Malcolm X ( /ˈmælkəm ˈɛks/; May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965), born Malcolm Little and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Arabic: الحاجّ مالك الشباز), was an African American Muslim minister and human rights activist. To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of African Americans, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans. Detractors accused him of preaching racism, black supremacy, antisemitism, 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 and 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 white Americans—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 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.
Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, the fourth of seven children to Earl Little and Louise Norton. His father was an outspoken Baptist lay speaker. He supported Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey and was a local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Malcolm never forgot the values of black pride and self-reliance that his father and other UNIA leaders preached. Malcolm X later said that three of Earl Little’s brothers, one of whom was lynched, died violently at the hands of white men. Because of Ku Klux Klan threats, the family relocated in 1926 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and shortly thereafter to Lansing, Michigan.
Earl Little, who was dark-skinned, was born in Reynolds, Georgia. He had three children from his first marriage: Ella, Mary, and Earl Jr.—and seven with his second wife, Louise: Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, Malcolm, Reginald, Yvonne, and Wesley. Louise Norton Little was born in Grenada. Because her father was Scottish, she was so light-skinned that she could have passed for white. Malcolm inherited his light complexion from his mother and maternal grandfather. Initially he felt his light skin was a status symbol, but he later said he “hated every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me.” Malcolm X later remembered feeling that his father favored him because he was the lightest-skinned child in the family; however, he thought his mother treated him harshly for the same reason. One of Malcolm’s nicknames, “Red”, derived from the tinge of his hair. According to one biographer, at birth he had “ash-blonde hair … tinged with cinnamon”, and at age four, “reddish-blonde hair”. His hair darkened as he aged, yet he also resembled his paternal grandmother, whose hair “turned reddish in the summer sun.” The issue of skin and hair color took on very significant implications later in Malcolm’s life.
In December 1924, Louise Little was threatened by klansmen while she was pregnant with Malcolm. She recalled that the klansmen warned the family to leave Omaha, because Earl Little’s activities with UNIA were “spreading trouble”. After they moved to Lansing, their house was burned in 1929; however, the family escaped without physical injury. On September 8, 1931, Earl Little was fatally struck by a streetcar in Lansing. Authorities ruled his death an accident. The police reported that Earl Little was conscious when they arrived on the scene, and he told them he had slipped and fallen under the streetcar’s wheels. The black community in Lansing disputed the cause of death, believing there was circumstantial evidence of assault. His family had frequently been harassed by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group that his father accused of burning down their home in 1929. Some blacks believed the Black Legion was responsible for Earl Little’s death. One of the adults at the funeral told eight-year-old Philbert Little that his father had been hit from behind and shoved under the streetcar.
Though Earl Little had two life insurance policies, his family received death benefits solely from the smaller policy. The insurance company of the larger policy claimed that his father had committed suicide and refused to issue the benefit. The payout from the insurance policy was $1,000 (comparable to about $15,000 in 2010 dollars), and the probate court awarded Louise Little a monthly “widow’s allowance” of $18. She rented space in the garden to raise more money, and her sons would hunt game for supper.
In 1935 or 1936, Louise Little began dating an African-American man. A marriage proposal seemed a possibility, but the man disappeared from their lives when Louise became pregnant with his child in late 1937. In December 1938, Louise Little had a nervous breakdown and was declared legally insane. The Little siblings were split up and sent to different foster homes. The state formally committed Louise Little to the state mental hospital at Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she remained until Malcolm and his siblings secured her release 24 years later.
Malcolm Little was one of the best students in his junior high school, but he dropped out after a white eighth-grade teacher told him that his aspirations of being a lawyer were “no realistic goal for a nigger.” Years later, Malcolm X would laugh about the incident, but at the time it was humiliating. It made him feel that there was no place in the white world for a career-oriented black man, no matter how smart he was. After living with a series of white foster parents, Malcolm moved to Boston in February 1941 to live with his older half-sister, Ella Little Collins.
Young adult years
Collins lived in Roxbury, a predominantly African-American middle-class neighborhood of Boston. It was the first time Little had seen so many black people. He was drawn to the cultural and social life of the neighborhood. In Boston, Little held a variety of jobs and found intermittent employment with the New Haven Railroad. Between 1943 and 1946, he drifted from city to city and job to job. He left Boston to live for a short time in Flint, Michigan. He moved to New York City in 1943. Living in Harlem, he became involved in drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery, and pimping. During this period, Little became known as “Detroit Red” because he came from Michigan and because of the reddish color of his hair. According to recent biographies, Little occasionally engaged in sex with other men, usually for money.
