Childhood and family tragedies
Malcolm X, born as Malcolm Little, entered the world in a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska.
One of eight children, Malcolm grew up in an activist family that was often the
target of white supremacists. After relocating to Lansing, Michigan, the Little
family’s house was burned down by the Black Legion (a white supremacist organization)
in 1929. Two years after that tragic event, Malcolm’s father was found dead on a
set of trolley tracks. Malcolm was six years old when his father died. Although
police ruled both of these occurrences as accidents, the Little family was positive
that these tragedies were the work of the Black Legion. After the death of her husband,
Malcolm’s mother suffered an emotional breakdown and her children were sent to several
different foster homes.
Crime and incarceration
In school, Malcolm was very bright and focused. He ranked at the top of his class.
However, when he expressed his goal of becoming a lawyer to one of his teachers,
the teacher stated that a career in law was “no realistic goal for a nigger.” Malcolm
was so disappointed that he dropped out of school. He stayed in Boston for a bit
with his half sister; there, he began to work various odd jobs. He also was introduced
to crime on a small scale. He and a friend moved to Harlem, New York. By 1942, when
he was just 17 years old, he was already involved in drugs, prostitution, and illegal
gambling. After moving back to Boston, he was convicted of larceny, and given a
10 year prison sentence.
While he was in prison, he devoted his time to studying by reading every book the
prison library contained. He also became involved in the Muslim religion through
his brother, Reginald. He was paroled in 1952, after serving seven years of his
prison sentence. He took the last name X, because he considered “Little” his slave
name, and wanted X to represent his original, tribal name.
Nation of Islam and Civil Rights
Upon his release from prison, Malcolm X became a leader for the Nation of Islam
(NOI) and worked directly with Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X was put in charge of building
new mosques in Detroit and Harlem. He became an expert at using the media (radio,
newspaper, etc) to spread the NOI’s message; their membership grew from 500 in 1952
to 30,000 in 1963.
Marriage and family
In 1958, Malcolm X married Betty Shabazz. Because of the NOI’s stance on celibacy,
Malcolm and Betty were not even allowed to go on private dates before their marriage.
They dated through NOI gatherings and the like, and eventually were married. Together,
they had six daughters, two of whom were born after Malcolm’s death.
Teachings and beliefs
Malcolm X believed and preached what the Nation of Islam believed and preached:
that black people were the original inhabitants of the world, and therefore superior
beings. He thought that blacks and whites should be kept separate (despite all of
the goals of the Civil Rights movement), and that blacks should return to Africa.
He is also said to have denied the non-violent approach upheld by Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.
This comes from one of X’s most famous phrases, “by any means necessary,” which
many interpreted as his condoning of violent matters. Later, while writing his autobiography,
he explains a little better that he was not encouraging an unwarranted attack; however,
he was advising African Americans to not allow whites to push them around or deny
them certain rights, and to use “any means necessary” to get those basic human rights.
Leaving the Nation of Islam, Mecca, and a new view on Civil Rights
In 1963, Malcolm X discovered that his trusted leader and mentor, Elijah Muhammad,
had been having several extramarital affairs. This act clearly contradicted the
NOI’s teaching that one should remain celibate until marriage, and then be only
with the person to whom one’s married. Muhammad’s affairs had also produced several
children outside the confines of his marriage. Malcolm X was disgusted by this,
and refused Muhammad’s requests to try to cover up his bad deeds. After X’s discovery
and refusal to help cover it up, he was silenced by Muhammad for 90 days; allegedly,
this was due to X’s comment on
President JFK’s death. However, Malcolm X suspected that the silencing was
to keep him quiet about Muhammad’s affairs.
In March of 1964, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam because he was not able to
excuse Muhammad’s actions. He created his own religious organization called the
Muslim Mosque, Inc. Later that year, Malcolm X made his pilgrimage to Mecca (Saudi
Arabia), which changed the way he thought about many things. For one thing, for
the first time, he saw races interacting without any negative feelings towards each
other. He met white men that he could “call [his] brothers.”
After Malcolm X left the NOI, they ordered his assassination. FBI informants who
had infiltrated the NOI warned government officials as well as Malcolm X. After
several assassination attempts, Malcolm X took bodyguards with him nearly everywhere
he went. On February 14, 1965, X’s house was firebombed; however, he and his family
escaped without injury.
On February 21 of the same year, Malcolm X was giving a speech at Manhattan’s Audubon
Ballroom. Three gunmen rushed up onstage, shooting Malcolm more than 15 times. Malcolm
X was pronounced dead at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital; he was 39 years
Over 1500 people attended Malcolm X’s funeral. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery
in Hartsdale, New York. In the latter part of the year, Betty gave birth to twin
daughters, who never had the chance to meet their father. Three assassins, Talmadge
Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson were arrested and convicted of murder
in the first degree in 1966. Since then, they have all served their time and been
Malcolm X was regarded as one of the most influential leaders of the Civil Rights
Movement. Many books and movies have been made centering on Malcolm X. In 1992,
Spike Lee released “Malcolm X,” which received Oscar nominations for Best Actor
(Denzel Washington) and Best Costume Design.
You can follow the link to hear Malcolm X’s Ballot or
the Bullet Speech.