18 Facts About Malcolm X
Who Was Malcolm X?
Malcolm X was a Muslim minister, African-American political activist, and inspirational public speaker. He sparked controversy because of his beliefs on race and other social issues.
Many people saw him as a truth-telling human rights advocate who exposed the depth of the crimes that had been committed against African Americans—and who advocated radical solutions. Others saw him as a racist who openly promoted violence.
Below are 18 facts about Malcolm X.
I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against. I'm a human being first and foremost, and as such I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.— Malcolm X
1. He wasn't born Malcolm X.
Malcolm X's birth name was Malcolm Little. He was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, and he was the fourth of eight siblings. His siblings were Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, Reginald, Yvonne, Wesley, and Robert.
He also had three older half-siblings from his father's previous marriage: Ella, Earl, and Mary, all of whom lived in Boston.
2. His parents were involved in a black nationalist organization.
Malcolm X's parents were Earl and Louise Little. Earl was a Baptist minister as well as a leader of the local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Louise was also associated with the UNIA; she worked as a secretary and branch reporter. Earl and Louise taught all of their children self-reliance and black pride.
Founded in 1914 by Marcus Garvey, the UNIA promoted Black nationalism, economic self-sufficiency, and a "Back to Africa" message.
3. His family home was burned down by white supremacists.
Due to harassment from the Ku Klux Klan over Earl's UNIA activities, the family left Omaha in 1926. First, they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and not long afterward they moved again to Lansing, Michigan.
Unfortunately, the threats followed them. In Lansing, the family was harassed by a white supremacist organization known as the Black Legion, which was a group that had splintered off from the KKK and operated primarily in the Midwest. Whereas the KKK wore white robes, the Black Legion wore black robes.
One night in 1929, young Malcolm was snatched awake by his frantic parents. Their house had been set on fire. The family ran outside and watched as their home burned to the ground. This calamity was Malcolm's earliest vivid memory.
Earl and Louise believed that the Black Legion was responsible for the fire.
Our home was burning down around us. We were lunging and bumping and tumbling all over each other trying to escape. My mother, with the baby in her arms, just made it into the yard before the house crashed in, showering sparks.— Malcolm X
4. His father may have been murdered.
On September 28, 1931, when Malcolm was only six years old, his father was found dead on the streetcar tracks in Lansing. The police report ruled it an accident, but there were widely circulated rumors that Earl had been killed by the Black Legion—the same group believed to have burned down the family home two years earlier.
Several years later, when Malcolm was 13, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown and entered a psychiatric hospital, where she remained for the next 26 years. The children were scattered across various foster homes, and young Malcolm spent the rest of his childhood apart from his family.
My father's skull, on one side, was crushed in.... Negroes in Lansing have always whispered that he was attacked, and then laid across some tracks for a streetcar to run over him. His body was cut almost in half.— Malcolm X
5. His teacher told him black people can't be lawyers.
Malcolm was very bright and academically focused. He was also quite popular, and in the second half of his seventh-grade year, in a class where he was the only black student, he was elected class president.
After graduating from junior high the following year, he dropped out of school entirely. He attributed this decision in part to a painful conversation he had with one of his favorite teachers: his English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski. When Malcolm confided that he'd thought about becoming a lawyer, his teacher, who was white, told him that was "no realistic goal for a nigger." Instead, Mr. Ostrowski suggested that he consider becoming a carpenter.
After leaving school, Malcolm moved in with a half-sister in Boston. There, he worked in a variety of jobs, including shoeshine boy, busboy, and waiter.
Education is an important element in the struggle for human rights.... Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.— Malcolm X
6. He went to prison for stealing a watch.
In 1943, Malcolm moved from Boston to Harlem, in New York City. There he embraced the vibrant and often seedy nightlife, frequenting dance halls, clubs, and gambling dens. His appearance changed, too: he wore trendy zoot suits and straightened his hair into a "conk" style.
