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Malcolm X and the Mass Media:
Creation of a Rhetorical Exigence

Kimberly Powell and Sonja Amundson

NDSTA Journal,
Volume 15, 2002.


It has been argued that perhaps the most powerful creator of rhetorical exigence is the media. While most studies on rhetorical situations focus on the response to an exigence, this essay examines the exigence that called for the responses of Spike Lee’s 1992 film X and Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In researching printed press coverage of Malcolm X from 1963 through 1965, this study argues that the media played a large and important role in consistently creating a negative public image of Malcolm X that is still connected with him. The mass media in essence created an exigence, a rhetorical defect, that demanded a response.


Rhetoric has been defined as a way of knowing, a way of “constituting the self in a symbolic act generated in a scene composed of exigencies, constraints, others, and the self” (Benson, 1974, p. 2). The impetus for rhetoric, Lloyd Bitzer argues, is an exigence--defined as “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be” (Bitzer, 1968, p. 6). Perhaps the most powerful creator of exigences, David Berg (1972) argues, is the media. The media not only creates reality, but creates it “with a higher incidence of exigences than that reality which is experienced directly” (p. 257).
The reality created by the media is powerful enough to create lasting images and stereotypes about people (Maslog, 1971). These images may be true in some cases, but when incorrect, constitute exigences demanding correction. These exigencies are inevitable considering the everyday rhetorical dimension of the media. As Brummett (1994) explains, the media is a dominant element of popular culture and has the ability to set the agenda, what people think and think about. When the agenda is consistent among media sources, the media has the power to create associations for people, objects, products, and even race. When the reporting involves issues of race, many times the reporting and writing contain “elements of the racial ideology. These elements are woven into the news narrative with the tools of linguistic emphasis” (Shah & Thornton, 1994, p. 143). Because of the overload of information in society and the pervasiveness of racism, it is almost impossible for the public, particularly the white public, to critique messages on race in any useful way (Chesbro & Bertelsen, 1996). As a result, the media has the potential through its many channels to create racially biased images, particularly in the mind of the white public.

This essay studies the power of the print media in creating racially biased stereotypes and images of Malcolm X. Once the media discovered Malcolm, they did not leave him alone: “Malcolm X, the Black Nationalist, was relatively unknown until newspapers, magazines, television and radio discovered that his extremism produced attention-getting stories and broadcasts" (Dales, 1964, p. 16). While most studies focus on the response to an exigence, this essay examines the exigence that called for the responses of Spike Lee’s 1992 film “X” and Alex Haley’s 1964 Autobiography of Malcolm X-- both not only popular successes, but powerful pieces of rhetoric responding to an exigence created by the media prior to the assassination of Malcolm X (Dyson, 1992; Kennedy, 1992).
The media created an image of Malcolm X as a violent, power-hungry, extremist who was primarily interested in harming the white population in the United States. Contrasting Malcolm X with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the media fostered this negative image. The two men were described as opposite ends of a spectrum: King as advocating nonviolence, X as advocating violence; King as a black minister, X as an ex-convict; King as a civil rights leader, X as a racial fanatic. Throughout the changes in Malcolm's life and in his thought, the media concentrated on creating a negative image that was sometimes true of his past, but not necessarily true of his present. The media created a specific image and consistently conveyed that negative image to the white public. This essay examines printed coverage of Malcolm X from 1963 through 1965, arguing that the media played a signficant role in creating a negative white public image of Malcolm X that persists. The mass media in essence created an exigence, a rhetorical defect, that demanded a response. In examining this rhetorical exigence this essay first, summarizes the background of Malcolm X; second, discusses four clusters dominating press coverage of Malcolm X; and finally, utilizes Shah and Thornton’s (1994) theory on media imagery to explain how Malcolm’s image, and thus a rhetorical exigence, was formed by the media.


Since the publication of Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1964, and Spike Lee’s film X in 1992, many are familiar with Malcolm’s life story. He was born in Omaha, NE, in 1925 as Malcolm Little. His father was a Baptist minister who was killed by the Ku Klux Klan when Malcolm was six years old. As a teenager, Malcolm moved around until he settled in Boston in 1940 to live with his half-sister Ella. By 1946, at age 24, Malcolm was in Charlestown State Prison for robbery. After two years in jail, Malcolm began to educate himself and read about Allah, the Nation of Islam and The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm began corresponding with Elijah Muhammad and redefining the teachings of the Nation of Islam while in prison ( X, 1964).

