How Malcolm X's Street Life Contributed to his Leadership Skills
In order to understand Malcolm X as a leader, one must first understand him as a street thug, because his street life was essential in shaping him as a leader. Malcolm, himself, acknowledged how essential his past was in helping him become a great leader.
Malcolm believed that, to understand why a person is how he is, "his whole life, from birth, must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that happened to us is an ingredient." (Haley, p.150). Therefore, to understand Malcolm X as a leader, one must look at his history, and a substantial part of that history involved Malcolm's life on the street. His street life helped him develop practical leadership skills, honed his charisma, and helped him break away from his Baptist upbringing.
Malcolm's street life began long before he actually began running in the streets or breaking the law. In fact, his introduction to the violence and discord that crime can bring into a life came about through no fault of his own. Malcolm's father was a Baptist preacher who spoke about equality and rights. In 1929, to punish him, white men committed arson, burning down the family home. Though a preacher, Malcolm's father shot at the two men who had set fire to their home. (Haley, p.3). When the police and firemen came, they were also white, and they simply stood and watched as the family home burned to the ground. (Haley, p.3). That was not Malcolm's only brush with violence as a child. In 1931, Malcolm's father was murdered; his head bashed-in, laid on the railroad tracks. (Haley, p.10). While Malcolm was a victim in both of these attacks, they certainly helped set him on the road to becoming a criminal. These incidents showed him that, as a black man, he and his family would be subject to violence by white men and would not be able to rely on law enforcement or the legal process to keep themselves safe.
These first criminal acts, though Malcolm was the victim and not the perpetrator, served as an important introduction to a life of crime. First, they taught Malcolm the importance of having a capacity for violence. Part of Malcolm's leadership ability was the fact that he was not preaching passive acceptance of white violence. Instead, his message was that blacks should be prepared to meet violence with violence, which was a message that appealed to people, like Malcolm, who had first-hand experience with how devastating white violence could be to a black family. Finally, though Malcolm's mother may have suffered from mental illness even if her husband had not been murdered, his death meant that her children were parceled out to relatives and foster homes once she was institutionalized for her mental problems. This lack of a true family environment certainly contributed to Malcolm's delinquent behavior.
In fact, once he realized that the law would not be used to protect him or guarantee him safety, Malcolm X seemed to develop a certain level of disdain for the law and became actively involved in the street life. Violence was an integral part of that life, and Malcolm had to cultivate an air of violence in order to survive. While a street thug, Malcolm became involved in a dispute with a numbers-runner named West Indian Archie. The dispute escalated to the point of a feud, which both men believed would result in one of their deaths. Malcolm had not killed anybody at that time, but his reputation was such that people believed he was capable of that type of violence. According to Malcolm, "No one knew that I hadn't killed anyone, but no one who knew me, including myself, would doubt that I'd kill." (Haley, p.130). In fact, he carried a gun on him at all times, and was ready to use it. Though that feud did not result in either of their deaths, it made Malcolm aware of two things. The first thing Malcolm came to recognize was that he was capable of killing another human being, if he believed that the reason to do so was compelling. For someone to be a capable leader, he has to be able to demonstrate the depth of his conviction to his followers. The willingness to kill another person for one's beliefs is a hallmark of leadership, because it demonstrates a very high level of commitment.
In addition, by not running from West Indian Archie, Malcolm demonstrated another important aspect of leadership; the willingness to die for a cause. In the dispute with West Indian Archie, the cause itself was essentially unimportant, but Malcolm was still ready and willing to die, rather than walk away from the dispute. Malcolm and three friends formed a burglary ring, which provided Malcolm X with another opportunity to show his willingness to die. To show his partners that he had no fear, Malcolm held a loaded gun to his head and pulled the trigger. (Haley, p.143). He told them, "I'm doing this, showing you I'm not afraid to die." (Haley, p.143). Malcolm took this willingness into his role as a civil rights leader, where the willingness to die gave gravity and import to his statements, because he was exhorting others to be willing to die for freedom, as well. The willingness to die also made him more formidable as an opponent; Malcolm warned his criminal coconspirators to "Never cross a man not afraid to die." (Haley, p.143). This warning was something that his later opponents in the civil rights arena would learn to heed as well. However, as much as he cultivated an air of violence, Malcolm did not engage in senseless violence. One time when he was about to be arrested, Malcolm had the opportunity to shoot the arresting officer and avoid apprehension. He did not do so. Instead, he raised his arm, and motioned to the detective, saying "Here, take my gun." (Haley, p.149).
In addition, though people who do not live in the criminal life may not realize it, running a criminal enterprise takes many of the same practical skills as running an ordinary business. To be successful, criminals have to understand their customers, understand their employees, and maintain strict control over their organizations. In addition, criminals have to work with authority figures, either avoiding or bribing law enforcement, so that the criminal enterprise can continue. The day-to-day operation of a small-scale criminal enterprise gave Malcolm practical experience with problem solving, helped him hone his people skills, and helped him understand what motivated people. Though it is easy to dismiss criminals as lacking motivation that is generally not the case. On the contrary, criminals are oftentimes very motivated. The druggies and gamblers that Malcolm interacted with while he was involved in the criminal life, helped him understand the sorrows and drives of his fellow black men. Disenfranchised and feeling powerless, he saw them turn to violence, drugs, and desperate hopes of money. This insight helped Malcolm know how to appeal to blacks when he gained a position of power.
Malcolm's life of crime also helped solidify his early anti-white message. Malcolm was so controversial at his time because of the great contrast between him and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm did not desire integration or the slow acquisition of equality. On the contrary, he was extremely angry that his people had been systemically brutalized, and he had no qualms about showing that anger. He hated white people. This hatred was something with which many blacks could identify. In fact, many blacks, especially in the urbanized northern part of the country, had very little experience interacting with whites. What experience they had may have mirrored Malcolm's, which included being treated like a criminal before ever embarking on a life of crime and being disproportionately penalized for criminal behavior because of race.
Furthermore, Malcolm's street life helped complete the break between his early life as the son of a Baptist preacher and later a prominent leader in the Nation of Islam. While the religious fervor was the same, the beliefs of the two religions are tremendously different. Therefore, he had to move away from being a Baptist in order to come to the Nation of Islam. He became involved in drug dealing, gambling, running numbers, robbery, and prostitution; turning away from his Baptist upbringing. He became fascinated with white women, dating them as a status symbol, and in defiance of the danger that he faced if the wrong people discovered the relationships. Malcolm's life on the street was a rejection of his upbringing. In fact, even after Malcolm was incarcerated, he continued to live the street life. He spoke out against God, the Bible, and the trappings of his early religion. In short, he continued to live a street thug's life, even though he
Of course, the most substantial way that Malcolm's street life contributed to his leadership ability is that it…