Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little; May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965), also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was an African American Muslim minister, public speaker, and human rights activist. To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of African Americans, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans. His detractors accused him of preaching racism and violence. He has been described as one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history.Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska. By the time he was 13, his father had died and his mother had been committed to a mental hospital. After living in a series of foster homes, Malcolm X became involved in the criminal underworld in Boston and New York. In 1945, Malcolm X was sentenced to eight to ten years in prison.
While in prison, Malcolm X became a member of the Nation of Islam. After his parole in 1952, he became one of the Nation’s leaders and chief spokesmen. For nearly a dozen years, he was the public face of the Nation of Islam. Tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam, led to his departure from the organization in March 1964.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X made the pilgrimage, the Hajj, to Mecca and became a Sunni Muslim. He traveled extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East. He founded Muslim Mosque, Inc., a religious organization, and the secular, black nationalist Organization of Afro-American Unity. Less than a year after he left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was assassinated while giving a speech in New York.
Malcolm Little was born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Earl and Louise Little (née Louisa Norton). His father was an outspoken Baptist lay speaker; he supported Marcus Garvey and was a local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Three of Earl Little’s brothers, one of whom was lynched, died violently at the hands of white men.
Earl Little had three children (Ella, Mary, and Earl, Jr.) by a previous marriage before he married Malcolm’s mother. From his second marriage he had seven children, of whom Malcolm was the fourth. Earl and Louise Little’s children’s names were, in order, Wilfred (who was born in Pennsylvania); Hilda, Philbert and Malcolm (who were born in Nebraska); Reginald (who was born in Wisconsin); and Yvonne and Wesley (who were born in Michigan). Several years after her husband’s death, Louise had her youngest son, Robert Little, by an unnamed partner.
Louise Little had been born in Grenada, and Malcolm said she looked like a white woman. Her Scottish father was a white man of whom Malcolm Little knew nothing except what he described as his mother’s shame. Malcolm inherited his light complexion from his mother and grandfather. Initially he felt it was a status symbol to be light-skinned, but later he would say that he “hated every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me.” As Malcolm Little was the lightest child in the family, he felt that his father favored him; however, he thought his mother treated him harshly for the same reason. One of Little’s nicknames, “Red”, derived from the tinge of his hair. According to one biographer, at birth he had “ash-blonde hair … tinged with cinnamon”, and at four “reddish-blonde hair”. His hair darkened as he aged but he also resembled his paternal grandmother, whose hair “turned reddish in the summer sun”.
In his autobiography, Little said his mother had been threatened by Ku Klux Klansmen while she was pregnant with him. His mother recalled the Klansmen warned the family to leave Omaha, because Earl Little’s activities with UNIA were “stirring up trouble”.
The family relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926, and to Lansing, Michigan, shortly thereafter. In 1931, Earl Little was run over by a streetcar in Lansing. Authorities ruled his death an accident. The police reported that Earl Little had been conscious when they arrived on the scene, and he told them he had slipped and fallen under the streetcar’s wheels. In his autobiography, Malcolm X said that the black community disputed the cause of death; his family had frequently found themselves the target of harassment by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group which his father accused of burning down their home in 1929. Some blacks believed the Black Legion had killed Earl Little. They doubted that he could “bash himself in the head, then get down across the streetcar tracks to be run over.”
Though Little’s father had two life insurance policies, his mother received death benefits solely from the smaller policy. Little wrote that the insurance company of the larger policy claimed that his father had committed suicide and refused to issue the benefit. Louise Little had a nervous breakdown and was declared legally insane in December 1938. The Little siblings were split up and sent to different foster homes. Louise Little was formally committed to the state mental hospital at Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she remained until Little and his siblings secured her release 26 years later.
Little was one of the best students in his junior high school, but he dropped out after an eighth-grade teacher told him that his aspirations of being a lawyer were “no realistic goal for a nigger”. After enduring a series of foster homes, Little moved to Boston, Massachusetts, to live with his older half-sister, Ella Little Collins, in February 1941.
Young adult years
In Boston Little held a variety of jobs and intermittently found employment with the New Haven Railroad. For a while, he worked as a shoeshiner at a Lindy Hop nightclub. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he said that he once shined the shoes of Duke Ellington and other notable African-American musicians. Between 1943 and 1946, when he was arrested and jailed in Massachusetts, Little drifted from city to city and job to job. He left Boston to live for a short time in Flint, Michigan. He moved to New York City in 1943. Living in Harlem, he became involved in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and steering prostitutes. During this time, his friends and acquaintances called him “Detroit Red”.