In the spring of 1952, Malcolm was released from jail and began working in a furniture store in Detroit. There he began attending meetings at the Muslim temple and recruiting new members. Within a few months, Malcolm had tripled the membership of the temple. Soon he was called upon to testify at the meetings to the kind of life he had led and how the teachings and guidance of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam had changed his life. In 1954 he was appointed minister of New York’s Temple Number Seven, and consequently began receiving a lot of attention from Muhammad and the press. When Mr. Muhammad’s health began to decline in 1961, Malcolm began hearing “negative remarks” about himself: “I had noticed other little evidences of the envy and of the jealousy which Mr. Muhammad had prophesied . . . it was being said that ‘minister Malcolm is trying to take over the Nation,’ it was being said that I was ‘taking credit’ for Mr. Muhammad’s teaching, it was being said that I was trying to ‘build an empire for myself’” (X, 1964, p. 377).

In December of 1963, Malcolm made the widely quoted “chickens coming home to roost” statement on the assassination of President Kennedy. Muhammad responded by commanding Malcolm to be silent for 90 days. Due to friction within the Nation of Islam and disagreements with Muhammad, on March 8, 1964, Malcolm announced he was leaving the Nation of Islam to form the Organization of Afro-American Unity. In April of 1964, Malcolm made his first pilgrimage to Mecca where he was exposed to true Islam and was among white people who treated him with kindness and equality. He was reported as saying, “In the past...I committed myself to the indictment of all whites. But no longer do I subscribe to a sweeping indictment of any race” (“Malcolm Rejects Race Separation,” 1964, p. 61).
After several years of receiving death threats, on February 21, 1965, while speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, Malcolm X was assassinated.


This study analyzes media coverage of Malcolm X from 1963 through 1965, as this is when the Nation of Islam (or the Black Muslims) and Malcolm X were receiving the most attention from the media. The following sources were chosen based on their high circulation figures: The New York Times (Monday- Sunday = 1,209,225; Saturday = 951,419; Sunday = 1,762,015); Time (4,094,935); Newsweek (3,211,958); U.S. News & World Report (2,311,534); and Life (1,844,482). These sources reached vast numbers of people, contributing greatly to the exigence of Malcolm X's negative image.

This paper utilizes Kenneth Burke’s (1957) cluster analysis to evaluate the power of the media in creating an image of Malcolm X. Cluster Criticism is a method developed by Kenneth Burke to discover key terms within rhetoric that he argues reveal motive (1965; 1969). By using this method, one can discover the meanings key symbols and words have for the writer or rhetor. Burke explains the central idea of cluster analysis:

Every writer [rhetor] contains a set of implicit equations. He uses ‘associational clusters.’ And you may, by examining his work, find ‘what goes with what’ in these clusters--what kinds of acts and images and personalities and situations go with his notions of heroism, villainy, consolation, despair, etc. (1957, p. 20)

To gain insight to the kind of attention Malcolm X received in the press, cluster analysis is used. Cluster analysis entails selecting key words or phrases, the criteria being high frequency and high intensity. High frequency terms are those terms that appear repeatedly throughout the printed press coverage. High intensity terms are those terms that stand out on their own because they are emotionally charged. The next step is to study each context in which the key terms appear both implicitly and explicitly to discover what is associated with the key terms throughout the discourse (Foss, 1989).

In this study, we found that in the printed press coverage examined from 1963 to 1965 words and short phrases clustered around four key terms that were identified as such by their intensity and frequency of appearance. The key terms include: extremist, power, violence, and desperado. We argue that the clusters of words that emerge around each of these key terms, as well as the terms themselves, create a negative image of Malcolm X and an exigence that called for a response.


Malcolm X played a very important role in the Black Muslim organization (more formally known as the Nation of Islam) for many years. Malcolm's image in the press was first created as Malcolm X, a leader of the Black Muslims, and it was Malcolm's speaking that brought a lot of attention to the group. Terms related to the Black Muslims were almost synonymous with Malcolm X because of his powerful role in the organization and because of the strong beliefs linked specifically with both Malcolm and the Black Muslims. Many of these beliefs and ideas were not what the dominant white society liked to hear, regardless of their truth. For example, white society did not want to see black men being trained in judo or karate as the men of the Fruit of Islam were. Whites trained in these martial arts were seen as learning self-defense, whereas black men were seen as violent and on the offensive. In a speech to the Harvard Law School Forum of March 24, 1961, Malcolm stated, "We have been America's most faithful servants during peacetime, and her bravest soldiers during wartime. But still, white Christians have been unwilling to recognize us and to accept us as fellow human beings" (Epps, 1968, p. 122). African Americans were expected to be content and patriotic in a country that oppressed them, and whites were outraged to hear complaints from them. In a speech to the Leverett House Forum of March 18, 1964, Malcolm said, "I see whites who have the audacity, I should say the nerve, to think that a black man is radical and extremist, subversive and seditious if he says 'No, I'm not an American.' But at the same time, these same whites have to admit that this man has a problem" (Epps, 1968, p. 134).

