Malcolm X: An African-American Political Icon

Malcolm X Biography
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Malcolm X was an American human rights and political activist and a Minister of the Nation of Islam. He was an influential and prominent figure during the civil rights movement.

Initially acting as a fiery spokesman for the Nation of Islam, he openly advocated for the rights of African-Americans and promoted black empowerment, while simultaneously critiquing and condemning the attitude and behavior of the whites toward the black community.

He also promoted Islam and campaigned to recruit more African-Americans into the Nation of Islam.

Early Life

Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) was born on 19th May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Earl Little and Louise Helen Little. He was the fourth of seven children.

Malcolm’s father was a Baptist lay speaker and both his parents were admirers of Jamaican political and Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey. His parents were also active members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association founded by Garvey, wherein his mother served as secretary and branch reporter and his father served as a local leader for the organization.

Malcolm’s parents made sure to inculcate in their children the values of black pride, self-reliance, and independence.

In 1926, when Malcolm was barely a year old, the family moved to Milwaukee following threats to his father’s life from the Ku Klux Klan. White violence would claim the lives of four of his father’s brothers.

Shortly after moving to Milwaukee, the family relocated to Lansing in Michigan, where another white supremacist organization called the Black Legion began terrorizing and harassing the family. In 1929, their house was said to be burned down by the Black Legion.

In 1931, when Malcolm X was 6 years old, his father died in a street car accident. His mother did not think it was an accident. She believed that her husband had been killed by the Black Legion. Rumors regarding his alleged murder circulated through the town, deeply disturbing and tormenting young Malcolm.

The Break-Up of the Family

After his father’s death, things became quite difficult and unbearable personally as well as financially for the family.

Although the family received some money from a life insurance policy, another issuer of a larger policy refused to pay the money, claiming that Malcolm’s father had committed suicide.

In late 1938, when Malcolm was 13 years old, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown after a man she was seeing disappeared from her life when she became pregnant with his child. She was admitted to the Kalamazoo State Hospital for treatment, thereby breaking up the family.

Malcolm and his siblings were separated and sent to various foster homes.


Upon moving to Lansing, Malcolm X began attending West Junior High School, where he excelled in his studies. After graduating from Junior High, he enrolled at Mason High School in Mason, Michigan, aspiring to practice law someday.

However, he dropped out of high school in 1941, aged 16, after a white teacher told him that practicing law was not a realistic goal for a black man.

Malcolm became discouraged by his teacher’s words, instilling in him a feeling that white America had no place for a career-oriented black man, regardless of hard work and talent.

During this period, he held a variety of jobs to make ends meet.

Moving to Harlem

In 1943, Malcolm X, aged 18, moved to Harlem in New York City, where he found a job on the New Haven Railroad.

It was during his early days in Harlem that he got deeply involved in activities such as robbing, gambling, pimping, drug dealing, and racketeering. He also met and befriended a man named John Elroy Sanford, who washed dishes with him at a hotel in Harlem. Sanford would go on to become the famous comedian and actor Redd Foxx.

When called up by the draft board for military service during the Second World War, Malcolm X pretended to be mentally disturbed by rambling incoherent words that made no sense. His trick worked and he was declared mentally disqualified for military service.

Arrest and Imprisonment

By late 1945, Malcolm X was in Boston, busy committing burglaries on the houses of wealthy white families along with his accomplices.

In early 1946, he was finally arrested while picking up a stolen watch from a shop where he had given it for repairs and sentenced to eight to ten years in prison for larceny, breaking, and entering. He was 20 years old.

He began serving his sentence at Charlestown State Prison, a correctional facility in Charlestown, Boston. Two years later, he was transferred to Norfolk Prison Colony, a medium-security prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts.

Prison Time

While in prison, Malcolm X met fellow convict John Bembry, who would go on to have a huge influence on him.

Malcolm described Bembry as the first man he had ever seen to command respect with words. It was Bembry who introduced him to reading books, soon making him a voracious reader.

A few of his siblings wrote him letters about a relatively new religious organization called the Nation of Islam that preached black pride and self-reliance, and the return of African-Americans to Africa, where they would be free from white domination.

However, Malcolm did not show much interest at first, until his brother Reginald wrote to him in 1948 asking him not to eat pork and smoke cigarettes, and he would show him a way to come out of prison.

After Reginald paid him a visit in prison and spoke to him of the Nation of Islam’s teachings, Malcolm’s curiosity and interest in the organization grew. Previously indifferent to religion, he now became totally immersed in the message of the Nation of Islam.

