Malcolm Little, popularly known around the world as Malcolm X, was one of the most influential African Americans of his generation, and indeed, generations after him.
Malcolm X rose from the poorest of neighbourhoods in Omaha, Nebraska, to becoming a global phenomenon whose ideologies still reverberate to this day.
However, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. He was just 39. This article tells the full story of the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965.
Early Life and Education
Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, the United States of America, to Reverend Earl Little and Louise Little. His father was a Baptist minister and a dedicated organiser for Marcus Aurelius Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). He was an advocate for Black Americans returning to Africa as he, together with Marcus Garvey, believed that they (Black Americans) would never achieve equality with the Whites. This ideology would cause his father, and his family to become the target of hate societies in the neighbourhood, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Black Legion (both White supremacist groups).
Before the birth of Malcolm, the Ku Klux Klan had threatened his father about the ideology of “back to Africa” which he spread among Black Americans. As a result, the family moved from Omaha, Nebraska to East Lansing, Michigan. There at East Lansing, another hate group, the Black Legion threatened the Littles because of Earl Little’s ideology and his ambition to want to own a store. His house was eventually razed to the ground by this hate group and the family had to move to the outskirts of East Lansing.
Malcolm was the seventh child of his father. He had nine siblings, with three of them being his half-siblings, as his father had been previously married.
Malcolm came from a long line of black freedom fighters. His father upheld the teachings of Marcus Garvey and was entrenched in the vision of the UNIA mainly because four of his brothers – Malcolm’s uncles – had been killed by the Whites, with one of them having been lynched.
At age six, his father was mysteriously murdered. Speculations surrounding his death were that the Black Legion had killed him, or it was an accident. However, many Black Americans believed that it was the Black Legion that murdered Malcolm’s father. His mum, Louise, albeit better educated than his dad, had no means of taking care of the family. She became weary with all the work she had to do and eventually fell into depression. She was kept in a mental institution for 26 years.
The plight of the family got even worse during the depression of the 1930s. The family lived on public welfare at some point. As a result of hunger and the family situation, Malcolm resorted to seeking ways to make ends meet and that was when his life of crime began.
At age 13, he was sent to a foster home, and afterwards, a detention home in the small town of Mason, Michigan. He attended a mostly white school – Mason Junior High. There, he discovered he had a flair for engaging in argument, especially because of the subject, History. He was one of the top three in his class and soon enough, he was elected the Class Representative.
As an eighth grader, he told one of his teachers that he hoped to become a lawyer. However, and with good intentions, he was advised to “set his sight on a more realistic goal like carpentry.” The lack of encouragement from his teacher caused him to lose interest in schooling, compelling him to succeed at whatever he could do. In the summer of the same year, he went on to stay with his half-sister in Boston, never to return to Mason or formal education ever again.
The move to Boston was one he was grateful for.
At Boston, he learnt the ropes, the survival mechanism. He took on multiple menial jobs – shoeshine boy, busboy and waiter. He soon became a drug dealer, and ultimately, an armed robber. He moved to Harlem, New York, in 1942 and joined a band of jazz musicians. His reputation soon spread like wildfire. Being from Michigan, and also having a reddish complexion earned him the nickname “Detroit Red.”
Unfortunately, after five years of hustling and drug addiction, he was eventually arrested for possession of the stolen property. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. This singular event would radically transform his life.
In February 1946, the 20-year-old Malcolm was convicted and slammed with a 10-year jail sentence. He was taken, together with his friend at the time, Shorty, to Charlestown State Prison. At Charlestown, he was nicknamed “Satan” because of his “anti-religious attitude.” He spent only a year at Charlestown before he was transferred to Concord, Massachusetts. It was there at Concord Prison that he found Allah and began the process of transformation.
His brother, Philbert, had written to him to tell him he had found the “natural religion for the black man”, and that there was an organization for the black – the Nation of Islam. Malcolm would have none of it. His reason was that Philbert joined any and every group. However, with the help of Reginald, and the several conversations they had, he began to think deeply about the religion of Islam. Also, he learnt that his other siblings had converted to Islam and were followers of Allah.
They believed the teachings of “The Honourable Elijah Muhammad”, who was sometimes referred to as “The Messenger of Allah.” He wrote to Elijah Muhammad who replied and told him to denounce his evil ways. He was also given a cash gift by the “Messenger.” Afterwards, Malcolm would write letters to Elijah Muhammad daily.