Black Muslims, and thus Malcolm X, were characterized as extremists within the media. The media created this image with the terms used to describe Malcolm X and Black Muslims: anti-Christian, anti-white, alienation, agitators, black supremacy, bitter, confrontation, cult, enemy, extremist, exploit, hate, militant, separation, sect, threat, and trouble. These terms appeared frequently and with high intensity, shaping a negative image of Malcolm X in the media.

Black Muslims were known in the media as anti-white, anti-integration, and anti-Christian. This was their message at the same time that the campaign for civil rights was taking place. Martin Luther King, Jr., and groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were fighting for integration and not against it. Terms such as anti-white, anti-integration, anti--Christian, black supremacy, alienation, and separation appear frequently, showing how opposite and extreme the Black Muslim views were compared to what the dominant society was supposed to uphold. Separation is intensified by the media. In the New York Times article "Assertive Spirit Stirs Negroes, Puts Vigor in CiviI Rights Drive," M. S. Handler writes:
Black Nationalism as a mood is to be found in varying degrees in all segments of the Negro population, but only the Black Muslims expound a complete renunciation of coexistence with the whites. The Black Muslims reject Christianity as a white man's religion imposed on the Negroes to insure their prolonged servitude and inferior status (1963, p. 20). Another example, in a Newsweek article entitled "X on the Spot," shows that the Black Muslims were referred to as a "bitterly anti--white nationalist sect" (1963, p. 27-8). These examples emphasizing anti--white and anti-Christian stress the differences between the Black Muslims and the dominant society, thus functioning as warning flags to the general population.

This same message is conveyed through descriptors such as black supremacy. A U.S. News and World Report article entitled "Why Black Muslims Are Focusing On The Nation's Capital Now" states, "A new man is in charge of spreading the message of the Black Muslims in the nation's capital. He is Malcolm X, 38-year-old former Harlem hoodlum who now ranks second in the hierarchy of the cult of black supremacy" (1963, p. 24). Even after Malcolm's death and all of the changes that had occurred in his life, Homer Bigart, in the New York Times article entitled "Black Muslim Guard Held In Murder of Malcolm X" writes, "Since the shooting last Sunday of the 39-year-old Malcolm at a black supremacy rally..." (1965, p. 1). After Malcolm returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca, he announced that he no longer indicted the entire white race as racists and devils, and yet he was still connected with black supremacy. In the article entitled "Malcolm X Rejects Racist Doctrine," appearing in the New York Times in October of 1964, Malcolm clearly states, "This religion recognizes all men as brothers. It accepts all human beings as equals before God, and as equal members in the Human Family of Mankind" (p. 59). The earlier comment connecting Malcolm with black supremacy appears in The New York Times on February 27, 1965--after Malcolm's death.

Other terms that cluster around extremist and appear in relation to Black Muslims and Malcolm X are enemy, agitator, rebel, confrontation, and bitter. These labels have overtones of violence. Violence from a minority group against the white society is extremely disturbing to that population. For example, in the article entitled "Assertive Spirit Stirs Negroes, Puts Vigor in Civil Rights Drive," Handler begins by talking about Black Nationalism stating, "This spirit is usually identified by the general white public with the Black Muslims, the extremist group dedicated to the establishment of a Negro nation carved out of America" (1963, p. 20). Another example appears in a Life article by Gordon Parks entitled "‘What Their Cry Means to Me' - A Negro's Own Evaluation": "But with the passiveness of King and the extremism of Muhammad, the Negro rebellion has come alive" (1963, p. 78). In "Malcolm X Scores Kennedy on Racial Policy," Handler states:President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy suggested that the failure of the nonviolent movement for Negro rights might spur Negro extremist groups such as the Black Muslims. Several of the editors reported later that the President had expressed concern about Negro extremism and had stressed that violence might easily follow the failure of moderate efforts. (1963, p. 32)

It comes through loud and clear that extremism is almost synonymous with violence. The following examples referring to the Black Muslims as bitter and as agitators only intensify this feeling of opposition. In C.L. Sulzberger's New York Times article "Foreign Affairs," s/he says of the Black Muslims, "In terms of revolutionary technique, these agitators may seem to be unimportant fanatics blinded by naiveté and lack of crystallized doctrine" (1963, p. 32). The article "X on the Spot," in Newsweek says, "Indeed, it seemed out of line even to his own bitterly anti-white nationalist sect" (1963, p. 27- 8).

More terms that complete the extremist cluster by appearing frequently in reference to Black Muslims and Malcolm X, as a member and minister, include cult and exploit. These terms question the legitimacy of the group by creating them as not acceptable, but extreme. Janson says in a New York Times article, "The Black Muslim movement has 'Universities of Islam' in Chicago and Detroit that teach children from kindergarten through 1st grade the cult version of history and the Negro's 'place in the sun"' (1963, p. 5). Gertrude Samuels wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled "Two Ways: Black Muslim and N.A.A.C.P." in which she states, "Their doctrine of black supremacy is offering a minority people, confined in racial ghettos, the escape of fantasy--a 'nation' of their own--to counteract the reality of their despair. This is what the Muslims recognize and exploit" (1963, p. 26).

