Malcolm X

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Malcolm X
Born May 19, 1925
Omaha, Nebraska, United States
Died February 21, 1965
Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States

Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, also known as Detroit Red and Al-Hajj Malik El- Shabazz ( Omaha, Nebraska, May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965 in New York City) was a Black Muslim Minister and National Spokesman for the Nation of Islam. He was also founder of the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

During his life, Malcolm went from being a drug dealer and burglar to one of the most prominent black nationalist leaders in the United States; he was considered by some as a martyr of Islam and a champion of equality. As a militant leader, Malcolm X advocated black pride, economic self-reliance, and identity politics. He ultimately rose to become a world-renowned African American/ Pan-Africanist and human rights activist.

Following a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, Malcolm converted to orthodox Islam. Less than a year later he was assassinated in Washington Heights on the first day of National Brotherhood Week. Although three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of his assassination (one of whom confessed), there are several conspiracy theories positing the involvement of elements of the United States Government.

Early years

Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska to Earl Little and Louise Little (née Norton). His father was an outspoken Baptist lay preacher and supporter of Marcus Garvey, as well as a member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Malcolm described his father as a big black man who had lost one eye. According to Malcolm, three of Earl Little's brothers died violently at the hands of white men, and one of his uncles had been lynched. It is also thought that Malcolm Little's family was affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In the autobiography, there are several references to associations with Seventh-day Adventists in Michigan and many of his lieutenants in the Nation of Islam were converts from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Malcolm X mentions that the Seventh-day Adventist were the only kind white people he recalled from his childhood, in his autobiography.

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 eight children, of whom Malcolm was the fourth. (Earl and Louise Little's children's names were, in order, Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, Malcolm, Reginald, Wesley, Yvonne, and Robert.)

Louise Little was born in Grenada and, according to Malcolm, she looked more like a white woman. Her father was a white man of whom Malcolm knew nothing except his mother's shame. Malcolm got his light complexion from him. 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 was the lightest child in the family, he felt that his father favored him; however, his mother gave him more hell for the same reason.

According to Malcolm X's autobiography, his mother had been threatened by Ku Klux Klansmen while she was pregnant with him in December of 1924; his mother recalled that the family was warned to leave Omaha, because his father's involvement with UNIA was, according to the Klansmen, "stirring up trouble".

After Malcolm was born, the family relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1926, and then to Lansing, Michigan shortly thereafter. In 1931, his father was found dead having been run over by a streetcar in Michigan. Authorities ruled his death suicide . This cause of death was disputed by the African American community at the time, and later by Malcolm himself, as Malcolm's family had frequently found themselves the target of harassment by the white-supremacist Black Legion, which had already culminated in the burning down of their home in 1929. Malcolm wondered how his father could bash himself in the head and then lay down across street tracks to get run over.

Though Malcolm’s father had two life insurance policies, his mother received death benefits solely from the smaller policy. The insurance company that had issued the larger policy claimed that Earl Little's death had been a suicide, and accordingly refused to pay. The financial and emotional stress of raising eight children on her own caused Louise Little to succumb to a mental breakdown, and she was declared legally insane in December 1938. Malcolm and his siblings were split up and sent to different foster homes. Louise Little was formally committed to the State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo, Michigan, and remained there until Malcolm and his brothers and sisters were able to get her released twenty-six years later.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X and local folklore hold that, following the death of his father, Little lived as a boy on Charles Street in downtown East Lansing. However, the 1930 U.S. Census (released in 2002) shows him living on a completely different Charles Street, in the low-income Urbandale neighbourhood in Lansing Township, between Lansing and East Lansing. Later, at the time he was in high school, he lived in Mason, an almost all-white small town twelve miles to the south.

Malcolm X graduated from junior high school at the top of his class, but dropped out soon after an admired teacher told him that his aspirations of being a lawyer were "no realistic goal for a nigger". After enduring a series of foster homes, Malcolm was first sent to a detention centre and then later moved to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella Little Collins.

