Malcolm X (pronounced /ˈmælkəm ˈɛks/) (born Malcolm Little; May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965), also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Arabic: الحاجّ مالك الشباز), 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, black supremacy, antisemitism, 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 thirteen, his father had died and his mother had been committed to a mental hospital. His childhood, including his father’s lessons concerning black pride and self-reliance and his own experiences concerning race, played a significant role in Malcolm X’s adult life. After living in a series of foster homes, Malcolm X became involved in hustling and other criminal activities in Boston and New York. In 1946, 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 Malcolm X’s departure from the organization in March 1964.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X became a Sunni Muslim and made a pilgrimage to Mecca, after which he disavowed racism. 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 on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, to Earl and Louise Little (née Louisa Norton). His father was an outspoken Baptist lay speaker; he supported Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey and was a local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Malcolm never forgot the values of black pride and self-reliance that his father and other UNIA leaders preached. Malcolm X later said that three of Earl Little’s brothers, one of whom was lynched, died violently at the hands of white men. Because of Ku Klux Klan threats, the family relocated in 1926 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and shortly thereafter to Lansing, Michigan.
Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Earl Little, the father of Malcolm X, was a local leader of the UNIA.
Earl Little was dark-skinned and born in Georgia. Earl’s second wife was Louise, with whom he had seven children, of whom Malcolm was the fourth. Earl and Louise Little’s children’s names were, in order: Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, Malcolm, Reginald, Yvonne, and Wesley. He had three children (Ella, Mary, and Earl, Jr.) from his first marriage.
Louise Little had been born in Grenada. Because her father was Scottish, she was so light-skinned that she could have passed for white. Malcolm inherited his light complexion from his mother and maternal grandfather. Initially he felt his light skin was a status symbol, but he later said he “hated every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me.” Malcolm X later remembered feeling that his father favored him because he was the lightest-skinned child in the family; however, he thought his mother treated him harshly for the same reason. One of Malcolm’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 age four, “reddish-blonde hair”. His hair darkened as he aged, yet he also resembled his paternal grandmother, whose hair “turned reddish in the summer sun.” The issue of skin color and skin tone took on very significant implications later in Malcolm’s life.
In December 1924, Louise Little was threatened by Klansmen while she was pregnant with Malcolm. She recalled that the Klansmen warned the family to leave Omaha, because Earl Little’s activities with UNIA were “spreading trouble”.
After they moved to Lansing, their house was burned in 1929, however the family escaped without physical injury. On September 28, 1931, Earl Little was fatally struck by a streetcar in Lansing. Authorities ruled his death an accident. The police reported that Earl Little was conscious when they arrived on the scene, and he told them he had slipped and fallen under the streetcar’s wheels. Malcolm X later remembered that the black community disputed the cause of death, believing there was circumstantial evidence of assault. His family had frequently been harassed by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group that his father accused of burning down their home in 1929. Some blacks believed the Black Legion was responsible for Earl Little’s death. As Malcolm later wrote, “How could my father bash himself in the head, then get down across the streetcar tracks to be run over?”
Though Earl Little had two life insurance policies, his family received death benefits solely from the smaller policy. The insurance company of the larger policy claimed that his father had committed suicide and refused to issue the benefit. Several years after her husband’s death, Louise had her youngest son, Robert Little, by an unnamed partner. In December 1938 Louise Little had a nervous breakdown and was declared legally insane. The Little siblings were split up and sent to different foster homes. The state formally committed Louise Little to the state mental hospital at Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she remained until Malcolm and his siblings secured her release 26 years later.
Malcolm Little was one of the best students in his junior high school, but he dropped out after a white eighth-grade teacher told him that his aspirations of being a lawyer were “no realistic goal for a nigger.” Years later, Malcolm X would laugh about the incident, but at the time it was humiliating. It made him feel that there was no place in the white world for a career-oriented black man, no matter how smart he was. After living with a series of white foster parents, Malcolm moved to Boston in February 1941 to live with his older half-sister, Ella Little Collins.
Collins lived in Roxbury, a predominantly African-American middle-class neighborhood of Boston. It was the first time Little had seen so many black people. He was drawn to the cultural and social life of the neighborhood.
In Boston, Little held a variety of jobs and found intermittent employment with the New Haven Railroad. Between 1943 and 1946, he 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. According to biographer Bruce Perry, Little occasionally engaged in sex with other men, usually though not always for money. In a Michigan boarding house, he raised rent money by sleeping with a gay transvestite. Later, in New York, Little and some friends raised funds by being fellated by men at the YMCA where he lived. In Boston a man paid Little to undress him, sprinkle him with talcum powder, and bring him to orgasm. Perry notes that Little’s motives appear to have been financial, but he could have earned money in other ways.
