Fifty-seven years ago today, on February 21st, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. He would be 96 years-old if he lived to this day. Malcolm X was a Black, Muslim minister and a vocal advocate for Black equality and empowerment. He was considerably different in thought and approach than his most famous contemporary, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and although his legend is taught far less frequently it is just as critical to Black American history.
Malcolm X, also known as Malik el-Shabazz, was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925. He was the fourth of seven children born to a mother from Grenada and a father from Georgia. His father, Earl, was deeply involved in the local Baptist church and led a local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The matriarch, Louise, was also a civil rights activist and a reporter for the Negro World newspaper. Several times, the family's home was burned down. Earl, and later Malcolm, believed the fires to have been set by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Because of arson and continued threats, the family relocated several times, through Milwaukee, finally settling in Lansing, Michigan. When Malcolm was six, Earl was run over by a streetcar and killed. It was suggested that he was pushed in front of the trolley. His life insurance company declared the death a suicide and did not pay Louise any money. After a dispute, eventually a settlement was reached for $1,000 (about $17,000 in 2020). Of course as a Black widow during the Great Depression, Louise struggled for money. She was abandoned by her next partner after she became pregnant with his child and suffered a breakdown. She was committed to Kalamazoo State Hospital and would remain there for the next 26 years. Her children were separated and sent to different foster homes.
Malcolm attended school in Lansing and Mason, Michigan. He excelled in most subjects but he left high school without graduating. He later reported dropping out after he once expressed to a white teacher that his career goal was to practice law, and the teacher responded that was "no realistic goal for a [n****r]." He lived with his half-sister, Ella, in Boston until he was 21, when he then moved to Harlem.
In 1943, after a short stint in Flint, Michigan, Malcolm moved to Harlem. He got a job on the New Haven Railroad and washing dishes at Jimmy's Chicken Shack. He became friends with a fellow dishwasher, John Sanford. During this time Sanford, who would later become famous as Redd Foxx, was nicknamed "Chicago Red" and Malcolm was known as "Detroit Red."
Malcolm was drafted into service for World War II, but he disqualified himself by purposefully ranting during his intake interview: "I want to be sent down South. Organize them [n****r] soldiers... steal us some guns and kill us [some] crackers." He was declared "mentally disqualified for military service" by pretending to want to create a Black militia.
There was not a lot of money to be made with above board jobs in Harlem, so Malcolm started engaging in illegal activities to make money. He dealt drugs, committed robberies, racketeering, and pimping. In 1945, he returned to Boston with a Black male friend and their two girlfriends, who were both white. The group burglarized homes in the area, specifically targeting wealthy white families. Malcolm was arrested in 1946 while picking up a stolen watch he had brought in for repairs. The girlfriends were let go after testifying they were forced to participate in the crimes, while Malcolm and his friend were sentenced to 10 years in prison. He began his sentence in Charlestown State Prison, and two years later was transferred to Norfolk Prison Colony.
Malcolm made new acquaintances in prison, including a man named John Bembry, who was self-educated and encouraged Malcolm to take full advantage of the prison library. Soon Malcolm's siblings began writing to him about the Nation of Islam. This was a relatively new religious movement espousing Black self-reliance and supporting the African diaspora, or the return of Black Americans to Africa. This philosophy resonated with Malcolm's family because of their parents' activism and interest in the teachings of Marcus Garvey. Malcolm began reading every book available to him and was becoming more interested in the Nation of Islam. He stopped smoking cigarettes and eating pork. He began to believe that all white people were devils, and his hostility to religion earned him the prison nickname "Satan." He believed every interaction he had ever had with a white person was corrupted by dishonesty, injustice, greed, and hatred.
In 1948, Malcolm wrote to the leader of the Nation of Islam, a man called Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad advised Malcolm to renounce his wicked past and humble himself before God. Though he admits this was difficult at first, he complied and began a regular written discourse with Elijah Muhammad.
In 1950, the FBI opened their file on Malcolm after he wrote a letter to President Truman. In the letter, Malcolm expresses strong opposition to the Korean War and declares himself a communist. This is when he begins signing his name as Malcolm X. Elijah Muhammad prescribed that followers of the Nation of Islam drop their family names and use "X" instead. Malcolm later explained that the X symbolized his true African family name that was stolen from him and he could never 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."
Nation of Islam
In 1952, Malcolm X was paroled. He travelled to Chicago to meet Elijah Muhammad in person. Muhammad assigned Malcolm to Temple One in Detroit, and in 1953 Malcolm established Temple 11 in Boston. He expanded Philadelphia's Temple 12, and then Muhammad selected Malcolm to lead Temple Number 7 in Harlem. He established three more temples in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Atlanta. Hundreds of Black Americans were joining the Nation of Islam every month, and due to his meteoric rise within the Black Muslim community, the FBI began aggressive surveillance of Malcolm X in 1955.
