Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925, Malcolm was raised in a family of early Garveyites who headed the local chapter of UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) during Malcolm’s youth. Young Malcolm Little was thus inspired by a sense of black nationalism and pride at a young age, owing to the respect of Marcus Garvey’s teachings by his parents. However, tragedy struck the Littles when Malcolm was only six years old. His father, Earl, was killed in what was officially ruled as a streetcar accident, but what was rumored to be the actions of a racist white group near the Littles’ new home in Lansing, Michigan. The idea that his father was murdered by white men was troubling to Malcolm, and thus, early notions of a hate for what he would call “blue-eyed devils” began to bloom within him.
As a young man, Malcolm found a place in Boston, and later Harlem. After feeling disillusioned by his efforts to secure a real career, he turned to a life of crime, is known as “Detroit Red”, after his home in Michigan and his reddish hair. After committing a robbery in Boston, 21-year-old Malcolm Little was sent to prison.
In prison, Little was contacted by his brother, Reginald, who at first told Malcolm, “don’t eat any more pork and don’t smoke any more cigarettes. I’ll show you how to get out of prison.” Thereafter, Reginald taught Malcolm of the teachings of a group called the Nation of Islam- namely the largely anti-white aspects of the religion, which appealed to Malcolm greatly. After writing to then NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm decided to fully embrace the new religion. As the next step in his transformation, Malcolm decided to replace the last name “Little” with an X, representing his true African last name lost in the years of slavery. No more were Malcolm Little of Lansing, Michigan, or Detroit Red of Boston. The newest convert to the Nation of Islam was a man known as Malcolm X.
As a minister, Malcolm found great success. He established a new temple in Boston and afterward succeeded in expanding membership in both Philadelphia and Harlem, a city which had become his new home. Malcolm is even credited with increasing the Nation of Islam’s membership from 500 to 25,000 members over the period of time he was with the group. He also underwent another name change, adopting the name Malcolm Shabazz (or, Malik el-Shabazz).
Shabazz’s teachings were a stark contrast to the largely nonviolent methods of the Civil Rights Movement going on at the time. According to Shabazz, “white devils” were not to be trusted, and true to his Garveyite upbringing, Shabazz insisted on further segregation of black and white people so that black people could prosper on their own while white people met their own demise. Shabazz also advocated protection of one’s self, family, and property “by any means necessary”, meaning that violence was absolutely an option.
Shabazz’s effective ministering of the group inspired a huge influx in membership, with huge crowds showing up just to hear charismatic Minister Malcolm speak. His influence even inspired influential boxer Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) to join the group, as well as Louis Farrakhan, a follower who Shabazz mentored, and who later became the leader of the group.
Shabazz’s relationship with the Nation of Islam began to sour, with a few key events leading to Shabazz’s departure:
After a violent encounter between the LAPD and the members of a local mosque in which several dozen Muslims were beaten and shot, with one man killed, Shabazz entreated leader Elijah Muhammad to undertake violent retaliation against the LAPD. This request was denied. This, along with a denial of Shabazz’s request to begin working with civil rights groups, shocked and alienated Malcolm, who began to have more and more disagreements with the methods of the group.
During this time, Malcolm also became aware of accusations of Elijah Muhammad’s alleged sexual misconduct with young members of the group. He was disgusted by this, as it went against the beliefs of the group, and it started an even greater schism between the two. As it were, Muhammad was already jealous of Shabazz’s successes and eloquence. Muhammad was not nearly as charismatic and imposing as Minister Malcolm, and indeed the name “Malcolm X” had become synonymous with the group as Shabazz also became its de facto face. This worried Muhammad, who did not want to be ousted from his position of leadership within the Nation.
Shabazz’s outspokenness about the Kennedy assassination also caused problems within the Nation of Islam. Though the group had publicly offered its condolences about the assassination, Malcolm made a statement which implied that the assassination may have been just or deserved after the injustices against black Americans in the past decade. After public outcry to this statement, the NOI barred Malcolm from public speech for 90 days.
Finally, Malcolm’s disagreements with the NOI reached a head. Citing the rigidity of rules within the group and a desire to collaborate with civil rights leaders (which was denied him by Muhammad), Shabazz said that, while he still considered himself a Muslim, he would no longer be associating with the Nation of Islam.
After his departure from the group, Malcolm continued to work for civil rights, establishing the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and attending the Senate’s debate on the Civil Rights Bill (an event where he met Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the first and only time).
Soon after, Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam. He then decided to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj. During this trip, Shabazz’s anti-white philosophies began to soften, as he saw Muslims of all ethnicities in Mecca. He began to see Islam as a way to bring people together. Shabazz also began to travel all over the globe, criticizing racial inequality across Europe and encouraging Pan-Africanism in Africa.
As Malcolm’s positions on these issues began to soften, the tension between Shabazz and the NOI began to heighten. Shabazz received repeated threats on his life, and both Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan were quoted saying extremely threatening remarks about Shabazz.
On February 21, 1965, while preparing to give a speech in Manhattan, Malcolm became distracted by a fight going on in the hall where the speech was to be given. While he was distracted, 3 separate men shot and eventually killed Malcolm. After arriving at the hospital, Malcolm Shabazz was pronounced dead.
There has been much speculation as to whether the assassination was directly ordered by the Nation of Islam, carried out by radicals, or due to a local drug gang. However, since then, Louis Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad have both admitted that they did express wishes for and expectations of Malcolm’s death.