Malcolm X was a civil rights leader, spokesman for black nationalism and leader of the Nation of Islam, and had a major influence on the political and social thinking of African Americans. His birth name was Malcolm Little and he was born on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska to Louise and Earl Little. Earl was a Baptist preacher and member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The family often faced frequent racial discrimination and threats from radical groups such as Ku Klux Klan and the Black Legion. Malcolm recalls the men who used to come to his house in Omaha, brandishing their guns and rifles. In one particularly scary incident, they broke all the windows of the house, after which Earl decided to move with his family to East Lansing, Michigan.
However, the incidents and threats continued, even in Michigan. In 1929, a group of racist citizens burned the Little’s house down as they watched helplessly. They cried out for assistance but none was forthcoming from the fire fighters or emergency response team which only had white members. Two years later in 1931, a much bigger tragedy struck; Earl was murdered and his body was laid out on the railway tracks. Although it seemed quite likely that the act was committed by a white supremacy racist group, the local police ruled the cause of death as suicide, thereby depriving the family of the premium from the life insurance policy that Earl had purchased to provide for them in the event of his death.
The family struggled to make ends meet after Earl’s death, especially given that the Great Depression was in full swing in the 1930s. Louise became mentally ill and was committed to a mental institution, whereas Malcolm and his siblings were sent to live with foster families. He was a juvenile delinquent by the age of 13, and was sent to live in a detention home for young boys. By the age of 15, he dropped out of school. He continued to hold menial jobs and indulge in petty crime. At the age of 20, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for burglary. It was during this time that he seriously reevaluated his life and began reading books about history, philosophy, and religion.
His brother frequently visited him and told him about an Islamic religious organization called the Lost-Found Nation of Islam founded by Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm joined the organization while still in prison, and in 1952, upon his official release, he changed his last name from “Little” to “X”. Malcolm worked with Elijah to spread the message of the Nation. He became a minister of the Nation’s temples in Boston and established further temples in Harford and Philadelphia. He also established a newspaper by the name of “Muhammad Speaks” to communicate the teachings of Elijah. He won a large numbers of followers on the basis of these teachings, particularly for advocating the use of violence, force or “any means necessary” to achieve their aim of equality and justice for blacks and bring about a revolution. The Nation’s membership grew from 400 members to more than 40,000 members in the 8 years after Malcolm’s release.
Malcolm’s views on the Civil Rights Movement were in stark contrast to those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who advocated peaceful means of bringing about change. In 1958, he married Betty Sanders, a fellow member of the Nation of Islam with whom he had six daughters. In 1964, he broke away from the Nation of Islam and travelled to North Africa and the Middle East, and performed the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. He assimilated new ideas on his journeys, and realized that violence would never solve their problems. Just as he was about to embark on this new, enlightened journey, he was tragically assassinated on February 21, 1965 as he was about to deliver a speech. He was shot 15 times by three armed gunmen, who all turned out to be members of the Nation of Islam. His autobiography was published in 1965, titled “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley” which has been listed as one of the most acclaimed books of all time. After his death, his wife changed her name to Betty Shabazz and became a prominent civil and human rights activist.