Getting to the Truth of Why Malcolm X Left the Nation of Islam
The circumstances around Malcolm X’s split with the Nation of Islam remains a complex and polarizing topic. One of the reasons for this is because there are many sides to this story. In this piece I want to specifically focus on the version of events that Louis Farrakhan gave and contrast that with what Malcolm himself said about his split with the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan explained his version of events in this interview with Sway below:
I want to state from the onset that Farrakhan certainly was not sad about Malcolm’s murder, as the two videos below demonstrate. Farrakhan stated that Malcolm was “worthy of death” for his stance against the Nation of Islam. In recent years Farrakhan has toned down a lot of his vicious rhetoric against Malcolm X, but I mention this to provide some context for what Farrakhan says regarding Malcolm’s split from the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan was not a neutral observer in this split, but rather someone who viciously attacked Malcolm and who believed that Malcolm deserved to be killed.
Farrakhan was not alone in this thinking. Muhammad Ali also expressed the view that Malcolm would die for opposing Elijah Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad himself suggested that Malcolm’s “foolish teaching brought him to his own end.” Thomas Hagan admitted that he was motivated to murder Malcolm because of Malcolm’s criticisms of Elijah Muhammad. I mention all of this to demonstrate the type of enviroment that existed at the time to provide some context for what Farrakhan says about what was happening between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam at the time of the split. Farrakhan’s reflection on these events in his interview with Sway fails to convey just how much the Nation of Islam hated Malcolm at the time.
Farrakhan’s narrative of the events contradicts Malcolm’s version in certain areas. Around 4:40, Farrakhan says that Malcolm first told him about Elijah Muhammad’s personal life over dinner at Malcolm’s house. Farrakhan explains that Malcolm offered to trick the women into telling Farrakhan that everything that Malcolm told Farrakhan was true and that Malcolm told Farrakhan not to tell anyone. In his autobiography, Malcolm offers a different version of events. Malcolm stated:
I told them. And then I told them why I had told them-that I felt they should not be caught by surprise and shock if it became their job to teach the Muslims in their mosques the "fulfillment of prophecy." I found then that some had already heard it; one of them, Minister Louis X of Boston, as much as seven months before. They had been living with the dilemma themselves.
According to Malcolm, Farrakhan knew about Elijah Muhammad’s affairs long before Malcolm himself found out, yet in Farrakhan’s version of the events Farrakhan claims that he was so shocked by the information that Malcolm told him that Farrakhan could not sleep that night. Now, whose version of these events you believe depends on which side you take in Malcolm’s dispute with the Nation of Islam, although it is worth nothing that Farrakhan was the same man who, as noted before, stated that Malcolm deserved to die for criticizing Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan would have good reason to cover up any evidence that he was aware of Elijah Muhammad’s affairs and to make it appear as though he found out from Malcolm because that creates the perception that Malcolm began telling other Muslims about the affairs in an attempt to turn them against Elijah Muhammad. I mention this because, as I will address later on, Farrakhan implies that Malcolm was out to destroy the Nation of Islam. In his autobiography, Malcolm also complained that the officials in the Nation of Islam made it appear as though Malcolm had started the problem:
I never dreamed that the Chicago Muslim officials were going to make it appear that I was throwing gasoline on the fire instead of water. I never dreamed that they were going to try to make it appear that instead of inoculating against an epidemic, I had started it.
Malcolm was certainly hurt to find out that Elijah Muhammad had fathered several children out of wedlock, which was violation of the strict moral code that was imposed on Muslims, but this is not why Malcolm X left. In fact, in his autobiography Malcolm X explained that his first reaction was to rationalize Elijah Muhammad’s behavior, explaining: “David’s adultery with Bathsheba weighed less on history’s scales, for instance, than the positive fact of David’s killing Goliath.” As I stated, Malcolm’s faith in Elijah Muhammad took a blow, but he continued to remain loyal to Elijah Muhammad. In fact, Malcolm continued to remain loyal even after he left the Nation of Islam. When Malcolm first publically announced his separation, Malcolm explained:
I am and always will be a Muslim. My religion is Islam. I still believe that Mr. Muhammad’s analysis of the problem is the most realistic, and that his solution is the best one. This means that I too believe the best solution is complete separation, with our people going back home, to our own African homeland.