Middle years

Malcolm found work as a shoe-shiner at a Lindy Hop nightclub; in his autobiography, he says that he once shined the shoes of Duke Ellington and other notable black musicians. He was also employed for a time by New Haven Railroad, a job he would retain when he relocated to New York City in 1943. After some time, in Harlem, he became involved in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, and robbery (all of which Malcolm collectively referred to as "hustling").

When Malcolm was examined for the World War II draft, military physicians classified him to be "mentally disqualified for military service." He explains in his autobiography that he put on a display to avoid the draft by telling the examining officer that he couldn't wait to organize with other black soldiers and get his hands on a gun so he could "kill some crackers". His approach worked, and he was given a classification that ensured he would not be drafted.

In early 1946, he was arrested for a burglary after trying to sell some goods to a pawnshop. This burglary he had committed together with another black man and two white women, a fact which was considered particularly sensitive. The women blamed the two black youths for forcing them into the crime, but refused to accuse them of rape. Malcolm received a sentence of ten years in prison. While incarcerated, Malcolm, encouraged by an older fellow inmate who recognized his talent, started to read voraciously and developed astigmatism. During this time, he received correspondence from his brother Reginald telling him about the Nation of Islam, to which Malcolm subsequently converted. He was in regular contact with Elijah Muhammad during his incarceration; upon being paroled, he would go to work for the Nation of Islam. Little also belonged to a prison debating team that competed against teams from Harvard and MIT. He started to gain fame among prisoners, but also remained under the keen eye of the authorities, who recognized in him a force that could potentially foment trouble, did not grant him the expected early release after five years. Little was officially considered too dangerous to be released early.

Later years

Nation of Islam

In 1952, after his release from prison, Malcolm went to meet Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. It was soon after this that he changed his surname to "X". Malcolm explained the name by saying, The "X" is meant to symbolize the rejection of " slave-names" and the absence of an inherited African name to take its place. The "X" is also the brand that many slaves received on their upper arm. This rationale led many members of the Nation of Islam to change their surnames to X.

In March 1953, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a file on Malcolm, supposedly in response to an allegation that he had described himself as a Communist; according to the Church Committee, the FBI had long been used to monitor, disrupt, and repress radicals like Malcolm. Included in the file were two letters wherein Malcolm uses the alias "Malachi Shabazz". In "Message To The Black Man In America", Elijah Muhammad explained the name Shabazz as belonging to descendants of an "Asian Black nation".

In May 1953, the FBI concluded that Malcolm X had an "asocial personality with paranoid trends (pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia)", and had, in fact, sought treatment for his disorder. This was further supported by a letter intercepted by the FBI, dated June 29, 1950. The letter said, in reference to his 4-F classification and rejection by the military, "Everyone has always said ... Malcolm is crazy, so it isn't hard to convince people that I am."

Later that year, Malcolm left his half-sister Ella in Boston to stay with Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. He soon returned to Boston and became the Minister of the Nation of Islam's Temple Number Eleven. In 1954, Malcolm X was selected to lead the Nation of Islam's mosque #7 on Lenox Avenue (co-named "Malcolm X Boulevard" in 1987, from 110th Street/ Central Park North to 147th Street) in Harlem and he rapidly expanded its membership. Malcolm X had great energy; he was able to work day after day with just four hours of sleep or less, he read a lot and once he believed in a cause he devoted himself to it completely. He was a compelling public speaker, and he became known to a wider audience after a local television broadcast in NYC about the Nation of Islam, which was quite an obscure organization until then, in 1959. Malcolm realized the importance of this wider publicity, while Elijah Muhammad was very reluctant to agree to this broadcast. After that, Malcolm was frequently sought after for quotations by the print media, radio, and television programs from the US and later around the world. This was the time in which many African nations were gaining freedom from colonialism and his speeches resonated in this wider context. Malcolm was aware that his fame was a cause of considerable jealousy in NOI, and he was careful in his public appearances not to incite them further. In the years between his adoption of the Nation of Islam, in 1952, and his split with the organization in 1964, he always espoused the Nation's teachings, including referring to whites as "devils" who had been created in a misguided breeding program by a black scientist, and predicting the inevitable (and imminent) return of blacks to their natural place at the top of the social order.

