In life, mainstream America largely viewed Malcolm X as a black militant with a radical message that stood at odds with the nonviolent philosophy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In death, African Americans, leftists and other activists have celebrated Malcolm X’s legacy, while conservatives continue to attack the views he espoused before leaving the Nation of Islam (NOI). Most notably, those on the right take issue with how Malcolm X once vilified whites as a group, referring to them as “devils.” These critics overlook his departure from the NOI and how a trip to Mecca changed his views on race and gave him new hopes about social change in the United States. That trip was just one of the key moments in Malcolm X’s life. A number of other events resulted in Malcolm X becoming one of the most important public figures in the 20th century.
Born to an Activist
Malcolm X was born May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Neb., to Earl and Louise Little. One doesn’t have to look farther than his parents to learn where Malcolm X inherited his activist streak. A Baptist minister, Earl Little belonged to the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Omaha and supported famed black nationalist Marcus Garvey. Earl Little paid the price for his activism, receiving frequent visits from the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist group the Black Legion. Due to the domestic terrorism the Littles faced, the family relocated from Omaha to East Lansing, Mich. However, the racism in Michigan was even more fierce. In 1929, a group of white racists set their house on fire. Two years later, Earl Little wound up dead on a set of railroad tracks. Authorities classified his death as a suicide, blatantly ignoring the fact that “he was found with his head crushed on one side and almost severed from his body,” according to the History Channel.
Labeling Earl Little’s death a suicide not only robbed the Little family of justice but also robbed them of the large life insurance payout they would have received had his death been ruled a murder. Because Louise Little, a homemaker, was unable to provide for her family as well as emotionally devastated by her husband’s death, the state took her eight children away from her and placed them in foster homes. Louise Little’s mental illness resulted in her being institutionalized in 1937.
Despite suffering a number of traumas in childhood, Malcolm Little excelled at West Junior High School. There he was the only black student, but his race didn’t prevent him from being well received by his classmates. They even elected him class president. Gifted academically, Malcolm aspired to be a lawyer, but his English teacher balked at the idea of a black youth pursuing such a profession. The teacher instead suggested he pursue a trade profession. Malcolm didn’t follow the teacher’s advice, but he didn’t remain in school either. At 15, he became a dropout.
Life of Crime
After quitting school, Malcolm moved from Michigan to Boston, where he lived with his older sister Ella. In Boston, he worked as a shoeshine boy and in the kitchen of a train that traveled from New York to Boston. In Beantown, however, Malcolm also began to break the law for cash. He reportedly gambled, dealt drugs, committed robberies and even worked as a pimp. The late historian Manning Marable wrote in the biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention that during this time of Malcolm’s life, Malcolm may have also engaged in sex acts with a rich white businessman for cash. This is a claim that others, including Malcolm X’s third-born daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, have questioned and that cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates argues is highly speculative. Whatever the case, Malcolm’s criminal activities eventually caught up with him. In 1946, he went to prison following a larceny conviction.
In prison, Malcolm became a voracious reader. During this time, many of his siblings joined the Nation of Islam, causing Malcolm to study NOI and its leader Elijah Muhammad. Upon his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became an active NOI follower as well. He also dropped the name Little and replaced it with “X,” which symbolized how slavery had deprived blacks in the U.S. of their African identities.
After converting to NOI, Malcolm X moved to Detroit and teamed up with Elijah Muhammad to devise plans to build the NOI’s following. He became national spokesman for NOI and grew membership from about 400 to 500 followers to as many as 40,000. In addition he served as minister of NOI temples in New York City and Boston. Malcolm X’s involvement in NOI also marked a time of personal transformation. In 1958 he married Betty Sanders, a nurse. Their union would produce six daughters, including twins.
Departure From NOI
After wholeheartedly devoting himself to the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was devastated to learn that leader Elijah Muhammad had fathered children with a number of different women in the religious sect. Due to his leader’s abuse of power and Malcolm X’s suspension from NOI for characterizing President John F. Kennedy’s assassination as “chickens coming home to roost,” Malcolm X left the Black Muslims in 1964. After leaving the group, Malcolm X traveled to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for a trip known among Muslims as the Hajj. In Mecca, Malcolm X met Muslims from all backgrounds and was stunned to see no racial divides between the worshippers. His experience resulted in him joining mainstream Islam and taking the name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Leaving the NOI made Malcolm X an enemy of the organization. He routinely began to receive death threats. His house was firebombed as well. While delivering a speech on Feb. 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, three men shot Malcolm X at close range. At the age of 39, Malcolm X was dead.
Three men—Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson—were convicted of killing him. The slain activist’s family and historian Manning Marable have questioned if all of the men convicted actually carried out the shooting. Marable even suggested that the New York City Police Department knew that the NOI planned to assassinate Malcolm X but failed to intervene. NYPD has denied such claims. While many questions remain about the cause of Malcolm X’s death, his legacy lives on in works such as the Autobiography of Malcolm X, Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X” and the many speeches he gave while rising to prominence.