MALCOLM X was one of the greatest orators and black leaders in American history. For most of his career he was known primarily as a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam. Yet Malcolm was by no means a Muslim fundamentalist, and his world view was predominantly secular.
He seems to have been concerned exclusively with the here and now. He believed that religion was a divisive force that often caused friction among blacks. He thought religion should be personal and that it should not be at the center of the struggle for human rights.
Malcolm strongly valued critical thinking and encouraged members of his audiences to think for themselves. He realized that black atheists were as likely to make contributions to black advancement as were black religionists. And he was highly critical of Christianity, which he believed to be one of the most destructive weapons of white supremacy. Though Malcolm was a Muslim, it is clear that he was profoundly influenced by humanistic thought.
But it is important to note also that there were many different Malcolms -- he changed a great deal in his life. By examining his life, one can learn much about the shortcomings of atheism without humanist ethics, of dogmatic religion and of the importance of secular values, beliefs, organizations and leadership in improving our lives.
He was born Malcom Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Neb. His father, Earl Little, was a Christian preacher who was killed while Malcolm was only a child. In his autobiography, Malcolm tells how, as he grew older, he would fluctuate from theist, to agnostic, to atheist and back again.
In 1946, he was sentenced to Charleston Prison in Massachusetts for burglary. At that time he was an atheist, so hostile to religion that he became known as "Satan" among his fellow inmates.
He became deeply devoted to the Nation of Islam, headed by Elijah Muhammad. The nation gave Malcolm a genuine sense of pride in his blackness. (Previously, he had felt ashamed of his African ancestry and had regarded blackness as a sign of racial inferiority.) He also found a sense of community. He was eventually released from prison and rose to prominence within the Nation of Islam. He developed high moral character as a result of embracing Elijah Muhammad's teachings -- something he was unable to achieve through Christianity or a pessimistic atheism.
Muhammad taught that blacks could never be saved through Christianity. He taught that Christianity was a religion for slaves. He once told an audience, "The Christian religion has failed you. The leaders of that religion have failed you."
Malcolm, too, was critical of Christianity. In his famous "Message to the Grass Roots" speech, he warned blacks about the potential threat to black unity that religion posed. He said, "You don't catch hell because you're a Baptist or a Methodist. You catch hell because you're a black man. All of us catch hell for the same reason."
Malcolm eventually broke with the Nation of Islam and became a Sunni Muslim. On his return from his historic trip to Mecca, he was asked how his new religious views would affect his ideas on racism. He said that no religion could ever cause him to forget about the plight of his people. He was in total agreement with his colleague, Rev. Albert Cleage of Detroit, who proclaimed, "There is nothing more sacred than the liberation of black people."
Malcolm formed two organizations -- the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) and the Muslim Mosque Inc. The OAAU was completely secular and commanded most of Malcolm's attention. He became committed to an international struggle for human rights and made serious efforts to bring women into leadership roles in his new organization. He continud to advocate the separation of religion from organizational matters; and in his "Ballots or Bullets" speech, he told his audience, "If your religion hasn't done any more for you than it has, you need to forget it anyway."
Malcolm was a very complex thinker who was always evolving. He means different things to different people, as could be seen by the protests against Spike Lee's film "Malcolm X" even before its release today. Malcolm's admirers are as radical as poet Amiri Baraka and as conservative as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Ironically, though he was a Muslim, no major black leader has had his profound understanding of the need to keep religion out of the struggle for black unity. And no major black leader has been more deeply committed to the promotion of critical thinking. Because of these major contributions to progressive thought, Malcolm has become a major religious humanist hero.
Norm R. Allen Jr. is executive director of African Americans for Humanism in Buffalo, N.Y.