Malcolm X (1925–1965) was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, a Baptist minister, was a follower of Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. His mother was originally from the Caribbean nation of Grenada. When Malcolm was six, after his family had moved to Lansing, Michigan, his...
Malcolm X (1925–1965) was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, a Baptist minister, was a follower of Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. His mother was originally from the Caribbean nation of Grenada. When Malcolm was six, after his family had moved to Lansing, Michigan, his father was murdered by a racist gang.
As a teenager Malcolm lived in Boston and New York, where he got involved in petty crime. In 1946 he was arrested and convicted on burglary charges, spending six years in a Massachusetts state prison. It was while behind bars that Malcolm began reading voraciously--world history, philosophy, language, science, literature, whatever he could find in the prison library. And it was there that he developed the attributes--confidence in his own self-worth, the discipline for hard work and concentrated study--that were the foundation stones of his later transformation into a revolutionary political leader.
Malcolm’s conversion to the Nation of Islam while in jail was not a political act, nor simply a religious one, in the way those terms are normally understood. It was the particular road along which he pulled his life back together, and became Malcolm X, after living for several years as a street hustler and small-time criminal. In his autobiography, he recounts unflinchingly "how deeply the religion of Islam had reached down into the mud to lift me up, to save me from being what I inevitably would have been: a dead criminal in a grave, or, if still alive, a flint-hard, bitter, thirty-seven-year-old convict in some penitentiary, or insane asylum."
After being paroled in 1952, Malcolm was soon appointed by Nation leader Elijah Muhammad as one of its ministers, taking the name Malcolm X. He later served as editor of the Nation’s newspaper, its national spokesman, and head of its largest unit, New York City’s Mosque no. 7 in Harlem. By the opening of the 1960s, Malcolm was politically drawn more and more toward the rising struggles by Blacks and other oppressed peoples in the United States and around the world. He used his platforms in Harlem and Black neighborhoods across the country, as well as on dozens of college campuses, to denounce the policies of the US government both at home and abroad. He campaigned against every manifestation of anti-Black racism and was outspoken in condemning the pillage and oppression of the peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America for the profit and power of the US and other imperialist regimes.
"The black revolution is sweeping Asia, is sweeping Africa, is rearing its head in Latin America," Malcolm said in a November 1963 talk to a predominantly Black audience in Detroit. "The Cuban Revolution--that’s a revolution," he continued. "They overturned the system. Revolution is in Asia, revolution is in Africa, and the white man is screaming because he sees revolution in Latin America. How do you think he’ll react to you when you learn what a real revolution is?"
By 1962 it was becoming more and more noticeable that Malcolm was straining against the narrow perspectives of the Nation of Islam, a bourgeois nationalist organization with a leadership bent on finding a separate economic niche for itself within the US capitalist system. He described these growing tensions in a New Year’s Day 1965 talk to a group of high-school-age civil rights militants from McComb, Mississippi. The Nation’s hierarchy, Malcolm said, blocked any initiatives by him or others to carry out "militant action, uncompromising action." In April 1962, for example, Elijah Muhammad ordered Malcolm to call off street actions he was organizing in Los Angeles to protest the killing of Nation member Ronald Stokes and the wounding of six other Muslims by city cops.
The conflicts that led to Malcolm being forced out of the Nation of Islam came to a head in 1963. In April Malcolm was called by Elijah Muhammad to his winter home in Phoenix, Arizona. There Malcolm learned from the Nation leader himself the truth of rumors then spreading in the organization that Muhammad had engaged in sexual relations with a number of young women belonging to the Nation of Islam then working as staff members. Several of them had become pregnant, and Muhammad had taken advantage of his authority in the Nation to have them subjected to humiliating internal trials and suspended from membership for "fornication."
