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Malcolm X

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Picture of Malcolm X.

African-American Muslim minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X appearing on a round-table-discussion edition of the PBS program 'Open Mind', entitled 'Race Relations In Crisis.' (June 12, 1963)

(Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Who Was Malcolm X?

Malcolm X was a prominent figure during the Civil Rights era. Offering an alternative view to the mainstream Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X advocated for both the establishment of a separate black community (rather than integration) and the use of violence in self defense (rather than non-violence). His forceful, uncompromising belief in the evils of the white man frightened the white community. After Malcolm X left the black Muslim Nation of Islam organization, for which he had been both a spokesperson and a leader, his views toward white people softened but his core message of black pride endured. After his assassination in 1965, Malcolm X’s autobiography continued to spread his thoughts and passion.

Dates: May 19, 1925 -- February 21, 1965

Also Known As: Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, Big Red, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

Early Life of Malcolm X

Malcolm X was born as Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska to Earl and Louise Little (neé Norton). Earl was a Baptist minister and also worked for Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a pan-African movement in the 1920s. Louise, who had grown up in Grenada, was his second wife. Malcolm was the fourth of the six children Louise and Earl shared. (Earl also had three children from his first marriage.)

As a kid, Malcolm would often attend UNIA meetings with his father, who was president of the Omaha chapter at one point, absorbing Garvey's argument that the African-American community had the tools and resources to blossom without dependence on the white man.

Earl Little challenged the social standards of the time. When he began to attract the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, he moved his family to a white neighborhood in Lansing, Michigan. Neighbors protested. On November 8, 1929, a group of white supremacists known as the Black Legion set fire to the Little’s home with Malcolm and his family inside. Luckily, the Littles managed to escape but then watched their house burn to the ground while firemen did nothing to put out the flames.

Despite the seriousness of the threats against him, Earl did not let intimidation silence his beliefs and this almost certainly cost him his life.

Malcolm X’s Father Is Murdered

While the details of his death remain uncertain, what is known is that Earl was murdered on September 28, 1931 (Malcolm was only six years old). Earl had been savagely beaten and then left on trolley tracks, where he was run over by a trolley. Although those responsible were never found, the Littles always believed the Black Legion was responsible.

Realizing he was likely to meet a violent end, Earl had purchased life insurance; however, the life insurance company ruled his death a suicide and refused to pay. These events plunged Malcolm's family into poverty. Louise tried to work, but this was during the Great Depression and there weren’t many jobs for the widow of a black activist. Welfare was available, but Louise didn’t want to take charity.

Things were tough in the Little home. There were six children and very little money or food. The strain of taking care of everyone by herself started to take its toll on Louise and by 1937 she was showing signs of becoming mentally ill. In January 1939, Louise was committed to the State Mental Hospital in Kalamazoo.

Malcolm and his siblings were divided up. Malcolm was one of the first to go, even before his mother was institutionalized. In October 1938, 13-year-old Malcolm was sent to a foster home, which was soon followed by a detention home.

Despite his unstable home life, Malcolm was a success at school. Unlike the other kids at the detention home who were sent to a reform school, Malcolm was allowed to attend Mason Junior High School, the only regular junior high in town. While there, Malcolm earned top grades even against his white classmates. However, when a white teacher told Malcolm that he couldn’t become a lawyer but should instead consider becoming a carpenter, Malcolm was so disturbed by the comment that he began withdrawing from those around him.

When Malcolm met his half sister, Ella, for the first time, he was ready for a change.

Drugs and Crime

Ella was a confident, successful young woman living in Boston at the time. When Malcolm asked to come live with her, she agreed. In 1941, having just finished the eighth grade, Malcolm moved from Lansing to Boston. While exploring the city, Malcolm befriended a hustler named “Shorty” Jarvis, who also happened to come from Lansing. Shorty soon got Malcolm a job shining shoes at the Roseland Ballroom, where top bands of the day played.

