There are many biographical books and articles about Malcolm X, including his own acclaimed Autobiography. This short biography is only a summary of some of that writing and many of the speeches and interviews referred to below can be found in our web site's Documents Collection. We encourage you to explore and read further.
It was said, by a man who heard him speak, that "Malcolm's words could rattle your bones with truth".
In part, this was because he actually lived the pain and oppression that drove his passionate commitment and used his life to listen, learn and think about everything that happened to him and to his people.
His entire life was a drama reflective of his people's reality.
He was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, one of eight children born to Louise Norton Little and Earl Little.
This was a politically conscious and active home. Earl, an outspoken Baptist minister and avid supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Gavey, was at the forefront of many local anti-racist activities and struggles.
Earl's activism prompted death threats from the white supremacist organization Black Legion, forcing the family to relocate twice before Malcolm's fourth birthday. The relocation was unavailing. Their Lansing, Michigan home was burned to the ground in 1929 and two years later Earl's mutilated body was found lying across the town's trolley tracks.
While the police never launched a criminal investigation of either incident , the Little family was certain that members of the Black Legion were responsible. When Louise suffered an emotional breakdown several years after the death of her husband and was committed to a mental intuition, her children were split up and sent to various foster homes and orphanages.
Malcolm was an excellent student and graduated from junior high at the top of his class. However, when a favorite teacher told Malcolm that his dream of becoming a lawyer was "no realistic goal for a nigger," Malcolm lost interest in school.
He dropped out, spent some time in Boston, Massachusetts working various odd jobs, and then traveled to Harlem, New York where he applied his intelligence and organizing talents to a life on the streets, starting with petty crimes and then graduating to larger, organized criminal activities.
By 1942, at the age of 17, Malcolm Little (now known as "Detroit Red") was coordinating narcotics, prostitution and gambling rings.
Eventually Malcolm and his buddy, Malcolm "Shorty" Jarvis, moved back to Boston, where they were arrested and convicted on burglary charges in 1946.
It was during his seven-year prison sentence that Malcolm began his personal transformation. He read extensively, reading and re-reading everything he could get his hands on and working to develop the command of the language that would make him one of American history's greatest public speakers.
It was during this period that Malcolm's brother Reginald visited him and discussed his recent conversion to the Nation of Islam. Intrigued, Malcolm studied the teachings of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad, considered by the Nation of Islam's members to be a prophet, taught that white society actively worked to keep African-Americans from empowering themselves and achieving political, economic and social success. He taught that these acts were the acts of a "Devil" and that, through his prophecy, Allah was offering Black people a "divine solution" to the problem that would avoid mass bloodshed. That solution was a state for Black people, separate from one inhabited by white people.
As Malcolm himself would later write, the teachings of Elijah Muhammad provided him with the first systematic explanation of the history and impact of racism and a logical and understandable solution.
By the time he was paroled in 1952, Malcolm had discarded his original surname, Little, as a "slave name", chose a new surname "X" to represent his lost tribal name and committed himself to the Nation of Islam as a devout Muslim and devoted follower.
It didn't take long for Mr. Muhammad to notice young Malcolm. As Nation of Islam official Captain Joseph X explained in a television interview: "He was tall and handsome and when he walked into a room, he took it over. These things were important. And when he spoke, he could talk our talk in a way that made people understand right off."
Elijah Muhammad saw the potential immediately and Malcolm was soon appointed a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Muhammad also charged him with establishing new mosques in cities such as Detroit, Michigan and Harlem, New York. Malcolm knew how to reach people. He had been doing that all his life and now he combined his speeches with comments and statements in newspaper columns, radio and television to communicate the Nation of Islam's message nationally. His work attracted an astounding number of new members. During his tenure as its chief spokesman, the Nation of Islam, which had a membership of 500 when Malcolm joined, increased its membership to 30,000 in 1963.
The crowds and controversy surrounding Malcolm made him a media magnet and in 1959 he was featured in a week-long television special hosted by journalist Mike Wallace, "The Hate That Hate Produced". The documentary explored the fundamental ideas of the Nation of Islam, its spectacular growth and Malcolm's emergence as one of its most important leaders. Malcolm was now faced with the uncomfortable reality that his fame had eclipsed that of Elijah Muhammad himself.
Racial tensions ran increasingly high during the early 1960s and Malcolm's work had captured more than the media's attention. The government was now watching him very closely. As membership in the Nation of Islam continued to grow, FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agents infiltrated the organization (one even acted at Malcolm's bodyguard) and secretly placed bugs, wiretaps and cameras surveillance equipment to monitor the group's activities.
At the height of the civil rights movement in 1963, Malcolm's faith was dealt a crushing blow. He learned that Elijah Muhammad was secretly having relations with as many as six women in the Nation of Islam and had children with some of them. Since his conversion Malcolm had strictly adhered to the teachings of Muhammad, including remaining celibate until his marriage to Betty Shabazz in 1958. Malcolm refused Muhammad's request to keep the matter quiet. He was deeply hurt by the deception of Muhammad, whom he (like all Nation of Islam followers) had considered a prophet.
The blow was especially stinging because Malcolm was conscious of the contributions he had made to the Nation and of the masses of people he had brought into the organization. In later interviews and speeches (and in his Autobiography) he would call that recruitment, which he now believed was conducted under false pretenses, his greatest regret in life and one he was committed to undoing.
But Malcolm's disaffection with his mentor went farther than personal issues. A man who constantly explored and reevaluated his thinking based on what he saw, Malcolm was changing politically. While he remained a public spokesman for the Nation throughout 1963, continuing to pepper his speeches with "The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us", it is clear that many of the ideas and formulations in his speeches that year depart from the strict Nation of Islam message to explore political, economic and international issues on many of which the Nation had no public stance.
Things came to a head in December, 1963. On that day, at a Nation of Islam rally, Malcolm gave what had become a typical "transition period" speech combining Nation teaching with some of his own newer ideas. During the question and answer period, when asked about the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm answered that the violence white America had lived by had turned itself on its own President and "[Kennedy] never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon."
Muhammad "silenced" him for 90 days but Malcolm suspected that the comment (hardly controversial for him at that point) was just a pretext and that he was silenced as the first step in a coming campaign against him by the Nation.
In March 1964 he terminated his relationship with the Nation of Islam and founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc.
That same year, Malcolm went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The trip proved life altering, as Malcolm not only saw the possibility of "brotherhood" among people of various races but came away with a deeper understanding of his people's struggle as part of a struggle for human rights and justice world-wide. He returned to the United States with this broader understanding and a commitment to incorporating it into the struggle of his people.
That understanding and commitment led him to found a new organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, patterned after the Organization of African Unity and during 1964, Malcolm travelled extensively, through this country and to Europe and Africa promoting the OAAU's perspective.
Relations between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam continued to deteriorate after he renounced Elijah Muhammad. Never a man mince words, Malcolm was quick to openly challenge the teachings of his former mentor and the Nation of Islam spokespeople engaged in increasingly heated denunciations of him. Among the most heated denunciation was an article in the Nation's newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, that labeled Malcolm a "heretic" (the harshest denunciation applicable to any black man). The author was a young minister named Louis Farrahkan.
As Farrahkan later told television interviewer Arsenio Hall: "Malcolm was my mentor as Elijah Muhammad was his mentor. It was a time of people denouncing their mentors...one of the most painful and darkest moments in the Nation of Islam's history."
Undercover FBI agents still working in the Nation of Islam warned that Malcolm had been marked for assassination (one man had even been ordered to help plant a bomb in his car). After repeated attempts on his life Malcolm refused to travel anywhere without bodyguards. On February 14, 1965 the home where Malcolm, Betty and their four daughters lived in East Elmhurst, New York was firebombed (the family escaped physical injury).
The day after the bombing, the OAAU was to have publicly presented its program, a visionary document that traces of the history and roots of racism and lays out concrete proposals to black empowerment and self-determination. Because of the firebomb attack, that presentation was postponed for a week and Malcolm used the occasion to comment on the attacks on him and his family and their political significance.
The following week was a hectic one. Malcolm and Betty began looking for a new home while he was giving interviews, writing letters and giving speeches. It was probably the most active week in Malcolm's public life as he prepared for the presentation of the OAAU program on February 21, 1965 at Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom.
The presentation was never made. As he began his remarks that day, three gunmen rushed to the stage and shot him 15 times at close range. At the age of 39, Malcolm X was pronounced dead on arrival at New York's Presbyterian Hospital.
Fifteen hundred people attended Malcolm's funeral in Harlem at the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ on February 27, 1965 where actor and activist Ozzie Davis gave his now famous eulogy. After the ceremony, friends took the shovels from the gravediggers and buried Malcolm themselves. Later that year, Betty gave birth to their twin daughters.
Three members of the Nation of Islam, Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson were convicted of his murder in March 1966. It was later proved, however, that Butler (who served 20 years in prison) was not a member of the assasination team and many people who have studied the last years of Malcolm's death believe that the whole story about the assasination, and possible government complicity in it, has never been told.
A tremendous resurgence of interest occurred in 1992 when director Spike Lee released the acclaimed film Malcolm X which received Oscar nominations for Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Costume Design. But Malcolm's legacy has never died. Generations of people of all background and races continue to read his speeches and interviews and marvel as he "rattles our bones with truth".
Malcolm X is buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
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