When Little was examined in 1943 for the draft, military physicians classified him as “mentally disqualified for military service”. He explained in his autobiography that he put on a display to avoid the draft by telling the examining officer that he could not wait to “steal us some guns, and kill us [some] crackers.” His approach worked; his classification ensured he would not be drafted.
In late 1945, Little returned to Boston. With a group of associates, he began a series of elaborate burglaries targeting the residences of wealthy white families. On January 12, 1946, Little was arrested for burglary trying to pick up a stolen watch he had left for repairs at a jewelry shop. The shop owner had called the police because the watch seemed too expensive for the average Roxbury resident. Little told the police that he had a gun on his person and surrendered so the police would treat him more leniently. Two days later, Little was indicted for carrying firearms. On January 16, he was charged with larceny and breaking and entering. Little was sentenced to eight to ten years in Massachusetts State Prison.
On February 27, Little began serving his sentence at the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown. While in prison, Little earned the nickname of “Satan” because of his hostility toward religion. In prison, Little met a self-educated man named John Elton Bembry (referred to as “Bimbi” in The Autobiography of Malcolm X), who convinced him to educate himself. Little developed a voracious appetite for reading, much of it after the prison lights had been turned off.
In 1948, Little’s brother Philbert wrote, telling him about the Nation of Islam. Little was not interested in joining until his brother Reginald wrote, saying, “Malcolm, don’t eat any more pork and don’t smoke any more cigarettes. I’ll show you how to get out of prison.” For the remainder of his incarceration, Little maintained regular correspondence with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Black Muslims.
In February 1948, mostly through his sister’s efforts, Little was transferred to an experimental prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts, a facility that had a much larger library. He later reflected on his time in prison: “Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.” On August 7, 1952, Little received parole and was released from prison.
Nation of Islam
|Part of a series on
Nation of Islam
Wallace Fard Muhammad · Elijah Muhammad · Malcolm X · Warith Deen Mohammed · Louis Farrakhan
History and beliefs
Savior’s Day · Nation of Islam and antisemitism · Yakub · Million Man March
The Final Call · How to Eat to Live · Message to the Blackman in America · Muhammad Speaks
Subsidiaries and offshoots
Fruit of Islam · The Nation of Gods and Earths · New Black Panther Party · United Nation of Islam · Your Black Muslim Bakery
- Further information: Nation of Islam
In 1952, after his release from prison, Little visited Elijah Muhammad in Chicago, Illinois. Then, like many members of the Nation of Islam, he changed his surname to “X”. He explained the name by saying, “The Muslim’s ‘X’ symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”
The FBI opened a file on Malcolm X in March 1953 after hearing that he had described himself as a Communist. Soon the FBI turned its attention from concerns about possible Communist Party association to Malcolm’s rapid ascent in the Nation of Islam.
In June 1953, Malcolm X was named assistant minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number One in Detroit. By late 1953, he established Boston’s Temple Number Eleven. In March 1954, Malcolm X expanded Temple Number Twelve in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two months later he was selected to lead the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number Seven in Harlem. He rapidly expanded its membership. After a 1959 television broadcast in New York City about the Nation of Islam, The Hate that Hate Produced, Malcolm X became known to a much wider audience. Representatives of the print media, radio, and television frequently asked him for comments on issues. He was also sought as a spokesman by reporters from other countries.
Malcolm X criticized the 1963 March on Washington, which he called “the farce on Washington”. He said he did not know why black people were excited over 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.”
From his adoption of the Nation of Islam in 1952 until he left the organization in 1964, Malcolm X promoted the Nation’s teachings. He referred to whites as “devils” created in a misguided program by a black scientist, and predicted the inevitable and imminent return of blacks to their natural place at the top of the social order.
Malcolm X has been widely considered the second most influential leader of the movement after Elijah Muhammad. He was largely credited with increasing membership in the Nation of Islam from 500 in 1952 to 25,000 in 1963. He inspired the boxer Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) to join the Nation of Islam. Ali later left the Nation of Islam and joined mainstream Islam, as did Malcolm X.
