Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on 19 May 1925, the fourth of eight children. The family lived in Omaha in Nebraska where his father, a Baptist minister, Earl Little, was a prominent member of the local branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and an ardent supporter of Marcus Garvey. Rev Little’s prominence brought the unwanted attention of the local Ku Klux Klan. Such was the level of harassment, the family moved to the town of East Lansing in the state of Michigan. It was 1929; Malcolm was four years old. There, unfortunately, the harassment was, if anything, worse. Soon after moving into their new home, the house was set on fire. Malcolm later recalled, bitterly, how fire fighters arrived on the scene but, on seeing that it was a black family, refused to help.
In 1931, Malcolm’s father died in mysterious circumstances, run over by a streetcar. Although it was never proved, the suspicion remained that he had been killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The police recorded the death as suicide, thereby annulling Earl Little’s life insurance.
Left poverty-stricken, Malcolm’s mother struggled to make ends meet for her large family. The pressure took its toll and in 1937, six years after her husband’s death, she was committed to an asylum. The children were farmed out to various foster parents and homes. Malcolm went to school where a teacher asked the vulnerable Malcolm what he wanted to be. Malcolm answered, a lawyer. The teacher scoffed, told him to be realistic and recommended, instead, he become a carpenter. Disillusioned, he dropped out of school at the age of 15 and went to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella.
From Boston, Malcolm moved to the Harlem district of New York City where he got a job as a shoeshine boy. Called “Detroit Red” for the reddish hint in his hair, he drifted into a life of petty crime, involving robbery and drug selling. He lived well off the proceeds but in 1946, following a failed robbery, Malcolm was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Whilst incarcerated he spent much of his time reading in the prison library, obtaining the education he felt was lacking in his life. He converted to Islam and became a member of the Nation of Islam, or the Black Muslims. Founded by Elijah Muhammad, the self-proclaimed Messenger of Allah, the Black Muslims rejected Christianity as a white man’s religion and preached separation of the races.
Having served six years, Malcolm was released from prison in 1952. He moved to Chicago and founded (or took over – resources differ on this point) the Nation’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, which espoused racially controversial views about the natural superiority of blacks. Malcolm, having shed his “slave name”, advocated black separatism and the use of violence, if necessary, to achieve it. America’s blacks, he said, were in the midst of a revolution and there was “no such thing as a non-violent revolution”. Air time on national television brought him immediate fame, or notoriety. His preaching drew new converts and his charismatic style appealed to much of America’s black youth.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Describing himself as the “angriest black man in America”, Malcolm rejected Martin Luther King‘s non-confrontational approach and mocked King’s March on Washington (August 1963). Achieving integration through non-violence and, as Malcolm saw it, long-term suffering, would not progress the African American’s place in society. Instead, Malcolm preached independence, black power and black consciousness, a message that had widespread appeal. The Civil Rights Movement had, in Malcolm’s view, “begged the white man for freedom”, and begging for freedom did not, he continued, set you free. “The price of freedom is death”.
(The six foot, 3 inches tall, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr met just the once, pictured, in March 1964).
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz
Elijah Muhammad, impressed by Malcolm’s undoubted abilities, named him his second-in-command. Although the two men argued over the direction of the organization, Malcolm saw Muhammad as a mentor and a spiritual guide, and perhaps even a father-figure. But Muhammad’s private life failed to match his public persona as a man beyond reproach. Malcolm was left feeling betrayed when he learnt that Muhammad had fathered six children with different women. Their relationship deteriorated further when, following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Malcolm said it was a case of “chickens coming to roost”. Malcolm was ordered to observe a 90-day period of silence. Refusing to comply, in March 1964 Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and founded his own Islamic group, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. In 1965 he formed the secular group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Malcolm embarked on a tour of Africa and the Middle East, paid a pilgrimage to Mecca, and, having changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, converted to the Sunni branch of Islam. He returned to the US a more moderate man: “I recognize that anger can blind a man”, he later said.
Assassination of Malcolm X
Having left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X received numerous death threats. In 1964, Elijah Muhammad said that “hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off”. Indeed, an edition of Muhammad Speaks that year featured a cartoon of Malcolm X’s decapitated head. On 14 February 1965, Malcolm’s family home in New York was firebombed. He firmly believed that those responsible were members of the Nation of Islam.
A week later, on 21 February, as he was about to deliver a lecture at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, Malcolm was shot fifteen times and killed. He was three months short of his fortieth birthday. Three of Elijah Muhammad’s followers were later found guilty of the murder. The last of the three, Talmadge Hayer, having served 45 years in jail and having been refused parole sixteen times, was released from prison in 2010.
Elijah Muhammad, on hearing of Malcolm’s death, said, “Malcolm X got just what he preached… We know such ignorant, foolish teachings would bring him to his own end”.
In 1958, Malcolm had married Betty Shabazz, who, like Malcolm, called herself ‘X’. They were to have six daughters, the youngest two, twins, born after Malcolm’s assassination. On 1 June 1997, Betty’s home was set on fire by her 12-year-old grandson, Malcolm Shabazz. Three weeks later, she died of her injuries. Shabazz, who spent four years in a juvenile detention centre, immediately expressed his remorse. Shabazz himself was murdered in Mexico City on 9 May 2013. He was 28.
Malcolm’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, dictated to Alex Haley and written over two years, was published soon after his death, and remains a cult hit.
See also article on Malcolm X’s influence on the philosophy of the Black Panther movement.
Read more in Black History: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and audio.