Malcolm X: Early Life, Nation of Islam, Assassination, and More

Malcolm X was an influential African American leader in the civil rights movement, renowned for his advocacy for the rights, dignity, and empowerment of black Americans. Born in 1925, he emerged from a life of adversity to become a key figure in the Nation of Islam before advocating for broader human rights issues. His eloquent and powerful speeches emphasized the importance of freedom, justice, and equality, challenging systemic racism in the United States and abroad.

Early Life, Real Name, Family, and Children

From his earliest years, Malcolm was exposed to the ideas of black pride and self-reliance through his father’s activism. Earl Little’s involvement with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) introduced Malcolm to the concepts of Pan-Africanism and the importance of a global perspective on the plight of black people. These early influences were critical in forming Malcolm’s later ideologies.

The racial violence experienced by Malcolm’s family, including the burning of their home and the mysterious death of his father—widely believed to be a lynching by local white supremacists—instilled in him a deep distrust of the American social and political system. These events not only disrupted his childhood but also contributed to his mother’s deteriorating mental health, leading to her hospitalization and the scattering of the Little children among various foster homes and institutions. Such instability and trauma played a significant role in Malcolm’s early disillusionment with society and his subsequent involvement in criminal activities.

Malcolm X adopted the name “X” to signify his rejection of his “slave” surname, Little, which he believed was imposed upon his ancestors by white slave owners. The “X” represented the unknown African name that he would have had if his ancestors had not been enslaved and their identities erased. His decision to replace his last name with “X” was also a symbolic gesture of his break from the past and the societal norms that he felt were oppressive to African Americans. This change marked his transformation and his embrace of a new identity that was rooted in the empowerment and liberation of black people in America. Malcolm X’s rejection of his last name was deeply intertwined with his conversion to Islam and his involvement with the Nation of Islam, which advocated for the reclaiming of African heritage and identity among black Americans as a means of resistance against systemic racism and oppression.

Despite his challenges and environment, Malcolm demonstrated a keen intelligence and a voracious appetite for learning, traits that would later define his public persona. His time in prison was transformative, not only in terms of his conversion to Islam but also in his self-education efforts, during which he read widely on history, philosophy, and religion. This period of intense study laid the foundation for his later eloquence and effectiveness as a public speaker and leader.

Malcolm’s relationship with Betty Shabazz was another crucial aspect of his life, providing personal stability and support for his increasingly public and contentious role as a civil rights leader. Their partnership and the growth of their family amidst Malcolm’s political activities underscore the personal sacrifices and the pressures faced by both Malcolm and Betty in their fight for justice.


After leaving school, Malcolm’s encounters with the law and his eventual imprisonment became the unlikely catalyst for his intellectual awakening. It was during these years that Malcolm began an intense period of self-education, which he later described as his “Homemade Education.” In the confines of his cell, Malcolm dedicated himself to reading and learning, consuming books from the prison library that covered a wide range of subjects, including history, philosophy, religion, and civil rights. This period of self-directed study was important, allowing Malcolm to fill the gaps left by his formal education and prepare himself for a future role as a leader and spokesperson for the African American community.

Malcolm’s autodidactic journey was marked by a voracious appetite for reading that he maintained throughout his life. He famously made use of a dictionary to improve his vocabulary, copying out entire pages by hand. This practice not only enhanced his linguistic skills but also deepened his understanding of the power of language as a tool for persuasion and leadership. His disciplined approach to self-education transformed him into a formidable debater and orator, skills that would become central to his effectiveness as a public figure.

Moreover, Malcolm’s educational philosophy was deeply influenced by his critical analysis of the American educational system, which he saw as fundamentally biased against African Americans and other minorities. He argued that the education system was a mechanism of social control, designed to maintain the status quo of racial inequality. Malcolm’s critique extended to the ways in which history was taught, noting the absence of African and African American contributions from mainstream curricula. His own educational journey was, in many ways, a rebuke to this system, exemplifying the potential for self-empowerment through knowledge.

In his speeches and writings, Malcolm frequently emphasized the importance of education for the African American community, advocating for a curriculum that included the true history and contributions of black people. He believed that education was a critical tool for achieving freedom and equality, arguing that “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

Time in Prison

During his time in prison, Malcolm X’s transformation was profound, going beyond his self-education and conversion to Islam. This period was marked by significant introspection and ideological evolution, which would lay the groundwork for his future role as a dynamic civil rights leader.