Malcolm did not publically take a stance against Elijah Muhammad even after leaving the Nation of Islam. Moreover, Malcolm always maintained that he was forced out of the Nation of Islam and that he did not leave under his own free will. Malcolm explained: “Internal differences within the Nation of Islam forced me out of it. I did not leave of my own free will.”
Malcolm’s main issue was the fact that Elijah Muhammad had hid these affairs from the public. The Nation of Islam maintained a strict moral code and Malcolm was forced to shun his own brother when it was discovered that his brother was carrying on an affair with a secretary. At the 8 minute mark in the video above, Farrakhan says that Elijah Muhammad married the women that he impregnated, but this raises the question of why didn’t the Nation of Islam publically expose this information at the time to counter what Malcolm was saying.
One reason for this is because Elijah Muhammad did not want the public to know that he had fathered children outside of his marriage to Clara Muhammad, who was Elijah Muhammad’s only publically recognized wife. In fact, some followers of Elijah Muhammad still maintain the view that Clara was his only wife, as the video below indicates.
Two of the women had filed paternity suits against Elijah Muhammad. Regardless of Farrakhan’s statement that Elijah Muhammad had married the women that he fathered children with, the reality was at the time Elijah Muhammad was not acknowledging these women or the children that he produced, which was Malcolm’s biggest issue with the situation. As Malcolm explained: “ You can’t take nine teenaged women and seduce them and give them babies and then tell me you’re moral. You could do it if you admitted you did it and admitted that the babies were yours. I’d shake your hand and call you a man. A good one too.”
The other thing to keep in mind is that according to FBI reports, Elijah Muhammad’s affairs impacted his marriage to Clara, which Karl Evanzz documents in The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad. Clara was apparently threatening to leave Elijah Muhammad, so his domestic situation with the other women that he fathered children with was causing problems in his own personal life.
The claim that Elijah Muhammad took these women as wives is complicated by the fact that marriage is a state-recognized political union, which obviously was not the relationship that Elijah Muhammad had with these women. Farrakhan refers to them as wives in a nominal sense, but legally and publically Clara was Elijah Muhammad’s only wife.
At around 2:15 in the interview with Sway, Farrakhan suggests that Malcolm “broke ranks” with the Nation of Islam over Elijah Muhammad’s personal life, but this was not the case. As I said, Malcolm himself explained that he did not willingly leave the Nation of Islam, so he did not break ranks. Moreover, the disagreements that Malcolm had with Elijah Muhammad were greater than Malcolm’s issues with Elijah Muhammad’s personal behaviors.
There were growing political disagreements between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. This became apparent in the aftermath of Ronald Stokes’ murder. Malcolm X wanted to directly confront the LAPD over this situation, but was ordered to stand down by Elijah Muhammad. The tension between the two was that Malcolm believed that the Nation of Islam should have been more directly involved in the civil rights struggle and should have done more to directly confront racist attacks against African Americans. Malcolm’s brother Philbert explained:
It was Malcolm who sparked the growth of the Nation all over the country. He was in demand. Nobody was asking for Elijah Muhammad to speak, they were asking for Malcolm to speak. And naturally, Malcolm got more involved with the civil rights struggle and his argument became more an argument that you would expect from someone who was in the civil rights struggle than you would for someone who was following the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
Also keep in mind that the FBI was actively working to create divisions within the Nation of Islam, as the following document below demonstrates. The document specifically mentions Malcolm’s split with the Nation of Islam as an example of this division. This is something that Farrakhan speaks about around 14:40 in the interview with Sway.
It is rather interesting to me that although Malcolm was accused of being a traitor to the Nation of Islam, there is no proof that he actually betrayed the Nation of Islam. In fact, during the period of Malcolm’s suspension the FBI tried to bribe Malcolm for information about the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X recorded this encounter, which can be heard below:
There were members of the Nation of Islam which were not as loyal as Malcolm was. John Ali, the national secretary and the man who publically announced Malcolm’s suspension from the Nation of Islam, was an FBI informant. Malcolm himself stated that the Nation of Islam was “thoroughly infiltrated.” In the interview with Farrakhan above, Farrakhan suggests at around 11:20 that Malcolm was trying to destroy the Nation of Islam. The venom, anger and hatred that was directed at Malcolm was not directed against John Ali and other agents who were freely operating within the Nation of Islam, but Malcolm became a target because of his popularity within the movement. The perception that was created was that Malcolm X was a hypocrite who was trying to discredit Elijah Muhammad and destroy the Nation of Islam.
