Born as Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm X was the son of Earl Little, a preacher who avidly supported the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The Little family moved to Milwaukee in 1926, and then to Lansing, Michigan in 1928. Malcolm’s father died in 1931, most likely by falling under the wheels of a streetcar which he was attempting to board while drunk. When Malcolm’s mother was committed to a mental institution six years later, the boy went to live with family friends who also resided in Lansing. He was expelled from West Junior High School for misbehavior at the age of thirteen. In 1939 he enrolled at Mason High School (in Mason, Michigan), where he was the only black student on campus, excelled academically, and was voted class president.
But Malcolm dropped out of school at age 15 and went to live with his older half-sister, Ella, in Boston. He subsequently took jobs as a shoe shiner and kitchen worker but soon fell into a life of crime. In February 1946 he was sentenced to ten years in prison for burglary.
During his time behind bars, Malcolm voraciously read books that he borrowed from the prison library. In about April 1948, his brother, who had recently joined the Nation of Islam (NOI), visited Malcolm in prison and extolled the virtues of that organization. Malcolm promptly immersed himself in the teachings of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, who advocated black separatism from an irredeemably racist and oppressive white society. Malcolm spoke reverently about Mr. Muhammad, characterizing him as “the greatest and wisest and most fearless black man in America today.”
By the time he was paroled in 1952, Malcolm was a devoted NOI member. Three weeks after regaining his freedom, he personally met Elijah Muhammad and embraced his own new identity by discarding his “slave” surname (Little) in favor of the letter “X”—a tribute to the unknown tribal name of his African ancestors. “The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery,” Malcolm explained. “The last name of my forefathers was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves, and then the name of the slave master was given, which we refuse, we reject that name today and refuse it. I never acknowledge it whatsoever.”
Before long, Malcolm moved to Detroit to help Elijah Muhammad expand NOI’s following among blacks nationwide. He then became the minister of NOI temples in Harlem and Boston, while also establishing new temples in Hartford and Philadelphia. In 1960 Malcolm launched Muhammad Speaks, a national newspaper promoting NOI’s message. He also utilized mainstream newspaper columns and radio/television appearances for this purpose.
Rejecting Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a peaceful path to racial integration, Malcolm exhorted blacks to combat racism “by any means necessary,” emphasizing: “You don’t have a peaceful revolution. You don’t have a turn-the-cheek revolution. There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution.”
Malcolm’s rhetoric about whites ran the gamut from seething hatred—“History proves that the white man is a devil”—to disdain—“No, we are not anti-white. But we don’t have time for the white man. The white man is on top already, the white man is the boss already…. So you are wasting your time talking to the white man. We are working on our own people.”
Malcolm also viewed free-market capitalism as an economic system that exploited and abused poor blacks: “You show me a capitalist, and I’ll show you a bloodsucker.”
During his tenure with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm promoted the NOI doctrine which held that the white race was the creation of an evil black scientist named Yacub. He also echoed Elijah Muhammad’s assertion that history would culminate in a racial Armageddon in which God would enable blacks to bring about the extermination of the white race by means of a deadly “mother ship”—i.e., a wheel-shaped flying saucer that contained hundreds of “baby planes” carrying bombs filled with two tons of a powerful explosive.
Malcolm had only disdain for black individuals and organizations that were not militant haters of the United States. For instance, he referred to the late Booker T. Washington as a “white man’s nigger”; he said that Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis were “stooges” for “the white man”; and he characterized the NAACP as a “black body with a white head.” In Malcolm’s calculus, every black integrationist was either a “Quisling” or an “Uncle Tom.”
Malcolm’s hateful, fiery rhetoric had a beneficial effect for NOI, helping to swell the organization’s membership rolls from a mere 400 people in 1952, to approximately 40,000 by 1960.
In 1958, Malcolm married fellow NOI member Betty Sanders, who later became active in the civil-rights movement and changed her name to Betty Shabazz.
Described by scholar Joshua Muravchik as “a vociferous anti-Semite in both public and in private,” on January 28, 1961 Malcolm met with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan—whose opposition to race mixing and intermarriage he admired—in an effort to win white racist support for NOI’s separatist agenda. Indeed, he sought to elicit help from the Klan in obtaining land in the South that could be used as an independent nation for black Americans. He assured the Klansmen that the integration movement they despised was being largely orchestrated by Jews who were “using the Negro as a tool,” and he expressed his dismay to the Klansmen that they had not yet killed Martin Luther King.