Malcolm X was soon seen as the second most influential leader of the movement, after Elijah Muhammad himself. He opened additional temples, including one in Philadelphia, and was largely credited with increasing membership in the NOI from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963. He inspired the boxer Cassius Clay to join the Nation of Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali. (Like Malcolm X, Ali later left the NOI and joined mainstream Islam.)


In 1958, Malcolm married Betty X (née Sanders) in Lansing, Michigan. They had six daughters together, all of whom carried the surname of Shabazz. Their names were Attallah (also spelled Attillah), born in 1958; Qubilah, born in 1960; Ilyasah, born in 1962; Gamilah (also spelled Gumilah), born in 1964; and twins, Malaak and Malikah, born after Malcolm's death in 1965.

Meeting Castro

In September 1960 Fidel Castro traveled to the United States to address the United Nations General Assembly. Castro did not receive a warm welcome from the U.S. government during his visit to New York City in 1960. The Cuban delegation relocated from the Shelburne Hotel to the Hotel Teresa in Harlem due to complaints from Castro that he had been asked to pay in advance.

Malcolm X met with Castro as a prominent member of a welcoming committee that had been set up in Harlem several weeks earlier. The purpose of this group, which included a wide range of Black community leaders, was to greet heads of state, particularly from African countries, who would be in New York to address the UN General Assembly. Sixteen African countries were admitted to membership in the UN at that session.


In the early 1960s, Malcolm was increasingly exposed to rumors of Elijah Muhammad's extramarital affairs with young secretaries. Adultery is condemned in the teachings of the Nation of Islam. At first, Malcolm brushed these rumors aside. Later, he spoke with Elijah Muhammad's son and the women making the accusations and believed them. In 1963, Elijah Muhammad himself confirmed to Malcolm that the rumors were true and claimed that this activity was undertaken to follow a pattern established by biblical prophets. Despite being unsatisfied with this explanation, and being disenchanted by other ministers using Nation of Islam funds to line their own pockets, Malcolm's faith in Elijah Muhammad did not waver.

By the summer of 1963, tension in the Nation of Islam reached a boiling point. Malcolm believed that Elijah Muhammad was jealous of his popularity (as were several senior ministers). Malcolm viewed the March on Washington critically, unable to understand 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." Later in the year, following the John F. Kennedy assassination, Malcolm delivered a speech as he regularly would. However, when asked to comment upon the assassination, he replied that it was a case of "chickens coming home to roost" — that the culture of violence sanctioned by white society had come around to claim the life of its leader. Most explosively, he then added that with his country origins, "Chickens coming home to roost never made me sad. It only made me glad." This comment led to widespread public outcry and led to the Nation of Islam's publicly censuring Malcolm X. Although retaining his post and rank as minister, he was banned from public speaking for ninety days by Elijah Muhammad himself. Malcolm obeyed and kept silent.

In the spring of 1963, Malcolm started collaborating on The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley. He also publicly announced his break from the Nation of Islam on March 8, 1964 and the founding of the Muslim Mosque, Inc. on March 12, 1964. At this point, Malcolm mostly adhered to the teachings of the Nation of Islam, but began modifying them, explicitly advocating political and economic black nationalism as opposed to the NOI's exclusivist religious nationalism. In March and April, he made the series of famous speeches called " The Ballot or the Bullet" [ ]. Malcolm was in contact with several orthodox Muslims, who encouraged him to learn about orthodox Islam. He soon converted to orthodox Islam, and as a result decided to make his Hajj.


On April 13, 1964, Malcolm departed JFK Airport, New York for Cairo by way of Frankfurt. It was the second time Malcolm had been to Africa. Malcolm left Cairo arriving in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at about three in the morning. He was automatically suspect due to his inability to speak Arabic and his United States passport. He was separated from the group he came with and was isolated. He spent about 20 hours wearing the ihram, a two-piece garment comprised of two white unhemmed sheets--the first of which is worn draped over the torso and the second of which (the bottom) is secured by a belt.