Marriage and family
In 1958, Malcolm X married Betty X (née Sanders) in Lansing, Michigan. The two had been friends for about a year, although Betty X suspected that he was interested in marriage. Then one day he called and asked her to marry him.
The couple had six daughters. Their names were Attallah, born in 1958 and named after Attila the Hun; Qubilah, born in 1960 and named after Kublai Khan; Ilyasah, born in 1962 and named after Elijah Muhammad; Gamilah Lumumba, born in 1964 and named after Patrice Lumumba; and twins, Malaak and Malikah, born in 1965 after their father’s assassination and named for him.
Meeting Castro and other world leaders
In September 1960, Fidel Castro arrived in New York to attend the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. He and his entourage stayed at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. Malcolm X was a prominent member of a Harlem-based welcoming committee made up of community leaders who met with Castro. Castro was so impressed by Malcolm X that he requested a private meeting with him. During the General Assembly meeting, Malcolm X was also invited to many official embassy functions sponsored by African nations, where he met heads of state and other leaders, including Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea, and Kenneth Kaunda of the Zambian African National Congress.
Leaving the Nation of Islam
In early 1963, Malcolm X started collaborating with Alex Haley on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book was not finished when he was assassinated in 1965. Haley completed it and published it later that year.
On December 1, 1963, when he was asked for a comment about the assassination of President Kennedy, Malcolm X said 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.” He described the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, as some of the chickens that had come home to roost.
The remarks prompted a widespread public outcry. The Nation of Islam, which had issued a message of condolence to the Kennedy family and ordered its ministers not to comment on the assassination, publicly censured their former shining star. Although Malcolm X retained his post and rank as minister, he was prohibited from public speaking for 90 days.
On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X publicly announced his break from the Nation of Islam. He said that he was still a Muslim, but he felt the Nation of Islam had “gone as far as it can” because of its rigid religious teachings. Malcolm X said he was going to organize a black nationalist organization that would try to “heighten the political consciousness” of African Americans. He also expressed his desire to work with other civil rights leaders and said that Elijah Muhammad had prevented him from doing so in the past.
Writing in his Autobiography, Malcolm X said that one reason for the separation was growing tension between him and Elijah Muhammad because of his dismay about rumors of Muhammad’s extramarital affairs with young secretaries. Such actions were against the teachings of the Nation. Although at first Malcolm X ignored the rumors, he spoke with Muhammad’s son and the women making the accusations. He came to believe that they were true, and Muhammad confirmed the rumors in 1963. Muhammad tried to justify his actions by referring to precedents by Biblical prophets.
Another reason was jealousy. Malcolm X had become a favorite of the media, and many in the Nation’s Chicago headquarters felt that he was over-shadowing Muhammad. Louis Lomax’s 1963 book about the Nation of Islam, When the Word Is Given, featured a picture of Malcolm X on its cover and included five of his speeches, but only one of Muhammad’s, which greatly upset Muhammad. Muhammad was also jealous that a publisher was interested in Malcolm X’s autobiography.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X founded Muslim Mosque, Inc., a religious organization, and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a secular group that advocated black nationalism. On March 26, 1964, he met Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C., after a press conference which followed both men attending the Senate to hear the debate on the Civil Rights bill. This was the only time the two men ever met; their meeting lasted only one minute, just long enough for photographers to take a picture.
In April, Malcolm X made a speech titled “The Ballot or the Bullet” in which he advised African-Americans to exercise their right to vote wisely. Several Sunni Muslims encouraged Malcolm X to learn about Islam. Soon he converted to Sunni Islam, and decided to make his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Pilgrimage to Mecca
On April 13, 1964, Malcolm X departed JFK Airport in New York for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. His status as an authentic Muslim was questioned by Saudi authorities because of his United States passport and his inability to speak Arabic. Since only confessing Muslims are allowed into Mecca, he was separated from his group. He spent about 20 hours wearing the ihram, a traditional two-piece garment comprising two white unhemmed sheets.
According to his Autobiography, Malcolm X saw a telephone and remembered the book The Eternal Message of Muhammad by Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam, which had been presented to him with his visa approval. He called Azzam’s son, who arranged for his release. At the younger Azzam’s home, he met Azzam Pasha, who gave Malcolm his suite at the Jeddah Palace Hotel. The next morning, Muhammad Faisal, the son of Prince Faisal, visited and informed Malcolm X that he was to be a state guest. The deputy chief of protocol accompanied Malcolm X to the Hajj Court, where he was allowed to make his pilgrimage.
