Celebrate Black History
Malcolm X (May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965), born Malcolm Little and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), was an African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist. To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of blacks, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans. Detractors accused him of preaching racism, black supremacy, and violence. He has been called one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history.
Malcolm X’s father died—killed by white supremacists, it was rumored—when he was young, and at least one of his uncles was lynched. When he was thirteen, his mother was placed in a mental hospital, and he was placed in a series of foster homes. In 1946, at age 20, he went to prison for breaking and entering.
In prison, Malcolm X became a member of the Nation of Islam; after his parole in 1952, he quickly rose to become one of its leaders. For a dozen years, Malcolm X was the public face of the controversial group, but disillusionment with Nation of Islam head Elijah Muhammad led him to leave the Nation in March 1964. After a period of travel in Africa and the Middle East, he returned to the United States, where he founded Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. In February 1965, less than a year after leaving the Nation of Islam, he was assassinated by three members of the group.
Malcolm X’s expressed beliefs changed substantially over time. As a spokesman for the Nation of Islam he taught black supremacy and advocated separation of black and whiteAmericans—in contrast to the civil rights movement‘s emphasis on integration. After breaking with the Nation of Islam in 1964—saying of his association with it, “I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then … pointed in a certain direction and told to march”—and becoming a Sunni Muslim, he disavowed racism and expressed willingness to work with civil rights leaders, though still emphasizing black self-determination and self-defense.
Civil Rights Activist. Malcolm X was born as Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, the fourth of eight children born to Louise and Earl Little. Louise was a homemaker and Earl was a preacher who was also an active member of the local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and avid supporter of the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Because of 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,” he said, “a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home… 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 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 Little excelled in junior high school but dropped out after a white teacher told him that practicing law, his aspiration at the time, was “no realistic goal for a nigger”. It made Malcolm feel that the white world offered no place for a career-oriented black man, regardless of his talent.
After living in a series of foster homes, at age 15 Little went to live with a half-sister, Ella Little Collins, in Roxbury, a largely African-American neighborhood of Boston, where he held a variety of jobs. After a short time in Flint, Michigan, Little moved to Harlem, New York, in 1943, where he engaged in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and pimping; according to recent biographies, he also occasionally had sex with other men, usually for money. He was called “Detroit Red” because of the reddish hair he inherited from his Scottish maternal grandfather. Little was declared “mentally disqualified for military service” after he told draft board officials he was eager to “steal us some guns, and kill us [some] crackers”.
In late 1945, Little returned to Boston, where he embarked on a series of burglaries targeting wealthy white families. In 1946, he was arrested while picking up a stolen watch he had left for repairs at a jewelry shop, and in February began serving an eight-to-ten year sentence at Charlestown State Prison. There he met John Bembry, a self-educated man he would later describe as “the first man I had ever seen command total respect … with words”; under Bembry’s influence, Little developed a voracious appetite for reading.
By the early 1960s, Malcolm X had emerged as a leading voice of a radicalized wing of the civil rights movement, presenting an alternative to Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a racially integrated society achieved by peaceful means. Dr. King was highly critical of what he viewed as Malcolm X’s destructive demagoguery. “I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice,” he said.
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.
On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X publicly announced his break from the Nation of Islam. He said that he was still a Muslim, but he felt the Nation of Islam had “gone as far as it can” because of its rigid religious teachings. Malcolm X said he was going to organize a black nationalist organization that would try to “heighten the political consciousness” of African Americans. He also expressed his desire to work with other civil rights leaders and said that Elijah Muhammad had prevented him from doing so in the past.
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. 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 American civil rights movement, he was assassinated.
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.
This Day In Black History (Feb. 25):
1. 1ST BLACK TO SERVE IN US SENATE (1870) – Hirman R. Revels of Mississippi sworn in as first Black U.S. senator and first Black representative in Congress.
2. ELIJAH MUHAMMAD DIES (1975) – Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death. Elijah Muhammad died from congestive heart failure at age 77 on February 25, 1975, the day before Saviours’ Day, at Mercy Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.