Born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcom X (born Malcolm Little) experienced a great deal of racial violence as a child. The Little family was driven out of Omaha by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white nationalist hate group.1 The family moved to Lansing, Michigan where their house was burned down by another white supremacist group. Malcolm’s father died shortly after under mysterious circumstances. When his mother’s mental health deteriorated, the state committed her to Kalamazoo State Hospital. Malcolm and his siblings were separated and sent to different foster homes.2
Without a permanent home, Malcolm struggled throughout his teenage years. Trying to survive became his priority, and he stopped attending school. He was eventually put in prison for stealing. While incarcerated, Malcolm studied Islamic teachings and corresponded with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI). When he was released from prison in 1952, Malcolm changed his last name to “X” to symbolize the loss of his African ancestry.3
Malcolm became a minister with the Nation of Islam. He gave weekly sermons at Temple Number 7 in New York. He also wrote articles for Black newspapers.4 Malcolm and the NOI wanted Black Americans to be free from racial prejudice. But their teachings differed from that of other civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin and King advocated nonviolent protest and invited white people to be part of the movement. Malcolm X believed that Black people should practice self-defense in response to white racial violence.
In 1964, Malcolm X made the hajj to Mecca using the name Malik El-Shabazz.5 The hajj is a religious pilgrimage made by Muslims. It is one of the five pillars of the faith, and all Muslims are expected to make the journey at least once in their life. This journey is significant as Mecca (located in present-day Saudi Arabia) was the birthplace of Islamic Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam.6 Upon returning from his trip, Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam and became a Sunni Muslim.7
Malcolm split with the Nation of Islam officially in 1964. He wanted to play a bigger role as in the struggle for Black civil and human rights. Malcolm felt he could better accomplish this by establishing his own organization.8 His work was cut short when he was assassinated on February 21, 1965 during a public appearance in Manhattan.9
Learners will be able to....
1. Explore the role of individuals in civil rights activism.
2. Examine primary sources for central ideas and historical evidence.
3. Integrate visual information with print and digital sources.
The racial violence Malcolm X experienced as a child shaped the person he became. What are some of your earliest memories? How did they shape your perception of the world and the person you’ve become?
The Little family moved several times during Malcolm’s childhood. The cities where they lived, including Omaha, Milwaukee, and Lansing, had designated neighborhoods for African Americans. Many cities in America at this time had similar racially restrictive covenants. These covenants allowed white residents to keep African Americans from living in their neighborhood. White property owners sometimes made legal agreements with other owners promising not to sell to people of color. In some cases, white property owners either ignored or were unaware of these agreements and sold houses to Black people.
Some African Americans, like the Littles, intended to purchase property in white neighborhoods. Wilfred Little, Malcolm’s oldest brother, remembered how his parents refused to accept these racist housing policies. According to Wilfred, their “father was famous for moving into areas where [they] were the only black ones.”10 These Black families were often harassed and even threatened with violence for living in a white neighborhood. As Malcolm described in his autobiography, a white supremacist group even burnt down their home in Lansing, Michigan.
The J. D. Shelley family also challenged the racially restrictive covenants when they purchased their two-story rowhouse in St. Louis, Missouri in 1945. Thirty-four years before the Shelleys bought their home, white residents signed an agreement stating:
“no part of said property or any portion thereof shall be, for said term of Fifty-years, occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race. . .”11
A neighbor, Louis Kraemer, sued the Shelley family to prevent them from moving into the community. The case, Shelley v. Kraemer, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the country. It took several years to argue the case. The court finally made its decision in May 1948.12 Read the following ruling and answers the questions below.
Private agreements to exclude persons of designated race or color from the use or occupancy of real estate for residential purposes do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment; but it is violative of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for state courts to enforce them. Corrigan v. Buckley, 271 U. S. 323, distinguished. Pp. 8-23.
(a) Such private agreements standing alone do not violate any rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 12-13.
(b) The actions of state courts and judicial officers in their official capacities are actions of the states within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 14-18.
(c) In granting judicial enforcement of such private agreements in these cases, the states acted to deny petitioners the equal protection of the laws, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 18-23.
(d) The fact that state courts stand ready to enforce restrictive covenants excluding white persons from the ownership or occupancy of property covered by them does not prevent the enforcement of covenants excluding colored persons from constituting a denial of equal protection of the laws, since the rights created by § 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment are guaranteed to the individual. Pp. 21-22.
** To read the full ruling, visit the Library of Congress website: https://www.loc.gov/item/usrep334001/
This ruling is based on the court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Start by researching this amendment and answer the following questions.
1. When was it passed? Why?
2. What does this amendment do? What rights does it protect?
3. Based on your research, how could lawyers use the protections guaranteed by this amendment to argue against racially restrictive covenants?
