Malcolm X, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was an African-American Muslim minister and a human rights activist. He was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother, Louise Norton Little, was a homemaker occupied with the family’s eight children. His father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and avid supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Earl’s civil rights activism prompted death threats from the white supremacist organization Black Legion, forcing the family to relocate twice before Malcolm’s fourth birthday. Malcolm’s father was slain by the Klan-like Black Legionaries. Although he was found with his head crushed on one side and almost severed from his body, it was claimed he had committed suicide, and the family was denied his death benefit. Mrs. Little had a nervous breakdown, seven years later, from which she never recovered. With his father killed when he was six and his mother placed in a mental hospital when he was thirteen, Malcolm was effectively orphaned by the age of 14.
From age 14 to 21, Little held a variety of jobs while living with his half-sister Ella Little-Collins in Roxbury, a largely African-American neighborhood of Boston. After a short time in Flint, Michigan he moved to Harlem, New York in 1943, where he engaged in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and pimping. According to recent biographies, he also occasionally had sex with other men, usually for money. Little was declared “mentally disqualified for military service” after he told draft board officials he wanted to be sent down south to “organize them nigger soldiers … steal us some guns, and kill us some crackers.”
At age 21, he went to prison for larceny and breaking and entering. While in prison, he became a member of the Nation of Islam. At this time, several of his siblings wrote to him about the Nation of Islam, a relatively new religious movement preaching black self-reliance and ultimately, the return of the African diaspora to Africa, where they would be free from white American and European domination. Malcolm, whose hostility to religion had earned him the prison nickname “Satan”, now became receptive to the message of the Nation of Islam. It was also during this period that Malcolm later stated he damaged his vision and required eyeglasses, “I had come to prison with 20/20 vision…I had read so much by the lights-out glow in my room at the Norfolk Prison Colony that I had astigmatism and the first pair of the eyeglasses that I have worn, ever since.” After his parole in 1952, Malcolm quickly rose to become one of the leaders of the Nation of Islam.
In late 1948, Malcolm wrote to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. In 1950, the FBI opened a file on him after he wrote a letter from prison to President Truman expressing opposition to the Korean War and declaring himself a communist. That year, Little also began signing his name “Malcolm X”. He explained in his autobiography that the Muslim’s ‘X’ symbolized the true African family name that he could never know. “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slave master name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”
After his parole in August 1952, Malcolm X visited Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. In June 1953, he was named assistant minister of the Nation’s Temple Number 1 in Detroit. Later that year he established Boston’s Temple Number 11. In March 1954, he expanded the Temple Number 12 in Philadelphia, and two months later he was selected to lead Temple Number 7 in Harlem, where he rapidly expanded its membership. Malcolm X is widely regarded as the second most influential leader the Nation of Islam has ever had, after Elijah Muhammad. He was largely credited with the group’s dramatic increase in membership between the early 1950s and early 1960s (from 500 to 25,000 by one estimate; from 1,200 to 50,000 or 75,000 by another). He inspired the boxer Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) to join the Nation (though like Malcolm X himself, Ali later left the group to become a Sunni Muslim). For a dozen years he was the public face of the controversial group; in keeping with the Nation’s teachings he espoused black supremacy, advocated the separation of black and white Americans and scoffed at the civil rights movement’s emphasis on integration.
Malcolm X first came to the notice of the American public in 1957, after Johnson Hinton, a Nation of Islam member, was beaten by two New York City police officers. Malcolm X and a small group of Muslims went to the police station and demanded to see Hinton. Some four thousand people had gathered outside the police station. Inside the station, Malcolm X and an attorney were making bail arrangements for two of the Muslims. Hinton was not bailed, and police said he could not go back to the hospital until his arraignment the following day. Considering the situation to be at an impasse, Malcolm X stepped outside the station house and gave a hand signal to the crowd. Nation members silently left, after which the rest of the crowd also dispersed. One police officer told the New York Amsterdam News, “No one man should have that much power.” Within a month Malcolm X was under surveillance by the New York City Police Department, which also made inquiries with authorities in other cities in which he had lived, and prisons in which he had served time.
Malcolm X was also featured in a weeklong television special with Mike Wallace in 1959, called The Hate That Hate Produced…
The program explored the fundamentals of the Nation of Islam and tracked Malcolm’s emergence as one of its most important leaders. As membership in the Nation of Islam grew, FBI agents infiltrated the organization (one was even Malcolm’s bodyguard) and secretly placed bugs, wiretaps, cameras, and other surveillance equipment to monitor the group’s activities.
