Born Malcolm Little, better known as Malcolm X, was a black, Muslim minister, a human rights activist and a popular figure in the civil rights movement. He held extremely strong and controversial stances on black racial advocacy, and he was a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam.
He was born in Omaha, Nebraska and moved to New York City in 1943. He spent a lot of time bouncing between foster homes after his dad died and his mom was hospitalized. It was there that he began getting into some legal trouble, eventually receiving a 10-year prison sentence for breaking and entering. In prison, he joined the Nation of Islam, adopted the name Malcom X, and became one of their most influential leaders after he was released on parole in 1952.
Throughout the next decade, he was a public face for the organization and spoke for black supremacy, black empowerment, the separation of black and white Americans, and was outspoken about his problems with the mainstream civil rights movement, not believing in non-violence.
But, in the 60s, Malcolm X grew disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and with its leader. He eventually renounced the Nation of Islam, founding his own organizations. This lead to a conflict between he and the Nation, which lead to him receiving repeated death threats. And on February 21, 1965, he was assassinated.
Though Malcolm was a controversial figure, accused of preaching racism and violence, to this day he remains a celebrated figure within both Muslim and African American communities.
MALCOLM'S EARLY LIFE
Malcolm was born on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, the 4th of 7 children. His father was an outspoken Baptist speaker. He was the local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and his wife, Malcolm's mother, was the secretary and branch reporter. According to Malcolm, white violence killed 4 of his his father's brothers.
The Ku Klux Klan was outspoken against his father and they had to relocate many times, first to Milwaukee and next to Lansing. The harassment did not stop as they moved, and allegedly, a white racist group burned their family home down in 1929.
Malcolm's father died when he was 6 years old. His death was officially ruled a car accident, but his mother always believed that he was killed by their primary harassers, the Black Legion. These rumors spread and were very disturbing to a young, impressionable Malcolm. His mother began dating in 1937, but after she revealed she was pregnant, he vanished. She had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a state hospital, leaving the children separated and in foster care. Her release was not secured until 24 years later.
Malcolm excelled in junior high school, but he dropped out of high school before graduating. He dropped out because his white teacher told him that his dream of becoming a lawyer was "no realistic goal for a n*****", leaving him to feel he had no way to excel in the world.
He moved to New York City's Harlem neighborhood in 1943, engaging in drugs, gambling, robbery, pimping and racketeering and feigned mental disturbance to get out of military service in World War II. He moved to Boston in 1945 where he and accomplices targeted wealthy, white families in burglaries, which landed him 8-10 in Charlestown State Prison.
NATION OF ISLAM INVOLVEMENT
While in prison, Malcolm received letters that his siblings wrote to him, telling him about a new religious movement called the Nation of Islam that preached black self reliance. He was not interested initially, but after his brother came to visit him, the tides shifted and he became receptive.
He was paroled in August of 1952 and he visited Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam's leader, in Chicago. He became the assistant minister of the Detroit Temple. He established additional temples, including one in Boston, Philadelphia and Harlem. Around this time, the FBI became interested in him. He continued to successfully open temples and recruit people to join. He was an extremely skilled public speaker on top of being tall, fit and attractive.
Malcolm X met Betty Sanders in 1955 after she visited many of his lectures, and she eventually joined the Nation of Islam and changed her name to Betty X. They married in 1958, 2 days after he proposed to her. They had 6 children together, all daughters.
Malcolm X was making a name for himself throughout the religion, but the broader American public did not become aware of him until 1957, when Hinton Johnson, a member, was beaten by 2 NYC police officers. He was alerted to the situation and demanded that he see him at the police station, and a crowd of over 500 people showed up. He was able to see him, and insisted on an ambulance coming to pick him up. When Johnson was returned to police custody, nearly 4,000 people were gathered outside.
In the late 50s, Malcolm X started using the name Malcolm Shabazz or Malik el-Shabazz, but Malcom X was still the name that stuck.
His teachings included, but were not limited to, the idea that black people were the original people of the world, that white people were "devils", that blacks were superior to whites and that the demise of the white race was imminent. These teachings were alarming to white people at the time, but also some black people. He was considered a hatemonger, a black supremacist, a violence-seeker and a segregationist. He was also accused of being anti-Semitic. The mainstream civil rights movement had a goal to end the disenfranchisement of black people, but the Nation of Islam did not allow its members to vote or be involved in politics.
He was critical of Martin Luther King Jr., calling him a "chump" and said he and other leaders were "stooges" of the white establishment. In a quote about the March on Washington, he said he did not know why black people were excited about a "demonstration run by whites in front of a statue of a president who has been dead for a hundred years and who didn't like us when he was alive".