Malcolm devoted himself to the teachings of Muhammad. This was after several conversations with his brother, Reginald. He was taught that the White man was the “devil”, and he should not engage in eating pork or smoking cigarettes.
Malcolm was later transferred to Norfolk Prison Colony. There, he made use of the library, and he began to read a lot of books, including the dictionary. He was a voracious reader. Books such as Will Durant’s “Story of Civilization”, H.G. Wells, “Outline of History”, W.E.B. Du Boy “Souls of Black Folks” and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” were among the many books that influenced him and changed his perspective about the Whites and the Blacks. His voracious appetite for reading would cause him to have astigmatism, and he eventually resorted to using glasses.
According to him, at some point, he never felt like he was in prison. He had never been so free in his whole life. History, Philosophy, Literature, he devoured them all. A new reality was taking shape before his very eyes. In prison, and through the books he devoured, he had acquired the most important possession – self-respect.
In 1952, six and a half years after Malcolm had been in prison, the Massachusetts State Parole Board voted for his release, and within a few months, he was out of prison.
The Nation of Islam
Following his release, Malcolm went on to live with his brother, Wilfred, in Detroit. There, the stability of the Muslim ritual and family life further enhanced his faith. Malcolm later went with his brother on a pilgrimage to Chicago to hear Elijah Muhammad speak. He was in awe of the man. At the rally, vicious rumours were spread about Elijah Muhammad, but Malcolm would have none of it. He was a staunch follower of Elijah Muhammad. He worshipped the grounds on which the man walked.
Malcolm would go on to say in his autobiography: “My worship of him was so awesome that he was the first man whom I had ever feared – not fear such as of a man with a gun, but the fear of such as one has of the power of the sun.”
Following the advice of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm went from door to door, “fishing” for young people and trying to get them converted to Islam. Over time, the attendance at the rallies tripled and this pleased Elijah Muhammad.
After the rally in Chicago, Malcolm received the name “X” from the Nation’s headquarters in Chicago. To the Muslims at the time, the “X” symbolized “the true African family that he could never know.” For Malcolm X, “it replaced the white slave master name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon his ancestors.
In early 1953, he was invited to address the Detroit temple. He spoke of Christianity and the crimes the white man committed. He spoke of the teachings of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad. He was deeply entrenched in this cause. According to him, “I don’t care if it costs my life.” In the summer of 1953, he was named Detroit Temple Number One’s Assistant Minister.
Marriage and Personal Exploits
Following his appointment as minister, Malcolm X worked tenaciously, converting tons of people to the religion of Islam. So devoted was he to the cause that he had no time for women, and never looked at them. He travelled very often, hosting the Nation’s flag and its message to the Blacks in America. He was always about the temple business. In 1957, he met a young student nurse, Betty Jean Sanders in New York. With the blessings of Elijah Muhammad, they got married in the winter of 1958. The couple had six daughters.
An innovative and dedicated leader, Malcolm X was rarely at home. He travelled so often; his wife even had a spare suitcase ready for him on the go. It was hard to put up with him as he was rarely at home. Through his innovativeness, he went on to set up the Nation’s newspaper, MUHAMMAD SPEAKS, which was dedicated to “justice for the Black Man.”
Malcolm X would go on to be responsible for the growth of the Nation’s Newspaper and served as advisory minister for several temples. At some point, the newspaper had about 30,000 followers. He went about establishing mosques in several cities of the country. He was also rewarded with the post of Minister of Temple Number 7 in Harlem, the largest and most prestigious temple in the Nation after the Chicago headquarters.
Elijah Muhammad treated Malcolm X like his son and made him the National Representative of the Nation of Islam, second in command to Muhammad himself. Under the influence and direction of Malcolm X, the Nation would grow to about 500,000 members.
Disparity With Martin Luther King Jr.
Malcolm X was an advocate for the rights of the Black man. As the Speaker for the Nation of Islam, he preached self-defence in the face of white violence. He urged black people to give up the Christian religion. He also urged black people not to participate in elections. The Nation believed that the elections supported the immoral political system of the United States.
In contrast, the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King Jr. stood for the opposite of all that Malcolm upheld. Although both were civil rights advocates, Martin was an advocate for non-violence.
