In the 1960s, the United States was shaken by racial tensions and fledgeling social movements. Discouraged by the shortcomings of the civil rights movement and its apparent inability to secure freedom and self-determination for African American people, one remarkable black man utters the motto that would electrify black communities for decades – (fight for freedom and equality) by any means necessary. That speech Malcolm X gave at the 1965 founding rally for the Organization of African American Unity, perfectly encapsulated the frustrations of African Americans who had grown tired of being told to be mindful and patient as they wait for equal rights to finally be granted.
His radical message of racial justice was instrumental in guiding the ideology of the trans-national Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and boosting the self-esteem of black communities the world over. He would be a member of the Nation of Islam for 12 long years before finally leaving in 1964, and meeting a tragic end soon after at the hands of his former comrades.
Malcolm was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, in a family of 7 children. His parents, Louise and Earl Little, were activists who held Pan-Africanist and black nationalist views, and were involved with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). His father had become a local UNIA leader and his mother worked as a secretary and reporter, providing local news about UNIA’s various activities to the popular black newspaper Negro World. As such, Louise and Earl educated their children in the spirit of black pride and self-reliance. Because of how politically outspoken Malcolm’s parents were, the Little family became frequent targets of racist threats from white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Legion.
Malcolm’s childhood experience of white violence was profoundly traumatizing and it explains why most of his adult life was marked by a deep distrust of white people and white culture. When he was just 4 years old, his family home burned down, the fire presumably having been set by Black Legion racists. Two years later, Earl Little died in what was officially deemed a streetcar accident, although it was widely believed that he had been targeted by the Black Legion. Adding insult to injury, Louise was unable to collect full payments from her late husband’s life insurance as one of the issuers claimed Earl had committed suicide. The family struggled financially for years and in 1938, Louise suffered a mental and emotional breakdown that saw her committed to a psychiatric hospital where she would remain for 24 years.
As a teenager, Malcolm excelled academically. He was passionate about studying law and becoming an attorney, but his ambitions were quickly curbed when a white teacher told him that such a career is not a realistic aspiration for a black man. When later interviewed about this period of his life, Malcolm explained that this was when he came to the realization that white culture was inherently hostile towards career-oriented blacks. At 14, he dropped out of high school and took various odd jobs to support himself, while living with his half-sister in one of Boston’s black neighborhoods. Being poor and lacking proper parental guidance, by 1943 young Malcolm had ended up in Harlem, New York City, where he resorted to street crime to make ends meet – everything from gambling, drug dealing, racketeering and pimping was fair game. His rebellious nature and resentment towards white America caused him to be disqualified from military service – he defiantly told the draft board that he wanted to go south so he could organize and arm black soldiers against white civilians.
When he was 20 years old, he returned to Boston and committed a series of burglaries against rich white families. For Malcolm, the wealthy, opulent whites best represented the unjust, oppressive racial system that permeated the country at the time. Such status seemed unattainable for a black family, regardless of how hard they worked. In 1946, Malcolm was apprehended by the police while trying to pawn a stolen watch, and he was sentenced to 8 to 10 years in prison.
It was during his time in prison that Malcolm first became acquainted with the fledgling Muslim movement Nation of Islam. While he rejected it at first on the grounds of his suspicion of religion in general, he slowly found himself seduced by its teachings, which were based on black supremacist views and described white people as ‘devils’. It seemed like for the first time, a powerful and well organized religious group validated his experiences and the distrust of whites born of them.
In his correspondence with the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm was instructed to let go of his past and embrace the teachings of Allah. Becoming a full member of the Nation, Malcolm gave up the surname Little and began signing all his letters with ‘Malcolm X’. He later explained that the X was supposed to symbolize his true African family name that he would have had if his ancestors had not been enslaved and relocated to the United States.
