Malcolm X Biography

Malcolm Little, more popularly known as Malcolm X, was the spearhead of the Black Nationalist movement during the mid-1900’s and an ardent human rights activist. He was considered to be one of the most influential African Americans in American history, equal to Martin Luther King.

Quick Facts

Nickname: Malcolm Little, Malcolm X, Red

Date of Birth: 19th May, 1925

Place of Birth:  Omaha, Nebraska

Origin: African

Profession: Muslim Minister, Human Rights Activist

Known for: Role in the Pan-Africanist political movement and the Black Nationalist Movement


Childhood and Growing Years

Malcolm Little was born on 19th May, 1925 to father Earl Little who was a Baptist Preacher and an active member of the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) and Louise Norton, who was half-white. He was the fourth child of the seven children his parents had. His father was a radical African American man who was a local leader of the UNIA, and was a big supporter of the Pan African belief system. His work with the UNIA got him in trouble with the Ku Klux Klan, an early cult mostly comprising of white supremacists, and when Louise was pregnant with Malcolm in Omaha, his family was threatened by members of the Klan, and asked to leave town. Soon after Malcolm’s birth, they did leave town, and relocated to Milwaukee where they stayed for a few months before finally moving to Lansing, Michigan. Malcolm Little took after his mother looks-wise, was the lightest skinned kid among all the Little children; however personality-wise he was more like his father, and the principles like black pride and self reliance that his father preached were something that he lived by all his life. He had reddish-blonde hair, which earned him the nickname “Red”. His hair darkened as he grew older.

When they were living in Lansing, their house was set on fire in 1929, but the family managed to escape unscathed. Arson was suspected, but was never proved, and no one was ever charged with the crime. On 8th September, 1931, Earl Little was involved in a hit-and-run where he was hit by a speeding car in Lansing. This was suspected to be a planned hit by the Black Legion (a sub-sect of the Ku Klux Klan), but it was never proved. In fact Earl was still alive when the police and paramedics arrived at the scene, and he was said to have told them that he slipped and fell and the streetcar ran over him by mistake after that. But Malcolm always held the Black Legion responsible for his father’s death. Louise supported her family from the life insurance payout that she got after Earl’s death and the weekly widow’s allowance she got from the probate court. She had a metal breakdown in December 1938, after which she was committed to a mental institution in Michigan after being declared legally insane. She remained there for the next 24 years.

Malcolm was a bright student in school, and did quite well until junior high, but he dropped out of school after being told by one of his high school teachers that his dream of becoming a lawyer was unrealistic for a black man. He was disappointed and humiliated by the incident, and it was then that it struck him that no matter how smart he was, the color of his skin would always get in the way of his true ambition in the world he lived in then.

After being shuttled between a series of foster homes, he finally found a stable home in February, 1941 with Ella Collins who was his older half-sister.

Troubled Adolescence

The Collins family lived in Roxbury, Boston in a predominantly black neighborhood. Malcolm had never seen so many blacks in one place ever before, and he soon was drawn to the local culture and social life in the neighborhood, which got him familiar with various ‘gangs’ on the street. From 1943 to 1946, he drifted between various cities, never having a stable job, always taking up odd jobs to earn his living. He then moved to New York City for a few months, where he got involved in peddling drugs for money, gambling, robbery, racketeering and pimping. He was arrested on a burglary charge in 1946, and was sentences for around 10 years in prison.

Ironically, it was prison that transformed him. When he initially started serving his prison sentence, he was nicknamed ‘Satan’ by his prison inmates due to his open hostility towards religion. But in a few months he met fellow inmate John Elton Bembry, who was a self-educated man, and soon they became friends. Malcolm developed intense respect for the man, and on Bembry’s behest, he decided to educate himself and began to read. As he started reading, he developed a voracious appetite for books, and would stay up reading long after lights out in prison.

In 1948, Malcolm’s little brother Philbert wrote to him talking about the Nation of Islam which was a religious movement headed by Elijah Muhammad. Their ideology was similar to that of UNIA, but Malcolm was not interested to know more until his other brother Reginald wrote to him about it too. Soon after, Reginald visited Malcolm in prison and described the group and their teaching to Malcolm, who grew interested. Their preaching of unification of all blacks and the liberation of blacks from domination of white people greatly appealed to Malcolm, and he became receptive to their teachings. He quit smoking and eating pork, and decided to turn his life around. He wrote to the leader of the movement, Elijah Muhammad in late 1948, and he was told to atone for his sins by renouncing the past and bowing down in prayer to a higher lord, Allah, and to promise to never behave in such a destructive manner again. Malcolm, who was always a skeptic and never religious, found it very difficult to follow Elijah’s advice, but when he finally did, he felt truly liberated even though he was in prison. He stayed in regular contact with Elijah Muhammad for the remainder of his prison term. On 7th August, 1952, he was released on parole.

Claim to Fame

By the time Malcolm was released from prison in 1952, he was a transformed man. He marked this with a conscious decision to change his name from Malcolm Little to ‘Malcolm X’. He changed his last name to ‘X’ as he felt that ‘Little’ was a last name imposed on his forefathers by some white racist whereas the ‘X’ in Muslim culture would represent his true African surname which he would now never know.