There were groups such as the New World of Islam and the Young Muslims who split from the Nation of Islam and then launched violent attacks against the Nation of Islam. These confrontations happened after Malcolm was assassinated, but when Malcolm was alive he expressed concern and regret over the fighting that was taking place between the Nation of Islam and other Black groups:
The only thing that I regret in all of this is that two Black groups have to fight and kill each other off. Elijah Muhammad could stop the whole thing tomorrow, just by raising his hand. Really, he could. He could stop the whole thing by raising his hand. But he won’t. He doesn’t love Black people. He doesn’t even want to go forward. Proof of which, they’re killing each other. They killed one in the Bronx. They shot another one in the Bronx. They tried to get six of us Sunday morning. And the pattern has developed across the country.
Malcolm was not trying to destroy the Nation of Islam, as Farrakhan suggests. In fact, Malcolm was concerned about the fighting that was taking place among Muslims and had the Nation of Islam listened to Malcolm’s warnings further violence and bloodshed may have been avoided — but that is a separate discussion. The point I am making here is that Malcolm is often singled out and condemned by the Nation of Islam as a traitor, yet there were individuals who were truly working to destroy the Nation of Islam and it seems that many Muslims have forgotten about these actors because they do not receive the same level of resentment that Malcolm received. Elijah Muhammad himself complained that “while trying to make unity, the Muslims are faced with murderers and killers coming to them from among our Black brothers.”
Also keep in mind that Malcolm never stopped acknowledging that the Nation of Islam was an organization that reformed himself and many others. He stated:
So, I feel responsible for having played a major role in developing a criminal organization. It was not a criminal organization at the outset. It was an organization that had the power, the spiritual power, to reform the criminal. And this is what you have to understand. As long as that strong spiritual power was in the movement, it gave the moral strength to the believer that would enable him to rise above all his negative tendencies. I know, because I went into the movement with more negative tendencies than anybody in the movement. It was faith in what I was taught that made it possible for me to stop doing anything that I was doing and everything that I was doing. And I saw thousands of brothers and sisters come in who were in the same condition. And whatever they were doing, they would stop it overnight, just through faith and faith alone.
I do not think Malcolm was out to destroy the Nation of Islam. I would also add here that I think critics of the Nation of Islam often fail to recognize just how successful the Nation of Islam was at reforming individuals like Malcolm. One specific account which I reference in my book Muhammad Ali, The Confederate Flag, and Other Essays was the account of a former prostitute who joined the Nation of Islam. She stated:
Respect and love showed to Black women by the members of NOI played a great part in making me become Muslim. Some of them knew my past but it did not matter. I had never seen and experienced an acceptance as a sister and a person with such sincerity and warm environment as shown by brothers and sisters in the Nation.
I also mentioned a former member of the Nation of Islam who stated: “He [Elijah Muhammad] stopped making me smoke reefer, stop me from smoking cigarettes, stop me from drinking liquor and everything else. Now who benefitted from that, he or me?” Another former member stated: “I have used the discipline in the Nation of Islam to become a better human being, to become a better husband, to become a better a better father to my children, and to become a better citizen…” Na’im Akbar credited the Nation of Islam with making him a more effective psychologist: “I didn’t know what the answer was, with the limited tools that I had been given with my training in Western Psychology, but I knew that Elijah Muhammad had hit upon something that was making a real difference. It was generating impressively productive behavior from the least productive elements of American society.” Akbar also stated, “ it is important to recognize that Elijah Muhammad was able to accomplish with his followers what the “sophistication” of all Western technology, psychology and theology had failed to accomplish.”
