Published 20 Jan 2017
Malcolm X’s legendary persuasiveness came, from the use of a number of known communication techniques and factors that helped to create his unique, charismatic appeal. As one of the black movement’s most persuasive and influential leaders, Malcolm X drew on this persuasiveness to increase membership in the Nation of Islam and increase a following for his political and social ideas.
The media played an important role in this effective persuasion, as his controversial style led to significant exposure in the media. Further, the poverty and spiritual despair among young black men likely played a key role in the emergence of Malcolm X as a key charismatic figure. Malcolm X also utilized communication theories like intensification and downplays cognitive dissonance, and accommodation to increase his persuasive appeal. Overall, these factors contributed to the massive interest in and fascination with Malcolm X and his politics.
During the 1950s and 1960s Malcolm X emerged as one of America’s most powerful and controversial leaders in the black community. In Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, Michael Eric Dyson notes “Malcolm’s life has increasingly acquired mythic stature” since his death. Dyson, who notes further “Along with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm is a member of the pantheon of twentieth-century black saints” (3). He was alternatively hated and feared, and seen as a powerful and inspired political leader.
Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X was born to a Baptist preacher and his wife, both active in the Universal Negro Improvement Association. During his early years, Malcom X suffered racism at the hands of white southerners, including an attack on the family home by the KKK, and his father’s death by mysterious circumstances. He ended up spending close to six years in jail as a result of this lifestyle, where he converted to Islam. After leaving prison, he named himself Malcolm X, in defiance of the white name of little. He quickly became one of the most powerful members of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam (NOI), an organization he had joined in prison.
In time, he split with the NOI, and began to establish a Pan-Africanist perspective. He established the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), but was assassinated before these organizations gained a great deal of power in the United States (Africa Online).
Malcolm X was profoundly influential during his lifetime, and a great deal of this influence was felt within the Islamic community in the United States. Notes Dyson, “Under Malcolm’s leadership, the Nation [of Islam] grew from several hundred to a hundred thousand members by the early 1960s. The Nation under Malcolm also produced forty temples throughout the United States and purchased thirty radio stations” (7).
The success of the Nation of Islam is in turn closely linked to Malcolm X’s powerful persuasive abilities as one of the most powerful and charismatic speakers in the movement for black rights. He spoke with bitterness and eloquence about the exploitation of the black community, sometimes advocating violence or “whatever means necessary” for his cause. He won a large following through these speeches, and many people were dedicated to his cause as a result of Malcolm’s charismatic speeches. His wide variety of national speaking engagements and television appearances ensured that his message was heard.
A large portion of Malcolm X’s influence can be attributed to his charismatic personality. Wilner suggests that charismatic leadership comes from a context of serious socio-economic crisis where large groups of people are experiencing. Dyson notes that the Civil Rights movement, under the guidance of Martin Luther King, “unleashed an irresistible force on American politics that fundamentally altered the social conditions of blacks, especially the black middle classes in the south” (Dyson, 7). Despite advances due to the civil rights movement, blacks in the south, especially the rural south still lived in poverty.
The same situation existed among poor northern urban blacks, “whose economic status and social standing were severely handicapped by forces of deindustrialization: the rise of automated technology that displaced human wage earners, the severe decline in manufacturing and in retail and wholesale trade, and escalating patterns of black unemployment” (7). Dyson notes the larger civil rights movement in the south did not make these initial social and economic trends, or the “growing spiritual despair” (7) in the same communities part of the movement (Dyson).
As such, the charismatic effect of Malcolm X can partly be attributed to the socio-economic crisis that exited among his followers. Malcolm X’s ministry was directly aimed at these disaffected individuals that were largely overlooked by the Civil Rights movement. Further, many Nation of Islam members were actively recruited from the prison population, and his ministry was aimed at the “socially dispossessed, the morally compromised, and the economically desperate members of the black proletariat and ghetto poor who were unaided by the civil rights movement” (8).
The media played an important role in Malcolm X’s legendary persuasiveness. In 1961, Malcolm stared the official publication of the Nation of Islam, titled Muhammad Speaks. Through this media, Malcolm spread the messages of the Nation. However, much of the media’s influence on Malcolm’s great success and charisma was not directly of his own design. By nature, Malcolm X was charismatic and impassioned, making an interesting and often contentious topic for news programs. He was also attractive; a fact that likely did not hurt his appeal to a female audience.
A crucial part of persuasion lies in the opportunity to connect with an audience. Importantly, Malcolm generated great controversy, a fact that played a large role in generating extensive media coverage of his actions, speeches, and message. Famously, Malcolm X advocated change by “any means necessary”, and the implication of this violence created a storm of media coverage. Similarly, his description of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a “case of chickens coming home to roost” created controversy. Here, Malcolm X was arguing that white violence against the black community had struck out instead and hurt the white community. Similarly, his falling out with Elijah Muhammad created controversy, and ensuing media play.
In his book, Influence: Science and Practice, author Robert B. Cialdini outlines some of the key factors important within persuasion, many of which were used by Malcolm X. Cialdini notes that individuals often respond unthinkingly to specific cues, allowing them to be easily persuaded. This can be seen as an almost robotic “click-whirr” response to a given persuasive stimuli. Malcolm X clearly had the commitment and consistency that Cialdini sees as an important factor in developing persuasive power. Further, Malcolm X established himself as a disenfranchised “anti-hero” that male youth of his generation could clearly identify with.
