what I have believed since I was a little girl is that Black women are stronger than any lie told about us and any weapon formed against us.

Malcolm’s autobiography, which will be made available for the first time in full audio this September by Audible, gives us insight into his upbringing, his engagement with the criminal justice system, his indoctrination into the NOI, and his philosophical evolution later in life. From “Detroit Red” to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, we discover the richness of his life and the complexities of who he was as a man, an activist, and a global leader. Malcolm’s words powerfully resonate more than 50 years after his death, as activists and the freedom fighters of today continue the fight for Black liberation in the 21st century. By bringing on Emmy-winner Laurence Fishburne to perform the autobiography and breathe new life into Malcolm’s life story, Audible is providing a powerful, accessible way to introduce a new generation to one of the most important texts in the Black literary canon and keep his legacy alive.

Now, more than ever, Malcolm’s words about how Black women are left vulnerable and unprotected and how we continue to be horribly disrespected ring true, and it’s a shame. We continue to be ignored and erased when it comes to activism against police brutality. We continue to be ignored and erased when it comes to giving credit for movement-building and activist leadership. We continue to face institutional violence in health care, education, and employment. Our lives continue to be at greater risk than those of other women because of how devalued we are by others.

What I know and what I have believed since I was a little girl is that Black women are stronger than any lie told about us and any weapon formed against us. We are innovators. We are leaders. We are change agents. We are magic. Thank you, Malcolm, for believing in us and supporting us out loud when we needed you the most. My hope is that others will follow his lead and work to better value and appreciate the humanity of Black women around the world.

She/Her | Author, Activist. Philly-based, NYC-bred. #ReclaimingOurSpace #PushTheButton Google me. Twitter/IG: @FeministaJones Contact: bit.ly/ContactFJ

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