Malcolm Stuart Little, or Malcolm X as he was better known, was an African American nationalist and civil rights activist. Malcolm was born on 19th May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Baptist lay-preacher Earl Little and Louise Helen Little, who were both involved with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). They taught their children to stand up for themselves and be proud of their heritage and black skin, however, the family were constantly targeted by the racist group, the Black Legion, forcing them to move twice, firstly to Wisconsin, then Michigan.
Unfortunately, Malcolm’s father died when he was only 6 years old. The official ruling was Earl had been involved in a streetcar accident, however, Malcolm’s mother was certain it had been murder. In 1937, by which time Malcolm was 12, his mother suffered a mental breakdown and Malcolm and his siblings were separated and placed in foster care.
Malcolm did well at school but was deterred from going on to study law by a teacher who told him it was not a realistic career for a black man. As a result, Malcolm looked for jobs but never settled anywhere for long, eventually falling in with the wrong crowd in New York. For some time, Malcolm was involved with drugs, gambling, pimping and robbery until he was arrested for the latter in 1946.
While in prison, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam, a religious movement founded in 1930 that aimed to improve the lives of African Americans. On his release, Malcolm got in contact with the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, who helped him convert to Islam and encouraged him to join the movement. All members were instructed to leave their family names behind and replace it with the letter X. Malcolm was more than happy to leave the name “Little” behind, which had been given to his ancestors by a slavemaster. Thus, he became known as Malcolm X.
In 1953, Malcolm became the assistant minister at a temple in Detroit where he proved to be a skilful speaker and encouraged many people to join the Nation of Islam. Amongst Malcolm’s recruits to the Nation of Islam was the boxer Cassius Clay, who was given the Muslim name Muhammad Ali. The FBI, however, opened a file on Malcolm after he declared himself a communist. His popularity amongst the movement’s members increased the FBI’s concerns.
Malcolm married Betty Sanders in 1958, who renamed herself Betty X after joining the Nation of Islam. They had six daughters who they named after notable Muslims: Attallah (Attila the Hun), Qubilah (Kublai Khan), Ilyasah (Elijah Muhammad), Gamilah Lumumba (Gamal Abdel Nasser and Patrice Lumumba), and twins: Malikah and Malaak, named after Malcolm who was given the Muslim name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Teaching the movement’s followers that all white people were bad, Malcolm made himself a public figure, turning up at police stations to protest the wrongful arrests of several black people. His comments on various issues were published in magazines or reported on radio and television, including the Nation of Islam’s beliefs that black people were the original people of the world, white people were devils, blacks were superior to whites and the demise of the white race was imminent. These statements alarmed many people of all races, particularly followers of Martin Luther King Jr, who wanted blacks to be seen as equal to whites.
Between 1962 and 1963, Malcolm began to reassess his involvement with the Nation of Islam. He began to disagree with some of Elijah Muhammad’s choices and disapproved of Muhammad’s involvement in extramarital affairs, which went against the movement’s teachings. By 1964, Malcolm believed the movement had gone as far as it could go and was restricted by its rigid teachings. Although he wanted to remain a Muslim, he wanted to support other civil rights leaders, which Muhammad had actively discouraged.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam, which focused more on the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Later that year, he took the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca where he met Muslims of "all colours, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans," which made him realise there was not a superior race but rather everyone was equal.
Having completed his journey to Mecca, Malcolm visited several African countries where he gave many interviews and television appearances. Following this, he visited France and the United Kingdom where he involved himself in national debates. On his return to the USA, he was invited to speak at various universities and public spaces, encouraging people to fight for their rights and support one another.
As time went on, Malcolm received many death threats and not just from anti-black organisations. The Nation of Islam branded Malcolm a hypocrite and wished to “bump him off”. Despite warning many people of the threats against his life, no one was able to prevent gunmen from advancing on him during a speech. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm on 21st February 1965 having suffered 21 gunshot wounds. The assassins were identified as members of the Nation of Islam, however, only Talmadge Hayer was convicted. Hayer refused to name the other men and to this day they remain unknown. The case continues to intrigue people and, earlier this year, Netflix aired the docuseries Who Killed Malcolm X? which launched a new investigation into the assassination.
After Malcolm’s death, Martin Luther King Jr got in touch with his wife, saying, “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.” Even those who were against Malcolm’s beliefs and ideas were shocked at his death.
Malcolm X has been described as one of the most influential African American’s in history. Although many did not approve of his tactics and beliefs, his actions stirred black communities into action to fight for the lives they deserved. As one biographer put it, Malcolm X "made clear the price that white America would have to pay if it did not accede to black America's legitimate demands."
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon