Malcolm X in March 1964
May 19, 1925
Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.
|Died||February 21, 1965 (aged 39)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
|Cause of death||Assassination (multiple gunshots)|
|Resting place||Ferncliff Cemetery|
|Other names||el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz
(الحاجّ مالك الشباز)
|Organization||Nation of Islam,
Muslim Mosque, Inc.,
Organization of Afro-American Unity
|Spouse(s)||Betty Shabazz (m. 1958–65)|
Gamilah Lumumba Shabazz
Louise Helen Norton Little
African-American leader and prominent figure in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X articulated concepts of race pride and black nationalism in the 1950s and ’60s.
Born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm X was a prominent black nationalist leader who served as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam during the 1950s and ’60s. Due largely to his efforts, the Nation of Islam grew from a mere 400 members at the time he was released from prison in 1952 to 40,000 members by 1960. Articulate, passionate and a naturally gifted and inspirational orator, Malcolm X exhorted blacks to cast off the shackles of racism “by any means necessary,” including violence. The fiery civil rights leader broke with the group shortly before his assassination, February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, where he had been preparing to deliver a speech.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. Malcolm was the fourth of eight children born to Louise, a homemaker, and Earl Little, a preacher who was also an active member of the local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and avid supporter of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Due to Earl Little’s civil rights activism, the family faced frequent harassment from white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and one of its splinter factions, the Black Legion. In fact, Malcolm X had his first encounter with racism before he was even born.
“When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, ‘a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home,'” Malcolm later remembered. “Brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out.” The harassment continued; when Malcolm X was four years old, local Klan members smashed all of the family’s windows, causing Earl Little to decide to move the family from Omaha to East Lansing, Michigan.
However, the racism the family encountered in East Lansing proved even greater than in Omaha. Shortly after the Littles moved in, in 1929, a racist mob set their house on fire, and the town’s all-white emergency responders refused to do anything. “The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned to the ground,” Malcolm X later remembered.
Two years later, in 1931, things got much, much worse. Earl Little’s dead body was discovered laid out on the municipal streetcar tracks. Although Malcolm X’s father was very likely murdered by white supremacists, from whom he had received frequent death threats, the police officially ruled his death a suicide, thereby voiding the large life insurance policy he had purchased in order to provide for his family in the event of his death. Malcolm X’s mother never recovered from the shock and grief of her husband’s death. In 1937, she was committed to a mental institution and Malcolm X left home to live with family friends.
Malcolm X attended West Junior High School, where he was the school’s only black student. He excelled academically and was well liked by his classmates, who elected him class president. However, he later said that he felt that his classmates treated him more like the class pet than a human being. The turning point in Malcolm X’s childhood came in 1939, when his English teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he answered that he wanted to be a lawyer. His teacher responded, “One of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic … you need to think of something you can be … why don’t you plan on carpentry?” Having thus been told in no uncertain terms that there was no point in a black child pursuing education, Malcolm X dropped out of school the following year, at the age of 15.
After quitting school, Malcolm X moved to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella, about whom he later recalled, “She was the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life. She was plainly proud of her very dark skin. This was unheard of among Negroes in those days.” Ella landed Malcolm a job shining shoes at the Roseland Ballroom. However, out on his own on the streets of Boston, Malcolm X became acquainted with the city’s criminal underground, soon turning to selling drugs. He got another job as kitchen help on the Yankee Clipper train between New York and Boston and fell further into a life of drugs and crime. Sporting flamboyant pinstriped zoot suits, he frequented nightclubs and dance halls and turned more fully to crime to finance his lavish lifestyle. This phase of Malcolm X’s life came to a screeching halt in 1946, when he was arrested on charges of larceny and sentenced to ten years in jail.
To pass the time during his incarceration, Malcolm X read constantly, devouring books from the prison library in an attempt make up for the years of education he had missed by dropping out of high school. Also while in prison, he was visited by several siblings who had joined to the Nation of Islam, a small sect of black Muslims who embraced the ideology of black nationalism—the idea that in order to secure freedom, justice and equality, black Americans needed to establish their own state entirely separate from white Americans. Malcolm X converted to the Nation of Islam while in prison, and upon his release in 1952 he abandoned his surname “Little,” which he considered a relic of slavery, in favor of the surname “X”—a tribute to the unknown name of his African ancestors.
Nation of Islam
Break with Elijah Muhammad
Philosophical differences with King were one thing; a rupture with Elijah Muhammad proved much more traumatic. In 1963, Malcolm X became deeply disillusioned when he learned that his hero and mentor had violated many of his own teachings, most flagrantly by carrying on many extramarital affairs; Muhammad had, in fact, fathered several children out of wedlock. Malcolm’s feelings of betrayal, combined with Muhammad’s anger over Malcolm’s insensitive comments regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, led Malcolm X to leave the Nation of Islam in 1964.
