The militant African-American leader was born Malcolm Little, later taking the Muslim name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. His life story, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was published posthumously in 1965, making him a hero among African Americans.
Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His father was Earl Little, a lay preacher and supporter of Marcus Garvey. One of Earl Little’s uncles had been lynched, and three of his brothers died at the hands of whites.
His mother’s family was from Grenada. The family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926, and then to Lansing, Michigan, where Malcolm grew up. He saw his family’s house burned down by the Ku Klux Klan.
Two years later, in 1931, his father was found dead after having been run over by a street car; it was believed that he had been murdered by the group who set fire to his house. Soon afterward Malcolm’s mother was declared insane and was moved to a mental institution.
Malcolm did well at junior high school, graduating at the top of his class, but a teacher he admired told him that it was unrealistic for African Americans to aspire to be lawyers. After several years in foster homes, Malcolm spent some time in a detention home and then moved to Boston to be with his sister.
He found work shining shoes, then joined the New Haven Railroad, but he quickly found himself involved in crime. He was refused an army position in World War II after allegedly claiming that as soon as he had a gun, he would organize other African Americans.
In 1946, he was arrested with another African American and two white women stealing goods to sell to a pawnshop. The women claimed that they had been coerced into the crime, and Malcolm was jailed for 10 years. In prison, Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam, which held the belief in the inherent superiority of black people.
Released from prison in 1952, he visited the Nation of Islam headquarters in Chicago, where he met with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the sect. Many African Americans believe that their surnames came to them from white slave owners; Malcolm Little changed his family name to “X.”
Over several years, Malcolm X toured the United States and was regarded as one of the best speakers and organizers for the Nation of Islam. He talked much of the exploitation of African Americans by whites and urged black separatism rather than integration and racial equality. Indeed, he felt that there should be greater black self-dependence and that violence was justified for self-protection.
This latter belief alienated him from many of the civil rights leaders at the time who urged for nonviolent resistance to racism. In 1959 Malcolm X went to Africa for the first time, visiting the United Arab Republic (Egypt), Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana, partially to help organize a tour by Elijah Muhammad that followed.
The Nation of Islam in the United States grew in numbers, and in 1961 he founded Muhammad Speaks, the official journal for the Nation of Islam. Settling in Harlem, New York, he became a minister at Mosque Number Seven.
Malcolm X had become a controversial figure in the Black Muslim movement, meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in September 1960 when the Cuban politician was in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly.
The Cuban delegation refused to stay in the Shelburne Hotel after being asked to pay in advance, and moved to the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, where Malcolm X and other African-American community leaders met them.
In 1963 Elijah Muhammad suspended him from the movement when he described the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy as a “case of chickens coming home to roost,” a remark that was regarded as extremely controversial.
In March 1964 Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and in the following month went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He had wanted to set up his own organization as a more radical wing of the Nation of Islam, but his time in Saudi Arabia led him to see that whites were not necessarily innately evil and that compromise was possible.
In October 1964 he reaffirmed that he had embraced orthodox Islam, but this did not prevent death threats from white extremists and also rival Black Muslims. He was shot dead on February 21, 1965, at a Harlem ballroom. Three Black Muslims were later convicted of the murder.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, compiled by writer Alex Haley from numerous interviews with Malcolm X shortly before the latter’s murder, was published posthumously and became an overnight best seller. Malcolm X had married Betty X (née Sanders) in Lansing, Michigan, and they had six daughters; the youngest two, twins, were born after Malcolm’s murder.