Described as one of the greatest African American leaders and hailed as the person who laid the foundations of the Black Power movement, Malcolm X would be 96 years old had he lived.
The civil rights leader was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on Sunday, February 21, 1965, just three months before he turned 40.
In his lifetime, he was not always recognised for his achievements. Many dismissed him as an angry young man. This is his story:
Carpenter instead of lawyer
- Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925. When he was six years old, his father, Reverend Earl Little, a Baptist minister, died after being hit by a car.
- The family was so poor that Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, resorted to cooking dandelion greens from the street to feed her children. Louise was placed in a mental hospital when Malcolm was 13. He lived in a series of foster homes after that.
- Malcolm excelled at school, but after one of his teachers told him he should become a carpenter instead of a lawyer, he lost motivation and ended his formal education.
- At the age of 27, Malcolm changed his last name to X. He later wrote that Little was the name that “the white slavemaster … had imposed upon [his] paternal forebears”.
Nation of Islam
- In his teenage years, he was involved in criminal activities and was imprisoned from 1946 to 1952.
- In prison, he went through a transformation and ended up joining the Nation of Islam, an African American movement that combined Islam with black nationalism.
- Malcolm quit smoking and gambling. With the ambition to re-educate himself, he spent long hours reading books in the prison library and memorised a dictionary.
- After his release from prison, he helped lead the Nation of Islam, marking a period of its greatest growth. He founded the Nation’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and led the administration of mosques for the Nation in New York, Philadelphia and Boston.
A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything
Civil rights movement
- An articulate public speaker, Malcolm X expressed the frustration and bitterness of African Americans during the major phase of the civil rights movement from 1955 to 1965.
- Malcolm advocated the separation of black and white Americans and rejected the civil rights movement for its emphasis on integration.
- In a stark counterpoint to Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence, Malcolm X said: “I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem.”
- Malcolm urged his followers to defend themselves “by any means necessary”.
- He was one of the early voices to speak out against the US’ growing engagement in Vietnam. And he infuriated many when, in reaction to the assassination of President John F Kennedy, he said it was “chickens coming home to roost”.
- He provided the intellectual foundations for the Black Power and black consciousness movements in the US in the late 1960s.
I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man's problem
- After deep tensions with Elijah Muhammad over the political direction of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm left the Nation in 1964.
- After travelling to Africa and the Middle East, where he performed the Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj, he embraced Islam and became known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.
- The growing hostility between him and the Nation led to death threats and open violence against Malcolm.
- In 1965, Malcolm was shot while delivering a lecture at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
- He was rushed to an emergency clinic a block away. Fifteen minutes after he was admitted, he was pronounced dead.
- Three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of the murder, two of the three were exonerated in November 2021
- The public viewing at Unity Funeral Home in Harlem was attended by 14,000 to 30,000 mourners.
If you're not ready to die for it, put the word 'freedom' out of your vocabulary