The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Malcolm X

Malcolm X

Malcolm X (May 19, 1925February 21, 1965 – also: Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and Omowale) was a spokesman for the Nation of Islam, and a founder of both the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He was assassinated in February 1965. During his life, Malcolm evolved from being a street-wise hoodlum to one of the most prominent militant black nationalist leaders born in the United States, ultimately rising to become a world renowned Pan-Africanist.

He explained the name he chose by saying “To take one’s ‘X’ is to take on a certain mystery, a certain possibility of power in the eyes of one’s peers and one’s enemies ... The ‘X’ announced what you had been and what you had become: Ex-smoker, Ex-drinker, Ex-Christian, Ex-slave.”


Early years

He was born as Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska to Earl and Louise (née Norton). His father, who was an outspoken Baptist minister and supporter of Marcus Garvey, was murdered by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group in Lansing, Michigan in 1931. Malcolm and his family members were split up to different homes when Louise Little was declared legally insane. Eight years later in 1939 she was formally committed to the State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo, Michigan and remained there for twenty-six years until Malcolm and his brothers and sisters got her released.

Malcolm later dropped out of high school and after enduring a series of foster homes, first was sent to a detention center and then later moved to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella Little Collins. He found work as a shoeshiner at a Lindy Hop nightclub; in his autobiography, he says that he once shined the shoes of Duke Ellington and other notable black musicians. After some time, he moved to Harlem, New York, where he became involved in drug dealing, gambling, prostitution, racketeering, and robbery (referred to collectively by Malcolm as "hustling"); he also feigned insanity in order to evade the World War II draft.

Later years


Malcolm was known on the street as Detroit Red, a small time hustler. He was arrested on January 12, 1946 at the age of 20 and sentenced to eight to ten years imprisonment on charges of breaking and entering, carrying firearms, and larceny. He later earned the nickname Satan in the Charlestown State Prison for his constant cursing, especially of God and the Bible.

In jail, he received letters from his brother Reginald, asking him to join the Nation of Islam. The NOI defines itself as a militant Islamic sect that preached that most African people were Muslims before they were captured and sent to the Americas. They argued that Blacks should reconvert to Islam to reclaim their heritage that was stolen from them. The fact that most slaves were taken from West Africa (polytheistic) rather than East Africa (monotheistic) was ignored. The NOI considered itself to be a black nationalist group which supported the idea of a separate Black nation within the United States. Malcolm studied the teachings of founder and leader of the Nation of Islam Elijah Muhammad diligently and began to expand his intellect. His sister Ella helped to transfer him to the lower-security prison colony in Norfolk, Massachusetts where he became an avid reader and found justification for the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam in history and philosophy. He participated in the Colony's weekly debates. He copied an entire dictionary from the Colony's library to expand his knowledge and to improve his handwriting.

His first contact with Elijah Muhammad was in prison, where he corresponded with Muhammad by mail. As he progressed in his self-education, he began to write to the leader daily.

After his release on parole on August 7, 1952, he bought a suitcase, eyeglasses, and a watch, later saying that these were the items he used most in his later life.

In , Malcolm X watched for assailants with a rifle.
In 1964, Malcolm X watched for assailants with a Carbine rifle.

Nation of Islam

In 1952, after his release from prison, Malcolm went to meet Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. It is here that he received the iconic X, meant to symbolize the rejection of his slave-name and the absence of a proper African American Muslim name.

In March of 1953 the FBI opened a file on Malcolm in response to an allegation that he had described himself as a Communist. Included in the file were two letters wherein Malcolm uses the alias "Malachi Shabazz". In "Message To The Black Man In America", Elijah Muhammad explained the name Shabazz as belonging to descendants of an "Asian Black nation".

Later that year, Malcolm left his half-sister Ella in Boston to stay with Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. He soon returned to Boston and became the Minister of the Nation of Islam's Temple Number Eleven.

His active membership in the Nation led to him opening several temples around the country, of which he often became Minister. His rousing, incendiary and inspirational speeches and spotless personal example led to the ranks of the Nation of Islam burgeoning. He was soon seen as the number two man in the movement, next to Elijah Muhammad himself.

In 1958 Malcolm married Betty X (née Sanders) in Lansing, Michigan. They had six daughters together: Attilah , born in 1958; Qubilah born in 1960; Ilyasah born in 1962; Gumilah born in 1964 and twins Malaak and Malikah born after Malcolm's death in 1965.