Extremist is a strong word that implies violence. The norm around the middle is basically predictable, but behavior of those out on the end of the spectrum can be very unpredictable. Extremist can also imply that the person may be considered irrational and dangerous. This is the image created in the media's portrayal of Malcolm X. The basic impression and image of Black Muslims, and thus Malcolm X, was as a strange, off-the-wall, extremist cult which had a violent message that went against the majority as being anti-white and anti-Christian. Overall, the white public was encouraged to fear Malcolm X and Black Muslims as hate preachers set on separation and alienation within the United States.


Malcolm X was powerful. His skill and intensity as a speaker are a testament to that fact. In "Assertive Spirit Stirs Negroes, Puts Vigor in Civil Rights Drive," Handler states, "There is no doubt in Mr. Farmer's mind that Malcolm X is beginning to emerge as a political power" (1963, p. 20). A New York Times article entitled "Malcolm Expected to be Replaced" states, "The sources indicated that the general feeling was that Malcolm had become 'so powerful' that he had emerged as a 'personality' rather than as a spokesman for the movement" (1963, p. 27). The depiction of power as related to Malcolm X turned negative quickly. The Time article entitled "Death and Transfiguration" depicts this negative slant to power: "Malcolm gained popularity and became a threat to Elijah Muhammad's leadership of the Black Muslims" (1965, p. 24). Popularity had contributed to Malcolm's power and it could be and probably was seen as a "threat" to the Black Muslims, possibly contributing to the theory that some within the Black Muslim organization wanted Malcolm dead. The media connected Malcolm X with a negative image of power by clustering it with such terms as: demanded, denounced, disciples, demagogue, exclusive, evil, followers, fiery, icon, lieutenant, lust for power, militant, outspoken, personality, rival, and split. These terms appeared with high frequency and high intensity, helping to shape the negative image of Malcolm X.

Terms putting a negative and even violent slant on the term power include lust for power and militant. “Galamison Sees Boycott Success" in the New York Times states, "Before the rally, Mr. Gray said in a news conference that he thought the more militant civil rights leaders, such as himself, Malcolm X and Mr. Galamison, would eventually take over the civil rights leadership in this city" (Arnold, 1963, p. 26). Military and other terms such as militant create images of power being used as a threat. Military power is also seen in titles and positions given to Malcolm in the press. Such terms include icon, demagogue, and lieutenant. In the article "Feud Within the Black Muslims,” Malcolm is referred to as a "once-trusted lieutenant" (Samuels, 1964, p.17). Lieutenant carries connotations of the military that connect images of the power of the military with violence.

In a Newsweek review on Malcolm's autobiography, titled "Satan in the Ghetto", Malcolm is referred to as "an icon of armed struggle" (p. 132). In another Newsweek article entitled "Death of a Desperado," Malcolm is called a "demagogue" (1965, p. 24). These different titles or positions of power could be viewed as fearful power. Icon is a religious term, and for Malcolm to be seen as a kind of religious symbol for, in this specific example, armed struggle, may have been seen as contradictory. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the primary religious symbol at the time, and he stood for nonviolence as he quoted passages from the Bible. Again, Malcolm is being seen as the antithesis of King, and to have him connected at all with religious symbols was especially outrageous to people who were supporters of King, or anyone considering themselves religious. In many instances, Malcolm is attributed followers or disciples: "Six men who describe themselves as followers of Malcolm X, the Black Nationalist leader, were questioned last night following an incident with members of the Black Muslims" ("6 Malcolm X Followers Questioned By Police," 1964, p. 34). A New York Times article says, "Many of his disciples have been saying recently, in fact, that Malcolm is exerting more influence than Mr. Muhammad himself" (Apple, 1963, p. 22). Again, the term disciple is a religious, and specifically a Christian, term. This connection between religion and Malcolm X, the preacher of race hatred and black supremacy, served to further a negative image of Malcolm’s power.
The media also attributes power to Malcolm in the way they describe what he does and how he speaks: demanded, denounced, and exclusive. Janson's New York Times article states, "Most outspoken of the Muslims at the movement's annual convention yesterday was Malcolm X, in a two-hour harangue, he demanded that the Government give the Negro population 'some states' and 'everything we need to start our own independent civilization"' (1963, p. 5). Demanded is a forceful term that shows intensity and even anger, displaying Malcolm as being on the offensive. The use of the term denounced is very similar. Handler's "Malcolm X Terms Dr. King's Tactics Futile" states, "Malcolm X, the Eastern leader of the Black Muslim movement, denounced today the use of Negro children in the Birmingham demonstrations” (1964, p. 20).

Fiery and evil also give a negative tone to Malcolm's power. These terms make it sound as if Malcolm's power was being used in an evil way. In "Malcolm's Brand X" in Newsweek we read that, "The message was a chilling prelude to a second long summer of revolt--the more so because of Malcolm's self-made skills as a fiery, spellbinding, and undeniably charismatic leader" (1964, p. 32). A New York Times column entitled "Malcolm X," published just after his death, states, "He was a case history, as well as an extraordinary and twisted man, turning many true gifts to evil purpose" (1965, p. 20).

Malcolm is also described by the media as outspoken, a personality, and a rival. Outspoken implies that he is overusing his power to attract media attention. Janson states in the New York Times, "Most outspoken of the Muslims at the movement's annual convention yesterday was Malcolm X" (1963, p. 5). Another term conveying the same idea is flamboyant. Gertrude Samuel’s article in the New York Times Magazine states, "The most flamboyant of these and Muhammad's chief lieutenant is the New York leader Malcolm X" (1963, p. 26). Once again, there is a reference to lieutenant, and thus military connotations.

When Malcolm was a member of the Black Muslims, there was jealousy and envy among other Black Muslims because of the attention he was getting from the media, and he was classified as a personality with a need for publicity and attention. This power regarding the media coverage threatened the Black Muslims. The New York Times article "Malcolm Expected To Be Replaced" states, "The sources indicated that the general feeling was that Malcolm had become 'so powerful' that he had emerged as a 'personality' rather than as a spokesman for the movement" (1963, p. 27). An article entitled "Malcolm X's Role Dividing Muslims" by Handler states, "A struggle for power is believed being waged by Malcolm whose personality has been nationally identified with the Negro separatist movement, and second-echelon leaders of the Chicago headquarters who surround Elijah Muhammad, the absolute ruler of the movement" (1964, p. 39). After Malcolm left Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam (or the Black Muslims), his newly formed group and Muhammad's group were pictured as rivals. The word rival sounds as if Malcolm's role is specifically as an opponent. It creates an image of Malcolm separating from a group with which he has been identified as being powerful and using that power against them. Samuels writes in the New York Times Magazine, "In the past two weeks, the solidarity has been broken by a once-trusted lieutenant. The elements of open, racial violence and of action in the political arena are being projected by a rival movement, 'Black Nationalism"' (1964, p. 17). Black Nationalism and Malcolm X as an advocate and leader could not just exist and be seen as a legitimate organization with a platform that people should view with an open mind. Malcolm was no longer a Black Muslim, but he was a former Black Muslim with a new rival organization.

Overall, these images found in the clusters represent a dangerous and powerful image of Malcolm X. As a Black Muslim, he was a powerful spokesperson for the movement and gained attention for his power as a speaker. This attention on his power established an image of him as Malcolm X, leader of the Black Muslims, creating jealousy among those at the Chicago headquarters who saw him transformed into what they called a personality.


Violence is an idea that is connected most often with Malcolm X, especially since he was always placed in opposition to the nonviolent Martin Luther King, Jr.. Though one cannot think of one violent incident instigated personally by Malcolm X, he was created as a dangerous and violent man by the media. A good example of this is the title of the article in the March 23, 1964 issue of U.S. News & World Report: "Brother Malcolm: His Theme Now Is Violence" (p. 19). Marc Crawford, in Life magazine, quotes Martin Luther King Jr.: "’I think it is very unfortunate,' says Martin Luther King, 'that Malcolm X continues to predict the past the constant prediction of violence has been a conscious or unconscious invitation to it"' (1964, p. 40A). Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were quoted in articles about one another in which they would criticize each other, but they never did get to sit down and talk about their ideas with one another. One reason was because Malcolm's image was as an extremist. King was the nonviolent leader, while Malcolm was seen on the other side as violent. The following terms clustered with Malcolm X in the print media analyzed connected him with violence: ammunition, arms, avenge, attack, brutal, biting, enemy, fight, guns, hate, militant, retaliation, shooting, trouble, and threat.

Hate is a term clustered frequently with the word violence because hate can spawn violence in society. Hate is constantly connected with Malcolm both during and after his membership in the Black Muslim organization. The New York Times article "Malcolm Called A Martyr Abroad" states, "'Mind you,' said Mr. Rowan, 'here was a Negro, who preached segregation and race hatred, killed by another Negro presumably from another organization that preaches segregation and race hatred, and neither of them representative of more than a tiny minority of the Negro population of America"' (Kenworthy, 1965, p.15). The Time article "Death and Transfiguration" states, "His gospel was hatred: 'Your little babies will get polio!"' (1965, p. 23). One other prime example of the use of hate appears in an article by Peter Kihss entitled "Hunt For Killers In Malcolm Case 'On Right Track": "Chinese Communist propagandists were already seeking to invoke him for a hate campaign, such as followed the murder of Congo Premier Patrice Lumumba" (1965, p. 1). Every one of these examples was written after Malcolm's death. Hate was still connected to Malcolm after his trip to Mecca, which drastically changed his opinions and thoughts about whites as a race. Even after his death, he was still connected with hate, unable to speak in his own defense and clarify statements. Of course, while he was alive, Malcolm made statements that would only appear in bits and pieces in the media. For example, Samuels writes in her article "Feud Within the Black Muslims": "Many outsiders, however, feel that there is the threat of violence implicit in the fanatical preaching of race hatred, in the rigid discipline maintained by members, and in the secret army--the black-clad Fruit of Islam--well-drilled units schooled in the use of firearms" (1964, p. 17).