4. Why do you think the court ruled this way in the Shelley v. Kraemer case?
The Shelley v. Kraemer case had several major implications. The court ruled that private citizens could enter into racially restrictive covenants. However, these covenants could not be enforced by the courts. This means that states could not uphold the covenants because such agreements denied due process of law. The ruling reinforced the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws, which includes rights to acquire, enjoy, own, and dispose of property. This was a win for African Americans because it signaled that they could seek social change through the court system. This court case (in addition to other impending cases like Brown v. Board) helped bolster the Black civil rights movement.
**The National Park Service designated the Shelley House a National Historic Landmark in 1990. It was chosen for inclusion in the African American Civil Rights Network in May 2019.
Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were both important figures in the Black civil rights movement. They had different visions for how to achieve equality for Black people. Despite their differences, Malcom X and King both paid attention to what they other was doing. They may have disagreed at times, but King and X recognized the national importance of what the other was trying to achieve.
The men approached their work differently due in part to their life experiences. Malcolm had a volatile childhood filled with racial violence. He lost his father at a young age, and his mother struggled to feed her seven children. She was eventually sent to a hospital for mental health treatment. Malcolm dropped out of school after the 8th grade.
King, in contrast, grew up in a middle-to-upper class family. His father was a respected minister at an Atlanta church. King attended college at Morehouse and eventually pursued a doctoral degree in theology at Boston University.13
As an adult, Malcolm became a minister with the Nation of Islam. He advocated for Black empowerment, Black nationalism, and racial separation. Malcolm X thought white people would always treat Black Americans unfairly. He believed the only way for Black Americans to thrive was by have a separate society.14
King grew up to be a Christian Baptist minister who preached nonviolence. He wanted to work with white Americans to secure greater civil rights for Black people.
Take a minute to explore murals dedicated to these civil rights leaders.
Murals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Image 1 Link: https://www.loc.gov/item/2021635057/
Image 1 Caption: Mural featuring MLK Jr. after a 1963 Birmingham prison mug shot. Bazaar Supermarket, Junius St. at Dumont Ave., Brooklyn. Photo taken by Camilo J. Vergara, Library of Congress, digital ID vrg 14975 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/vrg.14975
Image 2 Link: https://www.loc.gov/item/2018646578/
Image 2 Caption: MLK Jr., Restaurant Paseo San Miguel, Salvadorian Cuisine, 1560 West Martin Luther King Blvd. at La Salle St., Los Angeles, 2016. Photo taken by Camilo J. Vergara, Library of Congress, digital ID vrg 05477 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/vrg.05477
Murals of Malcolm X:
Image 1 Link: https://www.loc.gov/item/2020705581/
Image 1 Caption: Malcolm X, Old Broadway at W. 125th St., Harlem, 2019. Detail of The Yuri and Malcolm mural. Photo taken by Camilo J. Vergara, Library of Congress, digital ID vrg 12978 https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/vrg.12978
Image 2 Link: https://www.loc.gov/item/2020696271/
Image 2 Caption: Mural, detail, Grand River Ave. at Lahser St., Detroit, 2018. Photo taken by Camilo J. Vergara, Library of Congress, digital ID vrg 02848 https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/vrg.02848
Murals of both leaders:
Image 1 Link: https://www.loc.gov/item/2015647517/
Image 1 Caption: Mural "African Amalgamation of Ubiquity," by Curtis Lewis, 1985, featuring Malcolm X and MLK, Jr., on the side wall of Operation Get Down, a drug rehabilitation center, 9980 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit, Michigan, 2008. Photo taken by Camilo J. Vergara, Library of Congress, digital ID vrg 00411 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/vrg.00411
Image 2 Link: https://www.loc.gov/item/2015647505/
Image 2 Caption: Mural of MLK, Jr., and Malcolm X at a playground, Tompkins Houses, Myrtle Ave. and Tompkins Ave., Brooklyn, New York, 2001. Photo taken by Camilo J. Vergara, Library of Congress, digital ID vrg 00402 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/vrg.00402
How do these murals depict King and X? What catches your eye?
What details do you notice?
After viewing the murals, create your own artwork. Based on what you know about these two figures, draw your own interpretation of each. Consider how these two men may have influenced each other.
Malcolm X changed his name several times throughout his life. Born Malcolm Little, he eventually dropped his last name. He adopted the letter “X” to symbolize the loss of his family’s original African name during the days of slavery.