In 1943, the U.S. draft board ordered Little to register for military service. He later recalled that he put on a display to avoid the draft by telling the examining officer that he could not wait to “steal us some guns, and kill us [some] crackers.” Military physicians classified him as “mentally disqualified for military service”. He was issued a 4-F card, relieving him of his service obligations. In late 1945, Little returned to Boston. With a group of associates, he began a series of elaborate burglaries targeting the residences of wealthy white families. On January 12, 1946, Little was arrested for burglary while trying to pick up a stolen watch he had left for repairs at a jewelry shop. The shop owner called the police because the watch was very expensive, and the police had alerted all Boston jewelers that it had been stolen. Little told the police that he had a gun on his person and surrendered so the police would treat him more leniently. Three days later, Little was indicted for carrying firearms. On January 16, he was charged with larceny and breaking and entering, and eventually sentenced to eight to ten years in prison.
On February 27, Little began serving his sentence at the Charlestown State Prison in Charlestown, Boston. While in prison, Little earned the nickname of “Satan” for his hostility toward religion. Little met a self-educated man in prison named John Elton Bembry (referred to as “Bimbi” in The Autobiography of Malcolm X). Bembry was a well-regarded prisoner at Charlestown, and Malcolm X would later describe him as “the first man I had ever seen command total respect … with words.” Gradually, the two men became friends and Bembry convinced Little to educate himself. Little developed a voracious appetite for reading, and he frequently read after the prison lights had been turned off. In 1948, Little’s brother Philbert wrote, telling him about the Nation of Islam. Like the UNIA, the Nation preached black self-reliance and, ultimately, the unification of members of the African diaspora, free from white American and European domination. Little was not interested in joining until his brother Reginald wrote, saying, “Malcolm, don’t eat any more pork and don’t smoke any more cigarettes. I’ll show you how to get out of prison.” Little quit smoking, and the next time pork was served in the prison dining hall, he refused to eat it.
When Reginald came to visit Little, he described the group’s teachings, including the belief that white people are devils. Afterward, Little thought about all the white people he had known, and he realized that he’d never had a relationship with a white person or social institution that wasn’t based on dishonesty, injustice, greed, and hatred. Little began to reconsider his dismissal of all religion and he became receptive to the message of the Nation of Islam. Other family members who had joined the Nation wrote or visited and encouraged Little to join. In February 1948, mostly through his sister’s efforts, Little was transferred to the Norfolk Prison Colony, an experimental prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts, that had a much larger library. In late 1948, he wrote a letter to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad advised him to atone for his crimes by renouncing his past and by humbly bowing in prayer to Allah and promising never to engage in destructive behavior again. Little, who always had been rebellious and deeply skeptical, found it very difficult to bow in prayer. It took him a week to bend his knees. Finally he prayed, and he became a member of the Nation of Islam. For the remainder of his incarceration, Little maintained regular correspondence with Muhammad. On August 7, 1952, Little was paroled and was released from prison. He later reflected on the time he spent in prison after his conversion: “Between Mr. Muhammad’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors—usually Ella and Reginald—and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.”
Nation of Islam
When Little was released from prison in 1952, he had more than a new religion. He also had a new name. In a December 1950 letter to his brother Philbert, Little signed his name as Malcolm X for the first time. In his autobiography, he explained why: “The Muslim’s ‘X’ symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”
Shortly after his release from prison, Malcolm X visited Elijah Muhammad in Chicago, Illinois. In June 1953, Malcolm X was named assistant minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number One in Detroit. Soon, he became a full-time minister. By late 1953, Malcolm X established Boston’s Temple Number 11. In March 1954, he expanded Temple Number 12 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two months later Malcolm X was selected to lead Temple Number Seven in Harlem, and he rapidly expanded its membership.
The FBI had opened a file on Malcolm X in 1950 after he wrote a letter to President Truman stating his opposition to the Korean War and declaring himself to be a communist. It began surveillance of him in 1953, and soon the FBI turned its attention from concerns about possible Communist Party association to Malcolm X’s rapid ascent in the Nation of Islam.