Other terms that appear more blatantly connected with violence include attack, avenge, retaliation, and militant. In "Muslim Mosque Burns In Harlem; Blast Reported” we read, "They would not speculate immediately on whether the blaze might have been in retaliation to the slaying Sunday afternoon" (1965, p. 1). Robert Lipsyte's article "Other Muslims Fear For Lives," states, "In seclusion in Boston, with a blood clot in his head, Mr. Ameer said that 'open warfare triggered by maximum retaliation for Malcolm' would be only the first order of business" (1965, p. 10). The article "Stores Prodded To Hail Malcolm" states, "In Boston, Malcolm's half-sister, Mrs. Ella Mae Collins told a news conference that 'whether it is through justice by law or divine justice, he will be avenged"' (1965, p. 15). These two terms are very active, aggressive, violent terms. These are also examples appearing after and in response to Malcolm's assassination. Although Malcolm was dead, these things were being said and done in his name by others; however, the media makes him look responsible because these are his followers and disciples.

Militant, fight, and revolution are also clearly violent terms. "Malcolm X Backs House Rights Bill" states, "Malcolm, who split recently with the leader of the Black Muslim religious movement and set up his own militant group, was in the Senate gallery today." (1964, p. 10). Homer Bigart, in his article "Police On Alert Over Muslim Rift" states, "The police are concerned over the possibility of a showdown between the two militant Negro groups" (1964, p. 25). A clear connotation of the military and being militant is violence. Fight is a closely related term. Clark reports:

A group in front of the platform began chanting, "We want Malcolm, we want Malcolm." They referred to Malcolm X, a leader of the Black Muslims who spoke to the rally earlier. Suddenly a fist fight broke out in the lobby of the Theresa behind the speakers' stand. The fight spilled into the chanting crowd and some jostling began. (1963, p. 26)

M. S. Handler, in "Malcolm X Splits With Muhammad," writes, "'It is going to be different now,' Malcolm said. 'I'm going to join in the fight wherever Negroes ask for my help"' (1964, p. 42). Whether fight means just standing up for your rights by supporting voter registration drives, demonstrating, or actually getting into a physical fight, the violent connotations are always connected with the term.
Obvious words that also cluster around violence are guns, arms, shooting, and ammunition. In a U.S. News & World Report article entitled "Now It's A Negro Drive For Segregation," the subheading reads, "For Negroes: guns, a 'black political party,' then total segregation in a separate Negro nation...That's the program of 'black nationalism,' the newest Negro movement" (1964, p. 38). In the March 23, 1964 Newsweek article "Malcolm's Brand X" we read, "But he held to his proposal; he insisted an armed buildup would be both a deterrent to white aggression and an incentive for positive white action" (p. 32). The article continues by stating, "He never quite came out for shooting at, say, bullying white cops or segregationist mobs. But he is given to metaphor, and he did say: 'When our people are being bitten by dogs, they are within their rights to kill those dogs"' (p. 32). Malcolm says nothing about shooting whites, but the suspicion of metaphor and the negative connotations of shooting and violence are already there. The following example only intensifies violence by describing a weapon and an amount of ammunition. An article reporting that the headquarters of Malcolm X's Black Nationalists had been raided states, "They reported seizing a fully loaded Mauser rifle and 115 rounds of ammunition" (Kihss, 1964, p. 8). Whites have the right to bear arms, but for African Americans this connotes violence.


Desperado summarizes a variety of terms used by the media about Malcolm to bring up his criminal past. Drugs and related terms are brought up frequently in articles about Malcolm, even though drugs had been a part of only the pre--Black Muslim life of Malcolm X. The article "Malcolm X Lived in 2 Worlds, White and Black, Both Bitter" stated, "He was Malcolm Little, alias Big Red, a marijuana-smoking, cocaine-sniffing, zoot-suited, hip-talking hoodlum when he went to prison in 1946" (Benjamin, 1965, p. 10). The focus is on a part of his life that he had abandoned when he accepted Islam. The following terms create the desperado cluster: addict, bitter, drugs, dark, defector, ex-convict, evil, fanatical, hoodlum, menace, opposed King, racist, suspended, separation, sinister, and twisted. The high intensity and frequency of these terms helped to shape the negative image of Malcolm X in the media.

