These articles were originally posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.
This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.
Malcolm Stuart Little, or Malcolm X as he was better known, was an African American nationalist and civil rights activist. Malcolm was born on 19th May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Baptist lay-preacher Earl Little and Louise Helen Little, who were both involved with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). They taught their children to stand up for themselves and be proud of their heritage and black skin. Yet, the family were constantly targeted by the racist group, the Black Legion, forcing them to move twice, firstly to Wisconsin, then to Michigan.
Malcolm’s father died when he was only six years old. The official ruling was Earl had been involved in a streetcar accident, but Malcolm’s mother was certain it had been murder. In 1937, by which time Malcolm was 12, his mother suffered a mental breakdown and Malcolm and his siblings were separated and placed in foster care.
Malcolm did well at school but was deterred from going on to study law by a teacher who told him it was not a realistic career for a black man. As a result, Malcolm looked for jobs but never settled anywhere for long, eventually falling in with the wrong crowd in New York. For some time, Malcolm was involved with drugs, gambling, pimping and robbery until he was arrested for the latter in 1946.
While in prison, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam, a religious movement founded in 1930 that aimed to improve the lives of African Americans. On his release, Malcolm contacted the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, who helped him convert to Islam and encouraged him to join the movement. All members were instructed to leave their family names behind and replace them with the letter X. Malcolm was more than happy to leave the name “Little” behind, which had been given to his ancestors by a slavemaster. Thus, he became known as Malcolm X.
In 1953, Malcolm became the assistant minister at a temple in Detroit, where he proved to be a skilful speaker and encouraged many people to join the Nation of Islam. Amongst Malcolm’s recruits to the Nation of Islam was the boxer Cassius Clay, who adopted the Muslim name Muhammad Ali. The FBI opened a file on Malcolm after he declared himself a communist. His popularity amongst the movement’s members increased the FBI’s concerns.
Malcolm married Betty Sanders in 1958, who renamed herself Betty X after joining the Nation of Islam. They had six daughters who they named after notable Muslims: Attallah (Attila the Hun), Qubilah (Kublai Khan), Ilyasah (Elijah Muhammad), Gamilah Lumumba (Gamal Abdel Nasser and Patrice Lumumba), and twins: Malikah and Malaak, named after Malcolm, who took on the Muslim name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Teaching the movement’s followers that all white people were bad, Malcolm made himself a public figure, turning up at police stations to protest the wrongful arrests of several black people. His comments on various issues were published in magazines or reported on radio and television. Topics included the Nation of Islam’s beliefs that black people were the original people of the world. They believed white people were devils, blacks were superior to whites, and the demise of the white race was imminent. These statements alarmed many people of all races, particularly followers of Martin Luther King Jr, who wanted blacks accepted as equal to whites.
Between 1962 and 1963, Malcolm began to reassess his involvement with the Nation of Islam. He began to disagree with some of Elijah Muhammad’s choices and disapproved of Muhammad’s involvement in extramarital affairs, which went against the movement’s teachings. By 1964, Malcolm believed the movement had gone as far as it could, and felt restricted by its rigid teachings. Although he wanted to remain a Muslim, Malcolm wanted to support other civil rights leaders, which Muhammad had actively discouraged.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam, which focused more on the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Later that year, he took the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, where he met Muslims of “all colours, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans,” which made him realise there was not a superior race, but that everyone was equal.
Having completed his journey to Mecca, Malcolm visited several African countries where he gave many interviews and television appearances. Following this, he visited France and the United Kingdom, where he involved himself in national debates. On his return to the USA, he was invited to speak at various universities and public spaces, encouraging people to fight for their rights and support one another.
As time passed, Malcolm received many death threats, and not only from anti-black organisations. The Nation of Islam branded Malcolm a hypocrite and wished to “bump him off”. Despite warning many people of the threats against his life, no one was able to prevent gunmen from advancing on him during a speech. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm on 21st February 1965, having suffered 21 gunshot wounds. The assassins were identified as members of the Nation of Islam, but only Talmadge Hayer was convicted. Hayer refused to name the other men, and, to this day, they remain unknown. The case continues to intrigue people, and earlier this year (2020), Netflix aired the docuseries Who Killed Malcolm X? which launched a new investigation into the assassination.
After Malcolm’s death, Martin Luther King Jr got in touch with his wife, saying, “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.” Even those who were against Malcolm’s beliefs and ideas were shocked at his death.
Malcolm X has been described as one of the most influential African Americans in history. Although many did not approve of his tactics and beliefs, his actions stirred black communities into action to fight for the lives they deserved. As one biographer put it, Malcolm X “made clear the price that white America would have to pay if it did not accede to black America’s legitimate demands.”