To support his lifestyle, he became involved in criminal activities, including drug dealing, gambling, pimping, robbery, and racketeering. He also became addicted to drugs himself. During this period he became known as "Detroit Red" due to the reddish hair he'd inherited from his maternal Scottish grandfather.
In late 1945, he returned to Boston where his criminal lifestyle continued. The following year, just shy of 21 years old, he was caught with a stolen watch that he had taken to a repair shop. He was charged with breaking and entering, as well as possession of stolen property. He was sentenced to eight to ten years at the Charlestown State Prison.
7. In prison, he turned to the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm spent much of his time in prison reading and educating himself. He took several college courses through the mail, including one in Latin.
Through letters, Malcolm's siblings Reginald, Philbert, and Hilda introduced him to a religious group they'd become involved in called the Nation of Islam. They explained that the Nation of Islam was the natural religion for the black man. The group taught that the white man was actually the devil. White devils had destroyed black civilizations in Africa; then they had kidnapped millions of Africans and brought them to the Americas as slaves.
Striking up a correspondence with the Nation of Islam's leader, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm found that he resonated deeply with the group's message of black self-reliance, nationalism, and empowerment.
Between Mr. Muhammad's teachings, my correspondence, my visitors... and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.— Malcolm X
8. He took "X" to represent his unknown African name.
In 1950, he began signing his name "Malcolm X." By rejecting "Little," he sought to cast aside the surname that had been forced upon his ancestors by white slave owners. The letter "X," in contrast, represented his true, yet tragically unknown, African tribal name.
The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery. The last name of my forefathers was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves, and then the name of the slave master was given, which we refuse, we reject that name today and refuse it.— Malcolm X
9. He became a highly influential preacher for the Nation of Islam.
After seven years in prison, Malcolm was released in 1952. He quickly became a very effective advocate for the Nation of Islam, actively seeking out new converts, whenever and wherever he could. He became a favorite of Elijah Muhammad and gained a higher public profile.
Malcolm was widely credited with increasing the Nation of Islam's membership. Numbers went from 500 to 25,000 members between the early 1950s and early '60s (some estimates are even higher, estimating membership at 75,000 by the early '60s).
For the white man to ask the black man if he hates him is just like the raper asking the raped, or the wolf asking the sheep, 'Do you hate me?' The white man is in no moral position to accuse anyone else of hate!— Malcolm X
10. He preached black pride and separation of the races.
By this time, Malcolm was traveling to many different cities, speaking to large audiences, and gaining widespread media attention. His speeches were often broadcast on the radio, as well.
He gave forceful sermons about black pride, self-reliance, and the belief that freedom and survival could come only from strict separation of the races. He railed against exploitation by the white devils. He believed that the idea of integration—in which whites and blacks could live side by side in harmony and equality—was a fantasy.
Any time you beg another man to set you free, you will never be free. Freedom is something that you have to do for yourselves.— Malcolm X
11. He proposed to his wife from a gas station pay phone.
In 1958, he married Betty X (originally Betty Jean Sanders), a nurse and civil rights activist. He proposed to her from a gas station pay phone, and they were married by a justice of the peace just two days later.
Together they had six daughters: Attallah, Qubilah, Ilyasah, Gamilah, Malikah, and Malaak. The last two girls, a set of twins, were born seven months after Malcolm's death.
Betty's a good Muslim woman and wife. I don't imagine many other women might put up with the way I am.— Malcolm X
12. He opposed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
During this time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. represented the face of America's mainstream civil rights movement. Malcolm, however, disparaged many of King's ideas, including racial integration and nonviolent resistance to gain equality and acceptance.
Speaking of Malcolm X, King said "I know that I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problems." Malcolm believed that black people should defend and advance themselves "by any means necessary." By this he meant black people should assert their rights, and if necessary, engage in self-defense against the white violence that was perpetrated against them.
We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.— Malcolm X
13. JFK's assassination led to Malcolm X's ouster from the Nation of Islam.
In 1964, Malcolm X split from the Nation of Islam. For some time, there had been rumors that Elijah Muhammad had become jealous and fearful of Malcolm's increasing influence—believing that he might try to take over his organization.
