Although brief, the two years Malcolm Little spent at Mason High School were extremely influential to his perspective on race relations as his experience, especially his multiple confrontations with white supremacy, shaped his convictions and prepared him for a future in oration and mass leadership.
While he was still living in Lansing, Malcolm’s already poor behavioral record paired with an additional offense against his teacher, led to his expulsion from West Junior High School. The state decided to send him to a detention home, run by a family known as the Swerlins, that was located in Mason, MI, in order to reform his behavior. In 1939, Mrs. Swerlin enrolled Malcolm into Mason Junior High School for his seventh grade year.
Mason Junior High School was a predominantly white school, and Malcolm, along with a few younger kids at the detention home, were the only African American children that attended. Malcolm was actually quite popular and considered to be a novelty among the white students. He excelled in English and History. His English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, was whom Malcolm admired the most. Mr. Ostrowski would always lecture the class on striving to achieve success and “giving advice about how to become something in life” (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 30). On the other hand, Malcolm faced discrimination at Mason Junior High School as well. He detested his History teacher, Mr. Williams, because he constantly made “nigger” jokes. Mr. Williams mocked African American history, and even inflicted his personal prejudices of African Americans on the class, calling the race “lazy and dumb and shiftless” (Autobiography, 30). This personal encounter with racial discrimination was a factor that played into Malcolm’s eventual hatred of the white race and advocation of racial separation. He was able to see first hand how many whites spread unfair prejudices about African Americans and further exhibited their convictions of white superiority. Despite this fact, the subject Malcolm hated the most was mathematics. He recalled how math was a challenging subject for him because it didn't leave him with room for argumentation. From early on, Malcolm’s desire to form persuasive arguments that he would carry on into his years working for the Nation of Islam and even following his break with the Nation is evident.
At Mason, Malcolm also excelled in Basketball. He competed on the school’s team and they would often travel to play against neighboring towns’ teams where Malcolm was frequently greeted with racial slurs and discriminatory comments from the stands (Autobiography, 31). In the second semester of his seventh grade year, Malcolm was nominated and elected as class president. Malcolm admits that at school he was striving to receive equal treatment among his white peers. He worked hard and, through his efforts, received the highest grades in the school. Mrs. Swerlin praised Malcolm after hearing about his new role as class president, exclaiming, “Malcolm, we’re just so proud of you!” (Autobiography, 35). His leadership in school, as one of the top three of his class, as well as class president during his seventh grade year, eventually transferred into his later years where he would lead thousands of African Americans in the fight for human rights.
During his eighth grade year at Mason High School, Malcolm reached a pivotal point in his life. His favorite teacher, Mr. Ostrowski asked Malcolm about his career plans for the future. After Malcolm expressed his aspirations to be a lawyer, Mr. Ostrowski replied, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer––that’s no realistic goal for a nigger” (Autobiography, 38). This dialogue between Malcolm and his teacher proved to shape Malcolm as an individual. It was a point in his life where he realized that no matter how hard he worked he would always be hindered by white supremacy. This also prompted Malcolm to begin to lose motivation academically. He began to feel a restlessness with Mason, especially after visiting his sister, Ella, in Boston during the summer of 1940. In 1941, after completing his eighth grade year, he decided to drop out of Mason High School and move out to Boston to begin the next chapter of his life.
Malcolm’s legacy as an influential civil rights activist is still admired by his Mason community today, which has recognized his efforts by painting a mural of Malcolm in Mason High School as an accolade to his persistence and leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. The Mayor Pro Tem of Mason, Marlon Brown stated, “I think with Malcolm X he was such a transformation. Regardless of what people would say, he always moved the conversation in a positive direction; we can most definitely see the advances that he helped create” (The Mason Times: http://news.jrn.msu.edu/masontimes/2015/03/16/5144/).