1. His father may have been killed by white supremacists.
As vocal supporters of pan-African leader Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X’s parents faced constant threats from white supremacists. Just before Malcolm’s birth, for example, armed Ku Klux Klansmen rode out to their house in Omaha, Nebraska, and shattered all their windows. Another of their homes burned down a few years later, apparently at the hands of the Black Legion, a Klan splinter group. Even worse, when Malcolm was 6 years old, his father went out one evening to collect a debt, only to be hit by a streetcar and mortally wounded. Though the authorities ruled his death an accident, African Americans in town believed the Black Legion had beat him and placed him on the tracks to be run over. To this day, no one knows for sure. Malcolm also lost other relatives to violence, including an uncle he said was lynched by whites.
2. He moved around constantly as a youth.
Despite being born in Omaha, Malcolm Little (as he was known then) spent very little time there before his family uprooted, first to Milwaukee, then to East Chicago, Indiana, and finally to Lansing, Michigan, where his father would be killed. Not long afterwards, Malcolm’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was shipped off to a mental institution, prompting welfare officials to split Malcolm and his now-parentless siblings apart. At first, Malcolm stayed with neighbors.
He was then sent to a juvenile detention home in Mason, Michigan, about 10 miles south of Lansing, where he attended a nearly all-white junior high. Though academically near the top of his class, an English teacher purportedly told him that being a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a n*****.” Fed up, he went at age 15 to live with his half-sister in Boston, never to attend school again. A railroad job instilled in him a fondness for travel, and by age 17 he was residing in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem.
3. He spent six-and-a-half years in jail.
As early as age 9, with his family in dire economic straits, Malcolm began robbing food from stores in Lansing. Later on, in Boston and New York, he got involved in drug dealing, gambling and prostitution rackets, spending much of his time in seedy nightclubs. At age 19, he was arrested for the first time for allegedly stealing and pawning his half-sister’s fur coat. A second arrest followed for allegedly mugging an acquaintance at gunpoint, and a third arrest came after he burglarized a series of Boston-area homes. Sentenced to state prison in 1946, his cellblock mates called him “Satan” for his habit of pacing around and muttering curses at God and the Bible.
Soon after, however, he settled down and began voraciously devouring works of history—the horrors of slavery made a particular impression on him—as well as virtually all other nonfiction he could get his hands on. He even tried memorizing the dictionary. “In every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk,” Malcolm wrote in his autobiography. “You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge.” Meanwhile, following the example of his siblings, he joined the Nation of Islam and struck up a correspondence with its leader, Elijah Muhammad. Like Garvey, the Nation of Islam preached Black self-reliance and empowerment. In a far cry from traditional Islam, it also taught that whites were a race of “blue-eyed devils” created millenniums ago by an evil scientist.
4. With his help, the Nation of Islam took off in popularity.
Upon leaving prison in 1952, Malcolm moved to his brother’s house near Detroit, where he attended the local Nation of Islam mosque and actively sought out new converts. Dropping his surname Little, which he considered a “slave” name, in favor of the letter X, he quickly became a favorite of Elijah Muhammad, who promoted him to minister prior to dispatching him to Boston and Philadelphia to establish new mosques there. Malcolm then spent a decade as head of the Harlem mosque, in addition to launching a Nation of Islam newspaper, giving speeches at dozens of universities around the country, participating in debates with mainstream civil-rights leaders and occasionally meeting with foreign heads of state.
Everywhere, he railed against white racism, saying such things as, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters—Plymouth Rock landed on us!” Largely as a result of his efforts, membership in the Nation of Islam grew from only a few hundred at the time of his conversion to about 6,000 in 1955 and then to an estimated 75,000 in the early 1960s. Non-Muslims also took note of his fiery oratory, including author Alex Haley, with whom he would collaborate on his autobiography.
5. He opposed integration.
While in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm routinely referred to mainstream civil-rights leaders as “Uncle Toms,” considering them fools for thinking white America would ever willingly give them equality. When Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington, Malcolm called it the “Farce on Washington.” “Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing ‘We Shall Overcome’ … while tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they were supposed to be angrily revolting against?” he wrote in his autobiography.
A believer in strict separation of the races, he once even entered into secret negotiations with the KKK. Yet after making a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in April 1964, he began, in his own words, to “reappraise the ‘white man.’” From that point forward, Malcolm moved away from Black separatism and wholesale denunciations of whites, and instead embraced a more humanistic approach to fighting oppression.
6. He bitterly broke with Elijah Muhammad.
Though he once revered Muhammad, Malcolm began having second thoughts after discovering that his mentor had fathered several illegitimate children in direct violation of the Nation of Islam’s teachings. Their relationship then further soured in late 1963, when Muhammad suspended him for asserting that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a case of the “chickens coming home to roost.” At loose ends, Malcolm announced his split from the Nation of Islam early the next year, converted to traditional Islam and took on the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
In speeches, he now criticized Muhammad for his infidelities and for “religious fakery,” prompting the Nation of Islam to take retaliatory measures. On February 14, 1965, someone threw Molotov cocktails at his New York City home, forcing him, his pregnant wife and his four daughters to take refuge in the backyard. Exactly a week later, Nation of Islam members shot him dead at the Audubon Ballroom.
7. The FBI followed his every move.
As a prisoner in 1950, Malcolm wrote a letter to President Harry Truman in which he declared himself a Communist opposed to the Korean War. This brought him to the attention of the FBI, which began surveillance that would last until his death. In one document that has since come to light, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover told the agency’s New York office to “do something about Malcolm X.”
Another time, the agency explored whether he had violated the little-known Logan Act, which bans citizens from unauthorized negotiation with foreign governments. It had a hard time discrediting him, however, because of the law-abiding way in which he lived his post-prison life. In 1958, an FBI informant called him a man “of high moral character” who “neither smokes nor drinks.” Apparently, he was seldom even late for an appointment. Some scholars speculate that the FBI, with so many informants inside the Nation of Islam, knew about the plot to assassinate Malcolm and intentionally turned a blind eye to it.