Suzanne Branch, a seventh-grade math teacher at Mayfield Woods Middle School in Howard County, didn't really know who Malcolm X was before Wednesday.
Although Ms. Branch is black, she was raised in England and said she'd heard only negative stories about the fiery black leader who was assassinated in 1965.
"All I heard was the violent part," Ms. Branch said.
This week, spurred by a soon-to-be-released movie, their own curiosity, and students clad in Xs, about 60 Howard County educators met to learn more about the civil rights leader, who once advocated violence, segregation and called white people "blue-eyed devils."
Wilde Lake High School teacher Herbert West portrayed Malcolm X as a man who overcame violence and racism in his childhood and early adulthood to become a leader who fought for universal human rights.
Malcolm X, who was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb. in May 1925, was swathed in violence from an early age. Before he turned 14, his father and uncle were killed by white supremacists, and his mother was placed in a mental institution.
"He had seen his father destroyed, he had seen his uncle destroyed, he had seen his family destroyed," said Mr. West, who emphasized that the events in Malcolm X's childhood shaped his views as an adult.
"Malcolm Little is what made Malcolm X," Mr. West said.
Sandy Shaposky, a social studies teacher at Patuxent Valley Middle School, said the workshop will help her clarify students' queries about the black leader.
"So many kids wear Xs on their hats and shirts, but they don't know what it means," said Ms. Shaposky, who is reading a biography of Malcolm X.
She said her understanding of the man will also help bring her closer to black and white students.
"My knowledge about Malcolm X shows my black students and white students that I care about black history."
Teachers said black students realize the "X" relates to their identity, but are unsure how. During the workshop, Mr. West explained that Malcolm X chose the "X" as a substitute for his surname, Little, because he believed it originated from a southern plantation owner.
The attracted so many people that organizers had to turn away about 40 people, said Geri Willis, workshop organizer and Wilde Lake Middle School librarian.
To accommodate them, another workshop may be held in November.
The 90-minute program is part of a series of professional seminars sponsored by the Howard County Education Association, which represents teachers, administrators, and educational support staff.
The workshop was organized to help teachers answer students' questions about the outspoken black leader who is the subject of movie by film director Spike Lee that is scheduled for release Nov. 20 and 25.
The workshop was also created to satisfy the demands of Howard County's Black Student Achievement Program to increase teachers' multicultural awareness.
"It's a way of addressing some of those concerns without pressure because it's voluntary," said Ms. Willis.