During 1955, Malcolm X continued his successful recruitment efforts on behalf of the organization. He established temples in Springfield, Massachusetts (Number 13); Hartford, Connecticut (Number 14); and Atlanta, Georgia (Number 15). Hundreds of African Americans were joining the Nation of Islam every month. Beside his skill as a speaker, Malcolm X had an impressive physical presence. He stood 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 m) tall and weighed about 180 pounds (82 kg). One writer described him as “powerfully built”, and another as “mesmerizingly handsome … and always spotlessly well-groomed”.
Johnson Hinton incident
Malcolm X first came to the attention of the general public after the police beating of a Nation of Islam member named Johnson Hinton. On April 26, 1957, two police officers were beating an African-American man with their nightsticks when three passersby who belonged to the Nation of Islam tried to intervene. They shouted: “You’re not in Alabama or Georgia. This is New York!” One of the officers began to beat one of the passersby, Johnson Hinton. The blows were so severe, a surgeon later determined, that they caused brain contusions, subdural hemorrhaging, and scalp lacerations. All four men were arrested and taken to the police station.
A woman who had seen the assault ran to the Nation of Islam’s restaurant. Within a few hours, Malcolm X and a small group of Muslims went to the police station and demanded to see Hinton. The police captain initially said no Muslims were being held there, but as the crowd grew to about 500, he allowed Malcolm X to speak with Hinton. After a short talk, Malcolm X demanded that Hinton be taken to the hospital, so an ambulance was called and Hinton was taken to Harlem Hospital.
Hinton was treated and released into the custody of the police, who returned him to the police station. By this point, about 4,000 people had gathered; the police realized there was the potential for a riot and called for backup. Malcolm X went back into the police station with an attorney and made bail arrangements for the other two Muslims. The police said Hinton could not go back to the hospital until he was arraigned the following day. Malcolm X realized things were at a stalemate. He stepped outside the station house and gave a hand signal. The Nation of Islam members in the crowd silently walked away. The rest of the crowd dispersed minutes later. One police officer told the editor of the New York Amsterdam News: “No one man should have that much power.”
The following month, the Bureau of Special Services and Investigation of the New York Police Department (NYPD) began its surveillance of Malcolm X. The NYPD’s Chief Inspector asked for information from the police department in every city where Malcolm X had lived, and from the prisons where he had served his sentence. In October, when a grand jury declined to indict the officers who had beaten Hinton, Malcolm X wrote an angry telegram to the police commissioner. In response, undercover NYPD officers were placed inside the Nation of Islam.
Marriage and family
Malcolm X met Betty Sanders in 1955. She had been invited to listen to his lecture, and she was very impressed by him. They met again at a dinner party. Soon Sanders was attending all of Malcolm X’s lectures at Temple Number Seven. In mid 1956, she joined the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X and Betty X did not have a conventional courtship. One-on-one dates were contrary to the teachings of the Nation of Islam. Instead, the couple shared their “dates” with dozens, or even hundreds of other members. Malcolm X frequently took groups to visit New York’s museums and libraries, and he always invited Betty X.
Although they had never discussed the subject, Betty X suspected that Malcolm X was interested in marriage. On January 12, 1958, he called from Detroit and asked her to marry him, and they were married two days later in Lansing, Michigan.
The couple had six daughters. Their names were Attallah, born in 1958 and named after Attila the Hun; Qubilah, born in 1960 and named after Kublai Khan; Ilyasah, born in 1962 and named after Elijah Muhammad; Gamilah Lumumba, born in 1964 and named after Patrice Lumumba; and twins, Malikah and Malaak, born in 1965 after their father’s assassination and named for him.
The Hate That Hate Produced
After a 1959 television broadcast in New York City about the Nation of Islam, The Hate That Hate Produced, Malcolm X became known to white Americans. Representatives of the print media, radio, and television frequently asked him for comments on issues. By the late 1950s, Malcolm X had acquired a new name, Malcolm Shabazz or Malik el-Shabazz, although he was still widely referred to as Malcolm X.
In September 1960, Fidel Castro arrived in New York to attend the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. He and his entourage stayed at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. Malcolm X was a prominent member of a Harlem-based welcoming committee made up of community leaders who met with Castro. Castro was so impressed by Malcolm X that he requested a private meeting with him. At the end of their two-hour meeting, Castro invited Malcolm X to visit him in Cuba. During the General Assembly meeting, Malcolm X was also invited to many official embassy functions sponsored by African nations, where he met heads of state and other leaders, including Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea, and Kenneth Kaunda of the Zambian African National Congress.
