Malcolm X was a civil rights activist and minister who advocated for Black power through a group called the Nation of Islam. He is a household name in the United States as he showed another side of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. He was not a pacifist and thus has been pitted against the likes of other activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, what Malcolm X stood for was different from other activists of the time, as he fought for Black nationalism over equality.
The Early Life of Malcolm X
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. He was the fourth of eight children in the Little family. His mother, Louise, was a homemaker, and his father was a Baptist preacher and a local leader of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. X’s encounters with racism began before he was even born, and hate groups plagued him and his family for the rest of his life.
When Louise Little was pregnant with Malcolm, a group of Ku Klux Klan members stormed to the family’s house, armed with rifles, and demanded Earl Little come out. The family moved from Nebraska to Wisconsin in 1926 and then to Lansing, Michigan in 1928. The Little family frequently moved in the hopes of escaping violence from the KKK and its offshoot groups like the Black Legion, but the harassment only continued and increased as the family moved around.
In Lansing, racist groups smashed the windows of the family home, and eventually, a mob burned their house to the ground. According to X, “The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned to the ground,” ignoring the needs of the Littles. In 1931, after moving his family to East Lansing, Earl Little was found dead on the local streetcar tracks.
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After the numerous death threats Little received, his wife and family believed he had been murdered by white supremacists. However, the police would not consider that Earl’s death had been the result of foul play and ruled it as a streetcar accident. While Louise received some life insurance money, about $18 per month, a larger policy was denied to her after the company claimed that Earl had committed suicide.
X’s mother, Louise, eventually moved on and became pregnant with one of Malcolm’s half-siblings. However, after this announcement, the father of the child disappeared, and Louise suffered a mental breakdown. She was institutionalized in 1938 in Kalamazoo State Hospital, where she remained for nearly 25 years. The children were sent to separate foster homes soon after.
Malcolm X lived in several foster homes before he began high school in Mason, Michigan. He was well-liked in a class where there were very few Black students, and he excelled in his studies. However, after a white teacher told him his goal of being a lawyer was unrealistic, he dropped out of school at 15 years old in 1941. He then moved to Boston and worked odd jobs until he was 21, doing the same after moving between Flint, Michigan, Harlem, and back to Boston.
Malcolm X was involved with gambling, racketeering, and drug dealing in addition to his odd jobs throughout the city, and in 1946, he and four other men were arrested for burglary in Boston. The group had allegedly been targeting wealthy white families, and X was sentenced to 8-10 years for the crime.
Malcolm X in the Nation of Islam
The Nation of Islam (NOI) was founded in the 1930s as an ethnoreligious movement that focused on Black nationalism and the African diaspora. The group aimed to reclaim the original Islamic identity of African Americans, and it decried Christianity as a tool of white supremacy.
While the NOI has never been officially considered part of mainstream Islam, they were considered “quasi-Islamic.” They selectively chose parts of Islam to believe in, and their main goal was not to worship Allah but rather to honor the Tribe of Shabazz, who they considered to be the first humans and Muslims.
To the NOI, anyone who was not light-skinned and of Western European descent could be considered Black and from the tribe. Their goal was to inspire African Americans to flee back to Africa to escape Western oppression. In the United States, the NOI aimed to attract disenfranchised African Americans in poor neighborhoods and penitentiaries, but also on college campuses.
Malcolm Little was first introduced to the NOI through his siblings’ letters, which he received while serving his prison sentence in Massachusetts. While he was initially uninterested, his brother Reginald convinced Malcolm to convert after highlighting that their relationships with white people were always tainted somehow. Coupled with this was Malcolm’s disdain for Christianity. He quickly received the message of the NOI and wrote to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the group, under whose tutelage he converted.
After his release in 1952, Malcolm changed his last name to X in a symbolic departure from his “slave name” of Little, which he claimed had been given to his forebears by American enslavers. He became a minister in the NOI and was named assistant minister of the Nation’s Temple Number 1 in Detroit, and later moved back to Boston to establish the Nation’s Temple Number 11. He continued this expansion, establishing three temples in three years. He significantly contributed to the NOI’s membership base and, by the late 1950s, was appointed the Nation’s lead spokesman.