I mention all of this to present as balanced a picture as I can because I think the feud with Malcolm tends to cause some to overlook just how powerful and transformative the Nation of Islam was under Elijah Muhammad’s leadership. As John Henrik Clarke said: “Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad’s message made a whole lot of people feel whole again, human being again. Some of them came out and found a new meaning to their manhood and their womanhood.” I don’t want the positive aspects of what the Nation of Islam did to be completely overshadowed, but at the same time I also think that we should not ignore the reality of the hateful rhetoric that the Nation of Islam engaged in towards Malcolm either. Trying to find this balance is what makes this particular topic such a difficult and polarizing topic, but I am digressing a bit here.
There is also a question of whether or not Malcolm was trying to get back into the Nation of Islam before his assassination. Farrakhan says this around 11:50 at the video above. Where is the proof of this? Malcolm had very clearly distanced himself from Elijah Muhammad in the months leading to his assassination. Malcolm also formed two separate organizations, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) and the Muslim Mosque, Inc. Why would Malcolm go to the effort of forming two separate organizations, including an Islamic organization, if he really wanted to return back to the Nation of Islam — an organization which Malcolm believed was trying to kill him.
Farrakhan makes it appear as though Malcolm was “wandering” for one or two years outside of the Nation of Islam, and then became a Black Nationalist and an orthodox Muslim. Farrakhan is mistaken on some of the facts here. Malcolm announced his separation from the Nation of Islam in March, 1964. Malcolm was assassinated on February 21, 1965, so Malcolm was not officially out of the Nation of Islam for two years — although in fairness to Farrakhan, he may be referring to when Malcolm was first suspended in 1963, but Malcolm still remained with the Nation of Islam throughout the 90 days that he was suspended. Malcolm also remained a Black Nationalist even after his conversion to orthodox Islam, which is one of the reasons why he maintained two separate organizations; one for his religious views and the other for his political views. Farrakhan seems to give the impression that Malcolm went from Black Nationalism to orthodox Islam, which was not the case.
Malcolm obviously wanted to be reinstated after he was suspended and Malcolm himself said that he never willingly left the Nation of Islam, but after he left and formed his own organizations, how strongly did Malcolm want to return back into the Nation? I have seen some offer this recording of Malcolm X apologizing to Elijah Muhammad as proof that Malcolm wanted back into the Nation shortly before his assassination:
I have yet to see anyone present a date for when this tape was recorded and I suspect that it was recorded in 1963 or early 1964, but not in 1965. We know from FBI files that before Malcolm was suspended there were tensions between Malcolm X and members of Elijah Muhammad’s family, and that during this period Malcolm was sending apologetic letters to Elijah Muhammad.
In June 26, 1964, Malcolm sent an open letter to Elijah Muhammad in which he stated, “we should be working in unity with other leaders and organizations in an effort to solve the very serious problems facing all Afro-Americans.” To put this letter into context, Malcolm officially announced his departure from the Nation of Islam in March of that same year and then went to Mecca in April. Malcolm returned to America in May and then left for Africa again in July. It would appear by this point that Malcolm had no interest in returning back to the Nation of Islam, and this would become more apparent when Malcolm began to publically denounce the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm was not extremely critical of the Nation of Islam during the time that he was traveling throughout Africa. In fact, in his autobiography Malcolm explained that he defended Elijah Muhammad while he was speaking in Ghana:
At a jam-packed press club conference, I believe the very first question was why had I split with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. The Africans had heard such rumors as that Elijah Muhammad had built a palace in Arizona. I straightened out that falsehood, and I avoided any criticism. I said that our disagreement had been in terms of political direction and involvement in the extra-religious struggle for human rights. I said I respected the Nation of Islam for its having been a psychologically revitalizing movement and a source of moral and social reform, and that Elijah Muhammad’s influence upon the American black man had been basic.
If there are letters and tapes which confirm that Malcolm was looking to return to the Nation of Islam after he formed the OAAU, I have not come across them. There seems to be scant evidence to suggest that Malcolm was trying to return to the Nation of Islam in the final months of his life, which contrasts with the numerous public statements which he gave condemning Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Moreover, Malcolm repeatedly accused Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam of trying to kill him. In one of his last interviews, Malcolm X told Al- Muslimoon, “Elijah Muhammad himself had already given the order to have me killed because he feared I would expose to his followers the secret of his extreme immorality.”