That same year, Malcolm X embarked on an extended trip through North Africa and the Middle East. The journey proved to be both a political and spiritual turning point in his life. He learned to place the American Civil Rights Movement within the context of a global anti-colonial struggle, embracing socialism and pan-Africanism. Malcolm X also made the Hajj, the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during which he converted to traditional Islam and again changed his name, this time to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
After his epiphany at Mecca, Malcolm X returned to the United States less angry and more optimistic about the prospects for peaceful resolution to America’s race problems. “The true brotherhood I had seen had influenced me to recognize that anger can blind human vision,” he said. “America is the first country … that can actually have a bloodless revolution.” Tragically, just as Malcolm X appeared to be embarking on an ideological transformation with the potential to dramatically alter the course of the Civil Rights Movement, he was assassinated.
Death and Legacy
On the evening of February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, where Malcolm X was about to deliver a speech, three gunmen rushed the stage and shot him 15 times at point blank range. Malcolm X was pronounced dead on arrival at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital shortly thereafter. He was 39 years old. The three men convicted of the assassination of Malcolm X were all members of the Nation of Islam: Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson.
In the immediate aftermath of Malcolm X’s death, commentators largely ignored his recent spiritual and political transformation and criticized him as a violent rabble-rouser. However, Malcolm X’s legacy as a civil rights hero was cemented by the posthumous publication in 1965 of The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. At once a harrowing chronicle of American racism, an unsparing self-criticism and an inspiring spiritual journey, the book, transcribed by the acclaimed author of Roots, instantly recast Malcolm X as one of the great political and spiritual leaders of modern times. Named by TIME magazine one of 10 “required reading” non-fiction books of all-time, The Autobiography of Malcolm X has truly enshrined Malcolm X as a hero to subsequent generations of radicals and activists.
Perhaps Malcolm X’s greatest contribution to society was underscoring the value of a truly free populace by demonstrating the great lengths to which human beings will go to secure their freedom. “Power in defense of freedom is greater than power in behalf of tyranny and oppression,” he stated. “Because power, real power, comes from our conviction which produces action, uncompromising action.”
In 1958, Malcolm X married Betty Sanders, a fellow member of the Nation of Islam. The couple had six children together, all daughters: Attallah (b. 1958), Qubilah (b. 1960), Ilyasah (b. 1963), Gamilah (b. 1964) and twins Malaak and Malikah (b. 1965). Sanders later became known as Betty Shabazz, and she became a prominent civil rights and human rights activist in her own right in the aftermath of her husband’s death.
In May 2013, Malcolm X’s grandson, Malcolm Shabazz—son of the civil rights leader’s second daughter with wife Betty Shabazz, Qubilah Shabazz—was beaten to death in Mexico City, near the Plaza Garibaldi. He was 28 years old. According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, police believe Malcolm Shabazz’s death was the result of a “robbery gone wrong.”
Reactions to assassination
Reactions to Malcolm X’s assassination were varied. In a telegram to Betty Shabazz, Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed his sadness at “the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband.” He said,
While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.
Elijah Muhammad told the annual Savior’s Day convention on February 26, “Malcolm X got just what he preached”, but denied any involvement with the murder. “We didn’t want to kill Malcolm and didn’t try to kill him”, Muhammad said. “We know such ignorant, foolish teachings would bring him to his own end.”
Writer James Baldwin, who had been a friend of Malcolm X’s, was in London when he heard the news of the assassination. He responded with indignation towards the reporters interviewing him, shouting, “You did it! It is because of you—the men that created this white supremacy—that this man is dead. You are not guilty, but you did it…. Your mills, your cities, your rape of a continent started all this.”
The New York Post wrote that “even his sharpest critics recognized his brilliance—
Outside of the U.S., and particularly in Africa, the press was sympathetic. The Daily Times of Nigeria wrote that Malcolm X “will have a place in the palace of martyrs.” The Ghanaian Times likened him to John Brown and Patrice Lumumba, and counted him among “a host of Africans and Americans who were martyred in freedom’s cause”. The Guangming Daily, published in Beijing, stated that “Malcolm was murdered because he fought for freedom and equal rights”; in Cuba, El Mundo described the assassination as “another racist crime to eradicate by violence the struggle against discrimination”.
Allegations of conspiracy
Within days, the question of who bore responsibility for the assassination was being publicly debated. On February 23, James Farmer, the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, announced at a news conference that local drug dealers, and not the Nation of Islam, were to blame. Others accused the NYPD, the FBI, or the CIA, citing the lack of police protection, the ease with which the assassins entered the Audubon Ballroom, and the failure of the police to preserve the crime scene.
In the 1970s, the public learned about COINTELPRO and other secret FBI programs established to infiltrate and disrupt civil rights organizations during the 1950s and 1960s. John Ali, national secretary of the Nation of Islam, was believed to have been an FBI undercover agent. Malcolm X had confided to a reporter that Ali exacerbated tensions between him and Elijah Muhammad, and that he considered Ali his “archenemy” within the Nation of Islam leadership. Ali had a meeting with Talmadge Hayer, one of the men convicted of killing Malcolm X, the night before the assassination.
