Malcolm X was one of the most prominent black nationalist leaders in the United States. He advocated black pride, and was known all over the world as an African-American/Pan-Africanist and human rights leader. He also was a longtime advocate for the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925. His father was Earl Little, an outspoken Baptist minister. His mother was Louise Norton Little, a homemaker who cared for their eight children. Owing to Earl's civil-rights activism, he had received death threats from a white supremacist organization, Black Legion. The intimidation forced the family to relocate twice before Malcolm's fourth birthday.
The family moved to Lansing, Michigan, and in 1931, Earl's dead body was found lying across railroad tracks. The police ruled the death an accident, but the family was certain he was killed by the Black Legion. Malcolm's mother had a nervous breakdown, and in 1939, she was committed to State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo, Michigan. The children were split up among different foster homes and orphanages. Louise Little remained in the institution until her children secured her release 26 years later.
Growing up, Malcolm was a smart student. He graduated from junior high with outstanding grades. His dream of becoming a lawyer was crushed when his favorite teacher told him it was "no realistic goal for a nigger." Malcolm lost interest in school. He dropped out, then spent time in Boston, Massachusetts, working in various odd jobs. By 1942, Malcolm had moved to Harlem, New York, and was a ringleader of various narcotics, prostitution and gambling rackets.
In 1946, after moving back to Boston, Malcolm was arrested and convicted on burglary charges. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was paroled after serving seven. Malcolm had used his time in prison to further his education by reading, and he copied an entire dictionary to improve his handwriting. A brother, Reginald, visited and talked with him about his recent conversion to Islam. Reginald belonged to the Nation of Islam (NOI). Malcolm became interested in his brother’s newfound religion, and began to study the teachings of the NOI leader, Elijah Muhammad.
Joining the Nation of Islam
Elijah Muhammad taught that white society strove to keep African Americans from empowering themselves to achieve political, economic, and social success. The NOI also advocated their own separate state to separate them from white people. Following his parole in 1952, Malcolm became a devoted follower of Muhammad. He took a new surname: X, believing that Little was a slave name. X signified his lost tribal name.
Elijah Muhammad appointed Malcolm as a minister and national spokesman for the NOI. The younger man's charisma, drive, and conviction attracted a 60-fold increase in new members — from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963.
In 1958, Malcolm married Betty Shabazz in Lansing, Michigan. They had six daughters, all of whom took the surname Shabazz. Four of the girls were born before Malcolm’s death. A pair of twins were born after his death in 1965.
A deception discovered
In 1963, Malcolm X learned that his mentor and leader, Elijah Muhammad, was indulging in secret relationships with as many as six women within the NOI, some of which produced children. The younger man was deeply hurt by the deception. The teachings of NOI specified celibacy until marriage; Elijah was not married to any of them. He asked Malcolm to help cover up the affairs and the existence of the children, but Malcolm refused.
Shortly after the discovery, Malcolm X made a comment on the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy, that would provoke loud criticism. He said, “Kennedy never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon." Elijah silenced Malcolm from public speaking for 90 days. He obeyed and kept quiet.
Leaving the NOI
Nevertheless, Malcolm X could not look past Elijah's deception, and in March 1964, terminated his relationship with the NOI. He started his own religious organization, the Muslim Mosque, Inc., on March 12, 1964. Later that year, Malcolm went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. That proved to be a life-changing journey. He shared his thoughts and beliefs with people of other cultures and found their responses to be positive. When Malcolm returned to the United States, he held a new outlook on the future. He began to speak to all races, not just African Americans.
The relationship between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad became volatile after Malcolm left the NOI. Reports from undercover FBI informants indicated that Malcolm had been marked for assassination. Following numerous attempts on his life, Malcolm rarely traveled anywhere without bodyguards. In February 1965, the home where he lived with his wife and four daughters in East Elmhurst, New York, was firebombed, but the family emerged unscathed.
A violent end
One week after the firebomb attempt, Malcolm X was engaged to speak at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom. Three gunmen rushed on stage and shot him 15 times at close range. He was pronounced dead at a hospital on February 21, 1965.
On February 27, Malcolm’s funeral was attended by 1,500 people. At Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, his friends took the shovels away from the gravediggers and buried the coffin.
Later that year, Betty gave birth to their twin daughters.
The men who shot Malcolm were convicted of first-degree murder in March 1966. All three were Nation of Islam members.
Malcolm X has been the subject of numerous documentaries, books, and a movie. In 1992, director Spike Lee released the critically acclaimed film, Malcolm X, which received two Oscar nominations for Best Actor (Denzel Washington), and Best Costume Design.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Malcolm X.
Did the Zionists have the legal or moral right to invade Arab Palestine, uproot its Arab citizens from their homes and seize all Arab property for themselves just based on the "religious" claim that their forefathers lived there thousands of years ago? Only a thousand years ago the Moors lived in Spain. Would this give the Moors of today the legal and moral right to invade the Iberian Peninsula, drive out its Spanish citizens, and then set up a new Moroccan nation ... where Spain used to be, as the European zionists have done to our Arab brothers and sisters in Palestine?...
Malcolm X on Zionism, 1964
There is nothing in our book, the Qur'an, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone lays a hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That's a good religion.
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Using Stanford University's voluminous collection of archival material, including previously unpublished writings, interviews, recordings, and corresp...
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X.
Malcolm X's searing memoir belongs on the small shelf of great autobiographies. The reasons are many: the blistering honesty with which he recounts hi...
Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington.
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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable.
Years in the making-the definitive biography of the legendary black activist. Of the great figure in twentieth-century American history perhaps none...