The man we know as Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother, Louise Norton Little, was a homemaker in a family that had eight children. Earl Little, his father, was a Baptist minister. Both were admirers of Marcus Garvey, a Pan-African leader. Earl led a local chapter of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and Louise sent news of local UNIA activities to Negro World, the organization’s national newspaper. The black citizens of Omaha may have appreciated the couple’s efforts to strengthen bonds of solidarity between black people everywhere, but the white residents did not. The family was threatened with death by local white supremacists, including the Klan. Fearing they might be killed if they remained, the family relocated—first to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926, and then two years later to Lansing, Michigan.
In Lansing, they bought a house in the white neighborhood of Westmont. Earl preached at local Baptist churches and continued recruiting followers to the Garvey movement. As was true in Omaha, Earl quickly earned a reputation as an uppity Negro who did not know his place. The land company that owned the Westmont subdivision took Earl Little to circuit court in 1929. The company argued that the Little family could not live in Westmont because the land contract stated that only whites could live there.
The court ruled that Earl Little could own property in the subdivision but could not own a house there. The court ordered the family to leave their home. Before the eviction took place, the home was burned to the ground. The Little family and their black neighbors believed that the Black Legion, a Klan splinter group, committed the arson.
We often think of Jim Crow segregation as a southern phenomenon; however, as the Little family could testify, there was racial discrimination in Michigan. After their home was destroyed, the family moved near the border of East Lansing, staying there from 1929 to 1930. They faced racial antagonism from white residents. So, they moved again. Earl built a house two miles out of town. While there, Malcolm enrolled at Pleasant Grove Elementary in 1931.
On September 28, 1931, Earl’s body was found lying across the town’s trolley tracks. The authorities ruled it a suicide, but Malcolm’s family blamed the Black Legion. The insurance company refused to pay a death benefit. They claimed that Earl killed himself. The older Little children, along with their mother, took whatever jobs they could find; nevertheless, the family sank into a deep poverty.
Malcolm got into trouble at school and home. He was caught stealing on multiple occasions. The welfare board brought his actions up as evidence that Louise Little was incompetent as a parent. A person can only take so much. In 1939, she was declared legally insane and committed to the Kalamazoo State Hospital. Her children were split up amongst neighbors, friends, and foster care homes.
Despite getting into trouble, Malcolm was a good student. But, one of his teachers crushed him. The same year his mother was hospitalized, a white teacher asked him what he would like to be when he was an adult. He told her he wanted to be a lawyer. She told him that was not a realistic goal for a nigger. He became embittered and disenchanted. He was placed in a detention home and then dropped out of school. In 1941 Malcolm moved to Boston, where he had a variety of jobs while living with Ella Little-Collins, his half-sister, in the mostly African American neighborhood of Roxbury.
He moved to Harlem in 1943, where he engaged in pimping, gambling, drug dealing, racketeering, and robbery. In late 1945, he returned to Boston, where he and accomplices burglarized the homes of wealthy white families. In 1946, the year he turned 21, Malcolm was sentenced to eight to ten years in Massachusetts State Prison for larceny and breaking and entering.
While in prison, his brothers and sisters visited him and introduced him to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the head of the Nation of Islam. His transformation from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X occurred from 1947 to 1952, as he became a self-educated, disciplined convert to the Nation of Islam—the surname "X" signified the intellectual and spiritual search for an African identity and the rejection of his slave name Little. During this period he wrote and received letters from Elijah Muhammad who advised Malcolm to renounce his past, humble himself before Allah, and promise to turn away from destructive behavior. He was paroled in 1952. That year he visited and favorable impressed Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm had entered prison as a criminal; he emerged as one of the most articulate, passionate spokespersons for social justice in this country’s history. He became a traveling minister for the Nation of Islam, attracting new members and establishing temples in black communities across the country. He was a powerful public speaker. Due largely to his efforts, the Nation of Islam grew from 400 members at the time he was released from prison in 1952 to 40,000 members by 1960. His message was especially appealing to young black people in northern urban cities. Malcolm’s influence grew, and so did his relationship with Elijah Muhammad, a surrogate father to the youthful charismatic Malcolm.