Also in 1955, Betty Sanders met Malcolm X. She began regularly attending his lectures, and in 1956 she officially joined the Nation of Islam and changed her named to Betty X. Dating one-on-one was not allowed in the Nation, so Malcolm and Betty courted in group settings. He proposed to her over the telephone in 1958, and they married two days later. They had six daughters together: Attallah, Qubilah, Ilyasah, Gamilah, and twins Malikah and Malaak (who were born after their father's death in 1965 and named in his honor).
America was formally introduced to Malcolm X in 1957. A member of the Nation named Hinton Johnson was walking with two friends when they happened upon two NYPD officers beating an unarmed man with nightsticks. Johnson tried to intervene and shouted to the officers, "You're not in Alabama... this is New York!" The officers turned to Johnson and beat him so severely he suffered hemorrhaging in his brain. All four Black men- Johnson, his friends, and the original beating victim- were arrested. After being tipped off by a witness, Malcolm travelled to the police station with a group of other Nation members to see Johnson. Police initially denied Johnson was even there, but after a crowd of over 500 people formed Malcolm was allowed to see Johnson. After seeing how badly Johnson was injured, Malcolm insisted on calling an ambulance. Johnson was taken to Harlem Hospital, where he was treated and quickly released back to the police station. Four thousand people were now gathered at the station, and Malcolm was inside trying to make bail arrangements for the men. He was successful in bailing the two friends out, but not Johnson, who police said would be released back to the hospital the next day after his arraignment. Malcolm considered the situation a stalemate, and decided the protestors should go home. With a single, silent hand gesture he dispersed the crowd of four thousand. An officer present at the time gave an interview to the New York Amsterdam News, saying, "No one man should have that much power." NYPD began their own surveillance of Malcolm X. A grand jury did not indict the officers who beat Johnson.
By the late 50s, Malcolm X was using the names Malcolm Shabazz and Malik el Shabazz. He was participating in televised and printed debates and gaining significant prominence in the Black community. He conversed with the heads of state from Egypt, Guinea, Zambia, and Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Malcolm X is credited with growing the Nation of Islam's membership from 500 people to over 50,000 by one estimate. He inspired Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, to join the Nation. He mentored Louis X, aka Louis Farrakhan, and Wallace D. Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad's son.
By Any Means Necessary
For most of his adult life, Malcolm adhered to and espoused the teachings of the Nation of Islam. This included the beliefs that Black people are the original people of the world and the demise of the white race was imminent. He said, "history proves the white man is a devil," and "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." He was accused of racist hate and antisemitism, but his message resonated with many Black Americans tired of waiting hundreds of years for freedom, justice, and equality.
The Nation of Islam forbade its members from voting or otherwise participating in politics. This put Malcolm X at odds with prominent members of the civil rights movement, such as the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm called MLK a "chump" and said the nonviolent civil rights leaders were "stooges" of the white establishment. Of the 1963 March on Washington, he said he didn't understand how so many Black people were excited about a protest "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."
Also unlike most civil rights leaders of the time, instead of integration the Nation and Malcolm X advocated for the complete separation of Black Americans from white society. Malcolm advocated for Black Americans to return to Africa, and before then a separate country should be established here in America, supported by reparations. He rejected nonviolence and argued Black people should defend themselves "by any means necessary."
Departure from the Nation
Things began to change in 1962. On April 27, with no provocation, three LAPD officers shoved and beat several unarmed Muslims outside the Nation's Temple 27. A large crowd formed, and one of the officers was disarmed. Also in the fray, one policeman was shot in the elbow by a fellow officer. 70 backup officers arrived, entered the mosque, and began beating random worshippers. Seven Muslims were shot by the police, including William X, who was paralyzed for life, and Ronald Stokes, a Korean war veteran who was killed by a shot from behind as his hands were raised in surrender. Several Muslims were arrested and charged after the event, but no police officers were indicted. Malcolm thought the violence and desecration of the mosque demanded action, and he sought Elijah Muhammad's approval to seek violent revenge against the police. Muhammad denied his request, which stunned Malcolm and began the deterioration of their relationship.
Other causes of tension and disagreement between Muhammad and Malcolm surfaced. In 1963, Muhammad confirmed long-standing rumors that he had multiple affairs with several women, in direct conflict with the Nation's teachings. Muhammad justified the acts by stating he was in line with teachings from the Bible. Elijah Muhammad was also jealous of Malcolm's rising fame. A book about the Nation was published in 1963 by Louis Lomax, and it featured a photograph of Malcolm on the cover. The book also included five of Malcolm's speeches and only one of Muhammad's, which incensed his anger and jealously.