On April 19, Malcolm X completed the Hajj, making the seven circuits around the Kaaba, drinking from the Zamzam Well and running between the hills of Safah and Marwah seven times. According to Malcolm X’s Autobiography, this trip allowed him to see Muslims of different races interacting as equals. He came to believe that Islam could transcend racial problems.
|Ahmed Sékou Touré|
|W. E. B. Du Bois|
|C. L. R. James|
|Cheikh Anta Diop|
Malcolm X visited Africa on three separate occasions, once in 1959 and twice in 1964. During his visits, he met officials, gave interviews to newspapers, and spoke on television and radio in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sudan, Senegal, Liberia, Algeria, and Morocco. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt ,and Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria invited Malcolm X to serve in their governments.
In 1959, Malcolm X traveled to Egypt (then known as the United Arab Republic), Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana to arrange a tour for Elijah Muhammad. The first of the two trips Malcolm X made to Africa in 1964 lasted from April 13 until May 21, before and after his Hajj. On May 8, following his speech at the University of Ibadan, Malcolm X was made an honorary member of the Nigerian Muslim Students’ Association. During this reception the students bestowed upon him the name “Omowale”, which means “the son who has come home” in the Yoruba language. Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography that he “had never received a more treasured honor.”
On July 9, 1964, Malcolm X returned to Africa. On July 17, he was welcomed to the second meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Cairo as a representative of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. By the time he returned to the United States on November 24, 1964, Malcolm had met with every prominent African leader and established an international connection between Africans on the continent and those in the diaspora.
France and the United Kingdom
On November 23, 1964, on his way home from Africa, Malcolm X stopped in Paris, where he spoke at the Salle de la Mutualité. A week later, on November 30, Malcolm X flew to the United Kingdom, where he participated in a debate at the Oxford Union on December 3. The topic of the debate was “Extremism in the Defense of Liberty is No Vice; Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is No Virtue”, and Malcolm X argued the affirmative. Interest in the debate was so high that it was televised nationally by the BBC.
On February 5, 1965, Malcolm X went to Europe again. On February 8, he spoke in London, before the first meeting of the Council of African Organizations. Malcolm X tried to go to France on February 9 but he was refused entry. On February 12, he visited Smethwick, near Birmingham, which had become a byword for racial division after the 1964 general election, when the Conservative Party won the parliamentary seat after rumors that their candidates supporters had used the slogan “If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour.”
In the United States
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X spoke before a wide variety of audiences in the United States. He spoke at regular meetings of Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was one of the most sought-after speakers on college campuses, and one of his top aides later wrote that he “welcomed every opportunity to speak to college students.” Malcolm X also spoke before political groups such as the Militant Labor Forum.
Tensions increased between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. As early as February 1964, a member of Temple Number Seven had been given orders by the Nation of Islam to wire explosives to Malcolm X’s car. On March 20, 1964, Life published a photograph of Malcolm X holding an M1 Carbine and peering out a window. The photo was intended to illustrate his determination to defend himself and his family against the death threats he was receiving.
The Nation of Islam and its leaders began making threats against Malcolm X both in private and in public. On March 23, 1964, Elijah 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 in which his severed head was shown bouncing. On July 9, John Ali, a top aide to Muhammad, answered a question about Malcolm X by saying that “anyone who opposes the Honorable Elijah Muhammad puts their life in jeopardy.” The December 4 issue of Muhammad Speaks included an article by Louis X that railed against Malcolm X and said that “such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.”
Some threats were made anonymously. During the month of June 1964, FBI surveillance recorded two such threats. On June 8, a man called Malcolm X’s home and told Betty Shabazz to “tell him he’s as good as dead.” On June 12, an FBI informant reported getting an anonymous telephone call from somebody who said “Malcolm X is going to be bumped off.”
In June 1964, the Nation of Islam sued to reclaim Malcolm X’s residence in Queens, New York, which they claimed to own. The suit was successful, and Malcolm X was ordered to vacate. On February 14, 1965, the night before a scheduled hearing to postpone the eviction date, the house burned to the ground. Malcolm X and his family survived. No one was charged with any crime.