As the public face of the Nation of Islam for a dozen years, Malcolm became, arguably, the most dangerous black man in the country. While Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders preached nonviolent resistance to racial oppression, Malcolm preached casting off the shackles of racism “by any means necessary.” He did not believe a peaceful revolution was possible. “You don’t have a turn-the cheek revolution,” he said, “There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution.” He lambasted the mainstream civil rights movement for its emphasis on nonviolence and racial integration. Theirs was a naïve attempt to do something that America could not do: accept black people as fully people. Malcolm’s proposals were more militant, including a violent revolution to establish an independent black nation.
Here was a man unafraid to call out the racist past and present of the nation. He confronted racism beyond the Jim Crow South, denouncing America as a blood-thirsty imperialist, neo-colonialist power. Malcolm X regularly criticized King, accusing him of kowtowing to whites and subjugating black people to the very culture that had historically denigrated and abused all people of color. King called white people his brothers and sisters, including those who pelted him with stones and bottles; Malcolm called them white devils.
During 1962 and 1963, Malcolm reassessed his relationship with the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad. On April 27, 1962, white LAPD police officers went into a Nation of Islam mosque and beat the members. Malcolm X wanted to retaliate, Elijah Muhammad said no. Malcolm X also sought approval to work with civil rights organizations and human rights groups, again Elijah Muhammad said no. Malcolm’s disappointment with his mentor grew greater when he discovered that Elijah Muhammad had fathered children with young Nation of Islam secretaries, a serious violation of the Nation’s teachings.
By 1963, Malcolm X was suspended from the Nation of Islam for saying of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, this was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.” These remarks prompted widespread public rebuke. Malcolm’s suspension led to a nasty public feud between Malcolm’s supporters and supporters of Elijah Muhammad. On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X announced his break from the Nation of Islam. He was still a Muslim. He planned to organize a Black Nationalist organization to heighten the political consciousness of black people—and he would work with other civil rights organizations, something that Elijah Muhammad had prevented him from doing.
In March 1964 he founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc., in Harlem, as the base for a spiritual and political program to eliminate economic and social oppression against black Americans. Then Malcolm made the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, in April 1964. There he changed his name from Malcolm X to El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, which signified the adoption of a new identity that was linked to mainstream Islam. Malcolm X later said that seeing Muslims of all colors “from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans” praying and interacting as equals led him to see Islam as a means by which racism could be addressed.
On June 28, 1964 Malcolm founded the Organization of African-American Unity, a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism. He spoke to many audiences, especially on college campuses, with a new message.
Throughout 1964, his conflict with the Nation of Islam intensified, and he received death threats. During the last months of his life, he was stalked by his enemies in the Nation of Islam, the New York City Police, and the intelligence community. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. The killing was presumably motivated by his controversial split with the Nation of Islam, as three members were ultimately convicted for the murder in 1966: Talmadge X Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson. They were charged with the murder and sentenced to indeterminate life sentences. Hayer was guilty and deserved his fate; however, Butler and Johnson were unjustly convicted. The person who fired the weapon that killed Malcolm X was William X. Bradley, also known as Almustafa N. Shabazz. He never served a day behind bars even though the FBI had information that linked him to the murder—information that they did not share with the New York Police Department. Even if they had shared the information, it likely would not have mattered. Officers in the NYPD did not seek to protect Malcolm and his family; they considered him a trouble-making militant.
No man is a 100 and no man is a 0. Malcolm spent his early years as a pimp, hustler, and burglar. When he was in his mother’s womb, his family was threatened by Klansmen. His family moved across the country trying to find a place free from the daily indignities of Jim Crow; they never found that place. He was a bitter young man. With the Nation of Islam he found discipline and purpose, and his hatred of white people crystalized. Blessed with a keen intellect and the passion of a warrior he helped build the Nation of Islam. He was an uncompromising voice for black pain in the North. His trip to Mecca changed him.
When we picture Martin Luther King, Jr. we see him being arrested or standing at the podium at the Lincoln Memorial delivering the so-called I have a Dream speech. In contrast, the most iconic image of Malcolm X, the one that is seared into our brains, shows him holding a rifle in his right hand, pulling back the blinds with his other hand, looking outside his home in Queens, New York. The image appears on shirts and posters, often accompanied with the caption, “By Any Means Necessary.” It was taken months before his murder. It was a political statement; and, it was the action of a man trying to protect himself and his family.
Jim Crow Museum