Malcolm X (1925–1965) was a prominent African American Muslim minister and human rights activist. He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska and changed his surname to ‘X’ to represent his unknown African ancestral name that had been lost due to slavery.
Malcolm X was a controversial figure during the Civil Rights Movement due to his advocacy for black empowerment, self-determination and self-defense against racism “by any means necessary”. He rejected nonviolence and integration promoted by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.
Malcolm X promoted the principles of Islam and black pride and was a gifted orator who inspired black Americans to stand up for their rights. He famously articulated the anger, struggle and beliefs of African Americans during a turbulent period of massive civil unrest, when long-standing racism and injustice towards black people was being vigorously challenged and debated within America.
What was Malcolm X’s early life like?
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother, Louise Norton Little, was born in Grenada in the Caribbean and his father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and avid supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey.
Earl Little’s civil rights activism prompted death threats from white supremacist groups, forcing the family to relocate twice before Malcolm X was four years old. Regardless, threats continued and their Lansing, Michigan home was burned to the ground in 1929. Two years later, Earl Little was found dead after being run over by a streetcar, though Louise believed he was murdered by white supremacists.
Louise suffered a nervous breakdown several years after her husband’s death and was declared mentally ill. Malcolm X and his siblings were split up and sent to foster homes. Malcolm X excelled in school, but dropped out after a white teacher told him that practicing law, his aspiration at the time, was “no realistic goal for a nigger”.
Early Life Timeline
|Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska
|Family home burned down in Lansing, Michigan
|Father Earl Little dies in streetcar accident
|Mother Louise Little committed to mental institution
|Drops out of school after discouraging meeting with teacher
What criminal activity was Malcolm X involved in?
With no parents or guidance, Malcolm X became involved in criminal activities in Boston and New York City to survive. He ran numbers for gambling operations, sold illegal drugs, participated in robberies, and burglarized homes. While in prison for larceny at age 20, he began educating himself and converted to the Nation of Islam, a controversial Black Muslim group that advocated black nationalism and empowerment.
Malcolm X shed his ‘slave’ last name, signifying the loss of African ancestral ties due to slavery, and replaced it with ‘X’ to represent an unknown African name. After being paroled in 1952, he quickly became one of the Nation of Islam’s most influential leaders and recruiters, helping expand membership from just 400 to over 30,000 by 1963.
As the Nation of Islam’s primary spokesperson, he promoted black pride and self-determination. He famously criticized mainstream civil rights leaders for advocating nonviolence and integration with white society. Malcolm X proclaimed that black people should define themselves and reject the racist stereotypes imposed on them by white society.
Major Events in Criminal Life
- Moved to Boston in 1941 and became involved in criminal activities
- Arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1946 for larceny
- Began self-education in prison and converted to the Nation of Islam
- Paroled in 1952 after serving 6 years in prison
How did Malcolm X’s views change after his pilgrimage to Mecca?
In 1964, Malcolm X undertook the Islamic pilgrimage known as the Hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrimage had a profound impact on his worldview. For the first time, Malcolm X found himself praying next to people of all races and nationalities, united in brotherhood by their Islamic faith.
Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography about how the experience changed his perspective on race relations:
“There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.”
After Mecca, Malcolm X began reconsidering his views on segregation. He came to believe that the fight for civil rights should transcend religion, race and nationality. In 1964, he split from the Nation of Islam and founded the secular Organization of Afro-American Unity. He emphasized Pan-Africanism and internationalism rather than black separatism.
Unfortunately, Malcolm X was assassinated less than a year after his life-changing pilgrimage, cutting short his spiritual evolution and reformation of political views. Nevertheless, the impact of his pilgrimage endures as a testament to the power of Islam to unite people regardless of race.
Changes After Mecca
- Saw Muslims of all races praying together in unity
- Realized Islam could unite people across racial divides
- Began reconsidering his views on racial segregation
- Founded secular Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964
- Emphasized Pan-Africanism and internationalism over separatism
What were the main causes Malcolm X fought for?
Malcolm X was a fiery and controversial activist who relentlessly fought for several causes:
Malcolm X urged African Americans to take pride in their racial identity and defined themselves, rather than accept the inferior status that racist white society imposed on them. He asserted that black people should determine their own destinies and demanded respect.
Self-Defense Against Racism
While civil rights leaders like MLK advocated nonviolent resistance, Malcolm X believed self-defense was justified against racist attacks. He rejected turning the other cheek, arguing that violence should be met with violence as a matter of practical survival and to assert one’s manhood.
Malcolm X promoted Black Nationalist ideology, advocating that black Americans should form their own separate institutions and communities to promote economic independence and self-sufficiency, rather thanintegrating with white society.
Malcolm X opposed racial integration, arguing that black people could not get fair treatment or justice in white America. He criticized civil rights leaders for subjecting black people to humiliation and harm by advocating nonviolence and integration with their oppressors.
A major part of Malcolm X’s activism focused on educating black people about racism’s history and effects, in order to motivate them to stand up for equality and freedom. His teachings largely targeted poor, working-class urban blacks.
Malcolm X fearlessly and tirelessly pursued these causes with his activism and teachings until his assassination in 1965. He inspired black Americans to stop accepting racism and take charge of their lives and communities through empowerment and self-determination. Though controversial, his legacy as a champion for black rights endures.
What were the major events in Malcolm X’s life?
Here is a timeline overview of the major events in Malcolm X’s life:
- 1925 – Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska
- 1931 – Father Earl Little dies in a streetcar accident
- 1939 – Drops out of school and eventually moves to Boston
- 1946 – Sent to prison for larceny charges
- 1952 – Paroled from prison and joins the Nation of Islam
- 1953 – Changes his name to Malcolm X and becomes assistant minister of Nation of Islam’s Detroit temple
- 1954 – Becomes minister of Harlem’s Nation of Islam temple
- 1957 – Marries Betty Sanders
- 1958 – Survives assassination attempt after Johnson Hinton beating
- 1959 – TV appearances increase his national prominence as spokesperson for Nation of Islam
- 1964 – Embarks on pilgrimage to Mecca; converts to Sunni Islam; founds the Organization of Afro-American Unity
- 1965 – Malcolm X is assassinated on February 21 while giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City
Malcolm X packed an extraordinary number of revolutionary events, transformation and activism into his short 40 years of life. He endures as one of the most influential black leaders and symbols of black liberation against racism.
Major Life Events Timeline
|Born in Omaha, Nebraska
|Father dies in streetcar accident
|Sent to prison for larceny
|Paroled from prison and joins Nation of Islam
|Becomes Minister of Detroit temple
|Pilgrimage to Mecca; leaves Nation of Islam
|Assassinated in New York City