Malcolm X is considered one of the most influential activists in the history of the United States, giving a voice to the disenfranchised.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. He was a one of seven children born to Louise Norton Little and Earl Little, a Baptist minister and an avid civil rights activist. Earl was a supporter of Marcus Garvey and his Black Nationalist movement and recruited new members to the movement while Louise served as a writer for the movement’s newspaper. Earl was very outspoken, gaining the attention of several racist organizations including the Ku Klux Klan and the white paramilitary group, the Black Legion. The Black Legion issued so many death threats to Earl that he was forced to move the family to Lansing, Michigan around 1929. Though the family moved, they could not escape the racism from which they had fled. A few months after they reached Lansing, some of their neighbors took legal action to get them removed from their land. A local county judge said that the property was restricted to whites and ordered them off of the property. Earl refused, and their home in Lansing was burned down in 1929. The local police accused Earl of starting the fire and arrested him, although the charges were later dropped. A mere two years later, Earl was found dead on the local trolley tracks, presumed to have been murdered by the Klan or the Legion. His body had almost been cut in half by the wheels of a streetcar. Police officially ruled the death an accident. The repercussions of his death were severe as Louise subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to the Kalamazoo State Hospital, a mental institution, seven years later. The family was split up and the children were sent to live with in foster homes.
Despite the racism that his family was subjected to, Malcolm’s early life was remarkably integrated. He was popular among the white children in his neighborhood, often leading them in adventures in the woods near his home. He attended a school where he was the only Black student and received straight-A scores. Nevertheless, when it came time for his junior high school English teacher to discuss what each student wanted to be when they grew up, he told him Malcolm that his goal of becoming a lawyer was unrealistic and that he should think about becoming a carpenter instead. Dismayed, Malcolm dropped out of school a year later at the age of fifteen.
Early Criminal Career
Malcolm moved to Harlem, New York in 1943 where he began a life of crime. He worked as pimp and drug dealer and engaged in gambling, racketeering, and robbery. He was known as a hustler, able to acquire things that others needed. Malcolm was light skinned, allegedly because his maternal grandmother had been raped by a white man. He also sported red hair. While working a part-time job at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, he befriended one of the dishwashers who also sported a head of red hair. His name was John Elroy Sanford and to minimize confusion, Sanford was known as Chicago Red and Malcolm was called Detroit Red. Sanford would later gain fame as the famous comedian and television star Redd Foxx.
In order to get out of military service during World War II, Malcolm told officials at the draft board that he wanted to be sent down south to “organize them nigger soldiers … steal us some guns, and kill us [some] crackers“. He was declared “mentally disqualified for military service.” He was arrested several times and decided to move to Boston, Massachusetts in 1945.
Soon after arriving in Boston, he organized a gang of burglars to prey upon the homes of wealthy families. The members of the gang included his friend Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, Malcolm’s white girlfriend Bea, and two other white women. Bea knew that many of the families vacationed in Florida and the gang would rob their households and Malcolm would pawn the stolen items. Just a few weeks later, Malcolm was arrested when he went back to one of the pawn shops to retrieve one of the stolen watches. Shorty and the three women were arrested and the women testified that Malcolm had forced them to participate. The racial overtones certainly influenced the court and Malcolm and Shorty were convicted of breaking and entering and larceny and were sentenced to the maximum sentence of eight to 10 years in state prison. Malcolm was now prisoner number 22843 at the Charlestown State Prison in Massachusetts.
Malcolm was miserable in prison and gained a reputation among the other prisoners and was nicknamed Satan because of his distaste for religion. He was contacted by several family members whom had covered to the religion of Islam, describing it as the true religion of the Black man. They encouraged him to believe in Allah, telling him that doing so would get him out of prison. Malcolm was not keen to follow a religion but he was already of a mindset of Black pride and empowerment, as it had been a part of his families teachings and part of the Black Nationalist movement. His one objection to the beliefs that his siblings were passing along was the concept of white people being “devils.” He wrote a letter to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the National of Islam branch of the religion. Muhammad wrote him back in prison, explaining to him that he was already living a hell on Earth and that the white man was the one whom had condemned him.
Thereafter Malcolm became a prodigious reader, studying philosophy, history, and religion and discerned from it that throughout history whites had systematically and continuously held down Blacks and other minorities. Malcolm decided to turn his life over to Allah, as Minister Muhammad had advised him to do, but Malcolm struggled with submitting to anything or anybody. Eventually he did and began living a life that was very different from his recent past. He joined the prison debate team and challenged visiting students from Harvard and MIT Universities. His success in these debates caused him to become a celebrity within the prison, as many prisoners sought to hear him speak. Malcolm sought an early parole but was now considered a troublemaker and a dangerous inmate and was denied. Later, after serving more than six and a half years of his sentenced, Malcolm was granted parole and released.