On February 21, 1965, in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X began to speak to a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity when a disturbance broke out in the crowd of 400. A man yelled, “Nigger! Get your hand outta my pocket!” As Malcolm X and his bodyguards moved to quiet the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot Malcolm X in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men charged the stage and fired handguns, hitting him 16 times. Angry onlookers caught and beat one of the assassins as the others fled the ballroom Malcolm X was pronounced dead shortly after he arrived at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
Talmadge Hayer, a Black Muslim also known as Thomas Hagan, was arrested on the scene. Eyewitnesses identified two more suspects, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, also members of the Nation of Islam. The city charged all three men in the case. At first Hayer denied involvement, but during the trial he confessed to having fired shots into Malcolm X’s body. He testified that Butler and Johnson were not present and were not involved in the assassination, but he declined to name the men who had joined him in the shooting. Nonetheless, all three men were convicted.
Butler, now known as Muhammad Abdul Aziz, was paroled in 1985. He became the head of the Nation of Islam’s Harlem mosque in New York in 1998. He continues to maintain his innocence. Johnson, now known as Khalil Islam, was released from prison in 1987. During his time in prison, he rejected the teachings of the Nation of Islam and converted to Sunni Islam. He, too, maintains his innocence. Hayer, now known as Mujahid Halim, was paroled in 1993.
The number of mourners who came to the public viewing in Harlem’s Unity Funeral Home from February 23 through February 26 was estimated to be between 14,000 and 30,000. The funeral of Malcolm X was held on February 27 at the Faith Temple, Church of God in Christ, in Harlem. The Church was filled to capacity with more than 1,000 people. Loudspeakers were set up outside the Temple so the overflow crowd could listen[ and a local television station broadcast the funeral live.
Among the civil rights leaders in attendance were John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, James Forman, James Farmer, Jesse Gray, and Andrew Young. Actor and activist Ossie Davis delivered the eulogy, describing Malcolm X as "our shining black prince".
There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile. Many will say turn away—away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man—and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate—a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.
Malcolm X was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. At the gravesite after the ceremony, friends took the shovels away from the waiting gravediggers and completed the burial themselves. Actor and activist Ruby Dee (wife of Ossie Davis) and Juanita Poitier (wife of Sidney Poitier) established the Committee of Concerned Mothers to raise funds to buy a house and pay educational expenses for Malcolm X’s family.
Responses to assassination
Reactions to Malcolm X’s assassination were varied. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to Betty Shabazz, expressing his sadness over “the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband.”
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 the 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 we face as a race.
Elijah Muhammad told the annual Savior’s Day convention on February 26, “Malcolm X got just what he preached.”
The New York Times wrote that Malcolm X was “an extraordinary and twisted man” who had “turn[ed] many true gifts to evil purpose” and that his life was “strangely and pitifully wasted”. The New York Post wrote that “even his sharpest critics recognized his brilliance—often wild, unpredictable and eccentric, but nevertheless possessing promise that must now remain unrealized.”
The international press, particularly that of Africa, was sympathetic. The Daily Times of Nigeria wrote that Malcolm X “will have a place in the palace of martyrs.” The Ghanaian Times likened him to John Brown and Patrice Lumumba among “a host of Africans and Americans who were martyred in freedom’s cause”.
Guangming Daily, published in Beijing, stated that “Malcolm was murdered because he fought for freedom and equal rights.” In Cuba, El Mundo described the assassination as “another racist crime to eradicate by violence the struggle against discrimination”.
Allegations of conspiracy
Within days of the assassination, questions were raised about who bore ultimate responsibility. On February 23, James Farmer, the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, announced at a news conference that local drug dealers, and not the Black Muslims, were to blame. Others accused the New York Police Department, the FBI, or the CIA, citing the lack of police protection and the ease with which the assassins had entered the Audubon Ballroom.
In the 1970s, the public learned about COINTELPRO and other secret FBI programs directed towards infiltrating and disrupting civil rights organizations during the 1950s and 1960s. John Ali, national secretary of the Nation of Islam, was identified as an FBI undercover agent. Malcolm X had confided in a reporter that Ali had exacerbated tensions between him and Elijah Muhammad. He considered Ali his “archenemy” within the Nation of Islam leadership. On February 20, 1965, the night before the assassination, Ali met with Talmadge Hayer, one of the men convicted of killing Malcolm X.