Maya Angelou was one of the most influential black poets of the 20th and early 21st century, writing on themes of racism, identity, family and travel. She was also a civil rights activist and worked with Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. She was showered with awards and over 50 honorary degrees, but her life was not always plain sailing.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on 4th April 1928 in Missouri to Bailey and Vivian Johnson, Maya was given her nickname by her older brother, Bailey Jr. Unfortunately, her parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and they separated when she was three years old. Rather than take responsibility for his children, her father sent them to Arkansas to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson. They remained there until Maya was seven when they moved home to live with their mother.
Sadly, living with their mother also meant living with their mother’s abusive boyfriend, who raped Maya when she was only eight years old. The man was arrested and locked up for one day but was murdered four days later, most likely by Maya’s uncles. The abuse greatly affected Maya, who became mute for five years, even after moving back in with her grandmother. Fortunately, her school teacher helped Maya to regain her voice whilst also feeding her passion for reading, introducing the young girl to authors who would influence her future career.
When Maya was 14, she rejoined her mother, who was then living in California. At 16, she became the first black female cable car conductor in San Francisco, where she worked whilst also attending school. Unfortunately, she got herself in trouble, and no more than three weeks after graduation, she gave birth to a baby boy, Clyde.
In 1951, Maya married a Greek electrician called Tosh Angelos, despite her mother’s disapproval. At that time, interracial marriages were unusual. Maya began taking dance lessons and dreamt of a career in a dance team. In an attempt to increase her prospects, Maya, Tosh and Clyde moved to New York for a year, where she studied African dance. For reasons unknown, in 1954, not long after returning to San Francisco, Maya’s marriage ended.
Having to fend for herself financially, Maya began dancing in local clubs, such as The Purple Onion, under her professional name, Maya Angelou. In 1954-5, she toured Europe by acting in the opera Porgy and Bess and, in 1957, wrote and recorded an album called Miss Calypso. In every country she visited, Maya made a point of learning the language, quickly becoming proficiently multilingual.
In 1959, African-American author John Oliver Killens encouraged Maya to focus on writing songs and poems rather than solely performing. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild and soon became a published author. The following year, she met Martin Luther King Jr and was inspired to organise a concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) called Cabaret for Freedom.
Maya had a brief relationship with South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make and moved with him to Cairo in 1961 along with her son, who had renamed himself, Guy. The relationship only lasted a year, after which Maya moved to Ghana, where her son enrolled at university. While Guy was studying, Maya worked as a freelance writer for The African Review and Radio Ghana.
Whilst living in Ghana, Maya met Malcolm X, who was touring Africa. He encouraged her to return to the USA in 1965 and help him set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Shortly after, Malcolm X was assassinated, and Maya, at a loss, moved to Hawaii, where her brother lived and refocused on her singing career. Not long after, she returned to Los Angeles to resume her writing career.
In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr approached Maya for help organising a march. Tragically, in a similar fate to Malcolm X, King was assassinated on Maya’s 40th birthday. After a bout of depression, Maya resumed writing and published her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Initially, the publishers were unsure whether to publish the book, but it went on to become a bestseller, earning Maya international recognition.
In 1972, Maya became the first black woman to write a screenplay, which was filmed in Sweden and released under the name Georgia, Georgia. She also wrote the soundtrack for the film. The following year, she married the Welsh carpenter Paul du Feu, who had once been married to the radical feminist Germaine Greer. For the next decade, Maya continued writing articles, screenplays, poems and books and became close friends with Oprah Winfrey. Unfortunately, her second marriage ended in divorce in 1981.
Returning to the southern states, Maya accepted the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, becoming one of the first black women to be a full-time professor. She taught on a variety of themes that interested her, including philosophy, ethics, writing and theatre, but also continued to write.
In 1993, Maya Angelou recited one of her poems at the inauguration of Bill Clinton – the first poet to do so since John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. This televised event increased her fame across the world and earned her a Grammy Award. In 1996, she finally achieved her goal of directing a film (Down in the Delta) and, by 2002, she had published her 6th autobiography.
Hillary Clinton, during her campaign for the Democratic Party 2008 presidential primaries, used Maya Angelou’s endorsement in her advertisements. After Obama won the primary, Maya gave him her full support. When Obama became the first African-American president, Maya said, “We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism.”
Maya published her 7th and final autobiography in 2013 called Mom & Me & Mom, focusing on her relationship with her mother. The following year, on 28th May 2014, Maya passed away after her health deteriorated. Despite cancelling a few events, Maya Angelou was working and attended events until her death. Tributes flooded in as soon as the news was made public, and her first biography instantly became the number one bestseller on Amazon. A public funeral was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had been a member for 30 years.
As well as the Grammy Award for her poetry recital at Clinton’s inauguration, Maya Angelou received several awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, two more Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and over 50 honorary degrees. Although these were awarded for her talents, they were also a sign that she overcame her past and did not let racial inequalities stand in the way of her success.