Life in the Nation of Islam
Almost immediately upon his release he became a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI). He took on the name Malcolm X, the “X” symbolizing the last name of his forefathers which had been replaced by his slave name of “Little.” Muhammad, the leader of the NOI, taught that white society actively worked to keep African-Americans from empowering themselves and achieving political, economic, and social success. Among other goals, the NOI fought for a state of their own, separate from one inhabited by white people. Malcolm was seen as intelligent and engaging and Minister Muhammad sent him out on the road to gather converts and establish mosques in Boston, Hartford and Philadelphia. In 1953 he was named assistant minister of the Nation’s Temple Number One in Detroit, established Boston’s Temple Number 11 and expanded Temple Number 12 in Philadelphia the next year. Malcolm was eventually chosen to lead Temple Number Seven in Harlem, the most important NOI temple in the United States. In 1955, he established Temple Number 13 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Number 15 in Hartford, Connecticut and Number 15 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Eventually, Malcolm was named the national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. He started “Muhammad Speaks,” the NOI newspaper, as a means of passing Muhammad’s messages along to members across the country, as well as to news outlets around the world. Malcolm was tireless in his efforts and his devotion to the Nation of Islam and was largely credited with increasing membership in the NOI from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963. His success was due, in part, to a natural charisma and eloquence that prompted even the most steadfast opponents to listen to his talks. He was also physically impressive, standing 6’ 3” and weighing 180 lbs. Scholar Manning Marable described him as “mesmerizingly handsome … and always spotlessly well-groomed.” But perhaps the most compelling aspect of Malcolm was his street credibility. From the early racial violence his family had endured, to his fall from grace and into a life of crime, Malcolm was seen as being a perfect example of a man whom white society had worked to destroy and whom Elijah Muhammad had fished from the sewers of the prison-state quagmire and recreated as sincere, dedicated and disciplined spokesman for the organization. Such a man appealed to the crowds as a leader, and also appealed to the female members of the National of Islam.
In 1955, Malcolm was introduced to Betty Sanders, a college graduate and a nurse. She became a member of the Nation of Islam a year later and the couple married in January 1958. They would have six daughters over the next seven years: Attallah (born in 1958, named after Attila the Hun); Qubilah (born in 1960, named after Kublai Khan); Ilyasah (born in 1962, named after Elijah Muhammad); Gamilah Lumumba (born in 1964, named after Patrice Lumumba); and twins Malikah and Malaak (born in 1965, after Malcolm’s death, and named in his honor).
Malcolm had gained great local attention in various major cities, but he became known nationally after an incident in New York City on April 26, 1957. Hinton Johnson was a member of the Nation of Islam and was one of a number of passersby who witnessed police officers beating a young Black man with nightsticks. Johnson objected to the treatment and the police turned the nightsticks on him, beating him so severely that he suffered brain contusions, a fractured skull and subdural hemorrhaging. A witness to Johnson’s beating got word to Malcolm X and he and a group of NOI members rushed to the police station where Johnson had been taken. Although the police initially claimed that neither Johnson nor any other Muslims had been taken into custody, they allowed Malcolm to talk to Johnson after around 500 hundred people had amassed outside of the station. Malcolm arranged for Johnson to be taken to Harlem Hospital by ambulance, and when he was brought back, had an attorney seek to bail him out. The police refused to release him until after he had been arraigned the following day and by this point more than 4,000 people had gathered outside of the police station. The situation seemed like a powder keg waiting to explode. Malcolm walked outside and silently signaled the crowd with a hand gesture and the Nation of Islam members silently left, with the rest of the crowd dispersing soon thereafter. The scene, which was later depicted by Denzel Washington in the feature motion picture “Malcolm X,” was breathtaking to watch and frightening to members of the police department. The New York Amsterdam News reported that one of the police officers worried that “no one man should have that much power.” Malcolm’s prominence in the community grew immensely, but his notoriety also made him a target, as the New York City Police Department put him under surveillance and opened a file on him.
Stories were written about him in newspapers and magazines and he was invited to appear on television talk shows to discuss the plight of the Black man and civil rights activities. He was featured in a 1959 New York City program hosted by Mike Wallace called “The Hate That Hate Produced.” The program was focused on Black Nationalism and the growing prominence of the Nation of Islam and the potential threat that the organization posed. While the leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States were looking to achieve racial integration of the country and voting rights for Blacks, Malcolm preached for the complete separation of Blacks from white society, often ridiculing civil rights leaders as “stooges” of the white establishment. He famously rejected the concept of the civil rights non-violent movement and instead declared that Blacks should defend themselves “by any means necessary.” Many participants at his rallies believed that he better expressed their despair, anger and frustration than did the leaders of the civil rights movement. Malcolm was seen more and more as a spokesman for Blacks and called upon to speak out on the behalf of Blacks and their civil rights, and the Nation of Islam doubled in memberships soon after the “The Hate That Hate Produced” show aired.
