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‘The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.,’ by Peniel E. Joseph: An Excerpt | Press "Enter" to skip to content

‘The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.,’ by Peniel E. Joseph: An Excerpt

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Earl’s political tutelage of young Malcolm ended abruptly on September 8, 1931. That evening, Earl left the house to pick up money from the sale of some chickens. He never returned. The police arrived with the news late at night that Earl lay in a hospital, severely injured in what authorities described as a streetcar accident. Police surmised that Earl had slipped and fallen beneath a moving streetcar’s back wheels. The family immediately suspected racist violence by the Black Legion, the area’s version of the Ku Klux Klan. Malcolm believed so too. Over thirty years later, he could still visualize it: “The house filled up with people crying, saying bitterly that the white Black Legion had finally gotten him.”4 For the remainder of his life, Malcolm would try to re-create the familial structure shattered by Earl’s death. Malcolm’s mother, Louise, found herself a widow taking care of seven children, including three-month-old infant Wesley. Louise’s commitment to Kalamazoo State Hospital in 1938 for mental illness, just after the birth of Malcolm’s half brother Robert, further disrupted Malcolm’s childhood. Louise remained institutionalized for the next twenty-four years. For three years after his mother was committed, Malcolm shuttled between foster care and juvenile facilities. In later life, he would find a replacement father figure in Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. But even then, Earl Little’s unapologetic commitment to racial justice and political organizing—even at the expense of spending time with his wife and children—would frame Malcolm’s behavior. Memories of Earl presiding over sparsely attended but vigorously energetic UNIA meetings resonated deeply with Malcolm, and he held up Earl as his political hero. Malcolm had attended political meetings with his father, read black newspapers at home as a child, and listened to his father teach the entire family about the importance of faraway happenings in Africa and the Caribbean. He fervently admired Earl’s rugged political determination in the face of white racism. Earl cast a shadow in death better than he had alive, bequeathing his young son with a model of itinerant political organizing that Malcolm would adopt for the rest of his life.

Earl’s death hastened Malcolm’s departure from a Michigan public school system he found to be incorrigibly racist. Malcolm recalled his time at Mason Junior High School as an abject lesson in racism, where white teachers referred to him as “nigger” and even friendly white students thought of him as little more than a mascot. “I was unique in my class, like a pink poodle,” he remembered. He had a natural affinity for reading, debating, and social engagement, and early on he was touted as a charismatic leader.

His predominantly white classmates voted him class president, an honor later blunted by a white teacher’s dismissal of his dreams of being a lawyer. At fifteen, he dropped out of school and entered a sordid world of hustling—one populated by young black men with little education and even fewer prospects. The bowels of black urban American neighborhoods in New York City and Boston became a proving ground for a teenage Malcolm. He came of age in those cities during the 1940s, learning to rely on his intelligence, quick wit, and charisma to survive the streets.

In February 1941, Malcolm departed Lansing by bus to move in with his twenty-seven-year-old, Georgia-born half sister, Ella Mae Collins. A formidable woman whose obsidian skin, sharp intelligence, and outspoken manner reminded Malcolm of Earl, Ella offered the closest example of parental love that the fifteen-year- old had ever received. They lived in the Hill neighborhood of Boston, where small groups of working-class black families thrived during the war years, enjoying job opportunities as blue-collar and, at times, white-collar professionals. Ella fit neither of these categories. Despite a veneer of middle-class respectability, Malcolm’s sister was a habitual thief, one whose criminal exploits included arrests for shoplifting and assault and battery. In 1942, Ella married her third husband, and Malcolm became fast friends with Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, who schooled him in the ways of Boston’s black underworld.

Malcolm dived into Boston’s nightlife; he learned to drink liquor, smoke marijuana, and romance women. He shined shoes at Roseland State Ballroom, where he encountered some of the era’s great jazz musicians, including Count Basie and Duke Ellington. He purchased a zoot suit, with its large lapels, balloon pants, and wide-brimmed hat, and completed the look by styling his hair in the fashionable “conk” style of the 1940s, which straightened his hair with chemicals. Malcolm, whose light skin and auburn hair at times made him feel self-conscious, now went by the nickname Red, danced the Lindy Hop, and searched for ways to make fast money and spend time with easy women.


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