Even though Martin Luther King Jr. had waged a successful campaign against Jim Crow laws in the South, a growing number of younger activists began to feel that nonviolent tactics could not right every social and political injustice. Blacks might have won the right to vote, eat at white lunch counters, sit at the front of the bus, and attend white colleges, but most still lived in poverty. True social change, many argued, would come only with revolution, not integration. These militant activists grew more and more powerful, until they came to dominate the civil rights movement in the late 1960s.
One of the earliest pushes for black nationalism during the civil rights movement was the formation of the Nation of Islam in Detroit in 1930. Under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, the organization was built upon the ideas of Marcus Garvey and the “New Negro,” working to uplift impoverished blacks in the Detroit ghetto by fostering a sense of black pride. The Nation of Islam also operated a number of shops and restaurants to promote economic independence. Like Garvey, Muhammad stressed the importance of appreciating black cultural roots and distinctiveness. On the other hand, Muhammad saw all whites as enemies and “blue-eyed devils” and therefore rejected calls for integration. The Nation continued to spread to other cities in the East through the 1950s.
Although Elijah Muhammad was instrumental in the early development of the Nation of Islam, a young black preacher, Malcolm X, made it famous. Malcolm Little, the son of a civil rights worker who had been murdered by a mob of racist whites, was sentenced to prison in 1946. There, he educated himself and converted to Islam, emerging as one of the country’s most vocal advocates of black nationalism and militancy in the early 1950s. He joined the Chicago headquarters of the Nation of Islam in 1952 and changed his surname to “X” to represent the identity and heritage lost by black Americans during centuries of enslavement.
Like his mentor, Muhammad, Malcolm X rejected integration and nonviolence and called on blacks to defend themselves—with violence whenever necessary—to overthrow white domination. A self-described extremist, Malcolm X was one of the most dynamic civil rights speakers of the 1950s and early 1960s.
After a series of scandals rocked the Nation of Islam and its founder, Elijah Muhammad, a disillusioned Malcolm X left the organization in 1964 and went on a spiritual pilgrimage to the capital of Muslim holiness, Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. On the journey, Malcolm X met fellow Muslims from all over the world who challenged his attitudes toward whites and prompted him to reexamine his beliefs. He eventually returned to the United States with a new name, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, and began working for integration rather than against it. He also founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity and supported nonviolent protest. However, in 1965, not long after his return to the United States, three Black Muslim militants gunned him down in New York City, most likely in retaliation for his defection from the Nation of Islam.
Despite his premature death, Malcolm X’s emphasis on self-sufficiency and armed defense was a clarion call for others dissatisfied with “love and nonviolence.” For example, the leader of the SNCC, Stokely Carmichael, began to incorporate black nationalism into his own philosophy in the mid-1960s and eventually convinced fellow organizers to expel white members in 1966.