He was featured on more talk shows and invited to speak on college campuses. In September 1960, Malcolm was invited to attend official functions for several African nations at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. He met Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea, and Kenneth Kaunda of the Zambian African National Congress. He also met publicly with Fidel Castro, the President of Cuba, as part of a welcoming committee of Harlem community leaders. Castro and X spoke for two hours, after which Castro invited Malcolm to Cuba.
With Malcolm’s prominence on the world stage growing and his stardom as a social advocate ascending, many felt that he had eclipsed Elijah Muhammad in prominence. He inspired Cassius Clay to join the Nation and helped with Clay changing his name to Muhammad Ali. The two became close friends for a number of years and Malcolm attended Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Boxing crown. He mentored and guided Louis Farrakhan (then known as Louis X, and who would later become the leader of the Nation of Islam), as well as Elijah Muhammad’s son, Wallace D. Muhammad. Many within the Nation of Islam began to resent Malcolm’s growing prominence, and behind the scenes looked for ways to rein in his popularity and power.
[the_ad id=”1437″]Exit From the Nation of Islam
At the same time, Malcolm was beginning to reassess some of his beliefs about the teachings and the culture of the Nation of Islam and particularly its leader Elijah Muhammad. In 1961, the Los Angeles Police Department led a raid on Temple Number 27, beating several members and shooting seven (paralyzing one and killing another). Malcolm sought to take action against the police but Muhammad refused him. Malcolm also sought to work with civil rights organizations, local Black politicians, and other religious groups in the fight against the police and for the rights of Blacks in general, but Muhammad also refused to allow this. Even more concerning for Malcolm was his disillusionment with Muhammad when he found out that the leader of the NOI had engaged in numerous adulterous affairs, some of which had produced children. His shock at Muhammad’s betrayal of the tenets upon which the Nation of Islam was built shook him to his core as he had considered Muhammad a living prophet. He also felt that he had inadvertently led many followers to the Nation of Islam, which he now began to view as a fraudulent organization built on lies. The tension between Malcolm and Muhammad came to a head when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Muhammad had ordered that none of the NOI ministers make any statements about the murder, but Malcolm offered that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost“. He added that “chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” Elijah took swift action against Malcolm, prohibiting him from speaking publicly for 90 days. The schism between X and Muhammad became too large to heal and Malcolm announced on March 8, 1964 his departure from the Nation of Islam and his desire to organize a new Black nationalist organization to “heighten the political consciousness” of Black Americans. He also wanted to break away from the rigid teachings of the Nation of Islam and expressed a desire to work with other civil rights leaders.
For years Malcolm had been using the names Malcolm Shabazz or Malik el-Shabazz, but he was still referred to as Malcolm X by the press. He founded two organizations, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI), a religious organization and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism. On March 26, 1964, he attended a U.S. Senate hearing on the Civil Rights Bill and met very briefly, and for the only time, with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In April he gave a speech called “the Ballot or the Bullet,’ in which he advised Blacks to utilize their right to vote, but urged that if full equality did not follow soon thereafter, it might be necessary for the citizens to take up arms against the government.
Soon after leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm met with several Sunni Muslims and after learning about their faith, he was moved to convert to the Sunni faith. In April 1964, he travelled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as the start of his Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca obligatory for every Muslim who is able to do so). He encountered some delays in Jeddah when his inability to speak Arabic caused officials to question whether he was a true Muslim, as well as issues with his U.S. citizenship. Eventually, Saudi Prince Faisal designated Malcolm as a state guest and he was allowed to proceed to Mecca. His visit to Mecca was life changing for him as he encountered Muslims of “all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans,” interacting as equals. This caused him to rethink his beliefs on white people and he decided that the religion of Islam could help bridge the gap between the racial divide.
He visited Africa in April and July 1964, meeting with government officials and the press in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanganyika, Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sudan, Senegal, Liberia, Algeria, and Morocco. On his way back to the United States, he stopped in France and spoke in the Salle de la Mutualité. He then went to Oxford, England and took part in a debate on December 3, 1964 at the Oxford Union Society. He returned to the United Kingdom again in February and then returned to the United States where he was one of the most sought-after speakers on college campuses.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was repeatedly under threats of violence. In February 1964, a leader of Temple Number Seven in Harlem ordered the bombing of Malcolm’s car, and in March, Elijah Muhammad told minister Louis X that “hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off” (the April 10 edition of “Muhammad Speaks” featured a cartoon depicting Malcolm X’s bouncing, severed head). The FBI would later say that Betty Shabazz had received threats against Malcolm’s life and that an FBI informant had been told about a threat against him. On February 14, 1965, Malcolm and Betty’s home in East Elmhurst, Queens, New York was firebombed and destroyed by the fire. John Ali, an aide to Muhammad suggested in reference to Malcolm that, “anyone who opposes the Honorable Elijah Muhammad puts their life in jeopardy.” In the December 4, 1965 issue of Muhammad Speaks, Louis X wrote that “such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death”.
