Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska to a local leader of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and a very light skinned mother. The family was harassed for his father’s involvements, forced to move from Omaha, and threatened in their new home in Lansing, Michigan. Malcolm’s father’s death after being run over by a street car may have been the result of an attack by the racist Michigan Black Legion.
Without his father, Malcolm drifted into crime and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for burglary and gun charges in Massachusetts in 1946. While serving time he fell under the influence of another inmate who encouraged him to improve himself through reading and who introduced him to the teaching of another ex-con Elijah Muhammad.
After being released from prison in 1952 he met the leader of The Nation of Islam in Chicago, forsook his “slave name,” and became Malcolm X. He rose rapidly in the organization and soon became Elijah Muhammad’s most trusted lieutenant and public spokesperson.
The Nation of Islam taught a brand of African American Nationalism and separation from the “White Devils” who oppressed them. Under Malcolm’s influence the Nation of Islam grew from 500 to more than 25,000 members. He scored a great coup when he successfully recruited the Heavy Weight Champion of the World Cassius Clay and dubbed him Muhammad Ali.
During the Civil Rights era he was harshly critical of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders for both seeking integration and for their nonviolent tactics.
After being publicly censured by Elijah Muhammad for saying that the assassination of John F. Kennedy amounted to “the chickens coming home to roost,” Malcolm broke with the Nation of Islam.
He founded his own Muslim organization, the Muslim Mosque and the Organization of African-American Unity as a secular and political organization. As he worked on The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley, he began to advocate the “careful use of the ballot” as a means of African American advancement.
He was also approached by orthodox Sunni Muslims and urged to study the Koran and repudiate the many un-Islamic innovations of the Nation of Islam. He did convert and undertook the required pilgrimage to Mecca. While there he observed how believers of all races were respected, welcomed and treated equally. He came to believe the Islam could be the means by which racial reconciliation could take place.
This new outlook, and the fact that Malcolm was both attracting his followers and overshadowing him in public, made him a marked man with Elijah Muhammad.
On February 21, 1965 Malcolm X was cut down in a hail of gunfire by three assailants loyal to Elijah Muhammad. He had just risen to speak to a crowd of about 400 at a meeting of The Organization of African American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.
Although top leadership in the Nation was never directly connected to the assassination, three members were convicted in the shooting. Alex Haley finished the Autobiography and it was published to wide acclaim later in the year.
Denzel Washington played him in a critically acclaimed bio-pic decades later.