As his political activities intensified, by 1950 Malcolm X found himself on the FBI’s radar. Three years later, the FBI would officially begin surveilling him, fearing his political ties to communists and his growing popularity as a figurehead of the Nation of Islam. Immediately after being paroled in 1952, Malcolm began dedicating his time to growing the Nation of Islam’s reach and membership. His natural charisma and skill proved very successful, as he quickly established new temples all over the country and attracted hundreds of new members every month. To this day, Malcolm X remains the Nation of Islam’s most successful recruiter, and is credited with popularizing Islam among African Americans.
In 1954, he had become minister and leader of Mosque No. 7, in Harlem. Historians describe him as not only an eloquent speaker but also as a mesmerizing leader. He was tall, handsome, well-read and always looked spotless. His teachings more closely resembled lectures than sermons, and they were always politically charged. Malcolm spoke of ideals that resonated strongly with the African American community – he preached outright rejecting the half-measures unenthusiastically offered by the white establishment and demanded that rights be delivered now rather than at some unspecified moment in the future. As he felt that African Americans had historically been taught to hate themselves and think of themselves as inferior to whites, he also stressed the importance of black self-respect and self-reliance. During his 12 year membership in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm endorsed the organization’s black-supremacist views, including the idea that white people are evil and that the demise of the white race is imminent.
As a minister, he met Betty Sanders, a nurse and fresh Nation of Islam member who frequently attended his lectures. The two formed a couple and were married by 1958. Malcolm and Betty would have 6 daughters.
While he was already well known among black activists, Malcolm only became known to the general public in 1957, due to what would be dubbed the Hinton Johnson incident. It involved a group of white police officers viciously beating a young Muslim named Hinton Johnson after he tried to defend a fellow black man who was being brutalized by the police. Instead of investigating the racist police officers, the official response of the authorities was to arrest the black men involved in the incident. Even though Hinton Johnson suffered serious head contusions as a result of the beating, he was initially denied any medical assistance. Malcolm and a few other members of the Nation of Islam picketed the police station where Hinton Johnson was being held, and their presence soon attracted a large crowd that demanded the wrongly accused Muslim prisoners be released. After Malcolm and an attorney made arrangements to secure the men’s release, he went outside and, saying nothing, he dispersed the crowd with a single wave of his hand. Malcolm’s seemingly supernatural clout over the angry crowd both impressed and terrified authorities, who eventually conceded to prosecute the racist officers that had beaten Hinton Johnson. The incident was widely reported in the media, and it prompted the police to put surveillance on Malcolm and attempt to infiltrate the Nation of Islam.
From this point on, Malcolm’s popularity continued to steadily climb, attracting more and more attention both in the US media and abroad. In 1960 at the UN General Assembly, he was invited to private meetings with several prominent African leaders, including the presidents of Egypt, Zambia and Guinea. Fidel Castro was also sufficiently impressed with the young black activist that, and after discussing in private, he invited Malcolm to Cuba.
Although Malcolm remained with the Nation of Islam for 12 years, his political views would gradually evolve as he traveled the world, and in time he became much less radical regarding whites. By the time he left the Nation, he spoke about regretting many of his past attitudes both towards other races and the civil rights movement. But while he spearheaded the Nation of Islam’s ascension, many white and black activists in the civil rights movement feared that Malcolm was helping spread messages of racial hate and intolerance, as well as endorsing black supremacy. He was often criticized by members of the civil rights movement as an irresponsible extremist and not representative of the ambitions of African Americans. One point of contention was the disenfranchisement of African Americans – while the civil rights movement sought to end it, the Nation of Islam rejected voting and political participation altogether. Another heated topic concerned segregation – while the civil rights movement fought for racial tolerance and unity, the Nation of Islam endorsed a complete separation of Africans from whites. In their cynical view of the world, whites would never accept blacks as their equals anyway, so there was no point in fighting for tolerance. Although Malcolm’s views would be construed as radical, they were profoundly influential for a large number of African Americans who were unhappy with the small steps achieved by the civil rights movement.
As a minister with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm befriended boxer Cassius Clay, who would later adopt the Muslim name, Muhammad Ali. The two became close, with one historian describing their relationship as “very close brothers”. When Malcolm finally left the Nation of Islam in 1964, Muhammad Ali vowed to never speak to him again, a decision he would later come to deeply regret.
It may seem surprising to some that Malcolm eventually decided to part ways with the Nation of Islam, and would eventually even reject some of the views he previously endorsed. For example, by 1961 Malcolm realized that it was in the black people’s best interest to work with the racially diverse civil rights movement, a view that Elijah Muhammad strongly opposed. Moreover, Elijah Muhammad was involved in a series of sex scandals involving multiple women, which was a grave violation of Muslim teachings. Growing ever more disillusioned with the Nation’s leader and the organization’s political goals, Malcolm started advancing his own views in the media, often contrary to the Nation’s official positions. He also became somewhat of a media darling, attracting much more positive publicity than Elijah Muhammad.
In March 1964, Malcolm X officially left the Nation of Islam. In his interviews at the time, he expressed an interest in starting his own black nationalist organization, as well as in collaborating with the other civil rights groups. He believed that the Nation of Islam’s rigid values and Elijah Muhammad’s misguided leadership prevented them from reaching their true potential and effecting long-lasting change for black Americans.
His time outside the Nation of Islam was one of the most active and politically fruitful periods of his life. He founded two organizations, one religious and the other secular – Muslim Mosque, Inc and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He met with Martin Luther King and gave a speech advising black Africans to not refrain from exercising their right to vote. He also undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca, an eye-opening experience that helped him convert to Sunni Islam. While in Saudi Arabia, Malcolm was impressed to meet with Muslims of all races and skin colors, who treated each other as equals in spite of racial differences – “from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans”, he described them. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Malcolm began considering that peace and mutual respect was possible and racial tensions could eventually be overcome. After leaving Mecca and for much of 1964, Malcolm embarked on his second tour of Africa, giving speeches in Ghana, Sudan, Senegal, Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia, with several important African leaders inviting him to serve in their governments. On his way back the US, he made a small European detour, stopping in France and in the United Kingdom, where he participated in a debate that was televised nationally by the BBC.
After he returned to the United States in 1965, Malcolm’s mainstream popularity soared. He became a regular speaker on college campuses and was asked to attend and speak at socialist forums. His experience with the Nation of Islam turned him into a sought after commentator on racially charged topics, and he started to be publicly perceived as part of the civil rights movement. His independent success and ongoing criticism of Elijah Muhammad’s practices sparked a conflict that would, unfortunately, lead to his death. After receiving several threats and surviving a car bombing in 1964, Malcolm became convinced that the Nation of Islam was actively trying to assassinate him. Unfortunately, his suspicions would soon prove true.
In February 1965, as he was preparing to hold his speech at the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a man from the audience caused a commotion and lunged at Malcolm, shooting him with a shotgun. Two other men jumped from their seats and started shooting, causing a panic. Witnesses were able to identify the shooters as Nation of Islam members, and all three were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Although the shooters never admitted to this, it was widely believed that Elijah Muhammad himself had ordered the assassination. The autopsy revealed that Malcolm had received 21 gunshot wounds, with multiple wounds to his chest area.
In response to Malcolm X’s death, Martin Luther King sent a letter to his widow Betty, stating that although he and Malcolm had often disagreed on how to solve the race problem, he held Malcolm in great respect and admired his dedication to advancing the cause of black Americans. Many journalists praised his achievements, recognizing Malcolm’s importance as a black activist even if they did not condone his early ideology.
Explore More Biographies
It’s hard to judge how Malcolm’s beliefs would have further evolved had he not tragically died in 1965. Two days prior to his assassination, he had a conversation with journalist Gordon Parks, in which he mentioned being moved by what he saw in Africa – white people helping blacks fight for freedom in their own countries, and how glad he was to now be finally free of his racist views against whites. “I did many things as a Black Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then. It cost me 12 years. The sickness and madness of those days – I’m glad to be free of them”, he told Gordon Parks.