Malcolm surely believed that his life was in danger, telling photographer Gordon Parks that the Nation of Islam was actively trying to kill him. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm was preparing to address the OAAU in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when someone in the 400-person audience yelled, “Nigger! Get your hand outta my pocket!” When Malcolm X and his bodyguards tried to quell the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men charged the stage, firing semi-automatic handguns, striking him repeatedly. He was struck by 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds. He was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm.
Two of the gunmen were identified by witnesses as as Nation of Islam members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. The third gunman, Talmadge Hayer, was captured at the scene by members of the audience and beaten and held for the police. Hayer later plead guilty, claiming that Butler and Johnson were not the other gunmen, but he refused to provide the identity of the real murderers. Nevertheless, all three were found guilty of the murder and given life sentences in prison. Hayer later provided to authorities the identities of four men that he said were involved with the murder, but no subsequent charges were ever brought. All three men were eventually paroled and Butler and Johnson both continued to declare their innocence.
There was a public viewing from February 23–26, 1965 at Unity Funeral Home in Harlem, which was attended by some 14,000 to 30,000 mourners. His funeral was held on February 27, 1965 at the Faith Temple of the Church of God in Christ. Loudspeakers were set up for the overflowing crowd outside of the church and a local television station did a live broadcast of the service. A number of prominent civil rights leaders attended the funeral, including John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, James Forman, James Farmer, Jesse Gray, and Andrew Young. Actor and social activist Ossie Davis delivered the eulogy, calling Malcolm “our shining black prince … who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.” He was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his dismay at Malcolm’s death in a telegram to betty Shabazz. “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.” Elijah Muhammad denied any complicity in the murder but said, in part, that “Malcolm X got just what he preached… We didn’t want to kill Malcolm and didn’t try to kill him. We know such ignorant, foolish teachings would bring him to his own end.”
After his death there were debates within the Black community as to whom was responsible for his murder. It was argued that that local drug dealers, the Nation of Islam, the NYPD, the FBI, or the CIA could have been behind the assassination. Malcolm’s family believed, at one point, that Minister Louis Farrakhan had a hand in Malcolm’s death. Years later Farrakhan would admit that “I may have been complicit in words that I spoke…. I acknowledge that and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being.”
Malcolm X is now considered as one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history. Over the course of years, the view of him as a violent, race-hater have dissipated as society has recognized the validity of many of his views as well as the hypocrisy of many of his detractors. He became a hero to young Blacks who identify with his reluctance to patiently wait for whites and the government to provide equality to minorities and the poor. Bruce Perry, one of Malcolm’s biographers said that “by giving expression to their frustration, Malcolm X made clear the price that white America would have to pay if it did not accede to Black America’s legitimate demands.” The fact that Malcolm changed his views on white people and the civil rights movement also brought him more into the mainstream.
Malcolm had begun collaborating with author Alex Haley in 1963 about telling his life story and a few months after his death, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was released by Grove Press. Doubleday had the publishing rights to the book, but cancelled its publication after Malcolm’s death out of concern for the safety of Doubleday employees. By 1977, the book had sold more than six million copies and has been published in more than 45 editions and in various languages. It is considered that Doubleday’s cancellation of the book is biggest publishing blunder in history. The book has become a standard on the reading lists for high school and college students and historian John William Ward proclaimed that the book “will surely become one of the classics in American autobiography.” In 1998 Time magazine named “The Autobiography of Malcolm X “ one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.
In 1992, director SpikeLee brought Malcolm’s story to the big screen in the major motion picture film “Malcolm X.” The movie earned more than $48 million at the box office in the United States and Denzel Washington, who portrayed Malcolm, was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal. In 2010, “Malcolm X” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The book and the movies have cemented Malcolm X’s legacy within the Black community and helped him to transcend racial boundaries far beyond what was possible when he died. He brought a much needed voice to express the frustrations of Blacks in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He helped to develop a mindset within Blacks that they were intelligent, attractive and valuable, within their own communities and to the world in general, a precursor to the Black power movement. He also helped to bring the religion of Islam to the masses in the United States. Through his leadership to the Black community and the evolution of his thinking, Malcolm X became a hero to the masses, Black and white.