Also in 1961, Malcolm traveled to the Middle East and subsequently began to adopt traditional Islamic practices while becoming more critical of NOI.
In 1962 a French airliner crashed and 121 white passengers from Georgia were killed. Malcolm responded to the tragedy by saying: “I should like to announce a very beautiful thing that has happened. I got a wire from God today. He really answered our prayers over in France…. We will continue to pray, and we hope that every day another plane falls out of the sky.”
At that time, the FBI — concerned that NOI sought to foment racial violence in the United States — was monitoring Elijah Muhammad’s activities and telephone conversations around the clock. In the course of that surveillance, the Bureau was able to learn a great deal about Muhammad’s private life. For example, a 1962 FBI document reads: “Elijah Muhammad is engaging in extramarital activities with at least five female members of the Nation of Islam. This information indicated Elijah Muhammad has fathered some children by these women…. These paradoxes in the character of Elijah Muhammad make him extremely vulnerable to criticism by his followers.” According to independent scholar Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, creator of the 2020 Netflix documentary Who Killed Malcolm X?: “The FBI was determined to use more counterintelligence techniques to create more distance and schisms between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad.”
By 1963, Malcolm had begun to perceive that Elijah Muhammad was using NOI as his own personal cash cow – raking in massive donations on which he paid no taxes because of NOI’s exemption as a religious organization. Gradually, Malcolm grew to view his mentor – now a mega-millionaire who owned multiple homes and businesses – as someone who was more preoccupied with acquiring earthly treasures than with abiding by the tenets of his faith.
On December 1, 1963, Malcolm defiantly disobeyed Elijah Muhammad’s orders to refrain from commenting publicly on the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Expressing satisfaction over Kennedy’s death, Malcolm stated: “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” Livid, Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm from speaking publicly on NOI’s behalf. In response, Malcolm threw himself at “the Messenger’s” mercy by beseeching him, on multiple occasions, to reinstate him—all to no avail.
The Nation of Islam, which owned the home where Malcolm and his family were living, tried to evict him along with his wife and children. Embittered like never before, Malcolm now detested the man whom he had once regarded as his mentor, guide, and spiritual advisor. On March 8, 1964, Malcolm announced that he was leaving NOI. Soon thereafter, he established a new “Muslim Mosque Incorporated” in New York City and founded the aforementioned Organization of Afro-American Unity, for the purpose of organizing blacks in the Western hemisphere. This group’s newspaper continued to feature the same incendiary racial rhetoric—e.g. headlines like “Racist America”—for which Malcolm was known, and Malcolm himself pledged to haul the United States government before the United Nations for its violation of the “human rights” of its black citizens.
Determined to exact revenge on Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm took steps to humiliate his former mentor by publicizing embarrassing secrets about the latter’s private life. Most notably, Malcolm went before television cameras and announced to the press: “Elijah Muhammad, the head of the movement, is the father of eight children by six different teenage girls who were his private personal secretaries.” One of those girls, Malcolm added, was pregnant at that time with a ninth child sired by Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm continued to disparage Elijah Muhammad and his associates at every opportunity thereafter. He smeared NOI leaders as “the hierarchy who are living off the fatted calf”; he described Elijah Muhammad as a “senile” old man who “doesn’t love black people” and “doesn’t even love his own followers”; and he portrayed Elijah Muhammad’s grown children as reprobates who lusted for “nothing but luxury” and “power.”
In March 1964 Malcolm warned: “There will be more violence than ever this year. White people will be shocked when they discover that the passive little Negro they had known turns out to be a roaring lion. The whites had better understand this while there is still time. The Negroes at the mass level are ready to act.”
In April 1964, Malcolm took an extended trip through North Africa and the Middle East—a sojourn that led him to embrace socialism and pan-Africanism more deeply than ever before. Malcolm also made a pilgrimage to Mecca, during which he converted to traditional Islam and again changed his name, this time to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Upon his return to the U.S., Malcolm reported that Islam was “the one religion that erases from its society the race problem” and “the ‘white’ attitude” he had long held in contempt, and that during his travels abroad he had met “blonde-haired, blue-eyed [Muslim] men I could call my brothers.” If America were to accept Islam on a large scale, he speculated, it had a chance to become “the first country … that can actually have a bloodless revolution.”
Meanwhile, Malcolm continued to disparage Martin Luther King as “a chump, not a champ,” and as “a little black mouse sitting on top of a big white elephant” (i.e., the United States). When King received his Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, Malcolm remarked: “He got the Peace Prize; we got the problem…. I don’t want the white man giving me medals.” Malcolm added that King “is the best thing that ever happened to white folks. For white folks! As long as anybody can keep Negroes nonviolent, it helps white folks.”
Throughout late 1964 and early ’65, Malcolm’s relations with Elijah Muhammad and NOI became increasingly hostile, and the organization marked him for assassination. One of the most noteworthy voices calling for Malcolm’s murder was that of Louis Farrakhan, whom Malcolm had recruited into NOI in the 1950s. Enraged by Malcolm’s disloyalty to Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan wrote ominously: “The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after such evil foolish talk about his benefactor, Elijah Muhammad. Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.”
By 1965 the hostility between Malcolm and his former NOI brethren was so intense, that Malcolm fully expected to be killed on orders of Elijah Muhammad in the very near future. “I do believe there will be attempts on my life,” he said. “I know them [NOI]. They are foaming at the mouth.” On another occasion, Malcolm stated: “Elijah Muhammad has given the order to his followers to see that I am crippled or killed.” And yet another time, he recounted how Elijah Muhammad’s son had recently come to New York and told NOI’s paramilitary wing, the Fruit of Islam, “that my tongue should have been put in an envelope and sent back to Chicago by now.” The transcript of an FBI wiretap of an Elijah Muhammad phone call from that same general time period reads as follows: “Elijah said the only way to stop him [Malcolm] was to get rid of him the way Moses and the others did their bad ones” – i.e., by putting Malcolm to death, as Moses had effectuated the death of idolators in ancient times. Another portion of the same transcript quotes Elijah Muhammad saying that the best way to deal with “hypocrites” like Malcolm would be to “cut their heads off.”
According to former NOI member Q. Amin Nathari: “It was inevitable that he [Malcolm] would be killed, whether it was gonna be a [NOI] crew out of Philadelphia, or a crew out of New York, or a crew out of any other city that had that type of zeal and love for Elijah Muhammad.” And historian David Garrow concurs: “For months preceding the assassination, the resentment that the top leadership of the Nation of Islam had towards Malcolm was explicitly broadcast. The signals, the public signals, were visible to anyone who was paying the slightest bit of attention.”
On February 14, 1965, Malcolm’s home was consumed by a fire but no one was harmed. He claimed that the blaze had started as a result of Molotov cocktails thrown at the house, but fire inspectors found evidence suggesting that Malcolm himself had torched the structure. Notably, Malcolm had recently lost a court fight to stay in the house, which was owned by NOI.
On the evening of February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in northern Manhattan, where Malcolm X was about to deliver a speech, several gunmen—all NOI members—rushed the stage and shot him more than a dozen times at point-blank range. Elijah Muhammad had ordered the killing, and Louis Farrakhan—embittered by Malcolm’s disloyalty to Muhammad—had also played a role in supervising the plan. There has been considerable controversy about exactly who shot the bullets that actually killed Malcolm. For details about that controversy, click here.
Further Reading: “Malcolm X” (Biography.com, SeekingMichigan.org, MalcolmX.com); Who Killed Malcolm X? (by John Perazzo, 2-26-2020); “The Real Malcolm X” (by David Forsmark, 7-27-2011); “Remembering Malcolm X Fifty Years Later” (by Daniel Pipes, 2-21-2015); “Remembering the Politically Inconvenient Malcolm X” (by Jack Kerwick, 3-31-2015); “Facing Up to Black Anti-Semitism” (by Joshua Muravchik, Dec. 1995).
Who Killed Malcolm X?
By John Perazzo
February 26, 2020
Remembering Malcolm X Fifty Years Later
By Daniel Pipes
Feb 21, 2015
Remembering the Politically Inconvenient Malcolm X
By Jack Kerwick
March 31, 2015