Malcolm X’s official position as National Representative of the Nation of Islam made him the number two in command of the organization, under only Muhammad. During his time with the NOI, membership expanded from around 400 members to between 25,000 and 50,000 members.
The Evolution of an Activist
Malcolm X was a charismatic, imposing, and passionate public face for the NOI. He was extremely articulate, handsome, and stood at over six feet, making him physically intimidating. He was the most popular member of the NOI in the media and made several speeches at major universities, such as Harvard and Oxford. He was also known for preaching in the streets of the cities where he led temples. During his time with the NOI, he also married Betty Sanders, who changed her name to Betty X and joined the Nation of Islam. The couple had six daughters together during the eight years of their marriage.
X was a sharp foil to the rest of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. He disagreed with the mainstream opinions of the movement, namely those concerning integration and nonviolence, which were promoted in large part by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The most important issues to X were the ideals of Black identity and independence. He rebuked the idea that civil rights should be focused on the ability to sit in a restaurant or the front of a bus.
X also took a more hardline approach to defending the rights of Black Americans. He encouraged his followers to defend themselves “by any means necessary,” because, unlike Dr. King, X believed that social disobedience and passive resistance would lead to nothing but more violence against Black people. He was under active surveillance by the FBI during the entirety of his career for his stances on civil rights.
Despite his deep connection to the NOI, Malcolm X broke from the organization in 1964 over several ideological differences, mainly having to do with the strict influence of Elijah Muhammad. X instead created his Black nationalist organization called Muslim Mosque Inc., where he expressed a desire to work with other civil rights leaders. During this time, he also converted to Sunni Islam while on a pilgrimage to Mecca. X advocated that the solution to racial problems in the United States could be found through Islam.
Regardless of his past separatist views, Malcolm X attended a Senate hearing on the Civil Rights Bill in Washington DC, where he briefly met Dr. King for the first and only time. The photos from this meeting were a sort of symbolic shift in X’s activism, which pivoted into more nonviolent forms of opposition to civil rights. In addition to this, X began to shift to advocating for human rights in general by founding the Organization of Afro-American Unity, to connect the plight of Black Americans with that of the rights of African people in developing areas of the world.
The Assassination & Legacy of Malcolm X
Malcolm X’s break with the Nation of Islam increased tensions between the leader and the group significantly. Threats of violence, including death, were commonplace. His conversion to orthodox Islam, as well as his advocacy for civil rights that broke from the NOI, contributed to the growing hostility. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated while giving a speech in New York City at the Audubon Ballroom. His autopsy revealed that X had 21 gunshot wounds, and three gunmen were arrested for the crime.
All three of X’s assassins were members of the Nation of Islam. The only confirmed shooter was Talmadge Hayer, who was sentenced to life in prison but paroled in 2010. The other two shooters are a topic of controversy, as two men were convicted but had their sentences overturned after it was found that key evidence was withheld during their trials. Les and Tamara Payne, who wrote the biography The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, assert that the other two killers were members of the Newark, New Jersey NOI Temple.
Malcolm X is still considered one of the most influential African Americans in history. He influenced the Civil Rights Movement in a way that other activists could not, insofar as his advocacy, for many Black Americans, encapsulated their struggle more accurately. He is also credited with creating an air of self-esteem for Black Americans and reconnecting them to their heritage.
Malcolm X is also largely responsible for the spread of Islam in Black communities throughout the United States. His ideology was the basis for movements of Black Activists like the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement. He is also credited for the widespread use of identifiers like “Black” and “Afro-American” over those like “colored” and “negro” which were used at the time. In addition to these phrases, the slogan “Black is beautiful” can also be attributed to Malcolm X.
Though Malcolm X was a controversial figure in the Civil Rights Movement, his legacy extends to the Black consciousness movements that are still ongoing today. As he said in his autobiography, “Early in my life I had learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise.” His influence was and is invaluable to making noise in the fight against racism, both incidental and systemic, that is still being carried on by Black Americans.