It was at this time he remembered the book The Eternal Message of Muhammad by Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam and which Dr. Mahmoud Yousseff Sharwabi had 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 him that he was to be a state guest. The deputy chief of protocol accompanied Malcolm to the Hajj Court.

It therefore was a mere formality for Sheikh Muhammad Harkon to allow Malcolm to make his Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). On April 19, he completed the Umrah, making the seven circuits around the Kaaba, drinking from the well of Zamzam and running between the hills of Safah and Marwah seven times. The trip proved to be life-altering. Malcolm met many devout Muslims of a number of different races, whose faith and practice of Islam he came to respect. He believed that racial barriers could potentially be overcome, and that Islam was the one religion that conceivably could erase all racial problems.


Malcolm X visited Africa on three separate occasions, once in 1959 and twice in 1964. During his visits, he met officials, as well as spoke on television and radio in: Cairo, Egypt; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Dar Es Salaam, Tanganyika (now Tanzania); Lagos and Ibadan, Nigeria; Accra, Winneba, and Legon, Ghana; Conakry, Guinea; Algiers, Algeria; and Casablanca, Morocco.

Malcolm first went to Africa in summer of 1959. He traveled to Egypt ( United Arab Republic), Sudan, Nigeria and Ghana to arrange a tour for Elijah Muhammad, which occurred in December 1959. The first of Malcolm's two trips to Africa in 1964 lasted from April 13 until May 21. On May 8, following his speech at Trenchard Hall on the campus of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, he attended a reception in the Students' Union Hall held for him by the Muslim Students' Society. During this reception the students bestowed upon him the name "Omowale" meaning "the son returns home" in the Yoruba language.

Malcolm returned to New York from Africa via Paris, France, on May 21, 1964. On July 9, he again left the United States for Africa, spending a total of 18 weeks abroad. On July 17, 1964, Malcolm addressed the Organization of African Unity's first ordinary assembly of heads of state and governments in Cairo as a representative of the OAAU. On August 21, 1964, he made a press statement on behalf of the OAAU regarding the second African summit conference of the OAU. In it, he explained how a strong and independent " United States of Africa" is a victory for the awakening of African Americans. By the time he returned to the United States on November 24, 1964, Malcolm had established an international connection between Africans on the continent and those in the diaspora.

Malcolm held to the view that African-Americans were right in defending themselves from aggressors. On June 28, 1964 at the founding rally of the OAAU he said,

"The time for you and me to allow ourselves to be brutalized nonviolently has passed. Be nonviolent only with those who are nonviolent to you. And when you can bring me a nonviolent racist, bring me a nonviolent segregationist, then I'll get nonviolent. But don't teach me to be nonviolent until you teach some of those crackers to be nonviolent." (

Increasingly though he did come to regret his involvement within the Nation of Islam and its tendency to promote racism as a blacks versus whites issue. In an interview with Gordon Parks in 1965 he revealed:

"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."

He stopped and remained silent for a few moments, then stated,

"Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant -- the one who wanted to help the Muslims and the whites get together -- and I told her there wasn't a ghost of a chance and she went away crying?"

He also later reflected:

"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 twelve years."
"That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days -- I'm glad to be free of them."

Visiting France and UK

In late 1964, Malcolm visited France together with Jamaican officials and spoke in Paris at Salle Pleyel where there were discussions and debates on the subject of the Rastafarian ideas (return of African-Americans to Africa, Ethiopia in particular) espoused by both the Jamaicans present and Malcom X at that time. He also visited the UK where, by that time, he was a well-known world figure and was honored with an invitation to participate in a classic debate at Oxford Union. The debate took place on December 3, 1964.

On 12 February 1965 Malcolm X 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 using the slogan, amongst others, "If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour". He visited a pub with a non-coloured policy, and purposely visited a street where the local council would buy houses and sell them to white families, to avoid black families moving in.