Influenced by Reginald, Malcolm wrote to the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, in late 1948. Elijah asked him to renounce his past and promise that he would never indulge in his past behavior again. He also asked Malcolm to bow down to Allah and pray.

After an initial struggle to undertake and commit to the conditions laid down by Elijah, Malcolm submitted to the conditions and became a member of the Nation of Islam.

From then on, he regularly corresponded with Elijah from prison. As for every member of the Nation of Islam, Elijah instructed him to reject his surname Little (which was considered the white slavemaster’s name) and instead adopt X as his family name, X symbolizing the real African family name that he could never find out.

Working for the Nation of Islam

Upon receiving his parole in August 1952, Malcolm X met Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. And in June of the following year, he was appointed assistant minister of the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number One in Detroit. In late 1953, he established Temple Number Eleven in Boston, and in March 1954, he expanded Temple Number Twelve in Philadelphia.

In May 1954, he was selected by Elijah to lead Temple Number Seven in Harlem, where he preached the teachings of the Nation of Islam, thereby greatly helping to increase its membership.

By then, Malcolm was fully convinced of the truth of Elijah’s teachings, which he boldly preached to the members. These teachings included the belief that white people were the devils, that black people were the original people of the world, and that the fall and demise of the white race were imminent.

Malcolm’s fiery, radical, and militant speeches caught the attention of the FBI, which began surveillance of him.

Rising Popularity in the Nation of Islam

Due to his powerful skills as a speaker and his commanding physical presence, Malcolm X enjoyed a very quick rise through the ranks of the Nation of Islam. His rising popularity stimulated his tremendous success in recruiting hundreds of new members to the Nation of Islam every month.

However, he was not a well-known figure in America yet.

The first time that the American public really became aware of him and his influence was in 1957 when he and a small group of Nation of Islam members went to the police station in New York to see a fellow member named Hinton Johnson, who was horribly beaten by two New York City police officers for intervening while the officers were beating up an African-American man with nightsticks.

Johnson was beaten up so severely that he suffered brain contusions and subdual hemorrhaging. The officers arrested Johnson, two others who were along with him, and the African-American man who was being beaten up as well.

When Malcolm X asked to see Johnson, the officers denied having arrested any Muslims. However, soon the crowd outside the police station increased to five hundred, forcing the officers to permit Malcolm to speak to Johnson.

Malcolm insisted that an ambulance be arranged to take Johnson to the hospital. And by the time Johnson returned to the station from the hospital, the crowd outside had increased to about four thousand, making the police officers nervous.

Malcolm and an attorney managed to secure bail for two Muslims, but Johnson could not be released until his arraignment the following day. Since they had reached an impasse, Malcolm stepped outside the station and gave a hand signal to the massive crowd and the crowd quickly dispersed.

Looking at Malcolm’s influence over that crowd, one of the officers said to the New York Amsterdam News that no man should have that much power. The news of this incident quickly spread across the nation, thereby giving a glimpse of Malcolm’s real influence.

This incident served to increase his clout in the African-American community, especially in Northern and Western America.


In January 1958, Malcolm X married fellow Nation of Islam member Betty Sanders. The couple would go on to have six daughters together.

Increasing Influence

As his stature grew within the African-American community, his views and comments on issues and events began to be widely covered and reported in newspapers, television, and radio. He was invited to give speeches and interviews on TV Channels and even featured in a 1959 New York City television broadcast about the Nation of Islam titled The Hate That Hate Produced.

Malcolm X also began getting invitations to various international events. In September 1960, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, he was invited to the official functions of several African countries, giving him an opportunity to meet prominent African leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, and Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea. He also met Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro at the now-famous Theresa Hotel in Harlem. The two met and spoke for two hours, and Castro even invited Malcolm to visit Cuba.

By the early 1960s, Malcolm had helped to increase the Nation of Islam’s membership tremendously, and he became the most influential and powerful leader of the organization after Elijah Muhammad.

During this time, Malcolm befriended and became a mentor to a young boxer named Cassius Clay, soon to be renamed, Muhammad Ali, inspiring him to join the Nation of Islam.

Views on the Civil Rights Movement

Malcolm X was also a staunch critic of the Civil Rights Movement, led primarily by Martin Luther King Jr. and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This was mainly because the civil rights movement stood for racial integration and disenfranchisement, and adopted a strategy of non-violence.

