Born May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, this fiery black nationalist leader was a charismatic spokesman for the Nation of Islam until breaking with the group shortly before his 1965 assassination.
Born Malcolm Little and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, he was an African American Muslim minister and human rights activist. To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of African Americans, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans. Detractors accused him of preaching racism, black supremacy, antisemitism, and violence. He has been called one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history.
Malcolm Little was the fourth of seven children born to Louise and Earl Little. Louise was a homemaker and Earl was an African American preacher who was also an active member of the local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Malcolm’s mom, Louise Little, was born in Grenada, West Indies. Her mother was black but her father was a white man.
Malcolm would later recalled: “When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching in Milwaukee.” The Klansmen warned her that we had better get out of town because “the good Christian white people” were not going to stand for her husband “spreading trouble” among the “good” Negroes of Omaha with the “back to Africa” preachings of Marcus Garvey.”
The family now moved to Lansing, Michigan. Little continued to make speeches in favour of UNIA and in 1929 the family house was attacked by members of the Black Legion, a militant group that had broken away from the Ku Klux Klan.
“Shortly after my youngest sister was born came the nightmare night of 1929, my earliest vivid memory. I remember being suddenly snatched awake into a frightening confusion of pistol shots and shouting and smoke and flames. My father had shouted and shot at the two white men who had set the fire and were running away. Our home was burning down around us. We were lunging and bumping and tumbling all over each other trying to escape. My mother, with the baby in her arms, just made it into the yard before the house crashed in, showing sparks.”
Malcolm X attended West Junior High School, where he was the school’s only black student. He excelled academically and was well liked by his classmates, who elected him class president. However, he later said that he felt that his classmates treated him more like the class pet than a human being. The turning point in Malcolm X’s childhood came in 1939, when his English teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he answered that he wanted to be a lawyer. His teacher responded, “One of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic… you need to think of something you can be… Why don’t you plan on carpentry?” Having thus been told in no uncertain terms that there was no point in a black child pursuing education, Malcolm X dropped out of school the next year at the age of 15.
In 1931 Earl Little was found dead by a streetcar railway track (killed by white supremacists, it was rumored). Although no one was convicted of the crime it was generally believed that Little had been murdered by the Black Legionnaires. Malcolm’s mother never recovered from her husband’s death and in 1937 was sent to the State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo, where she stayed for the next twenty-six years.
Little moved to Boston to live with his sister. He worked as a waiter in Harlem and after becoming addicted to cocaine, turned to crime. In 1946 he was convicted of burglary and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. While in prison he was converted to the Black Muslim faith and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.
“The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been whitened – when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out. Mr. Muhammad couldn’t have said anything that would have struck me much harder. I had never forgotten how when my class, me and all those whites, had studied seventh-grade United States history back in Mason, the history of the Negro had been covered in one paragraph. This is one reason why Mr. Muhammad teachings spread so swiftly all over the United States, among all Negroes, whether or not they became followers of Mr. Muhammad. The teachings ring true – to every Negro. You can hardly show me a black adult in America – or a white one, for that matter – who knows from the history books anything like the truth about the black man’s role.”
After his release from prison in 1952 he moved to Chicago where he met Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam sect. He changed his name to X, a custom among Muhammad’s followers who considered their family names to have originated with white slaveholders. Malcolm soon became a leading figure in the movement. He went on several speaking tours and helped establish several new mosques in cities such as Detroit, Michigan and Harlem, New York. . He was eventually assigned to be minister of the mosque in New York’s Harlem area. Founder and editor of Muhammad Speaks, Malcolm rejected integration and racial equality and instead advocated black power.
Intelligent and articulate, Malcolm utilized newspaper columns, radio and television to communicate the Nation of Islam’s message across the United States. His charisma, drive and conviction attracted an astounding number of new members. Malcolm was largely credited with increasing membership in the Nation of Islam from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963.
The crowds and controversy surrounding Malcolm made him a media magnet. He was featured in a week-long television special with Mike Wallace in 1959, The Hate That Hate Produced, that explored fundamentals of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm’s emergence as one of its most important leaders. After the special, Malcolm was faced with the uncomfortable reality that his fame had eclipsed that of his mentor Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm X met Betty Sanders in 1955. She had been invited to listen to his lecture, and she was very impressed by him. They met again at a dinner party. Soon Sanders was attending all of Malcolm X’s lectures at Temple Number Seven. In mid 1956, she joined the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X and Betty X did not have a conventional courtship. One-on-one dates were contrary to the teachings of the Nation of Islam. Instead, the couple shared their “dates” with dozens, or even hundreds of other members. Malcolm X frequently took groups to visit New York’s museums and libraries, and he always invited Betty X.
Although they had never discussed the subject, Betty X suspected that Malcolm X was interested in marriage. On January 12, 1958, he called from Detroit and asked her to marry him, and they were married two days later in Lansing, Michigan.
The couple had six daughters. Their names were Attallah, born in 1958 and named after Attila the Hun; Qubilah, born in 1960 and named after Kublai Khan; Ilyasah, born in 1962 and named after Elijah Muhammad; Gamilah Lumumba, born in 1964 and named after Patrice Lumumba;and twins, Malikah and Malaak, born in 1965 (after their father’s assassination and named for him).
Malcolm X began to advocate violent revolution. In a speech on 9th November, 1963: “Look at the American Revolution in 1776. That revolution was for what? For land. Why did they want land? Independence. How was it carried out? Bloodshed. Number one, it was based on land, the basis of independence. And the only way they could get it was bloodshed. The French Revolution – what was it based on? The landless against the landlord. What was it for? Land. How did they get it? Bloodshed. Was no love lost, was no compromise, was no negotiation. I’m telling you – you don’t know what a revolution is. Because when you find out what it is, you’ll get back in the alley, you’ll get out of the way. The Russian Revolution – what was it based on? Land; the landless against the landlord. How did they bring it about? Bloodshed. You haven’t got a revolution that doesn’t involve bloodshed. And you’re afraid to bleed. I said, you’re afraid to bleed.”
Malcolm was suspended from the movement by Elijah Muhammad after he made a series of extremist speeches. This included his comments that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a “case of chickens coming home to roost.”
In March 1964 Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and established his own religious organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm rejected his former separatist beliefs and advocated world brotherhood. Malcolm now blamed racism on Western culture and urged African Americans to join with sympathetic whites to bring to an end.
Malcolm X argued: “The American black man should be focusing his every effort toward building his own businesses, and decent homes for himself. As other ethnic groups have done, let the black people, wherever possible, patronize their own kind, and start in those ways to build up the black race’s ability to do for itself. That’s the only way the American black man is ever going to get respect. One thing the white man never can give the black man is self-respect! The black man never can be become independent and recognized as a human being who is truly equal with other human beings until he has what they have, and until he is doing for himself what others are doing for themselves. The black man in the ghettoes, for instance, has to start self-correcting his own material, moral and spiritual defects and evils. The black man needs to start his own program to get rid of drunkenness, drug addiction, prostitution. The black man in America has to lift up his own sense of values.”
Malcolm X was shot dead at a party meeting in Harlem on 21st February, 1965. Three Black Muslims were later convicted of the murder.
In the immediate aftermath of Malcolm X’s death, commentators largely ignored his recent spiritual and political transformation and criticized him as a violent rabble-rouser. However, Malcolm X’s legacy as a civil rights hero was cemented by the posthumous publication in 1965 of The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley.
At once a harrowing chronicle of American racism, an unsparing self-criticism and an inspiring spiritual journey, the book, transcribed by the acclaimed author of Roots, instantly recast Malcolm X as one of the great political and spiritual leaders of modern times. Named by Time magazine as one of ten “required reading” nonfiction books, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has enshrined Malcolm X as a hero to subsequent generations of radicals and activists.
The legacy of Malcolm X has moved through generations as the subject of numerous documentaries, books and movies. Notably the highly acclaimed Oscar-nominated 1992 Spike Lee movie, Malcolm X movie which starred Denzel Washington.
Malcolm X is buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.