In 1977 and 1978, Talmadge Hayer submitted two sworn affidavits re-asserting his claim that Butler and Johnson were not involved in the assassination. In his affidavits Hayer named four men, all members of the Nation of Islam’s Newark Temple Number 25, as having participated with him in the crime. Hayer asserted that a man, later identified as Wilbur McKinley, shouted and threw a smoke bomb to create a diversion. Hayer said that another man, later identified as William Bradley, had a shotgun and was the first to fire on Malcolm X after the diversion. Hayer asserted that he and a man later identified as Leon David, both armed with pistols, fired on Malcolm X immediately after the shotgun blast. Hayer also said that a fifth man, later identified as Benjamin Thomas, was involved in the conspiracy. Hayer’s statements failed to convince authorities to reopen their investigation of the murder.
Some, including the Shabazz family, have accused Louis Farrakhan of being involved in the plot to assassinate Malcolm X. In a 1993 speech, Louis Farrakhan seemed to boast of the assassination:
Was Malcolm your traitor or ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours? A nation has to be able to deal with traitors and cutthroats and turncoats.
In a 60 Minutes interview that aired during May 2000, Farrakhan stated that some of the things he said may have led to the assassination of Malcolm X. “I may have been complicit in words that I spoke”, he said. “I acknowledge that and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being.” A few days later Farrakhan denied that he had “ordered the assassination” of Malcolm X, although he again acknowledged that he “created the atmosphere that ultimately led to Malcolm X’s assassination.” No consensus on who was responsible has been reached.
Except for his autobiography, Malcolm X left no writings. His philosophy is known almost entirely from the myriad speeches and interviews he gave between 1952 until his death in 1965. Many of those speeches, especially from the last year of his life, were recorded and have been published.
Beliefs of the Nation of Islam
- Further information: Beliefs and theology of the Nation of Islam
Before he left the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm X taught its beliefs in his speeches. His speeches were peppered with the phrase “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that …”. It is virtually impossible to discern whether Malcolm X’s beliefs diverged from the teachings of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X once compared himself to a ventriloquist’s dummy who could only say what Elijah Muhammad had told him.
Malcolm X taught that black people were the original people of the world, and that white people were a race of devils who were created by an evil scientist named Yakub. The Nation of Islam believed that black people were superior to white people, and that the demise of the white race was imminent.
When he was questioned concerning his statements that white people were devils, Malcolm X said that “history proves the white man is a devil.” He enumerated some of the historical reasons that, he felt, supported his argument: “Anybody who rapes, and plunders, and enslaves, and steals, and drops hell bombs on people… anybodyou does these things is nothing but a devil.”
Malcolm X said that Islam was the “true religion of black mankind” and that Christianity was “the white man’s religion” that had been imposed upon African Americans by their slave-masters. He said that the Nation of Islam followed Islam as it was practiced around the world, but the Nation’s teachings varied from those of other Muslims because they were adapted to the “uniquely pitiful” condition of black people in America. He taught that Wallace Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation, was Allah, and that Elijah Muhammad was his Messenger, or prophet.
While the civil rights movement fought against racial segregation, Malcolm X advocated the complete separation of African Americans from white people. The Nation of Islam proposed the establishment of a separate country for black people in the Southern United States as an interim measure until African Americans could return to Africa.Malcolm X also rejected the civil rights movement’s strategy of nonviolence and instead advocated that black people use any necessary means of self-defense to protect themselves.
After he left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X began to articulate his own views. During the final year of his life, his philosophy was flexible, and it is difficult to categorize his views on some subjects. Some of the themes to which Malcolm X frequently returned in his speeches demonstrate a relative consistency of thought.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X announced his willingness to work with leaders of the civil rights movement. However, he felt that the civil rights movement should change its focus to human rights. So long as the movement remained a fight for civil rights, its struggle remained a domestic issue. By framing the African American struggle for equal rights as a fight for human rights, it would become an international issue and the movement could bring its complaint before the United Nations. Malcolm X said the emerging nations of the world would add their support to the cause of African Americans.
Malcolm X continued to hold the view that African-Americans were right to defend themselves from aggressors, arguing that if the government was unwilling or unable to protect black people, they should protect themselves “by whatever means necessary”. He also continued to reject nonviolence as the only means for securing equality, declaring that he and the other members of the Organization of Afro-American Unity were determined to win freedom, justice, and equality “by any means necessary”.
