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Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture > Malcolm X: A Search for Truth

Messengers of Hope and Liberation

Malcolm X was born on May 19, 1925, in the midst of one of the most dynamic periods of political, cultural, and spiritual transformation in African-American history. After almost a half century of racial segregation, political disfranchisement, and racial terrorism, the African-American community in the United States had begun the search for alternative political, economic, cultural, and religious paths. Ten years before Malcolm X’s birth, Booker T. Washington, the national leader of black people since the last decade of the nineteenth century, died, leaving a leadership vacuum. Into this void came new political and religious formations that competed for the loyalty and allegiance of the black masses. Marxists, socialists, the African Blood Brotherhood, and a few communists emerged on the political scene, jockeying with storefront preachers, the NAACP, the Urban League, grassroots community organizers, black nationalists, and Christian and non-Christian religious bodies for leadership roles in the New Negro Movement of the time.

Marcus Garvey, founder and President of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and so-named Provisional President of Africa, won the allegiance and support of millions of African peoples in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa. From his base in Harlem, Garvey, the dominant political figure in the New Negro Movement, had organized and managed the largest mass movement and self-help economic enterprise in African diaspora history and had established the model for twentieth-century independent black economic and political action. Malcolm X’s father, a Baptist preacher, was an organizer for Garvey’s UNIA, and his mother reported for Garvey’s newspaper, The Negro World. Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam from the 1930s to his death in 1975, was also a Garveyite who built his self-help program on the UNIA model. Noble Drew Ali’s earlier Islamic organization, the Moorish Science Temple, likely provided the initial inspiration for Elijah Muhammad’s religious program. In turn, Malcolm X was drawn to his teachings, which wove the philosophies of Garvey and Drew Ali into the Nation of Islam.

Next Section: Growing Up: Malcolm Little to "Detroit Red," 1925-45