Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, one of eight children. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist preacher who supported Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement. When Malcolm was four, the family moved to Lansing, Michigan, where Earl tried opening a store while continuing his preaching. But a group of white supremacists calling themselves the Black Legion (a sub-branch of the Ku Klux Klan) became irate to him.
Two years later, Earl Little was found dead on the trolley tracks in town after a streetcar ran over him. Dispite the police report that Earl’s death was an accident, Malcolm strongly believed that his father was killed by the Black Legion who placed his father’s body on the tracks to make it look like an accident. Following Earl’s death, Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, tried to support her eight children on her own. Malcolm started stealing food and candy from neighborhood stores to support his brothers and sisters. After being caught a few too many times, a local court ruled that Louise was unable to control Malcolm and had him removed from her care and placed in a friendly white couple’s home who knew Louise. Two years later, Louise, due to severe stress in raising her children, suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to the state mental hospital where she remained for the remaining 26 years of her life.
After finishing 8th grade, Malcolm dropped out of school and traveled to Boston where his older sister, Ella, lived. After a few years, Malcolm moved to New York City where, to support himself, he became a numbers runner, a drug dealer, even a pimp. He wore zoot suits and dyed his hair red, which earned him the nickname ‘Detroit Red.’ He relocated to Boston again where he organized a robbery ring that was uncovered by the police in 1946, and he was sentenced to eight to 10 years in prison. Malcolm used the time behind bars to educate himself in the prison library where he learned the fundamentals of grammar and increased his vocabulary. It was here that a few inmates introduced Malcolm to a new religion and movement, The Nation of Islam. Malcolm’s younger brother, Reginald, already a member, visited him and told him about Islam and about Allah. Much of what Reginald said confused Malcolm, but two phrase took root in his head, “The white man is the devil” and “The black man is the brainwashed.” Malcolm learned that if he wanted to join, he would have to accept its theology and submit completely to its founder and leader, Elijah Muhammad.
Inspired by the new direction his life was taking, Malcolm wrote Elijah Muhammad a heartfelt letter about himself and why he wanted to join. Elijah wrote back welcoming Malcolm to the faith. He instructed Malcolm to drop his last name, which his ancestors inherited from a slave owner and replace it with the letter X which symbolized that his true African name had been lost. In 1952, Malcolm was finally paroled from prison. Rather than returning to the life of crime, Malcolm committed himself to learning more about his new religion. In 1958, Malcolm married Betty Shabazz, a Muslim nurse and together they had four daughters (plus two more born after his death). Over the next several years, Malcolm became the spokesperson for the Nation of Islam and became one of its most powerful speakers attracting thousands of African-Americans into the fold with his charismatic speeches and rich and powerful words. Malcolm’s charismatic personalty also attracted the attention of the white media. But unlike Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who believed in non-violent tactics to archive equal rights for blacks, Malcolm favored the use of arms and proposed a revolutionary program that would create a separate society for blacks in America. Malcolm’s relationship with the media displeased Elijah Muhammad for he felt that the Nation of Islam’s messages where being overshadowed by Malcolm’s newfound celebrity.
In the early 1960s, Malcolm learned of paternity suits filed by two women of the Nation of Islam who worked for Elijah Muhammad as his secretaries. Determined to get to the bottom of the rumors about Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm met with the two women and later privately with Elijah Muhammad who did not deny the accusations against him as he did publicly but justified his actions by comparing his with other Biblical figures as David and Noah who suffered from “moral lapses”. Elijah’s response left Malcolm dissatisfied and contributed to his growing disenchantment with the Nation of Islam.
In November 1963, Malcolm’s candidness with reporters provided Elijah Muhammad with an excuse to sideline him. When asked about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm called the murder a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.” The public, both black and white, was outraged by Malcolm’s comment after which Elijah suspended him from his duties as spokesperson for 90 days.
Feeling betrayed by the Nation of Isalm, Malcolm announced in March 1964 that he was not going to return, but he was going to form his own movement called the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and invited blacks everywhere to join his new crusade. In response to Malcolm’s announcement, Elijah Muhammad wrote in the Nation if Islam’s bi-weekly newspaper that “only those who wish to be led to hell or to their doom will follow Malcolm. No one ever leaves the Nation of Isalm.”
Over the next several months, several attempts where made against Malcolm’s life. Apparently, this did not surprise him for he said, “This thing with me will only be resolved by death and violence.” In April 1964, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Isamic holy city in Saudi Arabia. The trip had a profound affect on him when he was greeted warmly by Musilms of many nationalities. Malcolm then realized that if Muslims of all races can live together in peace, why not people of all religious? Malcolm then remarked, “My true brotherhood includes people of all races, coming together as one. It has proved to me that there is the power of one God.”
Upon his return to the USA, death threats continued leading to his house in Queens, New York, being fire-bombed in February 1965, to his assassination a week later at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York City, where he held weekly meetings. Although the Nation of Isalm was suspected of being behind Malcolm’s murder, his three killers, who were convicted of the murder, denied being part of the Nation of Islam or knowing each other despite the fact that they were Black Musilms and later revealed to be members. When questioned about Malcolm X’s murder, Elijah Muhammad maintained (as he did with a lot of other things) that neither he nor his organization had anything to do with Malcolm X’s assassination.