Malcolm’s engagement with the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI) during his incarceration was a key moment in his life. Initially skeptical, Malcolm began to see the NOI’s message as a means of understanding his own experiences with racism and injustice. The NOI’s teachings on black pride, self-reliance, and the rejection of the racial hierarchy prevalent in American society resonated deeply with Malcolm, providing him with a new framework for interpreting the world around him.

His correspondence with Elijah Muhammad further deepened his commitment to the NOI’s cause. Through these letters, Malcolm found not only a mentor but also a father figure who offered guidance and support. This relationship was instrumental in Malcolm’s rapid rise within the organization after his release from prison, as he became one of its most visible and influential leaders.

Malcolm’s time in prison also led to significant changes in his personal life and habits. He gave up smoking and gambling, practices he had engaged in extensively before his incarceration. This personal discipline reflected the broader changes in his life, as he sought to align his actions with the teachings of the NOI. Malcolm’s transformation in prison was not just intellectual but also spiritual and ethical, reflecting a comprehensive overhaul of his identity and purpose.

Upon his release in 1952, Malcolm was a changed man, with a new name—Malcolm X—and a fervent desire to apply the lessons he had learned to fight for the rights and dignity of African Americans. His prison experience had equipped him with the tools to critique the social and political systems that oppressed black people in the United States. It had also given him a vision of empowerment that he was eager to share, making him an electrifying speaker and organizer.

The significance of Malcolm X’s time in prison cannot be overstated. It was a crucible that forged his identity as a leader and thinker. The intellectual rigor he applied to his self-education, combined with the spiritual awakening he experienced through his conversion, created a foundation for his later work in the civil rights movement.

Organization of Afro-American Unity: Nation of Islam

Upon his release from prison and his subsequent rise within the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcolm X became a national figure, using his platform to address issues of racial injustice, economic inequality, and the need for African American self-determination. His tenure with the NOI was marked by his ability to articulate the frustrations and aspirations of African Americans, drawing connections between their struggles and broader issues of colonialism and oppression worldwide. Malcolm’s message resonated deeply, contributing to the NOI’s exponential growth during his time as its spokesperson.

Malcolm’s advocacy for the establishment of a separate black community was rooted in his belief that African Americans could never achieve true equality in a society dominated by white supremacy. He envisioned a community that was self-sufficient, with its own economic systems and institutions, as a means of achieving independence and dignity for black people. His speeches often highlighted the systemic barriers faced by African Americans, advocating for a form of empowerment that was both economic and psychological.

The departure of Malcolm X from the NOI in 1964 was a significant turning point in his life and career. His pilgrimage to Mecca that year was transformative, broadening his perspective on race and humanity. He returned with a new name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and a renewed vision for the struggle for civil rights, one that emphasized racial unity and human rights over separatism. This shift in perspective marked a departure from the NOI’s teachings and led to the establishment of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).

The OAAU represented Malcolm’s evolving ideology, focusing on the broader civil rights movement and the global struggle against oppression. It sought to unify African Americans in their fight for racial justice and to collaborate with other civil rights organizations, despite differences in strategy and ideology. The OAAU aimed to address not only civil rights but also the economic and social issues affecting African American communities, advocating for education, voting rights, and economic opportunities.

Malcolm’s leadership of the OAAU highlighted his skills as an organizer and his commitment to justice. He continued to be a powerful speaker, drawing attention to the plight of African Americans and the need for systemic change. His ability to connect with diverse audiences, including young people and international figures, underscored his appeal as a leader who transcended national boundaries.

During this period, Malcolm also intensified his critique of the American government and its policies, both domestically and internationally. He called for the United Nations to recognize the treatment of African Americans as a human rights issue, pushing for an international approach to civil rights. This global perspective was groundbreaking, positioning the struggle of African Americans within the wider context of anti-colonial movements and the fight for human rights worldwide.

Achievements of Malcolm X

Malcolm X is renowned for his role in the civil rights movement, where he championed the rights and empowerment of African Americans through a philosophy that emphasized self-defense, black nationalism, and the importance of a global perspective on racial injustice. Distinct from the prevailing non-violent strategies of his time, Malcolm advocated for a more militant approach to combating racial inequality, inspiring those who were frustrated by the slow progress toward equality.

He is known for his efforts to internationalize the struggle of African Americans, linking it with worldwide movements against colonialism and oppression, thereby framing it as an international human rights issue. This global outreach included travels to Africa and the Middle East, where he engaged with leaders to garner support for the cause, highlighting the interconnectedness of the fight against global injustice.

Malcolm X significantly contributed to the promotion of black pride and cultural awareness, encouraging African Americans to reclaim their heritage and reject the systemic racism that sought to undermine their identity and self-worth. This aspect of his work laid the foundations for the Black Power and Black Arts movements, emphasizing the importance of dignity and self-respect in the fight for equality.

His critical views on the integrationist goals of the civil rights movement spurred a reevaluation of its strategies, advocating for a broader approach that addressed economic disparities, police brutality, and systemic racism. Malcolm’s establishment of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) aimed to unify the efforts of African Americans in their struggle for rights, reflecting his evolving perspective on racial solidarity and collective action.

Malcolm X’s legacy also includes a rich body of written and spoken work, most notably his autobiography, co-authored with Alex Haley, which provides a deep insight into America’s racial challenges and his personal evolution. His speeches and interviews, known for their powerful rhetoric, continue to influence and motivate discussions on justice, equality, and human rights worldwide.

The Assassination of Malcolm X

Malcolm X died on February 21, 1965, when he was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan as he was preparing to deliver a speech. He was shot multiple times; reports indicate he was struck by 21 bullets from firearms wielded by three assailants. The assassination of Malcolm X was motivated by a combination of factors, including his contentious departure from the Nation of Islam, his public criticisms of Elijah Muhammad, and tensions within the civil rights movement. These elements created a volatile environment that ultimately led to his tragic death, marking a significant loss for the civil rights movement and the fight against racial injustice.

The immediate aftermath of Malcolm X’s assassination was marked by shock, grief, and anger. Thousands mourned his death, and his funeral in Harlem was attended by over 1,500 people, reflecting the profound impact he had on the lives of many. The event highlighted the deep divisions within the Nation of Islam (NOI), as well as the broader tensions in the United States regarding race relations and the fight for civil rights. Malcolm’s assassination underscored the dangers faced by black leaders who challenged the status quo and fought for justice.

The three men convicted of Malcolm X’s murder—Talmadge Hayer (also known as Mujahid Abdul Halim), Norman 3X Butler (also known as Muhammad Abdul Aziz), and Thomas 15X Johnson (also known as Khalil Islam)—were all members of the NOI. However, the trial and the evidence presented have been subjects of controversy and debate, with some asserting that the full story behind the assassination has never been fully uncovered. Over the years, there have been calls for further investigation into the circumstances surrounding Malcolm’s death, including potential government involvement or complicity.

Malcolm X’s legacy in the years following his assassination has only grown in stature. He is remembered as a pioneering figure who brought national and international attention to the struggles of African Americans. His critiques of racism, his advocacy for human rights, and his call for black self-determination and self-defense have continued to resonate with generations of activists and communities fighting for justice. Malcolm’s life and work have been the subject of numerous books, films, and scholarly studies, further cementing his place as a central figure in the history of civil rights in America and beyond.

Moreover, Malcolm X’s influence extends beyond the borders of the United States. His efforts to link the struggle of African Americans with global movements against colonialism and oppression inspired solidarity across the African diaspora and among oppressed peoples worldwide. His visits to Africa and the Middle East, and his efforts to engage with the United Nations, positioned him as a visionary leader who sought to frame the fight for racial justice within a global context.

The Enduring Voice of Malcolm X

Malcolm X’s legacy as a civil rights leader transcends his life story of overcoming adversity to advocate for justice, equality, and black empowerment. His intellectual depth, commitment to human rights, and global perspective on racial oppression have made him an enduring symbol of resistance. Assassinated in his prime, Malcolm X remains a source of inspiration for all who fight against injustice, embodying the ongoing struggle for a more equitable society.

How to Cite this Article

There are three different ways you can cite this article.

1. To cite this article in an academic-style article or paper, use:

James Hardy, "Malcolm X: Early Life, Nation of Islam, Assassination, and More", History Cooperative, October 28, 2016, Accessed June 18, 2024

2. To link to this article in the text of an online publication, please use this URL:

3. If your web page requires an HTML link, please insert this code:

<a href="">Malcolm X: Early Life, Nation of Islam, Assassination, and More</a>

Leave a Comment