Coming on top of Malcolm’s growing political clashes with the Nation hierarchy, the discovery of this corrupt and hypocritical behavior marked a turning point. "I felt the movement was dragging its feet in many areas," Malcolm said in a January 1965 interview with the Young Socialist magazine. "It didn’t involve itself in the civil or civic or political struggles our people were confronted by. All it did was stress the importance of moral reformation--don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t permit fornication and adultery. When I found that the hierarchy itself wasn’t practicing what it preached, it was clear that this part of its program was bankrupt."
In early March 1964, Malcolm announced his decision to break with the Nation of Islam. He and his collaborators initially organized themselves as the Muslim Mosque, Inc. But Malcolm soon recognized that "there was a problem confronting our people in this country that had nothing to do with religion and went above and beyond religion"--a problem that, because of its magnitude, "a religious organization couldn’t attack." So in June he initiated the formation of "another group that had nothing to do with religion whatsoever"--the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), open to all Blacks committed to Malcolm’s revolutionary social and political trajectory.
During the final months of 1964 and early 1965, Malcolm won an increasingly wide hearing, not just across the United States but also on several continents among youth and other militants of various races and beliefs. He made two extensive trips to Africa and the Middle East, several short trips to Europe, and had scheduled more.
The US government took notice of the increased standing Malcolm was winning worldwide among radicalizing youth and workers. Previously classified government records released in the late 1970s confirm that the FBI had carried out systematic surveillance of him starting in 1953, shortly after he became a minister of the Nation of Islam. But this spying and harassment intensified, both in the United States and during his trips abroad, after Malcolm’s break with the Nation and founding of the OAAU. Moreover, declassified records of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (Cointelpro) document how the FBI used agents provocateurs to exacerbate murderous conflicts between groups involved in the Black liberation movement.
During the last year of his life, Malcolm X spoke out more and more directly about the capitalist roots of racism, of exploitation, and of imperialist oppression. Malcolm never gave an inch to US patriotism, let alone imperialist nationalism. Blacks in the United States are "the victims of Americanism," he said in his May 1964 talk at the University of Ghana.
Malcolm was an uncompromising opponent of the Democratic and Republican parties—the twin parties of racism and capitalist exploitation. Malcolm urged youth not to "run around...trying to make friends with somebody who’s depriving you of your rights. They’re not your friends. No, they’re your enemies. Treat them like that and fight them, and you’ll get your freedom. And after you get your freedom, your enemy will respect you."
In 1964 Malcolm refused to endorse or campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon Baines Johnson against Republican Barry Goldwater. "The Democratic Party is responsible for the racism that exists in this country, along with the Republican Party," he said in the Young Socialist interview. "The leading racists in this country are Democrats. Goldwater isn’t the leading racist--he’s a racist but not the leading racist.... If you check, whenever any kind of legislation is suggested to mitigate the injustices that Negroes suffer in this country, you will find that the people who line up against it are members of Lyndon B. Johnson’s party." It was also the Johnson administration, Malcolm often pointed out, that was presiding over the US war against the people of Vietnam and the slaughter of liberation fighters and villagers in the Congo. The revolutionary integrity underlying this political intransigence in the 1964 elections set Malcolm apart from, and helped earn him the enmity of, just about every other leader of prominent Black rights organizations or the trade unions, as well as the vast majority of those who called themselves radicals, socialists, or communists.
Malcolm X stretched out his hand to revolutionaries and freedom fighters in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere. In December 1964 Malcolm, who had demonstratively welcomed Fidel Castro to Harlem four years earlier, invited Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto Che Guevara to speak before an OAAU meeting in Harlem. At the last minute Guevara was unable to attend but sent "the warm salutations of the Cuban people" to the meeting in a message that Malcolm insisted on reading himself from the platform.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. He was shot as he began speaking to an OAAU meeting at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. The following year three men, all members or supporters of the Nation of Islam, were convicted of the murder and each given a twenty-year-to-life sentence. One of them, the gunman arrested at the scene, had said from the outset that the two men convicted along with him were not guilty. In 1977 he signed affidavits stating that four other Nation supporters were the ones involved with him, but the case has never been reopened.