From his adoption of the Nation of Islam in 1952 until he broke with it in 1964, Malcolm X promoted the Nation’s teachings, including that black people are the original people of the world, that white people are “devils”, that blacks are superior to whites, and that the demise of the white race is imminent. While the civil rights movement fought against racial segregation, Malcolm X advocated the complete separation of African Americans from white people. He proposed the establishment of a separate country for black people as an interim measure until African Americans could return to Africa. Malcolm X also rejected the civil rights movement’s strategy of nonviolence, and instead advocated that black people use any necessary means of self-defense to protect themselves. Malcolm X’s speeches had a powerful effect on his audiences, generally African Americans who lived in the Northern and Western cities, who were tired of being told to wait for freedom, justice, equality and respect. Many blacks felt that he articulated their complaints better than the civil rights movement did.
Malcolm X has been widely considered the second most influential leader of the Nation of Islam after Elijah Muhammad. He was largely credited with the group’s dramatic increase in membership between the early 1950s and early 1960s (from 500 to 25,000 by one author’s estimate, or from 1,200 to 50,000 or 75,000 by another’s). He inspired the boxer Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) to join the Nation of Islam. (though like Malcolm X himself, Ali later left the group to become a Sunni Muslim).
Many white people, and even some blacks, were alarmed by Malcolm X and the things he said. He and the Nation of Islam were described as hatemongers, black supremacists, violence-seekers, and a threat to improved race relations. Civil rights organizations denounced Malcolm X and the Nation as irresponsible extremists whose views were not representative of African Americans. Malcolm X was accused of being antisemitic.
Malcolm X was equally critical of the civil rights movement. He described its leaders as “stooges” for the white establishment, and he once described Martin Luther King, Jr. as a “chump”. He criticized the 1963 March on Washington, which he called “the farce on Washington”. He said he did not know why black people were excited over a demonstration “run by whites in front of a statue of a president who has been dead for a hundred years and who didn’t like us when he was alive”.
Leaving the Nation
On December 1, 1963, when he was asked for a comment about the assassination of President Kennedy, Malcolm X said that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost“. He added that “chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” The New York Times wrote, “in further criticism of Mr. Kennedy, the Muslim leader cited the murders of Patrice Lumumba, Congo leader, of Medgar Evers, civil rights leader, and of the Negro girls bombed earlier this year in a Birmingham church. These, he said, were instances of other ‘chickens coming home to roost’.” The remarks prompted a widespread public outcry. The Nation of Islam, which had issued a message of condolence to the Kennedy family and ordered its ministers not to comment on the assassination, publicly censured their former shining star. Although Malcolm X retained his post and rank as minister, he was prohibited from public speaking for 90 days.
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.
One reason for the separation was growing tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad because of Malcolm X’s dismay about rumors of Muhammad’s extramarital affairs with young secretaries, actions that were against the teachings of the Nation. Although at first Malcolm X had ignored the rumors, after speaking with Muhammad’s son Wallace and the women making the accusations, he came to believe that they were true. Muhammad confirmed the rumors in 1963 but tried to justify his actions by reference to precedents set by Biblical prophets. Another reason for the separation was growing resentment by people within the Nation. As Malcolm X had become a favorite of the media, many in the Nation’s Chicago headquarters felt that he was over-shadowing Muhammad. Louis Lomax‘s 1963 book about the Nation of Islam, When the Word Is Given, featured a picture of Malcolm X on its cover and included five of his speeches, but only one of Muhammad’s, which greatly upset Muhammad. Muhammad was also envious that a publisher was interested in Malcolm X’s autobiography. After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X founded Muslim Mosque, Inc., a religious organization, and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism. On March 26, 1964, he met Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C., after a press conference held when both men attended the Senate to hear the debate on the Civil Rights bill. This was the only time the two men ever met and their meeting lasted only one minute—just long enough for photographers to take a picture. In April, Malcolm X made a speech titled “The Ballot or the Bullet” in which he advised African Americans to exercise their right to vote wisely. Several Sunni Muslims encouraged Malcolm X to learn about Islam. Soon he converted to Sunni Islam, and decided to make his pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).
Pilgrimage to Mecca
On April 13, 1964, Malcolm X departed JFK Airport in New York for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. His status as an authentic Muslim was questioned by Saudi authorities because of his United States passport and his inability to speak Arabic. Since only confessing Muslims are allowed into Mecca, he was separated from his group for about 20 hours.
According to his autobiography, Malcolm X saw a telephone and remembered the book The Eternal Message of Muhammad by Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam, which had been presented to him with his visa approval. He called Azzam’s son, who arranged for his release. At the younger Azzam’s home, he met Azzam Pasha, who gave Malcolm his suite at the Jeddah Palace Hotel. The next morning, Muhammad Faisal, the son of Prince Faisal, visited and informed Malcolm X that he was to be a state guest. The deputy chief of protocol accompanied Malcolm X to the Hajj Court, where he was allowed to make his pilgrimage.
On April 19, Malcolm X completed the Hajj, making the seven circuits around the Kaaba, drinking from the Zamzam Well, and running between the hills of Safah and Marwah seven times. After completing the Hajj, he was granted an audience with Prince Faisal. Malcolm X said the trip allowed him to see Muslims of different races interacting as equals. He came to believe that Islam could be the means by which racial problems could be overcome.
Malcolm X visited Africa on three separate occasions, once in 1959 and twice in 1964. During his visits, he met officials, gave interviews to newspapers, and spoke on television and radio in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sudan, Senegal, Liberia, Algeria, and Morocco. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria invited Malcolm X to serve in their governments.
In 1959, Malcolm X traveled to Egypt (then known as the United Arab Republic), Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana to arrange a tour for Elijah Muhammad. The first of the two trips Malcolm X made to Africa in 1964 lasted from April 13 until May 21, before and after his Hajj. On May 8, following his speech at the University of Ibadan, Malcolm X was made an honorary member of the Nigerian Muslim Students’ Association. During this reception the students bestowed upon him the name “Omowale”, which means “the son who has come home” in the Yoruba language. Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography that he “had never received a more treasured honor.”
On July 9, 1964, Malcolm X returned to Africa. On July 17, he was welcomed to the second meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Cairo as a representative of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. By the time he returned to the United States on November 24, 1964, Malcolm had met with every prominent African leader and established an international connection between Africans on the continent and those in the diaspora.
France and the United Kingdom
On November 23, 1964, on his way home from Africa, Malcolm X stopped in Paris, where he spoke at the Salle de la Mutualité. A week later, on November 30, Malcolm X flew to the United Kingdom, and on December 3 participated in a debate at the Oxford Union. The topic of the debate was “Extremism in the Defense of Liberty is No Vice; Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is No Virtue”, and Malcolm X argued the affirmative. Interest in the debate was so high that it was televised nationally by the BBC.
On February 5, 1965, Malcolm X went to Europe again. On February 8, he spoke in London, before the first meeting of the Council of African Organizations. The next day, Malcolm X tried to go to France, but he was refused entry. On February 12, he visited Smethwick, near Birmingham, which had become a byword for racial division after the 1964 general election, when the Conservative Party won the parliamentary seat after rumors that their candidate’s supporters had used the slogan “If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour.”
Return to United States
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X spoke before a wide variety of audiences in the United States. He spoke at regular meetings of Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was one of the most sought-after speakers on college campuses, and one of his top aides later wrote that he “welcomed every opportunity to speak to college students.” Malcolm X also spoke before political groups such as the Militant Labor Forum.
Tensions increased between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. As early as February 1964, a leader of Temple Number Seven ordered a member of the Fruit of Islam to wire explosives to Malcolm X’s car. In September 1964, Ebony published a photograph of Malcolm X holding an M1 Carbine and peering out a window. The photo was intended to illustrate his determination to defend himself and his family against the death threats he was receiving.
The Nation of Islam and its leaders began making both public and private threats against Malcolm X. On March 23, 1964, Elijah Muhammad told Boston minister Louis X (later known as Louis Farrakhan) that “hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off.” The April 10 edition of Muhammad Speaks featured a cartoon in which his severed head was shown bouncing. On July 9, John Ali, a top aide to Muhammad, answered a question about Malcolm X by saying that “anyone who opposes the Honorable Elijah Muhammad puts their life in jeopardy.” The December 4 issue of Muhammad Speaks included an article by Louis X that railed against Malcolm X, saying “such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.”