Malcolm soon learned that his customers also hoped he could supply them with marijuana. It wasn’t long before Malcolm was selling drugs as well as shining shoes. He also personally started to smoke cigarettes, drink liquor, gamble, and do drugs.

Dressing in zoot suits and “conking” (straightening) his hair, Malcolm loved the fast life. He then moved to Harlem in New York and began getting involved in petty crimes and selling drugs. Soon Malcolm himself developed a drug habit (cocaine) and his criminal behavior escalated.

After several run-ins with the law, Malcolm was arrested in February 1946 for burglary and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was sent to the Charlestown State Prison in Boston.

Prison Time

In late 1948, Malcolm was transferred to the Norfolk, Massachusetts, Prison Colony. It was while Malcolm was in Norfolk that his brother, Reginald, introduced him to the Nation of Islam (NOI).

Originally founded in 1930 by Wallace D. Fard, the Nation of Islam was a black Muslim organization that believed blacks were inherently superior to whites and predicted the destruction of the white race. After Fard mysteriously disappeared in 1934, Elijah Muhammad took over the organization, calling himself the “Messenger of Allah.”

Malcolm believed in what his brother Reginald told him. Through personal visits and many letters from Malcolm’s siblings, Malcolm began to learn more about the NOI. Using Norfolk Prison Colony’s extensive library, Malcolm rediscovered education and began reading extensively. With his ever increasing knowledge, Malcolm began writing to Elijah Muhammad daily.

By 1949, Malcolm had converted to the NOI, which required purity of body, eliminating Malcolm's drug habit. In 1952, Malcolm emerged from prison a devoted follower of the NOI and a proficient writer -- two essential factors in changing his life.

Becoming an Activist

Once out of prison, Malcolm moved to Detroit and began recruiting for the NOI. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the NOI, became Malcolm's mentor and hero, filling the void Earl's death had left.

In 1953, Malcolm adopted the NOI’s tradition of replacing one’s last name (which was thought to have been forced upon an ancestor by their white slave-owner) with the letter X, a reference to the unknown heritage complicating African-American identity.

Charismatic and passionate, Malcolm X rose quickly in the NOI, becoming the minister of NOI’s Temple Seven in Harlem in June 1954. Malcolm X simultaneously was becoming an accomplished journalist; he wrote for several publications before he founded the NOI's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks.

While working as the minister of Temple Seven, Malcolm X noticed that a young nurse named Betty Sanders had started attending his lectures. Without ever having gone on an individual date, Malcolm and Betty got married on January 14, 1958. The couple went on to have six daughters; the last two were twins who were born after Malcolm X’s assassination.

America Encounters Malcolm X

Malcolm X soon became a visible figure in the NOI, but it was the wonder of television that brought him national attention. When CBS aired the documentary "Nation of Islam: The Hate That Hate Produced," in July of 1959, Malcolm X's dynamic speech and obvious charm reached a national audience. His radical claims of black superiority and refusal to accept non-violent strategies got him interviews across the social spectrum. Malcolm X had become a national figure and the de facto face of the NOI.

While Malcolm X became well known, he was not necessarily liked. His views unsettled much of America. Many in the white community feared that Malcolm X's doctrine would incite mass violence against whites. Many in the black community were concerned that Malcolm X’s militancy would destroy the growing effectiveness of the non-violent, mainstream Civil Rights Movement.

Malcolm X’s new found fame also attracted the attention of the FBI, which soon began tapping his phone, concerned that some kind of racially based revolution was brewing. Malcolm X's meetings with Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro did little to alleviate these fears.

Trouble Within the NOI

By 1961, Malcolm X's meteoric rise within the organization as well as his new celebrity status had become a problem within the NOI. Simply stated, other ministers and members of the NOI had become jealous. Many began insinuating that Malcolm X was financially profiting from his position and that he intended to take over the NOI, replacing Muhammad. This jealousy and envy bothered Malcolm X but he tried to put it out of his mind.