Death and afterwards


On March 20, 1964, Life magazine published a famous photograph of Malcolm X holding an M1 Carbine and pulling back the curtains to peer out of a window. The photo was taken in connection with Malcolm's declaration that he would defend himself from the daily death threats which he and his family were receiving. Undercover FBI informants warned officials that Malcolm X had been marked for assassination.

Tensions increased between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam. It was alleged that orders were given by leaders of the Nation of Islam to "destroy" Malcolm; in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he says that as early as 1963, a member of the Seventh Temple confessed to him having received orders from the Nation of Islam to kill him. The NOI sued to reclaim Malcolm's home in Queens, which they claimed to have paid for, and won. He appealed, and was angry at the thought that his family might soon have no place to live. Then, on the night of February 14, 1965, the house was firebombed. Malcolm and his family survived, and no one was charged in the crime.

A week later on February 21 in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm had just begun delivering a speech when a disturbance broke out in the crowd of 400. A man yelled, "Get your hand outta my pocket! Don't be messin' with my pockets!" As Malcolm's bodyguards rushed forward to attend to the disturbance and Malcolm appealed for peace, a man rushed forward and shot Malcolm in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men quickly charged towards the stage and fired handguns at Malcolm, who was shot 16 times. Angry onlookers in the crowd caught and beat the assassins as they attempted to flee the ballroom. The 39-year-old Malcolm was pronounced dead on arrival at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. He was killed by the shotgun blasting through him, the other bullets having been directed into his legs.

Although a police report once existed stating that two men were detained in connection with the shooting, that report disappeared, and the investigation was inconclusive. Two suspects were named by witnesses — Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson — however both were known as Nation of Islam agents and would have had difficulty entering the ballroom on that evening.

Three men were eventually charged in the case. Talmadge Hayer confessed to having fired shots into Malcolm's body, but he testified that Butler and Johnson were not present and were not involved in the shooting. All three were convicted.

A complete examination of the assassination and investigation is available in The Smoking Gun: The Malcolm X Files, a collection of primary sources relating to the assassination.


Sixteen hundred people attended Malcolm's funeral in Harlem on February 27, 1965 at the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ (now Child's Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ). Ossie Davis, alongside Ahmed Osman, delivered a stirring eulogy, describing Malcolm as "Our shining black prince". Malcolm X was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. At the gravesite after the ceremony, friends took the shovels away from the waiting gravediggers and buried Malcolm themselves. Later that month, actress Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier became co-chairs of the New York affiliate of the Educational Fund for the Children of Malcolm X Shabazz. Civil rights leader and surgeon, T.R.M. Howard, was the chair of the Chicago affiliate of the Fund.

Biographies and speeches

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written by Alex Haley between 1964 and 1965, based on interviews conducted shortly before Malcolm's assassination (with an epilogue written after it), and was published in 1965. The book was named by Time magazine as one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements ISBN 0-8021-3213-8 edited by George Breitman. These speeches made during the last eight months of Malcolm's life indicate the power of his newly refined ideas.

"Malcolm X: The Man and His Times" edited with an introduction and commentary by John Henrik Clarke. An anthology of writings, speeches and manifestos along with writings about Malcolm X by an international group of African and African American scholars and activists.

"Malcolm X: The FBI File" Commentary by Clayborne Carson with an introduction by Spike Lee and edited by David Gallen. A source of information documenting the FBI's file on Malcolm beginning with his prison release in March 1953 and culminating with a 1980 request that the FBI investigate Malcolm's assassination.

The film Malcolm X was released in 1992, directed by Spike Lee. Based on the autobiography, it starred Denzel Washington as Malcolm with Angela Bassett as Betty and Al Freeman Jr. as Elijah Muhammad. Both Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese named the film as one of the ten best of the decade.

The 2001 film Ali, about boxer Muhammad Ali, played by Will Smith, also features Malcolm X, as played by Mario Van Peebles.

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