The Shabazz family are among those who have accused Louis Farrakhan of involvement in Malcolm X’s assassination. In a 1993 speech Farrakhan seemed to acknowledge the possibility that the Nation of Islam was responsible:
Was Malcolm your traitor or ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours? A nation has to be able to deal with traitors and cutthroats and turncoats.
In a 60 Minutes interview that aired during May 2000, Farrakhan stated that some things he said may have led to the assassination of Malcolm X. “I may have been complicit in words that I spoke”, he said. “I acknowledge that and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being.” A few days later Farrakhan denied that he “ordered the assassination” of Malcolm X, although he again acknowledged that he “created the atmosphere that ultimately led to Malcolm X’s assassination.”
No consensus has been reached on who was responsible for the assassination. In August 2014, an online petition was started using the White House online petition mechanism to call on the government to release without alteration any files they still held relating to the murder of Malcolm X. The petition failed to attract enough signatures to mandate a White House response.
Except for his autobiography, Malcolm X left no published writings. His philosophy is known almost entirely from the many speeches and interviews he gave from 1952 until his death. Many of those speeches, especially from the last year of his life, were recorded and have been published.
Beliefs of the Nation of Islam expressed by Malcolm X
The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful than the conservative.
While he was a member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X taught its beliefs, and his statements often began with the phrase “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that…” It is virtually impossible now to discern whether Malcolm X’s personal beliefs at the time diverged from the teachings of the Nation of Islam. After he left the Nation in 1964, he compared himself to a ventriloquist’s dummy who could only say what Elijah Muhammad told him to say.
Malcolm X taught that black people were the original people of the world, and that white people were a race of devils who were created by an evil scientist named Yakub. The Nation of Islam believed that black people were superior to white people, and that the demise of the white race was imminent. When questioned concerning his statements that white people were devils, Malcolm X said: “history proves the white man is a devil. Anybody who rapes, and plunders, and enslaves, and steals, and drops hell bombs on people… anybody who does these things is nothing but a devil.”
Malcolm X said that Islam was the “true religion of black mankind” and that Christianity was “the white man’s religion” that had been imposed upon African Americans by their slave-masters. He said that the Nation of Islam followed Islam as it was practiced around the world, but the Nation’s teachings varied from those of other Muslims because they were adapted to the “uniquely pitiful” condition of black people in America. He taught that Wallace Fard Muhammad, the founder of the Nation, was Allah incarnate, and that Elijah Muhammad was his Messenger, or Prophet.
While the civil rights movement fought against racial segregation, Malcolm X advocated the complete separation of blacks from whites. The Nation of Islam proposed the establishment of a separate country for African Americans in the southern or southwestern United States as an interim measure until African Americans could return to Africa. Malcolm X suggested the United States government owed reparations to black people for the unpaid labor of their ancestors. He also rejected the civil rights movement’s strategy of nonviolence, advocating instead that black people should defend themselves.
I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now … Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X announced his willingness to work with leaders of the civil rights movement, though he advocated some changes to their policies. He felt that calling the movement a struggle for civil rights would keep the issue within the United States, while changing the focus to human rights would make it an international concern. The movement could then bring its complaints before the United Nations, where Malcolm X said the emerging nations of the world would add their support.
Malcolm X argued that if the U.S. government was unwilling or unable to protect black people, black people should protect themselves. He said that he and the other members of the Organization of Afro-American Unity were determined to defend themselves from aggressors, and to secure freedom, justice and equality “by whatever means necessary”.
Malcolm X stressed the global perspective he gained from his international travels. He emphasized the “direct connection” between the domestic struggle of African Americans for equal rights with the independence struggles of Third World nations. He said that African Americans were wrong when they thought of themselves as a minority; globally, black people were the majority.
In his speeches at the Militant Labor Forum, which was sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party, Malcolm X criticized capitalism. After one such speech, when he was asked what political and economic system he wanted, he said he didn’t know, but that it was no coincidence the newly independent countries in the Third World were turning toward socialism. When a reporter asked him what he thought about socialism, Malcolm X asked whether it was good for black people. When the reporter told him it seemed to be, Malcolm X told him, “Then I’m for it.“
Although he no longer called for the separation of black people from white people, Malcolm X continued to advocate black nationalism, which he defined as self-determination for the African-American community. In the last months of his life, however, Malcolm X began to reconsider his support for black nationalism after meeting northern African revolutionaries who, to all appearances, were white.
After his Hajj, Malcolm X articulated a view of white people and racism that represented a deep change from the philosophy he had supported as a minister of the Nation of Islam. In a famous letter from Mecca, he wrote that his experiences with white people during his pilgrimage convinced him to “rearrange” his thinking about race and “toss aside some of [his] previous conclusions”. In a conversation with Gordon Parks, two days before his assassination, Malcolm said:
- Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant—
the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together— and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then— like all [Black] Muslims— I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.
- Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant—
- That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—
I’m glad to be free of them.
- That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—
Up until one week before his death, Malcolm X continued to publicly advocate that black people should achieve advancement “by any means necessary”.