Soon after his prison release, Malcolm X went to Chicago to visit Elijah Muhammad. In June 1853, he was named an assistant minister in the Detroit temple of the Nation of Islam. He soon transitioned to become a full-time minister, and in the one year following this, he amassed a huge following for the Nation of Islam and grew to be a respected and important member of the movement.

In 1950, FBI had a file on Malcolm X when he sent a letter to the then-President Truman openly declaring himself a Communist and opposing the War on Korea. But soon they turned their attention from possible Communist connections, to his rapid rise in the ranks of the Nation of Islam. He was noted to be an impressive speaker with a self-assured air about him. He was always well groomed and articulate.

He met Betty Sanders (who would soon become his wife) in 1955 when she attended one of his lectures. She was suitably impressed by him, and started attending most of his talks and lectures, and even joined the Nation of Islam in 1956. They met up regularly after that, though never on one-on-one dates as it was against Muslim policy. They soon discovered the attraction was mutual, and got married in January, 1958 in Lansing, Michigan. They had six daughters in the seven years of marriage.

The first time Malcolm X came into the public eye was with the Johnson Hinton incident. In April 1957, three Nation of Islam members, one of them being Johnson Hinton, were involved in an altercation with the police, and were brutally beaten when they tried to intervene when a police officer was assaulting a black man on the street. They were beaten up too, and were thrown in jail. One of the witnesses to this incident brought this to the notice of the Nation of Islam members. Soon Malcolm X and a small group of representatives rushed to the police station and demanded to talk to Hinton and the others in custody, but they were denied. In a few hours, a crowd started to accumulate near the station, and fearing a riot of sorts, the police finally relented and allowed Malcolm X to speak with Hinton and the others. Malcolm then demanded medical attention for Hinton, and while this was happening, close to 4000 people had accumulated near the police station. After making arrangements for bail for the members in police custody, Malcolm X stepped out of the station and gave a hand signal after which the crowd near the station began to disperse immediately. This brought to notice the amount of power that Malcolm X had over the people and the respect he commanded.

Malcolm X became even more known after a television broadcast in 1959 called Hate that Hate produced, which was about the Nation of Islam. His passionate conviction in standing up for what you believe in, and his strong personality and speaking skills got everyone’s attention. He was frequently approached by all forms of media after this broadcast, and he gave countless interviews and his opinions on various public policies and common issues began to be published and aired to the general public. He alarmed white people and sometimes even black people with his radical public statements.

In 1964, he officially parted ways with the Nation of Islam, as there were already strained relations between him and Elijah Muhammad. The Nation feared that he was getting out of hand, and his public statements were too extremist for their liking. In 1963, he made some comments about the President Kennedy assassination which forced the Nation of Islam to prohibit Malcolm X from public speaking for 90 days. Malcolm X felt that he had gotten as much as he could from the Nation of Islam organization and believed that if they kept up with their rigid religious policies, they wouldn’t be able to further the movement.

Soon after leaving the Nation of Islam, he founded the Muslim Mosque Inc. and Organization of Afro-American Unity, both of which advocated ideas of Pan Africanism and advocated equal rights for black people and encouraged more blacks to stand up for what was rightfully theirs. It was around this period that he started researching Sunni Islam, and soon converted.

In 1964 and 1965, Malcolm X spent his time in international travel, visiting Africa and France and the United Kingdom. He spent all this time giving lectures, visiting and meeting with officials from those countries, gave interviews to newspapers and spoke on national TV. Before he returned to the United States, he had met with and talked to every African leader of note and helped establish a bridge between the African communities living abroad with their roots.


By the time Malcolm X returned to America, the tension between him and the Nation of Islam was at unparalleled heights. The Nation of Islam viewed him as a deserter and hypocrite and made many public statements making disparaging remarks against Malcolm X and belittling his work. They made multiple private, as well as many public death threats against Malcolm X even going as far as to issue a public statement saying he was worthy to have his head cut off!

On 21st February 1965, Malcolm was scheduled to give a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, addressing the Organization of Afro-American Unity. It was being attended by about 400 people. There were 3 armed people in the room who shot at him, and he was pronounced dead on arrival at the Columbia Presbytarian Hospital. There were 21 gunshot wounds on his body.

The three men, Talmadge Hayer (the first assailant), Norman Butler and Thomas Johnson were apprehended and taken to trial. Hayer confessed to being one of the shooters, whereas Butler and Johnson proclaimed innocence and still stand by their claim of innocence till date.

His funeral was a huge affair, and was covered by all media channels as well. He was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in New York after an elaborate funeral. His death prompted mixed responses from people, whilst many blacks who were inspired by his teachings mourned the death of a great leader, the local media and Nation of Islam commented on how he used his talents and aspired to a meaningless goal or a “evil purpose”, and Elijah Muhammad said that he met a fitting end given the kind of radical teachings Malcolm promoted. His life inspired movies to be made in his name, and his teachings ensured the fight for Black Nationalism continued on.

Personal Quotes

“Nonviolence is fine as long as it works.”

“A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.”

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

“I believe in a religion that believes in freedom. Any time I have to accept a religion that won’t let me fight a battle for my people, I say to hell with that religion.”

“I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color.”

“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.”

“Power never takes a back step only in the face of more power.”

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