Who is Malcolm X?
Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little, later el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz; May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965) was an American Muslim minister and human rights activist who was a prominent figure during the civil rights movement. A spokesman for the Nation of Islam until 1964, he was a vocal advocate for Black empowerment and the promotion of Islam within the Black community. A posthumous autobiography, on which he collaborated with Alex Haley, was published in 1965.
Malcolm spent his adolescence living in a series of foster homes or with relatives after his father’s death and his mother’s hospitalization. He committed various crimes, being sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1946 for larceny and burglary. In prison he joined the Nation of Islam (adopting the name Malcolm X to symbolize his unknown African ancestral surname while discarding “the White slavemaster name of ‘Little'”), and after his parole in 1952 quickly became one of the organization’s most influential leaders. He was the public face of the organization for 12 years, advocating Black empowerment and separation of Black and White Americans, and criticizing Martin Luther King Jr. and the mainstream civil rights movement for its emphasis on nonviolence and racial integration. Malcolm X also expressed pride in some of the Nation’s social welfare achievements, such as its free drug rehabilitation program. From the 1950s onward, Malcolm X was subjected to surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
In the 1960s, Malcolm X began to grow disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, as well as with its leader, Elijah Muhammad. He subsequently embraced Sunni Islam and the civil rights movement after completing the Hajj to Mecca, and became known as “el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz,” which roughly translates to “The Pilgrim Malcolm the Patriarch”. After a brief period of travel across Africa, he publicly renounced the Nation of Islam and founded the Islamic Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI) and the Pan-African Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Throughout 1964, his conflict with the Nation of Islam intensified, and he was repeatedly sent death threats. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated in New York City. Three Nation members were charged with the murder and given indeterminate life sentences; in 2021, two of the convictions were vacated. Speculation about the assassination and whether it was conceived or aided by leading or additional members of the Nation, or with law enforcement agencies, has persisted for decades.
A controversial figure accused of preaching racism and violence, Malcolm X is also a widely celebrated figure within African-American and Muslim American communities for his pursuit of racial justice. He was posthumously honored with Malcolm X Day, on which he is commemorated in various cities across the United States. Hundreds of streets and schools in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, while the Audubon Ballroom, the site of his assassination, was partly redeveloped in 2005 to accommodate the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center.
One of the blessing of living in the present is ready access, not just to the words of speakers from the past, but video (assuming that person lived within the last 80 years or so.) Embedded below is a speech given by Malcolm X in 1964, not long before his death: