Malcolm X was an African American civil rights leader prominent in the Nation of Islam. Until his 1965 assassination, he vigorously supported Black nationalism.
Malcolm X was a minister, human rights activist and prominent Black nationalist leader who served as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam during the 1950s and 1960s. Due largely to his efforts, the Nation of Islam grew from a mere 400 members at the time he was released from prison in 1952 to 40,000 members by 1960.
A naturally gifted orator, Malcolm X exhorted Black people to cast off the shackles of racism “by any means necessary,” including violence. The fiery civil rights leader broke with the Nation of Islam shortly before his assassination in 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, where he had been preparing to deliver a speech.
Malcolm X was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. He was the fourth of eight children born to Louise, a homemaker, and Earl Little, a preacher who was also an active member of the local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and avid supporter of Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey.
Due to Earl Little’s civil rights activism, the family was subjected to frequent harassment from white supremacist groups including the Ku Klux Klan and one of its splinter factions, the Black Legion. In fact, Malcolm Little had his first encounter with racism before he was even born.
The harassment continued when Malcolm was four years old, and local Klan members smashed all of the family’s windows. To protect his family, Earl Little moved them from Omaha to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926 and then to Lansing, Michigan, in 1928.
However, the racism the family encountered in Lansing proved even greater than in Omaha. Shortly after the Littles moved in, a racist mob set their house on fire in 1929, and the town’s all-white emergency responders refused to do anything.
“The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned to the ground,” Malcolm X later remembered. Earl Little moved the family to East Lansing where he built a new home.
Two years later, in 1931, Earl Little’s dead body was discovered lying across the municipal streetcar tracks. Although Malcolm X’s family believed his father was murdered by white supremacists from whom he had received frequent death threats, the police officially ruled Earl Little’s death a streetcar accident, thereby voiding the large life insurance policy he had purchased in order to provide for his family in the event of his death.
Malcolm X’s mother never recovered from the shock and grief over her husband’s death. In 1937, she was committed to a mental institution where she remained for the next 26 years. Malcolm and his siblings were separated and placed in foster homes.
In 1938, Malcolm was kicked out of school and sent to a juvenile detention home in Mason, Michigan. The white couple who ran the home treated him well, but he wrote in his autobiography that he was treated more like a “pink poodle” or a “pet canary” than a human being.
He attended Mason High School where he was one of only a few Black students. He excelled academically and was well-liked by his classmates, who elected him class president.
A turning point in Malcolm Little’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 following year, at the age of 15.
After quitting school, Malcolm X moved to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella, about whom he later recalled, “She was the first really proud Black woman I had ever seen in my life. She was plainly proud of her very dark skin. This was unheard of among Negroes in those days.”
Ella landed Malcolm a job shining shoes at the Roseland Ballroom. However, out on his own on the streets of Boston, Malcolm X became acquainted with the city’s criminal underground and soon turning to selling drugs.
He got another job as kitchen help on the Yankee Clipper train between New York and Boston and fell further into a life of drugs and crime. Sporting flamboyant pinstriped zoot suits, he frequented nightclubs and dance halls and turned more fully to crime to finance his lavish lifestyle.
In 1946, Malcolm X was arrested on charges of larceny and sentenced to 10 years in jail. To pass the time during his incarceration, he read constantly, devouring books from the prison library in an attempt make up for the years of education he had missed by dropping out of high school.
Also while in prison, Malcolm was visited by several siblings who had joined the Nation of Islam, a small sect of Black Muslims who embraced the ideology of Black nationalism — the idea that in order to secure freedom, justice and equality, Black Americans needed to establish their own state entirely separate from white Americans.
He changed his name to Malcolm X and converted to the Nation of Islam before his release from prison in 1952.
Now a free man, Malcolm X traveled to Detroit, Michigan, where he worked with the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, to expand the movement’s following among Black Americans nationwide.
Malcolm X became the minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem and Temple No. 11 in Boston, while also founding new temples in Hartford and Philadelphia. In 1960, he established a national newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, in order to further promote the message of the Nation of Islam.
Articulate, passionate and an inspirational orator, Malcolm X exhorted Black people to cast off the shackles of racism “by any means necessary,” including violence. “You don’t have a peaceful revolution. You don’t have a turn-the-cheek revolution,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution.”
His militant proposals — a violent revolution to establish an independent Black nation — won Malcolm X large numbers of followers as well as many fierce critics. Due primarily to the efforts of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam grew from a mere 400 members at the time he was released from prison in 1952, to 40,000 members by 1960.
By the early 1960s, Malcolm X had emerged as a leading voice of a radicalized wing of the civil rights movement, presenting a dramatic alternative to Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a racially-integrated society achieved by peaceful means.
Dr. King was highly critical of what he viewed as Malcolm X’s destructive demagoguery. “I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice,” King once said.
A rupture with Elijah Muhammad proved much more traumatic. In 1963, Malcolm X became deeply disillusioned when he learned that his hero and mentor had violated many of his own teachings, most flagrantly by carrying on many extramarital affairs; Muhammad had, in fact, fathered several children out of wedlock.
Malcolm’s feelings of betrayal, combined with Muhammad’s anger over Malcolm’s insensitive comments regarding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, led Malcolm X to leave the Nation of Islam in 1964.
That same year, Malcolm X embarked on an extended trip through North Africa and the Middle East. The journey proved to be both a political and spiritual turning point in his life. He learned to place the American civil rights movement within the context of a global anti-colonial struggle, embracing socialism and pan-Africanism.
Malcolm X also made the Hajj, the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during which he converted to traditional Islam and again changed his name, this time to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
After his epiphany at Mecca, Malcolm X returned to the United States less angry and more optimistic about the prospects for a peaceful resolution to America’s race problems. “The true brotherhood I had seen had influenced me to recognize that anger can blind human vision,” he said. “America is the first country … that can actually have a bloodless revolution.”
Just as Malcolm X appeared to be embarking on an ideological transformation with the potential to dramatically alter the course of the civil rights movement, he was assassinated.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X took the stage for a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. He had just begun addressing the room when multiple men rushed the stage and began firing guns.
Struck numerous times at close range, Malcolm X was declared dead after arriving at a nearby hospital. Three members of the Nation of Islam were tried and sentenced to life in prison for murdering the activist.
In the early 1960s, Malcolm X began working with acclaimed author Alex Haley on an autobiography. The book details Malcolm X’s life experiences and his evolving views on racial pride, Black nationalism and pan-Africanism.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965 after his assassination to near-universal praise. The New York Times called it a “brilliant, painful, important book,” and Time magazine listed it as one of the 10 most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.
In 1992, Spike Lee directed Denzel Washington in the title role of his movie Malcolm X. Both the film and Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X received wide acclaim and were nominated for several awards, including two Academy Awards.
Malcolm X married Betty Shabazz in 1958. The couple had six daughters.
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.
But especially after the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he will be remembered for underscoring the value of a truly free populace by demonstrating the great lengths to which human beings will go to secure their freedom.
“Power in defense of freedom is greater than power in behalf of tyranny and oppression,” he said. “Because power, real power, comes from our conviction which produces action, uncompromising action.”