When European colonizers forcibly brought Africans to North America in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, they were not allowed to keep their names. Instead, they were given the last name of their enslavers. Enslaved people were freed after the Civil War (1861-1865) and with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (1865). Many kept their last names in the hopes of finding and reconnecting with loved ones who had been sold.15
Consider how identity is connected to a name. As author Ralph Ellison reminds us, “It is through names that we first place ourselves in the world. Our names, being the gift of others, must be made our own.”16
What name were you given at birth? Do you still use that name? Why or why not?
What do you think your name reflects about you?
What other reasons do people have for changing their names (first or last)?
Do you know anyone who has changed their name?
If you had to choose a different name for yourself, what would it be? Why?
1. In his autobiography, Malcolm X describes the racial terror he experienced as a child. Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 3-4.
2. Ibid, 12-26.
3. Les Payne and Tamara Payne, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020), 208-230; “The Proposed Masjid Wali Muhammad/ Temple No. 1 Historic District Final Report,” Detroit City Council, (accessed July 7th, 2021), https://detroitmi.gov/sites/detroitmi.localhost/files/2018-08/Masjid%20Wali%20Muhammad_FINAL%20REPORT.pdf
4. Imam Benjamin Karim, “Introduction,” in The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X, (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1971), 1.
5. Due to threats against his life by the NOI, Malcolm used a different name for his travels to Mecca. He was later buried under this name after his assassination. Payne, The Dead are Arising, 439, 520.
6. Sophia Rose Arjana, Pilgrimage in Islam: Traditional and Modern Practices, (Oneworld Publications, 2017), 1-4.
7. Payne, The Dead are Arising, 439-440.
8. In late 1963, NOI leader Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm from the organization for comments he made about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Malcolm used that time to reflect on what he wanted his role to be in securing greater rights for African Americans. He officially renounced his involvement with NOI in March 1964. Malcolm detailed these events in an interview with A.B. Spellman in 1964. “An Interview by A.B. Spellman,” in By Any Means Necessary, ed. George Breitman (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 1.
9. Payne, The Dead are Arising, 476-480.
10. Ibid, 68.
11. “Shelley v. Kraemer (1948),” Legal Information Institute, Cornell University, accessed July 8, 2021, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/shelley_v_kraemer_%281948%29
12. “Missouri: The Shelley House,” National Park Service, accessed July 9, 2021, https://www.nps.gov/places/missouri-the-shelley-house-l.htm
13. Peniel E. Joseph, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., (New York: Basic Books, 2020).
14. Karim, “Introduction,” in The End of White World Supremacy, 14-15.
15. Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad preached about the connection between African American surnames and slavery. He encouraged his followers to change their names to acknowledge their shared heritage as descendants of enslaved people. Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America, (Secretarius MEMPS Publications, 2009); Lolly Bowean,“The Unspoken History Hidden Behind a Surname,” (Dec 26, 2017), Chicago Tribune, https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-surname-names-history-heritage-1227-20171221-story.html; “Changing Names: Race in US History,” Facing History and Ourselves, (accessed July 11, 2021), https://www.facinghistory.org/reconstruction-era/changing-names.
16. Ralph Ellison, “Hidden Name and Complex Fate: A Writer’s Experience in the United States,” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan, (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 192.
Arjana, Sophia Rose. Pilgrimage in Islam: Traditional and Modern Practices. Oneworld Publications, 2017.
Bowean, Lolly. “The Unspoken History Hidden Behind a Surname.” (Dec 26, 2017), Chicago Tribune, https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-surname-names-history-heritage-1227-20171221-story.html
Ellison, Ralph. “Hidden Name and Complex Fate: A Writer’s Experience in the United States.” In The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan. New York: Modern Library, 2003.
Karim, Benjamin “Introduction.” In The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches by Malcolm X. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1971.
Joseph, Peniel E. The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. New York: Basic Books, 2020.
Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Blackman in America. Secretarius MEMPS Publications, 2009.
Payne, Les and Tamara Payne. The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020.
X, Malcolm and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965.
X, Malcolm. “An Interview by A.B. Spellman.” In By Any Means Necessary, ed. George Breitman. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.
“Changing Names: Race in US History.” Facing History and Ourselves. Accessed July 11, 2021, https://www.facinghistory.org/reconstruction-era/changing-names.
“Missouri: The Shelley House.” National Park Service. Accessed July 9, 2021, https://www.nps.gov/places/missouri-the-shelley-house-l.htm
“The Proposed Masjid Wali Muhammad/ Temple No. 1 Historic District Final Report, Detroit City Council.” Accessed July 7th, 2021, https://detroitmi.gov/sites/detroitmi.localhost/files/2018-08/Masjid%20Wali%20Muhammad_FINAL%20REPORT.pdf
“Shelley v. Kraemer (1948).” Legal Information Institute, Cornell University. Accessed July 8, 2021, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/shelley_v_kraemer_%281948%29