Some threats were made anonymously. During the month of June 1964, FBI surveillance recorded two such threats. On June 8, a man called Malcolm X’s home and told Betty Shabazz to “tell him he’s as good as dead.” On June 12, an FBI informant reported getting an anonymous telephone call from somebody who said “Malcolm X is going to be bumped off.”
In June 1964, the Nation of Islam sued to reclaim Malcolm X’s residence in Queens, New York, which they claimed to own. The suit was successful, and Malcolm X was ordered to vacate. On February 14, 1965, the night before a scheduled hearing to postpone the eviction date, the house burned to the ground. Malcolm X and his family survived. No one was charged with any crime.
On February 21, 1965, as Malcolm X prepared to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, a disturbance broke out in the 400-person audience—a man yelled, “Nigger! Get your hand outta my pocket!” As Malcolm X and his bodyguards moved to quiet the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot him in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men charged the stage and fired semi-automatic handguns, hitting Malcolm X several times. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm, shortly after he arrived at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. According to the autopsy report, Malcolm X’s body had 21 gunshot wounds, ten of them from the initial shotgun blast.
One gunman, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagan) was seized and beaten by the crowd before the police arrived minutes later; witnesses identified the others as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, also Nation members. Hayer confessed at trial to have been one of the handgun shooters, but refused to identify the other assailants except to assert that they were not Butler and Johnson. All three were convicted.
Butler, now known as Muhammad Abdul Aziz, was paroled in 1985 and became the head of the Nation’s Harlem mosque in 1998. He continues to maintain his innocence. Johnson, who changed his name to Khalil Islam, rejected the Nation’s teachings while in prison and converted to Sunni Islam. Released in 1987, he maintained his innocence until his death in August 2009. Hayer, now known as Mujahid Halim, was paroled in 2010.
A public viewing was held at Harlem’s Unity Funeral Home from February 23 through February 26, and it was estimated that between 14,000 and 30,000 mourners attended. The funeral was held on February 27 at the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ in Harlem. The church was filled to capacity with more than 1,000 people. Loudspeakers were set up outside the Temple so the overflowing crowd could listen and a local television station broadcast the funeral live.
Among the civil rights leaders attending were John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, James Forman, James Farmer, Jesse Gray, and Andrew Young. Actor and activist Ossie Davis delivered the eulogy, describing Malcolm X as “our shining black prince”.
There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile. Many will say turn away—away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man—and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate—a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.
Malcolm X was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. At the gravesite after the ceremony, friends took the shovels from the waiting gravediggers and completed the burial themselves. Actor and activist Ruby Dee (wife of Ossie Davis) and Juanita Poitier (wife of Sidney Poitier) established the Committee of Concerned Mothers to raise funds to buy a house and pay educational expenses for Malcolm X’s family.
Responses to assassination
Reactions to Malcolm X’s assassination were varied. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to Betty Shabazz, expressing his sadness over “the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband.”
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,” while denying 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.”
The New York Times wrote that Malcolm X was “an extraordinary and twisted man” who “turn[ed] many true gifts to evil purpose” and that his life was “strangely and pitifully wasted”. The New York Post wrote that “even his sharpest critics recognized his brilliance—often wild, unpredictable and eccentric, but nevertheless possessing promise that must now remain unrealized.”
The international press, particularly that of Africa, 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 among “a host of Africans and Americans who were martyred in freedom’s cause”. Guangming Daily, published in Beijing, stated that “Malcolm was murdered because he fought for freedom and equal rights”, while in Cuba, El Mundo described the assassination as “another racist crime to eradicate by violence the struggle against discrimination”.
Allegations of conspiracy
Within days of the assassination, questions were raised about who bore ultimate responsibility. 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 directed towards infiltrating and disrupting civil rights organizations during the 1950s and 1960s. John Ali, national secretary of the Nation of Islam, was identified as an FBI undercover agent. Malcolm X had confided in a reporter that Ali exacerbated tensions between him and Elijah Muhammad. He considered Ali his “archenemy” within the Nation of Islam leadership. On February 20, 1965, the night before the assassination, Ali met with Talmadge Hayer, one of the men convicted of killing Malcolm X.
