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Malcolm X was a Nation of Islam minister and a black nationalist leader in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Since his assassination in 1965, his status as a political figure has grown considerably, and he has now become an internationally recognized political and cultural icon. The changes in Malcolm X's personal beliefs can be followed somewhat by the changes in his name, from Malcolm Little when he was a young man to Malcolm X when he was a member of the Nation of Islam to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz-Al-Sabann after he returned to the United States from a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964. He was a ward of the state, a shoe shine boy in Boston, a street hustler and pimp in New York, and a convicted felon at the age of 20. After embracing Islam in prison and directing his grassroots leadership and speaking skills to recruit members to the Nation of Islam, he ultimately became an influential black nationalist during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
The fifth child in a family of eight children, Malcolm was born May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist minister and a local organizer for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a black nationalist organization founded by Marcus M. Garvey in the early twentieth century. His mother, Louise Little, was of West Indian heritage. Malcom's father was killed under suspicious circumstances in 1931 and his mother had a breakdown in 1937.
After his father's death and his mother's commitment to a mental hospital, Malcolm was first placed with family friends, but the state Welfare agency ultimately situated him in a juvenile home in Mason, Michigan, where he did well. Malcolm was an excellent student in junior high school, earning high grades as well as praise from his teachers. Despite his obvious talent, his status as an African American in the 1930s prompted his English teacher to discourage Malcolm from pursuing a professional career. The teacher instead encouraged him to work with his hands, perhaps as a carpenter.
In 1941, shortly after finishing eighth grade, Malcolm moved to Roxbury, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Boston. From 1941 to 1943, he lived in Roxbury with his half-sister Ella Lee Little-Collins. He worked at several jobs, including one as the shoe shine boy at the Roseland State Ballroom. He became what he later described as a Roxbury hipster, wearing outrageous zoot suits and dancing at local ballrooms.
Malcolm moved to Harlem in 1943, at the age of 18. Here, he earned the nickname Detroit Red, because of his Michigan background and the reddish hue to his skin and hair. In his early Harlem experience, Malcolm was a hustler, dope dealer, gambler, pimp, and numbers runner for mobsters.
In 1945, when his life was threatened by a Harlem mob figure named West Indian Archie, Malcolm returned to Boston, where he became involved in a Burglary ring with an old Roxbury acquaintance. In 1946 he was caught attempting to reclaim a stolen watch he had left for repairs, and the police raided his apartment and arrested him and his accomplices, including two white women. He was charged with Larceny and breaking and entering, to which he pleaded guilty at trial. On February 27, 1946, he entered Charlestown State Prison to begin an eight- to ten-year sentence; he was 20 years old.
Malcolm was transferred in 1948 to an experimental and progressive prison program in Norfolk, Massachusetts. The Norfolk Prison Colony gave greater freedom to its inmates. It also had an excellent library, and Malcolm began to read voraciously. Prompted by his brother, Reginald Little, Malcolm converted to Islam while in prison and became a follower of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam, founded by Wallace D. Fard in the 1930s, advocated racial separatism and enforced a strict moral code for its followers, all of whom were African American. Malcolm was paroled from prison in 1952. He immediately moved to Detroit, where he worked in a furniture store and attended the Nation of Islam Detroit temple. Malcolm soon abandoned the surname Little in favor of X, which represented the African surname he had never known. With his oratory skill, Malcolm X quickly became a national minister for the Nation of Islam. As a devout follower of Elijah Muhammad, he helped to establish numerous temples across the United States. He became the minister for temples in Boston and Philadelphia, and in 1954, he became minister of the New York temple. In 1958 he married Sister Betty X, who had earlier joined the Nation of Islam as Betty Sanders. Together, they had six children, including twins who were born after Malcolm's assassination.
During his early years with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm's primary role was as spokesman for Elijah Muhammad. He was a highly effective grassroots activist and successfully recruited thousands of urban blacks to join the organization. In 1959 a television program entitled The Hate That Hate Produced resulted in a focused public scrutiny of the Nation of Islam and its followers, who became known to many U.S. citizens as Black Muslims. Increasingly, Malcolm was seen as the national spokesman for the Black Muslims, and he was often sought out for his opinion on public issues. In vitriolic public speeches on behalf of the Nation of Islam, he described whites in the United States as devils and called for African Americans to reject any attempt to integrate them into a white racist society. As a Nation of Islam minister, he denounced Jews and criticized the more cautious mainstream Civil Rights leaders as traitors who had been brainwashed by a white society. He further challenged the so-called integrationist principles of recognized civil rights leaders such as martin luther king jr.