The Nation of Islam, on the other hand, advocated the exact opposite. Instead of fighting against racial segregation, they called for the complete separation of black people from white people and advocated that they return to Africa. And until that happened, the Nation of Islam demanded the creation of a separate country for black people in America in the meanwhile.

The Nation of Islam also forbade its members from taking part in any aspect of white-dominated processes such as voting. They staunchly rejected the non-violent strategy of the civil rights movement, instead advocating that blacks need to defend and advance themselves by any means necessary, even if that entailed violence.

Malcolm’s words had a great impact on a large section of the black population who were tired and frustrated of waiting for freedom and justice and equality. They believed that Malcolm articulated their feelings better than the civil rights movement did.

These differences between the teachings of the Nation of Islam and the other civil rights organizations led the latter to denounce Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam as extremists and radicals whose views did not represent the common interests of the African-Americans.

Malcolm, in turn, publicly denounced the civil rights leaders, calling them stooges of the white establishment. He even criticized the famous March on Washington, calling it the Farce on Washington.

Split from the Nation of Islam

In the early 1960s, a series of events left Malcolm X disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and put him at odds with Elijah Muhammad.

The first event occurred in April 1962, when two LAPD officers beat several Muslims unprovoked outside Temple Number twenty-seven, resulting in a confrontation between the officers and a large crowd of angry Muslims who were emerging from the mosque.

During the confrontation, an officer was shot in the elbow by a third officer, and 70 backup officers were called to the scene. The officers raided the mosque and began beating Nation of Islam members, killing one who had raised his hands to surrender and paralyzing one for life after shooting him in the back.

Several members were indicted after the incident but no charges were laid against the violent officers. In fact, the coroner even declared that the killing of one of the members was justified.

Malcolm X was furious with this whole incident and considered the violence by the police and the desecration of the mosque a grave insult and affront to the Nation of Islam. He was convinced that revenge had to be taken on the police, and he rallied the more hardened members of the Nation of Islam for action.

However, to his surprise and disbelief, when he went to seek approval for this action from Elijah Muhammad, he was rejected. Elijah again stopped him when he spoke of the Nation of Islam working along with local black politicians, religious groups, and civil rights organizations.

These organizations and the absence of any retaliation to the LAPD violence proved to be a crucial turning point in their already-souring relationship.

The other instance was when Malcolm X was banned by Elijah Muhammad from public speaking for three months after Malcolm commented on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, saying it was a case of chickens coming home to roost.

His comments led to widespread public outrage and were even condemned by the Nation of Islam, which had sent a message of condolence to the Kennedy family and instructed its members not to comment on the assassination.

For the first time, Malcolm X was publicly censured and chastised by the Nation of Islam.

Things got worse between the two when Malcolm slowly started becoming the face of the Nation of Islam in the media, overshadowing Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm’s comments and views received more attention and importance than any other member, including Elijah. And a 1963 book on the Nation of Islam titled When the Word is Given, by journalist Louis Lomax, featured a photograph of Malcolm X on its cover instead of Elijah Muhammad. The book also included five speeches of Malcolm as opposed to just one of Elijah.

Envious of all the attention Malcolm was receiving, Elijah and Malcolm grew even more apart.

The final straw in their relationship was when Malcolm found out in 1963 that Elijah was having extra-marital affairs with the young secretaries of the Nation of Islam, and that seven of the eight girls he had an affair with had become pregnant with his child.

This was strictly against the teachings of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm was shocked and in disbelief upon learning of Elijah’s sexual misconduct. What made matters worse was that Elijah attempted to justify his behavior by stating precedents set by Biblical prophets.

Between 1964 and 1965, Malcolm X spoke against Elijah’s hypocritical behavior in multiple television interviews, providing testimony of his investigation that found Elijah guilty. He also revealed that he was receiving death threats for exposing Elijah and even discovered an explosive device in his car.

All these issues culminated in him publicly announcing his departure from the Nation of Islam on 8th March 1964.

Life After Leaving the Nation of Islam

After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X acted on his desire to establish new organizations and work with other civil rights leaders, something that Elijah Muhammad had prohibited him from doing.

He founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc., an Islamic organization, four days after leaving the Nation of Islam. He also founded the organization of Afro-American Unity, a Pan-Africanist organization he modeled after the organization of African Unity.

The purpose of this organization was to heighten the political consciousness of African-Americans and fight for their human rights. It also aimed to promote cooperation between Africans and people of African descent in the Americas.

