Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little, later Malik el-Shabazz; May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965) was an American Muslim minister and human rights activist who was a prominent figure during the civil rights movement. A spokesman for the Nation of Islam until 1964, he was a vocal advocate for Black empowerment and the promotion of Islam within the Black community. A posthumous autobiography, on which he collaborated with Alex Haley, was published in 1965.
Malcolm spent his adolescence living in a series of foster homes or with relatives after his father's death and his mother's hospitalization. He committed various crimes, being sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1946 for larceny and burglary. In prison, he joined the Nation of Islam (adopting the name Malcolm X to symbolize his unknown African ancestral surname while discarding "the White slavemaster name of 'Little'"), and after his parole in 1952, quickly became one of the organization's most influential leaders.
He was the public face of the organization for 12 years, advocating Black empowerment and separation of Black and White Americans and criticizing Martin Luther King Jr. and the mainstream civil rights movement for its emphasis on nonviolence and racial integration. Malcolm X also expressed pride in some of the Nation's social welfare achievements, such as its free drug rehabilitation program. Throughout his life, beginning in the 1950s, Malcolm X was subjected to surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
In the 1960s, Malcolm X began to grow disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, as well as with its leader, Elijah Muhammad. He subsequently embraced Sunni Islam and the civil rights movement after completing the Hajj to Mecca and became known as "el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz." After a brief period of travel across Africa, he publicly renounced the Nation of Islam. He founded the Islamic Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI) and the Pan-African Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
Throughout 1964, his conflict with the Nation of Islam intensified, and he was repeatedly sent death threats. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated in New York City. Three Nation members were charged with the murder and given indeterminate life sentences; in 2021, two of the convictions were vacated. Speculation about the assassination and whether it was conceived or aided by leading or additional members of the Nation or with law enforcement agencies has persisted for decades.
A controversial figure accused of preaching racism and violence, Malcolm X is also a widely celebrated figure within African-American and Muslim-American communities for his pursuit of racial justice. He was posthumously honored with Malcolm X Day, on which he is commemorated in various cities across the United States. Hundreds of streets and schools in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor. At the same time, the Audubon Ballroom, the site of his assassination, was partly redeveloped in 2005 to accommodate the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center.
Malcolm X was born May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, the fourth of seven children of Grenada-born Louise Helen Little (née Norton) and Georgia-born Earl Little. Earl was an outspoken Baptist lay speaker, and he and Louise were admirers of Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey. Earl was a local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Louise served as secretary and "branch reporter," sending news of local UNIA activities to Negro World; they inculcated self-reliance and black pride in their children. Malcolm X later said that White violence killed four of his father's brothers.
Because of Ku Klux Klan threats, Earl's UNIA activities were said to be "spreading trouble," and the family relocated in 1926 to Milwaukee and shortly thereafter to Lansing, Michigan. There, the family was frequently harassed by the Black Legion, a White racist group Earl accused of burning their family home in 1929. When Malcolm was six, his father died in what has been officially ruled a streetcar accident, though his mother Louise believed the Black Legion had murdered Earl.
Rumors that White racists were responsible for his father's death were widely circulated and were very disturbing to Malcolm X as a child. As an adult, he expressed conflicting beliefs on the question. After a dispute with creditors, Louise received a life insurance benefit (nominally $1,000 —about $18,000 in 2022) in payments of $18 per month; the issuer of another, larger policy refused to pay, claiming her husband Earl had committed suicide. To make ends meet, Louise rented out part of her garden, and her sons hunted game.
In 1937, a man Louise had been dating—marriage had seemed a possibility—vanished from her life when she became pregnant with his child. In late 1938, she had a nervous breakdown and was committed to Kalamazoo State Hospital. The children were separated and sent to foster homes. Malcolm and his siblings secured her release 24 years later.
Malcolm attended West Junior High School in Lansing and then Mason High School in Mason, Michigan, but left high school in 1941 before graduating. He excelled in junior high school but dropped out of high school after a White teacher told him that practicing law, his aspiration at the time, was "no realistic goal for a nigger." Later, Malcolm X recalled feeling that the White world offered no place for a career-oriented Black man, regardless of talent.