Other communication theories like intensification and downplay, cognitive dissonance, and accommodation, also explain a great deal of Malcolm X’s ability to so effectively appeal to a wide number of people. Cognitive dissonance occurs when individuals have doubts, and are thus eager to have these doubts dispelled. In the case of Malcolm X, his worlds often effectively justified and condoned violence against whites if necessary, in an age where Martin Luther King, Jr. had strongly come out in favor of nonviolence. Here, Malcolm’s worlds reduced cognitive dissonance for blacks who felt that violence was sometimes necessary, and yet felt that they were betraying the black movement through this feeling.
The techniques of intensification and downplay also played a role in the ability of Malcolm X to be so persuasive and influential. During his speeches, Malcolm X clearly intensified the bad or negative characteristics of white people. At the same time, Malcolm X would downplay many of the negative facets of his ideas, including his personal practice of NOI rules in his marriage. According to the NOI, “men must lead, women must follow; the man’s domain is the world, the woman’s is the home” (Africa Online).
In Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion, authors Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson note that establishing an understanding with the audience is the key in persuasion. In his many speeches, Malcolm X was highly effective in accommodation or adapting to the language and needs of his audience. He was especially effective in speaking to young black men who felt angry and disenfranchised by the larger Civil Rights movement.
The process of mystification played a large part in Malcolm X’s persuasive power. Malcolm X was often seen as a larger than life charismatic leader, based on his volatile, intelligent, and powerful personality. In time, the media portrayal of his life and ideas led to fragmented views that included views of Malcolm X as a spiritual messiah, a dangerous revolutionary, an angry and irresponsible young man, and a political power.
Taken together, this media attention led to the creation of a personal for Malcolm X that was larger than life, and through this process the ordinary was made to seem extraordinary. Dyson notes that those who have interpreted Malcolm X after his death have essential divided themselves into four camps, with differing points of view on Malcolm X’s life. To these camps, Malcolm X is seen as hero/saint, a public moralist a victim of psychological and social forces beyond his control, and a revolutionary socialist.
While Malcolm X was an amazing orator and intelligent, much of his experience was profoundly similar to those of other black men of his time, and thus, in a sense, ordinary. Therefore, the emergence of his public persona, both in his lifetime and after his death, can be seen as a process of mystification. As Malcolm X himself famously remarked on his ordinary nature: “I don’t profess to be anybody’s leader. I’m one of 22 million Afro-Americans, all of whom have suffered the same things.
And I probably cry out a little louder against the suffering than most others and therefore, perhaps, I’m better known. I don’t profess to have a political, economic, or social situation to a problem as complicated as the one which our people face in the States, but I am one of those who is willing to try any means necessary to bring an end to the injustices that our people suffer” (in By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter, by Malcolm X, cited in Dyson, 3).
This last also illustrates the effective use of self-deprecation in persuasion. Malcolm claims that he is simple a “little louder” than others, and does not claim to have answers to difficult problems. Here, sides with this audience by reducing the distance between himself and them. He jokingly suggests he is an ordinary man, putting them at ease with his message an intentions.
Malcolm’s success in persuading the people can also be said to come from his use of classic Aristotelian forms of persuasion known as ethos, pathos, and logos. In ethos, the credibility of the speaker is emphasized. In pathos, persuasion takes the form of emotion, while in logos persuasion is done through reasoning. In his speeches, Malcolm X used all three forms of persuasion. His position as a high-ranking member of the Nation of Islam and his renown as a black activist gave him ethos, or credibility. His emphasis on pathos is well noted, as Malcolm X’s often impassioned and bitter speeches are well known. Further, his intelligence allowed him to make his case clearly, with logos. He likely developed these skills during incarceration, as it is noted he “quickly emerged [from prison] as a powerful orator and brilliant rhetorician” (Africa Online).
Interestingly, Malcolm X’s influence has carried on long after his death. Indeed, “Malcolm X made a bigger impact on black politics and culture dead than alive” (Africa Online). His legacy includes the inspiration of the Watts Rebellion and the emergence of hate Black Power Movement. While Black Nationalist organizations largely disappeared during the 1970s, Malcolm X’s influence continued in black urban youth cultures, popular music, movies, and black-oriented bookstores. In the 1980s and 1990s Malcom X grew as an icon, largely due to the marketing of his face and name in Hollywood and the commercial marketplace. T-shirts and baseball caps worn by almost every gender and race sported the stylized X – for Malcolm X (Dyson; Africa Online).
In conclusion, Malcolm X’s influence and persuasion came largely from his charismatic presence, the media, his ability to incorporate communication theories like cognitive dissonance, accommodation, process of mystification, and self-deprecation, as well as his use of Aristotle’s persuasion modes. Taken together, these factors helped to make Malcolm X one of America’s most controversial and enduring black leaders.
- Africa Online. Malcolm X. Retrieved from http://www.africanaonline.com/malcom_x.htm on December 15, 2006
- Caildini, Robert B. 2000. Influence: Science and Practice (4th Edition). Allyn & Bacon
- Dyson, Michael Eric. 1996. Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. Oxford University Press
- Pratkanis, Anthony and Aronson, Elliot. 2001. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. NY: Owl Books.
- Wilner, A. R. 1984. The Spellbinders: Charismatic Political Leadership. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.