Malcolm X stressed the global perspective he had gained from his international travels. He emphasized the “direct connection” between the domestic struggle of African Americans for equal rights with the liberation struggles of Third World nations. He said that African Americans were wrong when they thought of themselves as a minority; in a global context, black people were a majority, not a minority.
Although he no longer called for the separation of black people from white people, Malcolm X continued to advocate black nationalism, which he defined as self-determination for the African American community. In the last months of his life, however, Malcolm X began to reconsider his support of black nationalism after meeting northern African revolutionaries who, to all appearances, were white.
After his Hajj, Malcolm X articulated a view of white people and racism that represented a deep change from the philosophy he articulated as a minister of the Nation of Islam. In a famous letter from Mecca, he wrote that the white people he had met during his pilgrimage had forced him to “rearrange” his thinking about race and “toss aside some of [his] previous conclusions”.
In a 1965 conversation with Gordon Parks, two days before his assassination, Malcolm said:
[L]istening to leaders like Nasser, Ben Bella, and Nkrumah awakened me to the dangers of racism. I realized racism isn’t just a black and white problem. It’s brought bloodbaths to about every nation on earth at one time or another.
Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant—the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together—and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all [Black] Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.
That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I’m glad to be free of them.
Malcolm X has been described as one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history. He is credited with raising the self-esteem of black Americans and reconnecting them with their African heritage. He is responsible for the spread of Islam in the black community in the United States.
Many African Americans, especially those who lived in cities in the Northern United States, felt that Malcolm X articulated their complaints concerning inequality better than the mainstream civil rights movement did. One biographer says 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.”
In the late 1960s, as black activists became more radical, Malcolm X and his teachings were part of the foundation on which they built their movements. The Black Power movement, the Black Arts Movement, and the widespread adoption of the slogan “Black is beautiful” can all trace their roots to Malcolm X.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a resurgence of interest in Malcolm X among young people fueled, in part, by his use as an icon by hip hop groups such as Public Enemy. Images of Malcolm X could be found on T-shirts and jackets. This wave peaked in 1992 with the release of Malcolm X, a much-anticipated film adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Portrayals in film and on stage
The 1992 film Malcolm X was directed by Spike Lee and based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It starred Denzel Washington, with Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz and Al Freeman, Jr., as Elijah Muhammad. Critic Roger Ebert and director Martin Scorsese both named the film one of the ten best of the 1990s.
Washington had previously played the part of Malcolm X in the 1981 Off Broadway play When the Chickens Came Home to Roost. Other actors who have portrayed Malcolm X include:
- James Earl Jones, in the 1977 film The Greatest.
- Dick Anthony Williams, in the 1978 television miniseries King and the 1989 American Playhouse production of the Jeff Stetson play The Meeting.
- Al Freeman, Jr., in the 1979 television miniseries Roots: The Next Generations.
- Morgan Freeman, in the 1981 television movie Death of a Prophet.
- Ben Holt, in the 1986 opera X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X).
- Gary Dourdan, in the 2000 television movie King of the World.
- Joe Morton, in the 2000 television movie Ali: An American Hero.
- Mario Van Peebles, in the 2001 film Ali.
The Malcolm X House Site, at 3448 Pinkney Street in North Omaha, Nebraska, marks the place where Malcolm Little first lived with his family. The house where the Little family lived was torn down in 1965 by owners who did not know of its connection with Malcolm X. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and a historic marker identifies the site because of the importance of Malcolm X to American history and national culture. In 1987 the site was added to the Nebraska register of historic sites and marked with a state plaque.
There have been dozens of schools named after Malcolm X, including Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey, Malcolm Shabazz City High School in Madison, Wisconsin, and Malcolm X College in Chicago, Illinois.
Many cities have renamed streets after Malcolm X. In New York City, Lenox Avenue was renamed Malcolm X Boulevard in the late 1980s. The name of Reid Street in Brooklyn, New York, was changed to Malcolm X Boulevard in 1985. In 1997, Oakland Avenue in Dallas, Texas, was renamed Malcolm X Boulevard.
In 2005, Columbia University announced the opening of the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center. The memorial is located in the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated.