Though often eclipsed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the historical record, Malcolm X was a leading figure of the mid-20th century civil rights movement. His involvement with the Nation of Islam and his slogan “by any means necessary,” made him controversial, but his sincerity, charisma and the perspective on human rights that he espoused at the end of his life have earned him an honored place in the history of the movement.
Malcolm X’s Early Years
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925. He was one of seven children born to Baptist minister Earl Little and Louise Norton Little. Earl’s civil rights activism prompted threats from the Black Legion, a white supremacist group, forcing the family to relocate to Lansing, Michigan.
In 1929, their house burned down, and two years later, Malcolm’s father was found dead. Both incidents were ruled as accidents, but the family was certain that the Black Legion was responsible. Several years later, Louise suffered a breakdown and was institutionalized, and Malcolm and his brothers and sisters were sent to various foster homes and orphanages.
Nicknamed “Red” due to the auburn tint of his hair, Malcolm was studious and gifted in school, but lack of support from teachers led him to quit and fall into a life of crime. He was eventually sentenced to prison on a burglary charge but used his time there to further his education, memorizing a dictionary and taking forensics classes.
Conversations held with his brother Reginald, who was also incarcerated at the Norfolk Prison Colony, were instrumental in Malcolm’s joining the Nation of Islam, prompting Malcolm to jettison Little as a “slave name” and adopt the surname X.
Sources in this Story
- The Official Web Site of Malcolm X: Biography
- New York Public Library: Malcolm X: A Search for Truth
- PBS: Malcolm X: Make It Plain
- Malcolm-X.org: Letter from Mecca
Malcolm X’s Notable Accomplishments
Malcolm X rose quickly in the Nation of Islam, a religious organization led by Elijah Muhammad. He traveled the country as a minister and spokesman, establishing new mosques and addressing civil unrest with his characteristic passion and articulate expression, attracting record numbers of new converts. During this period in his life he married Betty X (formerly Sanders) in Lansing, Michigan in 1958.
Although his message was viewed as radical and inflammatory, he actively espoused moral, mental and spiritual cleanliness as the means to free his people from oppression.
When Malcolm X discovered that Elijah Muhammad was secretly having affairs with female followers and had fathered several children, he became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam’s leader.
Devastated by the hypocrisy, Malcolm X left the NOI and formed his own organization, Muslim Mosque, Inc. in March 1964. That same year, he made a religious pilgrimage to Mecca; the trip had a profound effect on the activist, prompting him to change his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz and re-evaluate his beliefs.
In a letter from Mecca in April 1964 he wrote, “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white. America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered ‘white’–but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”
The Man and His Work
The Rest of the Story
Malcolm X was assassinated February 21, 1965 by three Nation of Islam members at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. He was 39 years old. Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz had six daughters; the last two, twins, were born after Malcolm X died.
Malcolm X had been collaborating with writer and journalist Alex Haley on an autobiography. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was finished and published later in 1965. The book, Haley’s first, was a best-seller and was adapted into the 1992 biopic “Malcolm X,” starring Denzel Washington in the title role.