The negative terms addict, hoodlum, and ex-convict were frequently used to describe Malcolm’s past. Handler's "Black Muslims Asked to Help Treat Addicts Here" states, "Malcolm himself has acknowledged that he also is a recovered narcotics addict.... Before he was silenced, he recalled once that he had been a narcotics addict for six years before his conversion to Islam while serving sentence in the Maximum Security Prison in Concord, Mass." (1964, p. 84). Instead of being praised for improving his life and kicking such addictions, the references to drugs and his past were used to discredit Malcolm. His past was used to try to ruin his present. Again, Benjamin's article, cited above, also refers to Malcolm as a "hip-talking hoodlum" (p. 10). The article "Now It's Negroes Vs. Negroes In America's Racial Violence" states, "All this praise, Mr. Rowan said, was for 'an ex-convict, ex-dope peddler, who became a racial fanatic"' (1965, p. 6).

There are many terms that appear in articles about Malcolm X that create a devilish or satanic desperado image. These terms include twisted, dark, fanatical, bitter, sinister, evil, and menace. The column entitled "Malcolm X," that was written upon his assassination, states:

He was a case history, as well as an extraordinary and twisted man, turning many true gifts to evil purpose...The world he saw through those horn-rimmed glasses of his was distorted and dark. But he made it darker still with his exaltation of fanaticism. Yesterday someone came out of that darkness that he spawned, and killed him. (1965, p. 20)

The terms twisted and fanaticism create an image of Malcolm as taking his beliefs to an extreme, another term connected with Malcolm. The Life article "Angry Spokesman Malcolm X Tells Off Whites" states, "The front man and trouble shooter for the Black Muslims is 38-year-old Malcolm X, a spellbinding orator of bitter wit, power, and impressive intellect" (1963, p. 30). Newsweek’s "Malcolm's Brand X" states, "He is called an apostle of bitter black nationalism, but Malcolm X is practiced and adept at the white man's art of communications" (1964, p. 32). These references to bitter portray Malcolm by himself, the desperado holding a grudge. A Newsweek article titled "Satan in the Ghetto" refers to Malcolm as a menace. It states, "When he was murdered in his 40th year in a Harlem ballroom, it was possible to say of him, as some did, that he was a dark menace" (1965, p. 130). Menace also brings in connotations of danger, consistent with the terms evil, sinister, and twisted.

Malcolm as a desperado seemed to be out on his own in what he believed, or what he was portrayed as believing. Malcolm was portrayed as a dark, twisted, ex-convict desperado with a very shady past involving drugs and other illegal activities. Proof of this image is seen in the title of Newsweek's (1965, p. 24) article on Malcolm X after his death: "Death of a Desperado."

Mass Media Construction of Malcolm X

A cluster analysis of the rhetoric of the media concerning the image of Malcolm X reveals the media created Malcolm X as a powerful, violent, extremist desperado. In doing so they were successful in creating an exigence so great that it continues to need “correction” today. This study of the exigence of Malcolm X’s image reveals the media’s power in image creation.

Shah and Thornton (1994) have argued that media imagery is created by essentializing, totalizing and exoticizing groups, and in this case individuals. First, the media essentialize in that only a few characteristics are attributed to a group or individual and are taken to be their essence. Few, and mostly negative, characteristics were attributed to Malcolm X and were left to be the essence of who he was. As previous research has shown, in news coverage minorities are many times depicted as being violent or outside of the community (Shah and Thornton, 1994, p. 152). Malcolm was seen as violent in a time of nonviolence. He was seen as dangerous, and his power as threatening. In reality, what Malcolm was advocating was self-defense. There is a difference between violence in general and self-defense. Yes, self-defense is usually violent, but self-defense is only used to defend oneself from a violent attack instigated by another person or group of people. Malcolm advocated self-defense and keeping arms for when the local authorities and the federal government could not or would not do their jobs in protecting their own black citizens. The media’s essentializing only showed Malcolm X as violent and did not explain his philosophy of self-defense. As such, his essence in the media was violence.

The second characteristic Shah and Thornton discuss is totalizing. The media totalized Malcolm X in that they used the few characteristics of extremism, power, violence and desperado to be the totality of who he was. Malcolm was seen as a desperado or criminal type in a society that rejects and distrusts ex-convicts. The issues of his past, which were just that--part of his past, were brought up among the group of Black Muslims to show his faith, perseverance, and success in beating that past. However, in the white public eye, it was usually used to discredit him. The media repeatedly brought up his desperado image so that he could not escape it. Immediately after Malcolm's leaving the Black Muslims, George Breitman in his book The Last Year of Malcolm X tells us something that Malcolm noticed: "Largely, the American white man's press refused to convey that I was now attempting to teach Negroes a new earlier public image, my old so-called ‘Black Muslim’ image, kept blocking me. I was trying to gradually reshape that image" (1967, p. 26). Breitman also writes:

The truth is that he was an opponent of racism (which holds that one or more races are “superior” and ought to rule the others) who wanted to use the conditions created by racism, including racial consciousness it fosters among its black victims, to bring about its abolition; and that what he advocated was self-defense by black people against the violence and terrorism used to keep them in a subordinate position. (1967, p. 82).