In March 1964, he and Martin Luther King met briefly in Washington D.C. during the Senate debate on the Civil Rights bill at the US Capitol building. This was the first and only time the two of them would meet.

Malcolm X soon converted to Sunni Islam and even tried to convince Muhammad Ali to do the same. However, Ali not only refused but broke all ties with him. Ali would later describe it as one of his biggest regrets.

Travelling Overseas

In April 1964, Malcolm X traveled to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to undertake his pilgrimage to Mecca. However, upon arriving in Jeddah, his inability to speak Arabic and his U.S. citizenship caused him some trouble in being regarded and accepted as a Muslim. He was detained by the authorities before his release was arranged by Egyptian politician Azzam Pasha‘s son.

Malcolm stayed at Azzam’s son’s hotel suite before learning the next morning that Prince Faizal of Saudi Arabia had designated him as a state guest, making his stay and pilgrimage easier.

Undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca was a turning point in Malcolm’s life, changing his view on racial issues forever. He met and saw Muslims of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans, interacting with each other as equals. This was when he began looking at Islam as a means through which racial problems in America could be addressed and overcome.

After the pilgrimage, he traveled to Africa for the second time, the first being in 1959, to make arrangements for Elijah’s tour of Africa. After returning to America in May, he made another trip to Africa in July, visiting several countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Guinea, Senegal, Liberia, Morocco, Algeria, and Egypt. He gave interviews and speeches and met officials in these countries.

By the end of his tour of Africa, he had met with the most prominent leaders of Africa at the time. In fact, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria, and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana even invited him to serve in their governments.

In Nigeria, after a speech at the University of Ibadan, the Nigerian Muslim Students Association gave him the honorary Yoruba name Omowale (meaning the son who has come home). Malcolm would later call this honor his most treasured one.

While on his way back to America, he visited France and the UK briefly, where he gave interviews and speeches. Upon his return to America, he had become the most sought-after speaker on college campuses, and he welcomed every opportunity to speak to college students.


His departure from the Nation of Islam greatly endangered his life. He began to regularly receive death threats from the Nation of Islam members. The FBI recorded calls and even received tips indicating that Malcolm X was going to be killed.

On 21st February 1965, as Malcolm X was about to address a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, a man came forward and shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun, followed by two other men who charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns.

He was rushed to the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital but was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. Malcolm was 39 years old. The autopsy revealed twenty-one gunshot wounds to the arms, legs, chest, and left shoulder, including ten buckshot wounds from the initial shotgun blast.

All three gunmen were identified as Nation of Islam members.

Malcolm was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

The reactions to his death were mixed. Several newspapers in America took this opportunity to acknowledge Malcolm’s brilliance but criticize and condemn his teachings at the same time. While others, such as Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, and several news outlets outside America were more sympathetic to Malcolm and his cause.

Malcolm was particularly lauded as a martyr in Africa, Cuba, and China. The press in these countries put down his assassination to have been done by racists and the ruling, and they called him a freedom fighter and human rights activist.


Today, Malcolm X is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential African-Americans in history. He was responsible for heightening the political consciousness and raising the self-esteem of African-Americans.

He helped them reconnect with their African heritage and is said to have articulated the complaints and frustrations of a lot of the black community in Western and Northern America better than the leaders of the civil rights movement. And by doing so, he made clear the price that white America would inevitably have to pay if it did not accede to black America’s righteous demands.

Since his death, Malcolm’s teachings and influence have continued to spread across America, inspiring several subsequent black activists who based their movements on his teachings, such as the Black Arts Movement and the Black Power Movement.

The widespread use of the slogan Black is beautiful can also be traced back to Malcolm X. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, interest in his life surged as hip-hop became popular among the black youth. Groups such as Public Enemy considered Malcolm X an icon, thereby inspiring the youth to do the same.

Images of Malcolm X were put up in homes, schools, and offices of the black population, and t-shirts, jackets, and other merchandise of him were sold.

Malcolm’s life and legacy have become an integral and permanent part of popular culture. Streets, schools, libraries, and educational centers have been named after him and postage stamps have been issued in his honor. His eventful life has also inspired films, television series, stage plays, and books.

In 1998, his autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written along with writer Alex Haley, was named one of the ten most influential non-fiction books of the 20th century.

Most importantly, the 19th of May is commemorated as Malcolm X Day in cities across America, thereby forever embedding his life and legacy into contemporary life and popular culture.

The legacy of Malcolm X continues to live on, remaining stronger than ever before.