Malcolm X (May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965 — also: Malcolm Little, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and Omowale) was a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, and founder of both the Muslim Mosque, Inc and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated, in 1965. X was considered a militant Black Nationalist leader in the United States during his life.
He was born as “Malcolm Little” in Nebraska. His father Earl, an outspoken Baptist minister and supporter of Marcus Garvey, the president of the UNIA-ACL and leader of the African Redemption Movement, was murdered in Lansing, Michigan in 1931.
Malcolm later dropped out of high school, and moved to Boston; where he worked as a shoeshiner at a Lindy Hop nightclub; in his autobiography, he says that he once shined the shoes of Duke Ellington (and other notable musicians); after some time, he moved to Harlem, New York, where he became involved in drug dealing, gambling, prostitution, racketeering, and robbery; he also faked insanity, in order to avoid the World War II draft; Little was arrested for burglary, in 1946, and sentenced to ten years imprisonment (he was paroled after seven).
While incarcerated, he was introduced to the religion of Islam and became a member of the Nation of Islam. By the time he was released in 1952, Malcolm was a devoted follower. In keeping with the Nation of Islam tradition that the true family names of African-Americans had been lost during the era of slavery, he changed his surname to “X” to signify his lost African family name.
Malcolm was soon appointed a minister and spokesman by Elijah Muhammad, who was a disciple of the founder of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm concentrated on the black urban population of the north and rejected Martin Luther King Jr.‘s message of non-violence in favour of militant black nationalism. He was largely credited with increasing membership of the Nation of Islam from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963. He married Betty X (later Betty Shabazz) in 1958. In addition to the media, Malcolm had attracted the attention of the FBI. Agents infiltrated the organization and used bugs, wiretaps and other surveillance equipment to monitor the group’s activities.
In the early sixties, Malcolm began to become disillusioned with the Nation of Islam amid rumours of Elijah Muhammad’s infidelity and also the Nation’s continuing distance from the civil rights movement. Although the Nation adopted a fiercely anti-white stance, they were rarely seen on the front lines in the South.
Tensions rose until it was revealed that Elijah Muhammad had impregnated six of his teenage secretaries, fathering eight children. Furthermore, a combination of internal differences and an effective COINTELPRO operation resulted in death threats by the Nation against Malcolm.
In order to force himself out of the organization, Malcolm disobeyed direct orders from the nation and criticised President Kennedy shortly after his assassination. His infamous comment to reporters was that in light of the violence of American foreign policy such as the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the assassination of Kennedy was a case of “the chickens coming home to roost”. Following this he was ordered not to speak to the press as a punitive measure by Elijah Muhammad. This public reprimand and reports of Elijah Muhammad’s philandering led Malcolm to split with the Nation of Islam. He left in March 1964 and founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc.
In 1963, he found companionship with a young boxer named Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali. Clay and Malcolm became good friends and Clay announced his membership in the Nation of Islam the day after his victory over Sonny Liston in February, 1964.
In the spring of 1964, Malcolm made the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). The trip proved life-altering. The true fellowship between Muslims of all colors that he encountered eroded his belief in a separate nation for blacks and that all whites were “devils”. He returned to the United States as a convert to orthodox Islam (and with a new name – El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity with a new message on integration, preaching to all races but still with a strong belief in black nationalism.
Life magazine published a famous photograph of Malcolm X holding a rifle and pulling back the curtains to peer out of a window. This photograph is a popular image on T-shirts and often appears with the slogan “By all means necessary.” The rifle is probably an M1 Garand Carbine.
Tensions increased between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam. Orders were given by the Nation members to kill Malcolm. On February 14, 1965 his home in New York was reportedly firebombed. A week later on February 21, in the Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, three gunmen killed Malcolm, shooting him 15 times at close range. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. The assassins, all perhaps members of the Nation of Islam, were convicted of first-degree murder in March 1966. An FBI memo uncovered during the COINTELPRO investigations, however, takes credit for creating the factional dispute that led to Malcolm X’s assassination. The exact role of the FBI in his death has never been made clear although it is known that at least one of Malcolm’s bodyguards was an NYPD police officer reporting to the FBI.
Despite his change of view, he was most remembered for his anti-White speeches, which were emulated by other black nationalist organizations such as the Black Panthers.
- “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, my brothers and sisters – Plymouth Rock landed on us!”
- “To me, the Earth’s most pernicious evil is racism…With racism plaguing America like an incurable cancer…the…American heart should be more receptive to a proven solution Islam…perhaps it could be in time to save America from…the same destruction brought upon Germany.” (0345350685 — pp.345-48)
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (ISBN 0345350685
) was written by Alex Haley, based on interviews conducted shortly before Malcolm’s death, and was published in 1972.
The film Malcolm X was released in 1992, directed by Spike Lee and based on the autobiography it starred Denzel Washington as Malcolm with Angela Bassett as Betty and Al Freeman Jr. as Elijah Muhammad.