Finally, in December of 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Officially, the Nation of Islam sent messages of condolences to the Kennedy family and made no public comments on the assassination. Malcolm X, however, was quoted as saying the assassination was an example of "chickens coming home to roost," indicating the murder was justified in light of Kennedy's failures of justice. The Nation formally censured Malcolm and forbade him from public speaking for 90 days. In March of 1964, Malcolm X announced he was leaving the Nation. He was still a Muslim, but he felt the Nation's rigid philosophy had "gone as far as it can." He compared himself to a ventriloquist's dummy, who could only repeat what the master Muhammad said.
Pilgrimage to Mecca
After leaving the Nation, Malcolm founded Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He converted to Sunni Islam and changed a few key points in his philosophy. He now advocated for Black Americans to exercise their right to vote, but also said if the government would not grant full equality Black people should take up arms to achieve it themselves.
In April of 1964, with financial help from his sister Ella, Malcolm flew to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to being his Hajj- or pilgrimage- to Mecca. He was delayed when he first arrived and his Muslim identity was called into question as he was a U.S. citizen that didn't speak Arabic. Prince Faisal intervened, and Malcolm was given a visa and designated as a guest of the State. He even met with the Prince after his Hajj.
After his Hajj, Malcolm toured Africa and gave interviews in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanganyika, Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sudan, Senegal, Liberia, Algeria, and Morocco. He was offered government jobs in Egypt, Ghana, and Algeria. After a speech at a Nigerian university he was given the honorific name "Omowale" by the students, which means "the son who has come home." He also stopped in France and the U.K. on his way back to America. In England, he participated in a televised debate at Oxford. He attempted to go back to France but was denied entry. Back in the U.K., Malcolm travelled to the town of Smethwick, which had recently elected a highly conservative man to Parliament. The candidate, Peter Griffiths, had run with the slogan, "If you want a [n****r] for a neighbor, vote Liberal or Labour." Malcolm compared the candidate and the sentiment to the treatment of Jews under Hitler, saying, "I would not wait for the fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens."
Return to America and the Nation's Response
When he returned from his pilgrimage, Malcolm had changed. He stated that seeing Muslims of "all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans" interacting as equals led him to believe Islam was the path to overcoming racism. He stated, "listening 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 brough bloodbaths to about every nation on earth at one time or another... In many parts of the African continent, I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument." After his return to the U.S., he was constantly active with speaking engagements, particularly on college campuses. While he no longer advocated for total separation of Black and white America, he still strongly supported Black nationalism and self-determination.
By 1965, Malcolm X's life was actively threatened nearly every day by the Nation of Islam. A leader from Harlem's Temple 7 ordered Malcolm's car to be bombed. Louis Farrakhan- the man who would become the Nation's next leader- publicly stated "hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off." As part of their surveillance, the FBI recorded a call to Malcolm's wife Betty who was told her husband was "as good as dead." An FBI informant confirmed plans for Malcolm to be "bumped off." The Nation sued to remove Malcolm and his family from their home in Queens, but the night before a hearing on the matter the house was destroyed by a fire. Issues of the Nation's magazine, Muhammad Speaks, had cartoons of Malcolm X's decapitated head and quoted Louis X saying, "such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death." Two days before his murder, Malcolm X told an interviewer the Nation was actively trying to kill him.
Malcolm X was shot in Manhattan's Audobon Ballroom in front of a 400 person audience. He suffered 21 gunshot wounds, including 10 inflicted from a shotgun blast. The sawed-off shotgun was fired by Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer, who was captured and beaten by the crowd. Witnesses identified two other men, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, as having fired pistols at the scene. Hayer confessed, but insisted Butler and Johnson were innocent. All three men were convicted in 1966 and sentenced to life in prison. Butler was paroled in 1985 and became the head of the Harlem mosque in 1998. Johnson converted to Sunni Islam and was released in 1987. Hayer also eventually rejected the Nation and converted to Sunni Islam. He was paroled in 2010. In 2021, Butler and Johnson (now known as Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam), were exonerated from their murder convictions on the bases that the FBI and NYPD withheld evidence during their trial.
An estimated 20,000 people attended the public viewing of Malcolm X's body. Ozzie Davis delivered the eulogy, and several civil rights leaders attended, including John Lewis. Ruby Dee and Juanita Poitier (Sydney Poitier's wife) helped raise money for Malcolm's widow and children.
Malcolm X was a polarizing figure in life and death. Elijah Muhammad denied involvement with the murder but said, "Malcolm X got just what he preached." The New York Times wrote that Malcolm was "an extraordinary and twisted man" whose life was "strangely and pitifully wasted." Time called him "an unashamed demagogue."
Outside the U.S., the press was far more sympathetic. He was praised as a martyr throughout Africa. In China he was described by the People's Daily as a martyr killed by "ruling circles and racists," and his death showed that "in dealing with imperialist oppressors, violence must be met with violence." The Guangming Daily printed, "Malcolm was murdered because he fought for freedom and equal rights." In Cuba, El Mundo called the assassination "another racist crime to eradicate by violence the struggle against discrimination."
