Malcolm X was saved from a life of crime by Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam (NOI). However, after Malcolm left the NOI, he said that he felt a sense of intellectual freedom. He no longer felt compelled to say "the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us..." before every utterance. He no longer thought inside a box. He said that he felt free to think for himself.
As far as Black leaders of national renown go, Malcolm seems to have been the leading critical thinker. He seemed to examine every angle in sincere efforts to achieve liberation for people of African descent. He studied history, politics, religion, socialism, capitalism, etc.
During and after his involvement with the NOI, Malcolm challenged some deeply cherished beliefs among African Americans. First and foremost, he forcefully critiqued Christianity. He questioned how Black people could embrace a White Jesus, a White Mary, white angels, etc. He said that doing so amounted to supporting "White nationalism."
He was critical of the belief that Black Christians would be rewarded in heaven "when they died." He questioned the value of Christianity to Blacks, and remarked, "If your religion hasn't done any more for you than it has, you need to forget it, anyway."
Perhaps what Malcolm disliked most about Christianity was its emphasis on turning the other cheek. It infuriated Malcolm to no end that so many African Americans were unwilling to defend their people against racist violence inflicted upon them by White supremacists. In his famous "Message to the Grassroots," Malcolm said that Blacks anxiously fought in wars condoned by the U.S. government. However, when it came to retaliating against White supremacists for murdering Black girls at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, violence was not an option.
Malcolm also wondered why civil rights workers were quick to denounce Blacks that advocated self-defense against white supremacist attackers; yet, they never denounced Black-on-Black violence. He noted that on any given Friday or Saturday night, men in Black neighborhoods all over the U.S. could be found committing acts of violence against one another. This, however, was not being addressed by civil rights activists.
After Malcolm left the NOI, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), modeled after the Organization of African Unity (OAU). He also formed the Muslim Mosque, Inc. However, he gave the bulk of his time and attention to the OAAU. It was a secular organization open to Black Christians, Muslims, Confucianists, atheists, and others committed to meeting its aims and objectives. Malcolm had long believed that religion should be personal and kept out of efforts to organize the masses.
Malcolm was deeply influenced by secular thinkers. A great influence upon him was the Black atheist and anthropologist Joel Augustus Rogers. Malcolm read Rogers' three volumes of Sex and Race and Africa's Gift to America. Malcolm drew upon Rogers' writings in his speeches on African American history.
Of course, Malcolm was not without his faults. For example, he had sexist views. However, he was always trying to become a better person. His emphasis upon the importance of critical thinking is one of his most important legacies to people of African descent. The way forward must always be guided by human thought and human action. Though he was a Muslim, Malcolm always seemed to understand that. Indeed, he seemed to agree with his friend, the Rev. Albert Cleage, Jr., that there is nothing more sacred than the liberation of his people. This is certainly a sentiment that secular humanists could greatly appreciate.