Elijah Muhammad took a somewhat less rash approach and favored a general nonengagement policy in place of more confrontational tactics. Malcolm's increasing popularity—as well as his caustic public remarks—began to create tension between him and Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm became frustrated at having to restrain his comments.
When President john f. kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Malcolm exclaimed that Kennedy "never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon." Malcolm later regretted his comment and explained that he meant that the government's involvement in and tolerance of violence against African Americans and others had created an atmosphere that contributed to the death of the president. Nevertheless, his comments and his increasing public notoriety prompted Elijah Muhammad to "silence" Malcolm and suspend him as a minister on December 1, 1963. Members of the Nation of Islam were instructed not to speak to him.
However, by 1963, Malcolm had become disillusioned by the Nation of Islam, particularly with rumors that Elijah Muhammad had been unfaithful to his wife and had fathered several illegitimate children. On March 8, 1964—while still under suspension from the Nation of Islam—Malcolm formally announced his separation from the organization. He soon announced the creation of his own organization, Moslem Mosque, Incorporated (MMI), which would be based in New York. MMI, Malcolm stated, would be a broad-based black nationalist organization intended to advance the spiritual, economic, and political interests of African Americans. On March 26, Malcolm met for the first and only time with Martin Luther King, in Washington, D.C. King at the time was scheduled to testify on the pending Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In April 1964, Malcolm made a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy site of Islam and the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. He was profoundly moved by the pilgrimage, and said later that it was the start of a radical alteration in his outlook about race relations.
"We are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition as human beings. We are fighting for … human rights."
Upon his return to the United States, Malcolm began to use the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Al-Sabann. He also exhibited a profound shift in political and social thinking. Whereas in the past he had advocated against cooperation with other civil rights leaders and organizations, his new philosophy was to work with existing organizations and individuals, including whites, so long as they were sincere in their efforts to secure basic civil rights and freedoms for African Americans. In June 1964, he founded the secular Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which espoused a pan-Africanist approach to basic Human Rights, particularly the rights of African Americans. He traveled and spoke extensively in Africa to gain support for his pan-Africanist views. He pledged to bring the condition of African Americans before the General Assembly of the United Nations and thereby "internationalize" the civil rights movement in the United States. He further pledged to do whatever was necessary to bring the black struggle from the level of civil rights to the level of human rights. When he advocated for the right of African Americans to use arms to defend themselves against violence, he not only laid the groundwork for a subsequent growth of the Black Power Movement, but also led many U.S. citizens to believe that he advocated violence. However, in his autobiography, Malcolm said that he was not advocating wanton violence but calling for the right of individuals to use arms in Self-Defense when the law failed to protect them from violent assaults.
In 1965 Malcolm's increasing public criticism of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam prompted anonymous threats against his life. In his attempts to forge relationships with established civil rights organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Malcolm was criticized severely in the Nation of Islam's official publications. In a December 1964 article in Muhammad Speaks— the official newspaper of the Nation of Islam— Louis X (now known as Louis Farrakhan) said, "[S]uch a man as Malcolm is worthy of death, and would have met with death if it had not been for Muhammad's confidence in Allah for victory over the enemies."
On February 14, 1965, Malcolm's home in Queens, New York—which was still owned by the Nation of Islam—was firebombed while he and his family were asleep. Malcolm attributed the bombing to Nation of Islam supporters but no one was ever charged with the crime. One week later, when Malcolm stepped to the podium at the Audubon Ballroom in New York to present a speech on behalf of the OAAU, he was assassinated. The gunmen, later identified as former or current members of the Nation of Islam, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in April 1966.
Malcolm left a complex political and social legacy. Although he was primarily a black nationalist in perspective, his changing philosophy and politics toward the end of his life demonstrate the unfinished development of an influential figure. Although some people point to his identification with the Nation of Islam and dismiss him as a racial extremist and anti-Semite, his later thinking reveals profound changes in his perspective and a more universal understanding of the problems of African Americans. In his eulogy of Malcolm, the U.S. actor Ossie Davis said,
However we may have differed with him—or with each other about him and his value as a man—let his going from us serve only to bring us together, now. Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man—but a seed—which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us.
Benson, Michael. 2002. Malcolm X. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications.
Carson, Clayborne. 1991. Malcolm X: The FBI File. New York: Carroll & Graf.
Estell, Kenneth. 1994. African America: Portrait of a People. Detroit: Visible Ink.
"Malcolm X Scores U.S. and Kennedy." 1963. New York Times (December 2).
Malcolm X, with Alex Haley. 1984. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books.
Myers, Walter. 1993. Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary. New York: Scholastic.
Natambu, Kofi. 2002. The Life and Work of Malcolm X. Indianapolis, Ind.: Alpha.