In 1977 and 1978, Talmadge Hayer submitted two sworn affidavits re-asserting his claim that Butler and Johnson were not involved in the assassination. In his affidavits Hayer named four men, all members of the Nation of Islam’s Newark Temple Number 25, as having participated with him in the crime. Hayer asserted that a man, later identified as Wilbur McKinley, was the one who shouted and threw a smoke bomb to create a diversion. Hayer said that another man, later identified as William Bradley, had a shotgun and was the first to fire on Malcolm X after the diversion. Hayer asserted that he and a man later identified as Leon Davis, both armed with pistols, fired on Malcolm X immediately after the shotgun blast. Hayer also said that a fifth man, later identified as Benjamin Thomas, was involved in the conspiracy. Hayer’s statements failed to convince authorities to reopen their investigation of the murder.
Some, including the Shabazz family, have accused Louis Farrakhan of being involved in the plot to assassinate Malcolm X. In a 1993 speech, Farrakhan seemed to acknowledge the possibility that the Nation of Islam was responsible for the assassination:
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 of the 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 on who was responsible has been reached.
Except for his autobiography, Malcolm X left no published writings. His philosophy is known almost entirely from the myriad speeches and interviews he gave from 1952 until his death in 1965. Many of those speeches, especially from the last year of his life, were recorded and have been published.
Beliefs of the Nation of Islam
Before he left the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm X taught its beliefs in his speeches. His speeches were peppered with the phrase “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that…”. It is virtually impossible to discern whether Malcolm X’s beliefs diverged from the teachings of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X once compared himself to a ventriloquist’s dummy who could only say what Elijah Muhammad told him.
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 he was questioned concerning his statements that white people were devils, Malcolm X said that “history proves the white man is a devil.” He enumerated some of the historical reasons that, he felt, supported his argument: “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 African Americans from white people. The Nation of Islam proposed the establishment of a separate country for black people 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 enslaved ancestors. He also rejected the civil rights movement’s strategy of nonviolence and instead advocated that black people should protect themselves by any necessary means.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X announced his willingness to work with leaders of the civil rights movement, though he felt that it should change its focus to human rights. So long as the movement remained a fight for civil rights, its struggle would remain a domestic issue, but by framing the struggle as a fight for human rights, it would become an international issue, and the movement could bring its complaint before the United Nations. Malcolm X said the emerging nations of the world would add their support to the cause of African Americans.
Malcolm X declared 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”, arguing that if the government was unwilling or unable to protect black people, they should protect themselves.
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 liberation struggles of Third World nations. He said that African Americans were wrong when they thought of themselves as a minority; in a global context, black people were a majority, not a minority.
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 liberated countries in the Third World were turning toward socialism. Malcolm X still was concerned primarily with the freedom struggle of African Americans. 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 of 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 1965 conversation with Gordon Parks, two days before his assassination, Malcolm said:
[L]istening to leaders like Nasser, Ben Bella, and Nkrumah awakened me to the dangers of racism. I realized racism isn’t just a black and white problem. It’s brought bloodbaths to about every nation on earth at one time or another.
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.
That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I’m glad to be free of them.
Malcolm X has been described as one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history. He is credited with raising the self-esteem of black Americans and reconnecting them with their African heritage. He is largely responsible for the spread of Islam in the black community in the United States. Many African Americans, especially those who lived in cities in the Northern and Western United States, felt that Malcolm X articulated their complaints concerning inequality better than the mainstream civil rights movement did. One biographer says that by giving expression to their frustration, Malcolm X “made clear the price that white America would have to pay if it did not accede to black America’s legitimate demands.”
In the late 1960s, as black activists became more radical, Malcolm X and his teachings were part of the foundation on which they built their movements. The Black Power movement, the Black Arts Movement, and the widespread adoption of the slogan “Black is beautiful“ can all trace their roots to Malcolm X.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a resurgence of interest in Malcolm X among young people, fueled in part by use of him as an icon by hip hop groups such as Public Enemy. His image was on display in hundreds of thousands of homes, offices, and schools, as well as on T-shirts and jackets.
This wave peaked in 1992 with the release of the film Malcolm X, an adaptation of the The Autobiography of Malcolm X which Malcolm X began in 1963 in collaboration with Alex Haley on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (Malcolm X had told Haley, “If I’m alive when this book comes out, it will be a miracle”; indeed Haley completed and published it some months after the assassination). In 1998 Time named The Autobiography of Malcolm X one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Portrayals in film and on stage
Denzel Washington played the title role in Malcolm X—named one of the ten best films of the 1990s by both critic Roger Ebert and director Martin Scorsese. Washington had previously played the part of Malcolm X in the 1981 off-Broadway play When the Chickens Came Home to Roost.