In March 1964, Malcolm X had grown disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and its head Elijah Muhammad. There were rumors that Muhammad was conducting extramarital affairs with young Nation secretaries— which would constitute a serious violation of Nation teachings. After first discounting the rumors, Malcolm X came to believe them after he spoke with Muhammad’s son Wallace and with the women making the accusations. Muhammad confirmed the rumors in 1963, attempting to justify his behavior by referring to precedents set by Biblical prophets. On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X publicly announced his break from the Nation of Islam. He embraced Sunni Islam and, after a period of travel in Africa and the Middle East, returned to the United States to found Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. While continuing to emphasize Pan-Africanism, Black self-determination, and Black self-defense, he disavowed racism, saying, “I did many things as a Black Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then … pointed in a certain direction and told to march”.
Malcolm was still a Muslim, he said, but felt that the Nation had “gone as far as it can” because of its rigid teachings. He also expressed an interest in working with other civil rights leaders. On March 26, 1964, he met Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first and only time— and only long enough for photographs to be taken— in Washington, D.C. as both men attended the Senate’s debate on the Civil Rights bill.
In April, Malcolm X gave a speech titled The Ballot or the Bullet, in which he advised African Americans to exercise their right to vote wisely but cautioned that if the government continued to prevent African Americans from attaining full equality, it might be necessary for them to take up arms.
During his life, Malcolm X was a well travelled man. He traveled to Africa, France and the United Kingdom. Throughout 1964, as conflict with the Nation of Islam intensified, Malcolm X was repeatedly threatened. In February a leader of Temple Number 7 ordered the bombing of Malcolm X’s car. In March, Muhammad told Boston minister Louis X (later known as Louis Farrakhan) 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. On June 8, FBI surveillance recorded a telephone call in which Betty Shabazz was told that her husband was “as good as dead.” Four days later, an FBI informant received a tip that “Malcolm X is going to be bumped off.” That same month the Nation sued to reclaim Malcolm X’s residence in Queens, New York. His family was ordered to vacate, but on February 14, 1965— the night before a hearing on postponing the eviction— the house was destroyed by fire. On July 9 Muhammad aide John Ali (later exposed as an undercover FBI agent) referred to Malcolm X by saying, “Anyone who opposes the Honorable Elijah Muhammad puts their life in jeopardy.” In the December 4 issue of Muhammad Speaks, Louis X wrote that “such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.” The September 1964 issue of Ebony dramatized Malcolm X’s defiance of these threats by photographing him holding a rifle while peering out a window.
In 1955, Betty Sanders met Malcolm X after one of his lectures, then again at a dinner party; soon she was regularly attending his lectures. In 1956 she joined the Nation of Islam, changing her name to Betty X. Malcolm X proposed on a telephone call from Detroit in January 1958, and they married two days later. They had six daughters: Attallah (b. 1958, named after Attila the Hun);[D] Qubilah (b. 1960, named after Kublai Khan); Ilyasah (b. 1962, named after Elijah Muhammad); Gamilah Lumumba (b. 1964, named after Patrice Lumumba); and twins Malikah and Malaak (b. 1965 after their father’s death, and named after him).
In 1963 Malcolm X began a collaboration with Alex Haley on his life story, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He told Haley, “If I’m alive when this book comes out, it will be a miracle”, and indeed, Haley completed and published it some months after the assassination.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when someone in the 400-person audience yelled, “Nigger! Get your hand outta my pocket!” As 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.
One gunman, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagan) was beaten by the crowd before police arrived; witnesses identified the others as Nation members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. All three were convicted. At trial Hayer confessed, but refused to identify the other assailants except to assert that they were not Butler and Johnson; in 1977 and 1978 he reasserted their innocence and named four other Nation members as participants in the murder or its planning. Malcolm X was pronounced dead on arrival at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The autopsy identified 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds from the initial shotgun blast. He is buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 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.”
He is credited with raising the self-esteem of Black Americans and reconnecting them with their African heritage. Malcolm X, the activist and outspoken public voice of the Black Muslim faith, challenged the mainstream civil rights movement and the nonviolent pursuit of integration championed by Martin Luther King Jr. Though Malcolm disavowed racism, he urged followers to defend themselves against white aggression “by any means necessary.” Malcolm X has been described as one of the greatest and most influential African American in history.