Malcolm X was an African American leader in the civil rights movement, minister and supporter of black nationalism. He urged his fellow black Americans to protect themselves against white aggression “by any means necessary,” a stance that often put him at odds with the nonviolent teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. His charisma and oratory skills helped him achieve national prominence in the Nation of Islam, a belief system that merged Islam with black nationalism. After Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, his bestselling book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, popularized his ideas and inspired the Black Power movement.
Malcolm X: Early Life
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father was a Baptist preacher and follower of Marcus Garvey. The family moved to Lansing, Michigan after the Ku Klux Klan made threats against them, though the family continued to face threats in their new home. In 1931, Malcolm’s father was allegedly murdered by a white supremacist group called the Black Legionaries, though the authorities claimed his death was an accident. Mrs. Little and her children were denied her husband’s death benefits.
At age 6, the future Malcolm X entered a foster home and his mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Though highly intelligent and a good student, he dropped out of school following eighth grade. He began wearing zoot suits, dealing drugs and earned the nickname “Detroit Red.” At 21, he went to prison for larceny.
Malcolm X and The Nation of Islam
It was in jail that Malcolm X first encountered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, head of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, or Black Muslims, a black nationalist group that identified white people as the devil. Soon after, Malcolm adopted the last name “X” to represent his rejection of his “slave” name.
Malcolm was released from prison after serving six years and went on to become the minister of Mosque No. 7 in Harlem, where his oratory skills and sermons in favor of self-defense gained the organization new admirers: The Nation of Islam grew from 400 members in 1952 to 40,000 members by 1960. His admirers included celebrities like Muhammad Ali, who became close friends with Malcolm X before the two had a falling out.
His advocacy of achieving “by any means necessary” put him at the opposite end of the spectrum from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent approach to gaining ground in the growing civil rights movement. After Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Malcolm remarked: “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?”
Malcolm X’s politics also earned him the ire of the FBI, who conducted surveillance of him from his time in prison until his death. J. Edgar Hoover even told the agency’s New York office to “do something about Malcolm X.”
READ MORE: 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Malcolm X
Organization of Afro-American Unity
Disenchanted with corruption in the nation of Islam, which suspended him in December 1963 after he claimed that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was “the chickens coming home to roost,” Malcolm X left the organization for good. A few months later, he traveled to Mecca, where he underwent a spiritual transformation: "The true brotherhood I had seen had influenced me to recognize that anger can blind human vision," he wrote. Malcolm X returned to America with a new name: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
In June 1964, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which identified racism, and not the white race, as the enemy of justice. His more moderate philosophy became influential, especially among members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Malcolm X Assassination
Malcolm X was assassinated by a Black Muslim at an Organization of Afro-American Unity rally in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on February 21, 1965.
Malcolm X had predicted that he would be more important in death than in life, and had even foreshadowed his early demise in his book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Malcolm X began work on his autobiography in the early 1960s with the help of Alex Haley, the acclaimed author of Roots. The Autobiography of Malcolm X chronicled his life and views on race, religion and black nationalism. It was published posthumously in 1965 and became a bestseller.
The book and Malcolm X’s life have inspired numerous film adaptations, most famously Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X starring Denzel Washington.
Malcolm X is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, New York.