Malcolm X, May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965, born Malcolm Little and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, الحاجّ مالك الشباز), was an African-American Muslim minister, public speaker, and human rights activist. To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of African Americans, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans. His detractors accused him of preaching racism, black supremacy, antisemitism, and violence. He has been called one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history, and in 1998, Time named The Autobiography of Malcolm X one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska. The events of his childhood, including his father's lessons concerning black pride and self-reliance, and his own experiences concerning race played a significant role in Malcolm X's adult life. By the time he was thirteen, his father had died and his mother had been committed to a mental hospital. After living in a series of foster homes, Malcolm X became involved in a number of criminal activities in Boston and New York City. In 1946, Malcolm X was sentenced to eight to ten years in prison.
While in prison, Malcolm X became a member of the Nation of Islam, and after his parole in 1952 he became one of the Nation's leaders and chief spokesmen. For nearly a dozen years he was the public face of the controversial group. Tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam, led to Malcolm X's quitting the organization in March 1964. He subsequently traveled extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East and founded Muslim Mosque, Inc., a religious organization, and the secular Organization of Afro-American Unity, which advocated Pan-Africanism. Less than a year after he left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was assassinated by three members of the group while giving a speech in New York.
The beliefs expressed by Malcolm X changed during his lifetime. As a spokesman for the Nation of Islam he taught black supremacy and deified the leaders of the organization. He also advocated the separation of black and white Americans, which put him at odds with the civil rights movement, which was working towards integration. After he left the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm X became a Sunni Muslim, made the pilgrimage to Mecca and disavowed racism, while remaining a champion of black self-determination, self defense, and human rights. He expressed a willingness to work with civil rights leaders and described his previous position with the Nation of Islam as that of a "zombie".
Nation of Islam
When Little was released from prison in 1952, he had more than a new religion. He also had a new name. In a December 1950 letter to his brother Philbert, Little signed his name as Malcolm X for the first time. In his autobiography, he explained why: "The Muslim's 'X' symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my 'X' replaced the white slavemaster name of 'Little' which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.
Shortly after his release from prison, Malcolm X visited Elijah Muhammad in Chicago, Illinois. In June 1953, Malcolm X was named assistant minister of the Nation of Islam's Temple Number One in Detroit. Soon, he became a full-time minister. By late 1953, Malcolm X established Boston's Temple Number 11. In March 1954, he expanded Temple Number 12 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two months later Malcolm X was selected to lead Temple Number Seven in Harlem, and he rapidly expanded its membership.
The FBI had opened a file on Malcolm X in 1950 after he wrote a letter to President Truman stating his opposition to the Korean War and declaring himself to be a communist. It began surveillance of him in 1953, and soon the FBI turned its attention from concerns about possible Communist Party association to Malcolm X's rapid ascent in the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, the fourth of seven children to Earl Little and Louise Norton. His father was an outspoken Baptist lay speaker. He supported Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey and was a local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).Malcolm never forgot the values of black pride and self-reliance that his father and other UNIA leaders preached. Malcolm X later said that three of Earl Little's brothers, one of whom was lynched, died violently at the hands of white men. Because of Ku Klux Klan threats, the family relocated in 1926 to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and shortly thereafter to Lansing, Michigan.
Earl Little, who was dark-skinned, was born in Reynolds, Georgia. He had three children from his first marriage: Ella, Mary, and Earl Jr.—and seven with his second wife, Louise: Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, Malcolm, Reginald, Yvonne, and Wesley. Louise Norton Little was born in Grenada. Because her father was Scottish, she was so light-skinned that she could have passed for white. Malcolm inherited his light complexion from his mother and maternal grandfather. Initially he felt his light skin was a status symbol, but he later said he "hated every drop of that white rapist's blood that is in me. Malcolm X later remembered feeling that his father favored him because he was the lightest-skinned child in the family; however, he thought his mother treated him harshly for the same reason. One of Malcolm's nicknames, "Red", derived from the tinge of his hair. According to one biographer, at birth he had "ash-blonde hair ... tinged with cinnamon", and at age four, "reddish-blonde hair. His hair darkened as he aged, yet he also resembled his paternal grandmother, whose hair "turned reddish in the summer sun. The issue of skin and hair color took on very significant implications later in Malcolm's life.