For his part, Malcolm's relationship with his spiritual mentor had soured when he discovered that the leader had committed adultery and fathered several illegitimate children with at least two young employees.
Things came to head shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, on November 22, 1963. Asked by a reporter for his comments, Malcolm said it was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost." He went on to describe how white hatred, so often directed against subjugated black people, had spread to such a degree that it had even taken down the president of the United States of America.
For a country grieving the loss of its beloved president, however, Malcolm's comments created an immediate media firestorm and backlash. Muhammad chose this moment to suspend Malcolm from the Nation of Islam.
In March of 1964, Malcolm officially split from the Nation of Islam. Shortly afterward, he became a Sunni Muslim.
Speaking like this doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression.— Malcolm X
14. His pilgrimage to Mecca transformed his political views.
In April of 1964, shortly after his conversion to Sunni Islam, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca. The trip completely changed him. He would later say that seeing Muslims of "all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans," coming together as equals helped him see, for the first time in his life, that it was possible for people of all races and colors to live together peacefully and respectfully.
He became persuaded that racial problems could be overcome through Islam's teachings of tolerance and brotherly love. He realized that the problem in the United States wasn't the white man, per se, but rather an entrenched racist system. The problem wasn't skin color; but rather, historical and contemporary attitudes and practices.
Upon his return home, he said, "I think that the pilgrimage to Mecca broadened my scope probably more in twelve days than my previous experience during my thirty-nine years on the earth."
To symbolize his spiritual awakening and his commitment to a more orthodox Islamic tradition, Malcolm took a new name, El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. His wife became Betty Shabazz.
Back home, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). In contrast to the Nation of Islam, this was not a religious group. It sought to advocate for all black people, and it held that racism, not the white race, was the true obstacle.
In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I will never be guilty of that again.... The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks.— Malcolm X
15. He received death threats and his home was firebombed.
During the remaining months of 1964, Malcolm's conflicts with the Nation of Islam intensified. He was considered a traitor by the organization's leadership for his criticisms of Elijah Muhammad.
He began receiving death threats, which were anonymously called in to the police, several newspapers, the OAAU office, and his family's private home. Several attempts on his life were made, including one on Valentine's Day, 1965, when his home was firebombed (the house was destroyed but the family escaped unharmed).
16. He was assassinated in 1965.
On February 21, 1965, several days after his home was firebombed and destroyed, Malcolm X was assassinated.
He had just begun speaking to the OAAU at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. As his pregnant wife and four daughters sat at a table near the stage, three gunmen rushed at the stage and began shooting at close range. One man used a sawed-off shotgun, while the other two fired semi-automatic weapons.
His wounds were fatal. Within several minutes, he was rushed across the street to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, but the doctors were unable to save him.
To speculate about dying doesn't disturb me as it might some people. I have never felt that I would live to become an old man.... it always stayed on my mind that I might die a violent death.— Malcolm X
17. His killers were from the Nation of Islam.
Three Nation of Islam members were identified by witnesses as the killers: Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson.
Elijah Muhammad, speaking to an interviewer the day after the assassination, said that neither he nor the Nation of Islam had any connection with the death. He told another interviewer several days later, however, that "Malcolm X got just what he preached."
At the trial, Hayer's confession was corroborated by many eyewitnesses. Butler and Johnson, however, claimed to be innocent. All three were convicted of murder in March 1966 and sentenced to life in prison. Butler and Johnson protested their innocence to the end.
I did many things as a Muslim that I'm sorry for now.... Well, I guess a man's entitled to make a fool of himself if he's ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.— Malcolm X
18. His funeral was attended by many civil rights leaders.
The public viewing of Malcolm X's body, between February 23-26 in Harlem, was attended by between 14,000 to 30,000 mourners. He was buried on February 27, 1965. The thousand-seat church set up loudspeakers so that the overflow crowd could hear the service outside, and a local TV station broadcast the service live.