Malcolm also publically accused the Nation of Islam of being responsible for bombing his house. In private, Malcolm did seem to have some questions over whether or not the Nation of Islam was truly behind the various attempts on his life, including Malcolm being poisoned in Egypt. Although he publically blamed the Nation of Islam for firebombing his house, Malcolm privately expressed to Ella Collins that he felt that firebombing of his home was much bigger than the Nation of Islam. This was after a bottle which was apparently filled with gasoline was planted in Malcolm’s home to make it appear as though he started the fire.
It makes little sense to me that Malcolm would accuse Elijah Muhammad of being insane and yet expect that he would be allowed back into the Nation of Islam. If there is evidence to suggest that Malcolm was indeed trying to get back into the Nation of Islam during the final weeks of his life, I have not seen such evidence. Videos like the one above cast very serious doubt about this, however.
Malcolm said publically, just days before his assassination:
And it was he [referring to Leon Ameer] who heard Elijah Muhammad, Jr., come to New York when Elijah Muhammad was at the armory in June of last year. Junior stood up and told the Fruit — many of whom are here now also — that I should have been killed. That my tongue should have been put in an envelope and sent back to Chicago by now.
According to FBI files, Elijah Muhammad privately denounced Malcolm and claimed that the Nation of Islam should cut off the heads of hypocrites in the organization. He referred to Malcolm as “no good long-legged” Malcolm and made reference to getting rid of Malcolm in the way that Moses got rid of the bad ones. Moses often handled the bad ones through execution. In Exodus 32:27–28, for example, three thousand people were killed under the orders of Moses. The implications of language such as this are very clear. Elijah Muhammad felt that Malcolm deserved death for his perceived hypocrisy. This again demonstrated the animosity that the Nation of Islam felt towards Malcolm.
Malcolm had stated that “if someone came to me and I had no knowledge whatsoever of what had taken place and they told me what I’m saying, I would kill them myself. The only thing that would prevent me from killing someone who made a statement like this, they would have to be able to let me know that it’s true.” So Malcolm understood very clearly that making the charges that he was making was a very dangerous thing to do because of the commitment that Muslims had to Elijah Muhammad. I mention this because Malcolm himself was aware of level of devotion that Muslim had towards their leader. In fact, Malcolm rejected his own brother when his brother was having an affair with a secretary and expelled from the Nation of Islam.
Given that Elijah Muhammad was expressing such strong views against Malcolm and that Malcolm was openly accusing the Nation of Islam of trying to kill him, it is difficult to see why Malcolm would have been trying to return to the Nation of Islam in the months prior to his assassination, as Farrakhan suggests.
Malcolm publically renounced the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and embraced orthodox Islam. Malcolm referred to the Nation of Islam’s doctrine as “Elijah’s distorted version of Islam.” So there is no apparent reason for why Malcolm would have even wanted to return to the Nation of Islam in1965. I also doubt Elijah Muhammad wanted Malcolm back. When Malcolm was assassinated, there was little mourning from the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad stated: “We didn’t want to kill Malcolm and didn’t try to kill him. They know I didn’t harm Malcolm. They know I loved him. His foolish teaching brought him to his own end. . . .” In Fall of America, Elijah Muhammad wrote of Malcolm:
Malcolm fell out from us a hypocrite. He went and joined white people and worshiped them and he got what he preached for. Now the white man names colleges after Malcolm only to get you to join in the philosophy which he left behind; that white people are good. Malcolm went to Mecca and saw white people.
If Malcolm was trying to rejoin the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad never made any mention of it. Instead, he portrayed Malcolm as a hypocrite whose preachings brought about his own demise. Based on these remarks, it does not appear that Elijah Muhammad really cared to have Malcolm back in the Nation of Islam. By 1965, Malcolm had moved in a political and religious direction which was no longer consistent with the Nation of Islam’s teachings. It wouldn’t have seemed productive for either Malcolm or for the Nation of Islam to have Malcolm return.
Space won’t permit me to really address the complexities of the circumstances surrounding Malcolm’s split with the Nation of Islam, but the purpose of this piece was to demonstrate that there are conflicting narratives around the situation. As I noted before, I think one’s view on this issue will depend on where you stand. Those who are supporters and followers of Louis Farrakhan are likely to believe Farrakhan’s account of the story, whereas others would be more inclined to support Malcolm.
Dwayne is the author of Malcolm X, Bob Marley, and other Essays.