The media did not report on Malcolm’s later philosophy. They left his earlier image to create the totality of his being. Finally, the media exotisized Malcolm X in that the characteristics attributed to him made him appear strange and different. His image in the white public was one of a wild, untouchable, extremist--a desperado. As such he appeared to be unapproachable, which created fear in the white public. Malcolm gives an example of how this exotisized image is created in a speech given at the Harvard Law School Forum on December 16, 1964:

At the United Nations a friend from Africa came in with a white woman who is involved with a philanthropic foundation . . . I heard her whisper to someone off to the side . . . “He doesn’t look so wild, you know.” Now this is a full-grown, so-called “mature” woman. It shows the extent to which the press can create images. People looking for one thing actually miss the boat because they’re looking for the wrong thing. They are looking for someone with horns, someone who is a rabble-rouser, an irrational, anti-social extremist. They expect to hear me say [that Negroes] should kill all white people--as if you could kill all the white people. (Epps, 1968, p. 163).

The media was successful in creating an image of Malcolm X as wild so that the white public viewed him as other than he was. He became a wild, exotic being within the media created reality.

This essay is not arguing that Malcolm X received no positive or even neutral attention from the media. This did happen on occasion. However, what appeared day after day were the negative words and images. The media was successful in creating one negative image of Malcolm X. Malcolm X was a complex human being, but he was portrayed primarily as an extremist, power hungry, violent desperado. Paul Montgomery of the New York Times in his article "Malcolm X a Harlem Idol on Eve of Murder Trial" states:

Near the end of the book, printed posthumously, Malcolm predicted what would happen to his thought: "When I am dead---I say it because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form--I want you to just watch and see if I'm not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with 'hate'.” (1965, p. 46)

Malcolm X’s prediction, as supported by this study, came true. He was identified with hatred in the media. Though audiences are active, their interpretation of messages is culture-bound within their community, culture, economic class and race (Chesbro & Berelsen, 1996). People from a variety of cultures had opinions on Malcolm X; however, it was the white “mainstream” media that created a negative image of Malcolm X that fed off white people’s fear of black people. As a result of the media created image, Malcolm’s death was not seen as a loss, but rather a relief to many white folks.

The media created image of Malcolm X created a strong, pervasive exigence that he noticed before his death, allowing him to begin a rhetorical response by writing his autobiography with Alex Haley. While it is not within the scope of this paper to fully address the effectiveness of the rhetorical responses to the exigency, it is worth noting two primary responses: The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964) written with Alex Haley and Spike Lee’s film X. In the autobiography, Malcolm X and Haley describe in great detail Malcolm’s life focusing on his journey to the Black Muslim organization through to his transformation after his visit to Mecca. It is Malcolm’s life after Mecca, when he changes his views towards the “white man,” that was not widely covered in the media. Thus the enduring media created image of Malcolm X was incomplete. For those who read Malcolm X’s autobiography, a more complete reality is created that contrasts with the media created exigence, thus correcting the image. In the Epilogue of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, part of actor Ossie Davis’s eulogy eloquently highlights the difference between the image of Malcolm X and the reality:

Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile….They will say that he is of hate--a fanatic, a racist--who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say unto them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him: Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! (p. 454)

Decades after The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Spike Lee’s X reached a broader audience and further generations to address the exigence which, though created years earlier, remained the pervasive image of Malcolm X for those who had not read his autobiography. The film, like the book, focuses on a more complete image of Malcolm X. In addition to his transformation after Mecca, the film addresses the why behind Malcolm’s actions and those of the Black Muslims, versus the media focus on only the actions and rhetoric. For example, the audience sees the effects on young Malcolm as the Klu Klux Klan kills his father, witnesses his finding the Muslim faith, sees him interact with his family, and sees his death. A whole person is created to combat the exigence of a totalized, essentialized Malcolm X in an effort to correct the “imperfection” of the media image.

As this essay has argued, the print media is a powerful entity in popular culture that has the power to create reality. In the case of Malcolm X, the media-created reality was a damaging exigence that called for a rhetorical response. While The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964) and the film X (1992) began to reframe Malcolm’s image, the media image of Malcolm X created such a strong exigence that for many, he is still associated with fear as a powerful, violent, extremist desperado.


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