Civil rights leaders who attended included John Lewis, James Forman, Jesse Gray, and Andrew Young. The eulogy was read by actor and activist Ossie Davis.
Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to Betty expressing his sympathy regarding "the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband." He continued:
"While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race."
Power in defense of freedom is greater than power in behalf of tyranny and oppression. Because power, real power, comes from our conviction which produces action, uncompromising action.— Malcolm X
Sources and Further Reading
Coates, Ta-Nehisi (May 2011). The Legacy of Malcolm X: Why His Vision Lives On in Barack Obama. The Atlantic. Accessed March 17, 2019.
Love, David A. (February 23, 2017). Malcolm X and the Black Lives Matter Movement." Huffington Post. Accessed March 17, 2019.
Malcolm X (October 29, 2009). History.com. Accessed March 17, 2019.
Malcolm X (April 2, 2014). Biography.com. Accessed March 17, 2019.
Shabazz, Ilyasah (February 20, 2015). What Would Malcolm X Think? New York Times. Accessed March 17, 2019.
Worland, Justin (February 20, 2015). On 50th Anniversary of Assassination, Malcolm X's Legacy Continues to Evolve. Time Magazine. Accessed March 17, 2019.
Davies, Mark (1990). Malcolm X: Another Side of the Movement. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Simon & Schuster.
Goldman, Peter (1979). The Death and Life of Malcolm X (2nd ed.). Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.
Graves, Renee (2003). Malcolm X: Cornerstones of Freedom. New York: Scholastic.
Roberts, Randy; Smith, Johnny (2016). Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. New York: Basic Books.
Waldschmidt-Nelson, Britta (2012). Dreams and Nightmares: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Struggle for Black Equality. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida.
X, Malcolm (1964). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Random House.
Questions & Answers
How did Malcolm X die?
He was assassinated by Nation of Islam members while speaking at a rally. He was addressing his Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, New York City. As a disturbance broke out in the crowd, one man charged the stage with a sawed-off shotgun and shot Malcolm X in the chest. Two other men rushed forward firing handguns. Malcolm X suffered 21 gunshot wounds and died shortly after arriving at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.Helpful 44
Did Malcolm X have any siblings?
Malcolm X had ten siblings. He had four sisters: Ella Collins, Mary Little, Hilda Florice Little, and Yvonne Little Woodward. He had six brothers: Wesley Little, Philbert X, Ear Little Jr., Wilfred X, Reginald Little, and Robert Little.Helpful 24
When did Malcolm X become a civil rights activist?
Malcolm X's parents were advocates for self-reliance and black pride, so he was brought up in a civil rights environment. He drifted into a life of drugs and crime, however, after dropping out of school. In the mid-1940's, during a spell in prison, he came under the influence of fellow convict John Bembry and began reading a lot to self-educate himself. He was sent letters from siblings that suggested he take an interest in the Nation of Islam, a recently formed religious group that preached black self-reliance and the eventual return of the African diaspora to Africa. In 1948, aged 23, Malcolm X stopped eating pork and smoking cigarettes and wrote to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad told him to renounce his criminal life and pray to Allah. Malcolm X did so, and soon after became a member of the Nation of Islam.Helpful 21
How many people did Malcolm X kill?
During his younger years, Malcolm X was involved in theft, drug dealing, gambling and prostitution rackets, and was imprisoned, but there is no evidence that he ever killed anyone. However, he was happy to project a tough guy image, especially when he began receiving death threats from followers of the Nation of Islam. The iconic Ebony photo of Malcolm X with an M1 Carbine pulling back the curtains to peer out of a window was meant as a warning to those who threatened him.Helpful 21
Did Malcolm X have children?
Yes, he had six daughters with his wife, Betty Shabazz: Attallah Shabazz, Qubilah Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz, Gamilah Lumumba Shabazz, and twins Malikah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazz born after their father's assassination.Helpful 19
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