The mainstream civil rights movement also fought against segregation, but Malcolm X supported the complete separation of black people from white people. He believed that African Americans should return to Africa but until then, there should be a separate country for each race. He did not believe in non-violence, arguing that black people should defend and advance through any means possible, including violence.
But his support of the Nation of Islam eventually came to an end in the early 60s for various reasons. First, there was a series of violent interactions in 1961 between Nation of Islam members and the Los Angeles Police Department, including 2 LAPD officers who, unprovoked on April 27, 1962, shoved and beat several Muslims outside of their temple. A large crowd of muslims came out from the temple, and the LAPD called more than 70 backup officers who entered the mosque and randomly beat members. Seven Muslims were shot, one who was paralyzed for life and one who was killed after raising his hands to surrender.
Many of the Muslims were indicted, but there were no charges for the police officers. Elijah Muhammad did not approve Malcolm's request to take revenge against the police. He was also not allowed to speak about getting involved with civil rights organizations, local black politicians or other religious groups.
Another break in Malcolm and Muhammad's relationship was when he found out that Muhammad was having affairs with Nation secretaries.
After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm publicly expressed that he was not sad and in fact, happy. The Nation of Islam had sent condolence messages to the Kennedy family, and prohibited Malcolm from speaking for 90 days. But Malcolm X was becoming a favorite, and many believed he was in line to take over Muhammad's leadership. In a 1963 book about the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X's photo was used on the cover and 5 of his speeches were featured as opposed to Muhammad's one, which made him upset.
And on March 8, 1964, Malcolm X announced his break from the Nation of Islam.
After leaving, Malcolm X made his own religious organization and a secular organization that advocated Pan-Africanism, the Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, respectively.
He met Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time in 1964 when they both attended the Senate's debate on the Civil Rights bill. In April, he gave his famous "The Ballot or the Bullet" speech which advised then to exercise their right to vote wisely. He converted to the Sunni faith.
He took a pilgrimage to Mecca in April of 1964 and visited Africa for a second time, as well. After returning to the U.S., he went back to Africa, meeting with officials, giving interviews and making radio and television appearances. He also traveled to Paris and the United Kingdom, meeting leaders and giving speeches throughout.
DEATH THREATS AND ASSASSINATION
Throughout 1964, Malcolm received many threat from the Nation of Islam. One temple bombed his car, and Muhammad said that he should have his head cut off. In the April 10 version of Muhammad Speaks there was a cartoon depicting Malcolm's bouncing, severed head.
The FBI recorded a conversation in June where Betty was told that her husband was as good as dead, and 4 days later, an FBI informant received a top that he was going to be killed. Muhammad's aide John Ali said that anyone who opposes Muhammad is putting their live in jeopardy, and they believed that he was worthy of death.
On February 19, 1965, Malcolm X told an interviewer that the Nation was trying to kill him. During a speech on February 21, someone began to heckle him. As he and his guards tried to stop the commotion, someone rushed forward and shot him in the chest and another 2 men stepped forward and started firing, as well. All in all, he had 21 gunshot wounds in the chest, shoulder, arms and legs.
One of the gunmen, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer, was beaten before the crowd arrived. The other 2 were Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. All 3 were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Hayer confessed, but said that the other 2 were not responsible but refused to identify who else was involved. In 1977 and 1978, he signed an affidavit saying that Butler and Johnson were innocent and named 4 other gunmen, but the case was not reopened. Butler was paroled in 1985 where he became the head of the Nation's Harlem Mosque, and Johnson was released in 1987, claiming his innocence until he died in 2009. He had converted to Sunni Islam.
Martin Luther King wrote to Malcolm's widow, saying that while they did not see eye to eye on everything, he felt he had a great ability to find the root of a problem, that he was an eloquent speaker and he had great concern for the problems their race faced. Muhammad said that he got what he asked for, but denied involvement saying that they did not want him dead or try to kill him, blaming his death on his own teachings.
Malcolm X has been described as one of the most influential African Americans in history, raising confidence and self-esteem in black Americans and reconnecting them with their heritage. Many memorials and tributes for him exist throughout the United States, especially in notable places in his life such as Omaha and Lansing. His birthday, May 19th, is commemorated as Malcolm X day in many cities around the world. Schools, streets and stamps have all used his name and image to memorialize him.
Though Martin Luther King Jr. is typically the name that pops into mind when thinking about strong, black activists during the civil rights era, Malcolm X was one of the most notable figures during the time as well. During an era of lynchings and such violent, outright racism, preaching the use of violence to defend yourself should not have been such a radical idea. Malcolm X does not get the textbook space or the federal holiday that King does, but his memory and involvement in advancing the lives of Black Americans should never be forgotten.