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to Betty Shabazz: "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."
Malcolm X only left one published work of literature, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, released in 1965. The rest of what we know are from the many, many hours of televised reporting and speeches he gave over his lifetime.
Malcolm explains the difference between separation and segregation
1963 - Michigan State University
The black man that you're not familiar with is the one that we would like to point out now. He is a new type. He is the type that seldom the white man ever comes into contact with. And when you do come into contact with him you're shocked because you didn't know that this type of black man existed. And immediately you think, "Well here's one of those black supremacists or racists or extremists who believe in violence and all that other kind of..." Well, that's what they call it.
This new type of black man, he doesn't want integration; he wants separation. Not segregation, separation. To him, segregation, as we're taught by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, means that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors. A segregated community is a Negro community. But the white community, though it's all white, is never called a segregated community. It's a separate community. In the white community, the white man controls the economy, his own economy, his own politics, his own everything. That's his community. But at the same time while the Negro lives in a separate community, it's a segregated community. Which means it's regulated from the outside by outsiders. The white man has all of the businesses in the Negro community. He runs the politics of the Negro community. He controls all the civic organizations in the Negro community. This is a segregated community.
We don't go for segregation. We go for separation. Separation is when you have your own. You control your own economy; you control your own politics; you control your own society; you control your own everything. You have yours and you control yours; we have ours and we control ours.
They don't call Chinatown in New York City or on the West Coast a segregated community, yet it's all Chinese. But the Chinese control it. Chinese voluntarily live there, they control it. They run it. They have their own schools. They control their own politics, control their own industry. And they don't feel like they're being made inferior because they have to live to themselves. They choose to live to themselves. They live there voluntarily. And they are doing for themselves in their community the same thing you do for yourself in your community. This makes them equal because they have what you have. But if they didn't have what you have, then they'd be controlled from your side; even though they would be on their side, they'd be controlled from your side by you.
So when we who follow the Honorable Elijah Muhammad say that we're for separation, it should be emphasized we're not for segregation; we're for separation. We want the same for ourselves as you have for yourselves. And when we get it, then it's possible to think more intelligently and to think in terms that are along peaceful lines. But a man who doesn't have what is his, he can never think always in terms that are along peaceful lines.
Malcolm highlights the failure of the U.S. legislature to solve racism
1964 - Palm Gardens, NY
He doesn't see any progress that he has made since the Civil War. He sees not one iota of progress because, number one, if the Civil War had freed him, he wouldn't need civil-rights legislation today. If the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by that great shining liberal called Lincoln, had freed him, he wouldn't be singing "We Shall Overcome" today. If the amendments to the Constitution had solved his problem, his problem wouldn't still be here today. And if the Supreme Court desegregation decision of 1954 was genuinely and sincerely designed to solve his problem, his problem wouldn't be with us today.
Malcolm exposes myths about African history
1963 - Michigan State University
He believes in exactly what he was taught in school. That when he was kidnapped by the white man, he was a savage in the jungle someplace eating people and throwing spears and with a bone in his nose. And the average American Negro has that concept of the African continent. It is not his fault. This is what has been given to him by the American educational system.
He doesn't realize that there were civilizations and cultures on the African continent at a time when the people in Europe were crawling around in the caves, going naked. He doesn't realize that the Black man in Africa was wearing silk, was wearing slippers--that he was able to spin himself, make himself at a time when the people up in Europe were going naked.
He doesn't realize that he was living in palaces on the African continent when the people in Europe were living in caves. He doesn't realize that he was living in a civilization in Africa where science had been so far advanced, especially even the astronomical sciences, to a point where Africans could plot the course of the stars in the universe when the people up in Europe still thought the earth was round, the planet was round--or flat.
He doesn't realize the advancement and the high state of his own culture that he was living in before he was kidnapped and brought to this country by the white man. He knows nothing about that. He knows nothing about the ancient Egyptian civilization on the African continent. Or the ancient Carthaginian civilization on the African continent. Or the ancient civilizations of Mali on the African continent. Civilizations that were highly developed and produced scientists. Timbuktu, the center of the Mali Empire, was the center of learning at a time when the people up in Europe didn't even know what a book was. He doesn't know this, because he hasn't been taught. And because he doesn't know this, when you mention Africa to him, why he thinks you're talking about a jungle.
And I went to Africa in 1959 and didn't see any jungle. And I didn't see any mud huts until I got back to Harlem in New York City.
Speeches and Interviews (columbia.edu)
Watch Malcolm X: Make it Plain | American Experience | Official Site | PBS
HBO Max - Malcolm X (1992)