Malcolm X: Growing Into a Commander

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From a cursory glance, civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. are often seen as standing on opposite ends of the spectrum. King is viewed as the harmonizer who remained nonviolent in the pursuit of equality. Malcolm X, on the other hand, is seen as the agitator who pledged to gain equality for black Americans by any means necessary.

In the decades after both their assassinations – only three years apart from each other – King and Malcolm X have come to symbolize polarized approaches.

However, it’s important to remember that no matter what you think of these two figures, the tension between King and Malcolm X (and their respective supporters) propelled the Civil Rights Movement forward.

It would seem that King provided a brighter and happier solution – and that Malcolm X was his shadow, threatening a strong-armed alternative should American society deny King’s peace. Even Malcolm X himself acknowledged this in a conversation with King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. In her memoir, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., she remembers when Malcolm X asked her to relay the following message: “I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”

Let’s take a moment to talk about Malcolm X.

A Brief History of Malcolm X

For those who don’t know much about Malcolm X, here is a quick timeline of his life:

  • In 1925, Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska.

  • By 1939:

    • His father, an outspoken Baptist minister, had been killed by a streetcar. Though his death was ruled an accident, there were rumors that Earl Little had been murdered by white supremacists.

    • Malcolm’s mother had experienced a nervous breakdown and been placed in a mental hospital.

    • Malcolm and his siblings had been removed from their home and placed in foster care.

  • Between 1941 and 1946, Malcolm dropped out of school and lived a rough-and-tumble life, moving between Boston, Massachusetts; Flint, Michigan; and Harlem, New York.

  • In 1946, Malcolm was sent to prison for a string of burglaries.

    • While in prison, he converted to the Nation of Islam (controversial then and now) and took on the name Malcolm X. This conversion radically changed his outlook on life, and he began to educate himself in order to learn more about his new faith. He improved his reading and writing by studying the dictionary, page by page. He read every book in the prison library about philosophy, history, literature, and science.

  • In 1952, Malcolm X, now 27 years old, was released from prison. He began actively protesting for the rights of black Americans and rose quickly through the ranks of the Nation of Islam. He became the public face of the organization and led the recruitment of tens of thousands of new members. His advocacy focused on the separation of black and white Americans, and the empowerment of black Americans. He wasn’t fond of the Civil Rights Movement’s emphasis on integration.

  • In 1963, Malcolm X learned that his beloved leader, Elijah Muhammad, had abused his power and violated the Nation of Islam’s teachings. This caused great distress in Malcolm X, a man who gave himself wholeheartedly to the tenets of the organization.

  • In 1964, determining that he was not able to look past the deception of his leader, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam.

  • Later in 1964, Malcolm X made a life-changing journey to Mecca – the holiest site in Islam. There, he met other pilgrims of different cultures, races, and beliefs. This experience transformed his outlook completely. When he returned to the United States, he publicly renounced the Nation of Islam’s teachings. He began to speak to all races and his stance on integration softened.

  • In 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam. He was 39 years old.

The above timeline is incredibly condensed. You can find a more in-depth version here. You can also read Malcolm X’s story in his own words in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Personality Analysis

Documentaries, interviews, and personal accounts tell us that Malcolm X was a well-read, reflective, minimalist, passionate, and visionary man who taught black Americans the value of self-reliance, self-respect, and pride. He was said to be incorruptible in his principles and beliefs.

We believe that Malcolm X had a Commander (ENTJ) personality type, and this is why:

Extraverted (E)

As a speaker, Malcolm X knew how to engage an audience. He had a talent for delivering controversial content in a fiery yet eloquent manner. He had a general belief, as many Extraverts do, that life doesn’t come to you – you go to it. As such, he was an advocate of actively pursuing one’s desires.

At the same time, Malcolm X wholeheartedly believed that mistakes were learning lessons. Although this attitude isn’t exclusive to Extraverted personality types, Extraverts do tend to be more optimistic when it comes to failure.

Intuitive (N)

As his time in prison demonstrates, Malcolm X was a voracious reader who was deeply interested in ideas and always curious to learn more. Malcolm X spent his adult life envisioning a better way of life and a better future for black Americans. His perception of the problems plaguing African Americans was sharp, but he didn’t dwell on the past – his focus was always on moving forward.

Thinking (T)

Malcolm X understood racial oppression in America as systemic and institutionalized. As a Thinking personality type, he presented black Americans with expedient, logical solutions: self-defense against violent acts, economic autonomy, and racial pride. Independent-minded, he was not afraid to contradict other civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King.

He also didn’t believe in taking the moral high ground during a conflict. Instead, he valued efficiency and responded to the actions of others in kind: “We are nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us.” Never one to mince words, in his youth or in adulthood, he would often disregard the emotions of others to reach his ends.

Judging (J)

Radical as he may have been, Malcolm X was not a proponent of all-out rebellion and chaos. He believed in observing law and peace, until provoked otherwise. Malcolm X once said, “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” (That willingness to strike back is a sure sign of the Thinking personality trait kicking in.)

Although many of Malcolm X’s views evolved over time, his rift with the Nation of Islam is evidence that he was deeply principled, decisive, and uncompromising. When the man he respected most in the world, Elijah Muhammad, drifted from his original teachings, Malcolm X remained clear-sighted about what he believed to be right and wrong.

It’s not enough to say that Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam – he left behind his community, his brothers, and the foundation that had given him the strength to educate himself so many years before. Yet he was willing to part from all of this in order to keep true to his beliefs and principles.

Putting It All Together

These characteristics and actions fit our description of the Commander personality type:

“People with this personality type embody the gifts of charisma and confidence, and project authority in a way that draws crowds together behind a common goal. However, Commanders are also characterized by an often ruthless level of rationality, using their drive, determination, and sharp minds to achieve whatever end they’ve set for themselves.”

Now that we’ve classified the personality types of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King (an Advocate – INFJ), it’s easy to see why these two men led in the ways they did, why they believed what they believed. However, in the end, it’s important to remember that despite their different methods, both men had the same goal – equality.

Here at 16Personalities, we hold accuracy in high esteem. That said, there’s only so much research we can do on a person. Without being able to interview and assess a living Malcolm X, our label of Commander can only ever be theoretical.

So, do you have your own theories? Let us know in the comments below!

Further Reading

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr., the Advocate