Malcolm ‘X’ was born Malcolm Little on 19 May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, one of eight children born to Earl and Louise Little (née Norton). His father was an outspoken Baptist preacher, and both Earl and Louise were staunch supporters of Marcus Garvey, the leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. His father’s outspoken championing of civil rights resulted in death threats from the white supremacist group, Black Legion, and they are generally supposed responsible for the death of Earl Little in Lansing, Michigan, on 28 September 1931, although the cause of death recorded officially was that he had been run over by a tram. His death resulted in Louise’s gradual mental breakdown, and she was admitted to an institution in 1939, and young Malcolm and his siblings were split between a number of foster homes and orphanages.
Despite being a bright student, Malcolm became disillusioned with studies when a teacher commented that his intention of becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger”, he dropped out of school and travelled to New York. Here he became embroiled in a life of petty crime, which included prostitution, gambling and narcotics, also managing to avoid being drafted into the military. He moved to Boston, and continued his criminal enterprises, which resulted in his arrest in Boston on 12 January 1946. He was convicted of burglary, carrying an illegal firearm and larceny, and sent to Charlestown State Prison for eight to ten years.
“Malcolm proved a valuable asset to the Nation of Islam; he was an impassioned, articulate orator and over the next decade he was largely responsible for lifting the public profile of the organisation.”
Whilst there he renewed contact with his brother, Reginald, who urged him to join the militant Black Islamic organisation called the Nation of Islam (NOI), headed by Elijah Muhammad, which fought for the political and economic empowerment of African Americans. NOI claimed that African-Americans had lost their original Muslim faith when sold into slavery from Africa, and advocated a return to their original faith. Malcolm commenced direct correspondence with its leader, Muhammad, from prison, reading extensively about Islam, and he became a devout follower, changing his name to Malcolm ‘X’, when he was paroled on 7 August 1952: the ‘X’ signified his original, lost tribal name, the surname Little having been imposed on his ancestors by their slave master.
Malcolm proved a valuable asset to the Nation of Islam; he was an impassioned, articulate orator and over the next decade he was largely responsible for lifting the public profile of the organisation, from an obscure movement of around 500 to a nationally recognised political force with 30,000 followers. During his meteoric rise he became Minister of New York Temple No. 7 in June 1954, where he met Betty Sanders in January 1956, whom he married on 14 January 1958. High profile Nation of Islam converts directly attributable to Malcolm included the professional boxing legend, Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali and, by 1963, Malcolm was second only to Elijah Muhammad in influence within the organisation. Malcolm X had become a media force to be reckoned with.
Malcolm became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam over time, however: his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, had numerous illicit affairs, in direct contravention of Islamic teachings, and he also witnessed NOI ministers living luxurious lives at the organisation’s expense. After the assassination of John F Kennedy, Malcolm made an ill-advised speech about Kennedy having been the architect of his own downfall, which caused widespread public consternation, and resulted in a 90-day public speech ban imposed by Muhammad. He respected the ban, but it proved the final straw in his relationship with Muhammad and the Nation of Islam; on 8 March 1964, he publicly split from the organisation, renouncing Muhammad specifically, and the Nation of Islam in general.
He formed his own movement, the Muslim Mosque Inc., on 12 March 1964. Muhammad responded by insisting that Malcolm return all Nation of Islam property, including the home in which he lived in East Elmhurst, New York, which Malcolm refused to do. Relations thereafter became increasingly volatile, and he was the focus of repeated attacks, by members of the Nation of Islam, unable to leave his home without bodyguards.
At the urging of Islamic friends, he made a Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, in April 1964, which affected his political outlook profoundly. On his return he took a new name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and began preaching a more inclusive, non-violent philosophy that extended beyond the strict racial boundaries of the teachings of the Nation of Islam, although he still maintained that Black people had the right to defend themselves against any White aggressors. He founded the Organisation of Afro-American Unity, which included all people of African descent in the Western hemisphere, and the tensions between himself and the Nation of Islam increased even further, to the point where the Nation of Islam leadership are alleged to have directly ordered the assassination of Malcolm and his family.