As Malcolm worked tirelessly for the Nation of Islam, he was increasingly exposed to rumours of Elijah Muhammad's extra-marital affairs with young secretaries. Adultery is severely shunned in the teachings of the Nation. Although this news unsettled Malcolm, he often brushed it aside. But soon he investigated these allegations and saw that they were true, and they were eventually affirmed by Elijah Muhammad himself, who claimed that it was legitimate for him take on wives as he was the messenger of God. (It should be noted that polygamy is not a transgression in the mainstream Islamic religion. Elijah Muhammad, however, was not married to any of the women with whom he had affairs.) Despite being unsatisfied with the excuses, and being disenchanted by other ministers using Nation of Islam funds to line their own pockets, Malcolm's faith in Elijah Muhammad did not waver.

By 1963, tension in the Nation of Islam grew to a boiling point. Malcolm believed that Elijah Muhammad was jealous of his popularity (as were several senior ministers). Malcolm watched the March on Washington critically, unable to understand 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." Later in the year, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm delivered a speech as he regularly would. However, when asked to comment upon the assassination, he replied that it was a case of "chickens coming home to roost" – that the violence that JFK had failed to stop, and at times refused to rein in had come around to claim his life. Most explosively, he then added that with his country origins, "Chickens coming home to roost never made me sad. It only made me glad." This comment led to widespread public outcry and led to the Nation of Islam publicly censuring Malcolm X. Although retaining his post and rank as minister, he was banned from public speaking for six months, effectively a suspension order. Malcolm obeyed and kept quiet.

In 1964, Malcolm started collaborating on the Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley. He also publicly announced his break from the Nation of Islam, and founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc. At this point, Malcolm still adhered to the teachings of the Nation of Islam. In April, he made the famous Ballot or the Bullet speech.

Malcolm was in contact with several orthodox Muslims, who encouraged him to learn about orthodox Islam. He soon converted to orthodox Islam, and as a result decided to make his Hajj.

As a part of the Nation of Islam, he met and befriended many Islamic people and eventually started "Group X."


On April 13, 1964 Malcolm departed JFK Airport, New York for Cairo, Egypt by way of Frankfurt, Germany. It was the third time Malcolm had been to Africa.

Malcolm left Cairo arriving in Jedda, Saudi Arabia about three in the morning. He was automatically suspect due to his inability to speak Arabic and American passport. He was separated from the group he came with and was isolated. He spent about twenty hours wearing the ihram, a two-piece towel outfit wrapping the wearer from the waist down with one towel and from the waist upward with the other.

It was at this time he remembered the book Dr. Mahmoud Yousseff Sharwabi had presented to him with his visa approval entitled "The Eternal Message of Muhammad " by Abd Al-Rahman Azzam. 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 Jedda Palace Hotel . The next morning Muhammad Faisal , the son of Prince Faisal visited and informed him that he was to be a state guest. The Deputy Chief of Protocol accompanied Malcolm to the Hajj Court. It therefore was a mere formality for Sheikh Muhammad Harkon to allow Malcolm to make his Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). On April 19 he completed the Umrah, making the seven circuits around the Kaaba, drinking from the well of Zam Zam and running between the hills of Mt. Al-Safa and Al-Marwah seven times. The trip proved to be life-altering. The fellowship he observed between Muslims of all races taught him what his experiences in America convinced him was impossible. He had come to see Islam as the one religion that erases the race problem. He met, talked, and ate with people who had the "white" removed from their minds, thereby allowing them to live true brotherhood with people of every hue.

At the end of June he returned to the United States as an orthodox Muslim (and with a new name – El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz). Along with A. Peter Bailey and others, he then founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Patterned after the Organization of African Unity, the OAAU resolved to establish a non-religious and non-sectarian program for Human Rights. The OAAU included all people of African ancestry in the Western Hemisphere, as well as, those on the African continent.


Among the little known and least mentioned facts about the life of Malcolm X are his excursions in Africa. In all, Malcolm X visited Africa on four separate occasions, twice in 1959 and twice in 1964. During his visits he met officials, as well as spoke on television and radio in such diverse places as: Cairo, Egypt; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; Lagos and Ibadan, Nigeria; Accra, Winneba, and Legon , Ghana; Conakry, Guinea; Algiers, Algeria; and Casablanca, Morocco.