He was a negotiator, not a fighter. He also advocated that Blacks participated in elections. While Malcolm was committed to uplifting the black race, Martin was committed to uplifting humanity.
Disparity With Elijah Muhammad
Elijah Muhammad’s health soon began to deteriorate, and with that, Malcolm X took on the reins of leadership. He had several speaking engagements, and he was never in one place for so long. According to him, “time is more important to me than distance.”
Malcolm X soon began getting invites to speaking engagements in several colleges. Elijah Muhammad never approved of the several speaking engagements. Also, several inciting remarks were made about Malcolm. Rumours making the rounds were that he was trying to take over the nation; that he was trying to build an empire for himself.
Furthermore, Malcolm’s remarks on the assassination of President John Kennedy saw him suspended as speaker of the Nation for a period of ninety days. When asked what his opinion was about the assassination of the President, Malcolm X responded by saying it was a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.” Newspapers went agog with several headlines the next morning, and the statement sparked controversies in the country. Hence, his suspension.
In addition to these, Malcolm X heard and later confirmed from Elijah Muhammad rumours of his sexual escapades with young Muslim secretaries. Malcolm had seen Muhammad as a symbol of moral, mental, and spiritual reform. However, his world came crumbling down with the news of Muhammad’s sexcapades.
Separation From the Nation of Islam and Creation of OAAU
Following this series of events, Malcolm X went through a psychological and spiritual crisis. He claimed that “I felt as though something in nature had failed, like the sun or the stars.”
On March 8, 1964, he officially and publicly denounced his association with the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X had always wanted the Nation of Islam to go international. He dreamed of an organization that would help reform the blacks spiritually, politically, and economically. On March 12, 1964, he founded the Muslim Mosque Incorporated (MMI). In 1965, he would go on to establish the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
Malcolm travelled extensively, and at some point, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Holy City. There, he discovered that Elijah Muhammad had corrupted the teachings of Orthodox Islam. He also came into a total reformation of his mind and perspective of the whites. After his pilgrimage, he changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Through the OAAU, He would later join forces with several organizations, both black organizations and progressive white groups in the United States. These organizations worked together on educating the people on their civil and political rights.
The Assassination of Malcolm X
Following Malcolm X’s denunciation of the Nation of Islam, hostilities began to grow between his group and the Nation. A week before his death, his home was firebombed. He and his family members narrowly escaped injury and death. Malcolm was a marked man.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm arrived at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem for a rally scheduled by the Organization of Afro-American Unity. His audience was mostly blacks. He ordered that no search be conducted at the entry of the ballroom.
At about 2:30 pm, Malcolm had just begun speaking when a deliberate scuffle ensued between two men, designed to distract the attention of Malcolm’s guards. A smoke bomb went off in the back of the room, and Malcolm was shot in the chest. Two other gunmen ran to the front of the stage where Malcolm lay dying and fired repeatedly into his body while exiting the ballroom.
Malcolm was given a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was too late. He was placed on a stretcher and rushed to a nearby Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. At exactly 3:30 pm, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was pronounced dead. He was 39.
Following Malcolm X’s death, three members of the Nation of Islam were arrested – Talmadge Hayer, Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam. Hayer was shot by a bodyguard at the ballroom, and he confessed to the killing. He testified that Aziz and Islam were innocent. However, despite his testimony, all three men were convicted of murder and imprisoned.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Malcolm X have been the subject of controversies over the years. Several investigations have followed the trials and convictions of these three men.
A 2020 Netflix documentary series titled “Who Killed Malcolm X?” and efforts from the Innocent Project led to a revisit of the case. In 2021, both men, Khalil Islam and Muhammad Aziz, were exonerated and their convictions were dismissed on the basis that the prosecution was deeply flawed and the trial was not fair.
Malcolm X was survived by his wife, Betty Shabazz and six daughters.
Malcolm X was one of the most prophetic revolutionary voices of the 20th Century. He was a charismatic leader and speaker who called for freedom, equality, justice and respect.
His autobiography, compiled from several interviews with Alex Haley and published in 1965, has been considered a classic in African American Literature.
In 1992, a movie titled Malcolm X which starred veteran actor Denzel Washington was released.
Also, the Malcolm X Community College in Chicago, Malcolm X Liberation University in Durham, North California and the Malcolm X Society are all named in his honour.
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