In 1943, the U.S. draft board ordered Little to register for military service. He later recalled 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.” Military physicians classified him as “mentally disqualified for military service”. He was issued a 4-F card, relieving him of his service obligations.
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 while trying to pick up a stolen watch he had left for repairs at a jewelry shop. The shop owner 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, and eventually 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” for his hostility toward religion. Little met a self-educated man in prison named John Elton Bembry (referred to as “Bimbi” in The Autobiography of Malcolm X). Bembry was a well-regarded prisoner at Charlestown, and Malcolm X would later describe him as “the first man I had ever seen command total respect … with words.” Gradually, the two men became friends and Bembry convinced Little to educate himself. Little developed a voracious appetite for reading, and he frequently read after the prison lights had been turned off.
In 1948, Little’s brother Philbert wrote, telling him about the Nation of Islam. Like the UNIA, the Nation preached black self-reliance and, ultimately, the unification of members of the African diaspora, free from white American and European domination. 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.” Little quit smoking, and the next time pork was served in the prison dining hall, he refused to eat it.
When Reginald came to visit Little, he described the group’s teachings, including the belief that white people are devils. Afterward, Little thought about all the white people he had known, and he realized that he’d never had a relationship with a white person or social institution that wasn’t based on dishonesty, injustice, greed, and hatred. Little began to reconsider his dismissal of all religion and he became receptive to the message of the Nation of Islam. Other family members who had joined the Nation wrote or visited and encouraged Little to join.
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. In late 1948, he wrote a letter to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad advised him to atone for his crimes by renouncing his past and by humbly bowing in prayer to Allah and promising never to engage in destructive behavior again. Little, who always had been rebellious and deeply skeptical, found it very difficult to bow in prayer. It took him a week to bend his knees. Finally he prayed, and he became a member of the Nation of Islam. For the remainder of his incarceration, Little maintained regular correspondence with Muhammad.
On August 7, 1952, Little was paroled and was released from prison. He later reflected on the time he spent in prison after his conversion: “Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.”
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”. In his autobiography, Malcolm X explained the “X”: “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 from an informant that Malcolm X described himself as a Communist. Soon the FBI turned its attention from concerns about possible Communist Party association to Malcolm X’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.
Beside his skill as an speaker, Malcolm X had an impressive physical presence. He stood 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 m) tall and weighed about 180 pounds (82 kg). According to one writer, Malcolm X was “powerfully built”, and another described him as a “mesmerizingly handsome … and always spotlessly well-groomed”.
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 taught that black people were the original people of the world, and that white people were a race of devils. In his speeches, Malcolm X said that black people were superior to white people, and that the demise of the white race was imminent.
While the civil rights movement fought against racial segregation, Malcolm X advocated the complete separation of African Americans from white people. He proposed the establishment of a separate country for black people 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.
Malcolm X’s speeches had a powerful effect on his audiences, generally African Americans who lived in the Northern and Western cities who were tired of being told to wait for freedom, justice, equality, and respect. Many blacks felt that he articulated their complaints better than the civil rights movement did.
Many white people, and some blacks, were alarmed by Malcolm X and the things he said. He and the Nation of Islam were described as hatemongers, black segregationists, violence-seekers, and a threat to improved race relations. Civil rights organizations denounced Malcolm X and the Nation as irresponsible extremists whose views were not representative of African Americans.
Malcolm X was equally critical of the civil rights movement. He described its leaders as “stooges” for the white establishment and said that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a “chump”. He 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”.
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 became a Sunni Muslim, as did Malcolm X.
On January 14, 1958, Malcolm X married Betty X (née Sanders) in Lansing, Michigan. The two had been friends for about a year and—although they had never discussed the subject—Betty X suspected that he was interested in marriage. 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.
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. At the end of their two-hour meeting, Castro invited Malcolm X to visit him in Cuba. 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.
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.” The New York Times wrote, “in further criticism of Mr. Kennedy, the Muslim leader cited the murders of Patrice Lumumba, Congo leader, of Medgar Evers, civil rights leader, and of the Negro girls bombed earlier this year in a Birmingham church. These, he said, were instances of other ‘chickens coming 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.
One reason for the separation was growing tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad because of Malcolm X’s 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 Wallace 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 resentment by people within the Nation. As Malcolm X had become a favorite of the media, 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 envious 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 (hajj).
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 for about 20 hours.
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. Malcolm X said the trip allowed him to see Muslims of different races interacting as equals. He came to believe that Islam could be the means by which racial problems could be overcome.
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 was 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.
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.”
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 him 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 at 3:30 p.m., 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. All three were charged in the case. At first Hayer denied involvement, but during the trial he confessed to having fired shots at Malcolm X. 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. 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.
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.