Malcolm first went to Africa in early spring of 1959. He traveled to Egypt (United Arab Republic), Sudan and Nigeria. He next set out in the summer of 1959 to arrange a tour for Elijah Muhammad that never materialized. On that trip he went to Egypt, Mecca, Iran, Syria, and Ghana.

The first of Malcolm's two trips to Africa in 1964 lasted from April 13 to May 21. On May 8, following his speech at Trenchard Hall on the Campus of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, he attended a reception in the Students' Union Hall held for him by the Muslim Students' Society . It was during this reception that the students bestowed upon him the name "Omowale" (Oh-Moh-wah-lay), meaning "the son returns home" in the Yoruba language.

Malcolm returned to New York from Africa via Paris, France on May 21, 1964.

On July 9 he again left the US for Africa, spending a total of eighteen weeks abroad. On July 17, 1964, Malcolm addressed the Organization of African Unity's First Ordinary Assembly of Heads of State and Governments in Cairo as a representative of the OAAU. On August 21, 1964 he made a press statement on behalf of the OAAU regarding the Second African Summit Conference of the OAU. In it he explains how a strong and independent "United States of Africa " is a victory for the awakening of African Americans.

By the time he returned to the US on November 24, 1964, Malcolm had established an international connection of brotherhood between Africans on the continent and those in the diaspora.

Death and afterwards

Life magazine published a famous photograph of Malcolm X holding a Carbine rifle and pulling back the curtains to peer out of a window. This photograph is a popular image on T-shirts and often appears with the slogan "By any means necessary." The photo was taken in connection with Malcolm's declaration that he would defend himself from the daily death threats which he and his family were receiving.

Tensions increased between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam. It was alleged that orders were given by members of the Nation leadership to kill Malcolm.

On February 14, 1965 his home in New York was firebombed. Malcolm and his family survived. Some say it was done by members of the Nation of Islam. No one has been charged in that crime.

A week later on February 21, in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm had just begun delivering a speech when a disturbance broke out in the crowd of 400. A man yelled, "Get your hand outta my pocket! Don't be messin' with my pockets!" As Malcolm's bodyguards rushed forward to attend to the disturbance, a black man rushed forward and shot Malcolm in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men quickly charged towards the stage and fired handguns at Malcolm. Angry on-lookers in the crowd caught and beat the assassins as they attempted to flee the Ballroom. Malcolm X had died.

Malcolm X was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Three people were arrested for his murder: Nation of Islam members Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson. All three were convicted of first-degree murder in March 1966. Hayer himself appears to be the only man guilty of the assassination; he later gave the names of the other assassins as Albert Thomas, Leon Davis, William Bradley , and Wilbur McKinley. Some independent investigators familiar with details of the case have accused current Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan of having played a major role in the planning of the assassination. Farrakhan gave an interview to the CBS news program 60 Minutes in 1998 in which he denied the allegations.

Despite his change of methods late in life, Malcolm X was most remembered for his remarkable oratorial delivery of his fiery anti-racist speeches, which were emulated by other black militant organizations and leaders such as the Black Panthers and Stokely Carmichael.

Biographies and speeches

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (ISBN 0345350685) was written by Alex Haley between 1964 and 1965, based on interviews conducted shortly before Malcolm's asassination (with an epilogue written after it), and was published in 1972. The book was named by Time magazine as one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century. "...belongs on the small shelf of great autobiographies", according to Wendy Smith of

Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements ISBN 0802132138 edited by George Breitman. These speeches made during the last eight months of Malcolm's life indicate the power of his newly refined ideas.

"Malcolm X: The Man and His Times" (ISBN 0865432007) edited with an introduction and commentary by John Henrik Clarke. An anthology of writings, speeches and manifestos along with writings about Malcolm X by an international group of African and African American scholars and activists.

"Malcolm X: The FBI File" (ISBN 0881847518) Commentary by Clayborne Carson with an introduction by Spike Lee and edited by David Gallen. A source of information documenting the FBI's file on Malcolm beginning with his prison release in March 1953 and culminating with a 1980 a request that the FBI investigate Malcolm's assassination.

The film Malcolm X was released in 1992, directed by Spike Lee. Based on the autobiography, it starred Denzel Washington as Malcolm with Angela Bassett as Betty and Al Freeman Jr. as Elijah Muhammad.

The 2001 film Ali, about boxer Muhammed Ali, also features Malcolm X, as played by Mario Van Peebles.

External links

Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12