Then, in 1962, rumors about improprieties by Elijah Muhammad began to reach Malcolm X. To Malcolm X, Muhammad was not only a spiritual leader but also a moral example for all to follow. It was this moral example that had helped Malcolm X escape his drug addiction and keep him abstinent for 12 years (from the time of his prison sentence to his marriage). Thus, when it became obvious that Muhammad had engaged in immoral behavior, including fathering four illegitimate children, Malcolm X was devastated by his mentor's deception.

It Gets Worse

After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Malcolm X, never one to shy away from conflict, publicly interpreted the event as "the chickens coming home to roost."

While Malcolm X claimed that he meant that the feelings of hate within America were so great that they had spilled over from the conflict between black and white and ended up causing the killing of the President. However, his comments were interpreted as support for the death of a beloved President.

Muhammad, who had specifically ordered all his ministers to remain silent regarding Kennedy’s assassination, was very unhappy over the negative publicity. As punishment, Muhammad ordered Malcolm X to be “silenced” for 90 days. Malcolm X accepted this punishment, but he soon discovered that Muhammad intended to push him out of the NOI.

In March 1964, the internal and external pressure became too much and Malcolm X announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam, an organization he had worked so hard to grow.

Returning to Islam

After leaving the NOI in 1964, Malcolm decided to found his own religious organization, Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI), which catered to former NOI members.

Malcolm X turned to traditional Islam to inform his path. In April 1964, he began a pilgrimage (or hajj) to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. While in the Middle East, Malcolm X was amazed by the diversity of complexions represented there. Even before returning home, he began to rethink his earlier divisive positions and decided to prioritize faith over skin color. Malcolm X symbolized this shift by changing his name once again, becoming El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Malcolm X then toured Africa, where the early influence of Marcus Garvey reemerged. In May 1964, Malcolm X began his own pan-African movement with the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular organization that advocated for human rights for all those of African descent. As head of the OAAU, Malcolm X met with world leaders to forward this mission, generating a far more diverse following than the NOI. Whereas once he had shunned all of white society, he now encouraged interested whites to teach about oppression.

Running both the MMI and the OAAU exhausted Malcolm, but both spoke to passions that defined him -- faith and advocacy.

Malcolm X Is Assassinated

Malcolm X's philosophies had changed dramatically, bringing him more in line with the mainstream Civil Rights movement. However, he still had enemies. Many in the NOI felt that he had betrayed the movement when he publicly discussed Muhammad's adultery.

On February 14, 1965, Malcolm X's New York home was firebombed. He believed the NOI was responsible. Still ever defiant, Malcolm X did not let this attack interrupt his schedule. He traveled to Selma, Alabama and returned to New York for a speaking engagement at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965.

This was Malcolm X's last speech. Once Malcolm was up at the podium, a smoke bomb exploded. While that was being put out, Talmadge Hayer and two other NOI members (Thomas 15X Johnson and Norman 3X Butler) stood up and shot Malcolm X. Fifteen bullets hit their target, killing Malcolm X. He was dead before he reached the hospital.

The chaos that broke out at the scene spilled into the streets of Harlem as mob violence and the firebombing of a Black Muslim mosque followed. Malcolm's critics, including Elijah Muhammad, maintained that he died by the very violence he defended in his early career.

Talmadge Hayer was arrested at the scene and his two accomplices shortly after. All three would be convicted of the murder; however, questions about who ordered the assassination and if there were others involved still remain.

The Last Word

In the month prior to his death, Malcolm X had been dictating his biography to noted African-American author, Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965, just months after Malcolm X's murder.

Through his autobiography, Malcolm X’s powerful voice continued to inspire the black community to advocate for their rights. The Black Panthers, for example, used Malcolm X’s teachings to found their own organization in 1966.

Today, Malcolm X remains one of the more controversial figures of the Civil Rights era. He is generally respected for his passionate demand for change in one of history's most trying (and deadly) times for black leaders.

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