Malcolm X ( /ˈmælkəm ˈɛks/; May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965),
born Malcolm Little and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz
(Arabic: الحاجّ مالك الشباز), was an African American Muslim minister and human rights activist.
To his admirers, he was a courageous advocate for the rights of African Americans, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans.
Detractors accused him of preaching racism, black supremacy, antisemitism, and violence. He has been called one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history.
Malcolm X's father died—killed by white supremacists, it was rumored—when he was young, and at least one of his uncles was lynched. When he was thirteen, his mother was placed in a mental hospital, and he was placed in a series of foster homes. In 1946, at age 20, he went to prison for breaking and entering.
In prison, Malcolm X became a member of the Nation of Islam and after his parole in 1952 he quickly rose to become one of its leaders. For a dozen years Malcolm X was the public face of the controversial group, but disillusionment with Nation of Islam head Elijah Muhammad led him to leave the Nation in March 1964. After a period of travel in Africa and the Middle East, he returned to the United States, where he founded Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. In February 1965, less than a year after leaving the Nation of Islam, he was assassinated by three members of the group.
Malcolm X's expressed beliefs changed substantially over time. As a spokesman for the Nation of Islam he taught black supremacy and advocated separation of black and white Americans—in contrast to the civil rights movement's emphasis on integration. After breaking with the Nation of Islam in 1964—saying of his association with it, "I was a zombie then ... pointed in a certain direction and told to march"—and becoming a Sunni Muslim, he disavowed racism and expressed willingness to work with civil rights leaders, though still emphasizing black self-determination and self defense.
The Audubon Ballroom stage on which Malcolm X was attacked. Circles on the mural mark bullet holes.On February 21, 1965, as Malcolm X prepared to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom, a disturbance broke out in the 400-person audience—a man yelled, "Nigger! Get your hand outta my pocket!" As Malcolm X and his bodyguards moved to quiet the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot him in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men charged the stage and fired semi-automatic handguns, hitting Malcolm X several times. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm, shortly after he arrived at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. According to the autopsy report, Malcolm X's body had 21 gunshot wounds, ten of them from the initial shotgun blast.
One gunman, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagan) was seized and beaten by the crowd before the police arrived minutes later; witnesses identified the others as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, also Nation members. Hayer confessed at trial to have been one of the handgun shooters, but refused to identify the other assailants except to assert that they were not Butler and Johnson. All three were convicted.
Butler, now known as Muhammad Abdul Aziz, was paroled in 1985 and became the head of the Nation's Harlem mosque in 1998. He continues to maintain his innocence. Johnson, who changed his name to Khalil Islam, rejected the Nation's teachings while in prison and converted to Sunni Islam. Released in 1987, he maintained his innocence until his death in August 2009. Hayer, now known as Mujahid Halim, was paroled in 2010.
Allegations of conspiracy
Within days of the assassination, questions were raised about who bore ultimate responsibility. On February 23, James Farmer, the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, announced at a news conference that local drug dealers, and not the Nation of Islam, were to blame. Others accused the NYPD, the FBI, or the CIA, citing the lack of police protection, the ease with which the assassins entered the Audubon Ballroom, and the failure of the police to preserve the crime scene.
In the 1970s, the public learned about COINTELPRO and other secret FBI programs directed towards infiltrating and disrupting civil rights organizations during the 1950s and 1960s. John Ali, national secretary of the Nation of Islam, was identified as an FBI undercover agent. Malcolm X had confided in a reporter that Ali exacerbated tensions between him and Elijah Muhammad. He considered Ali his "archenemy" within the Nation of Islam leadership. On February 20, 1965, the night before the assassination, Ali met with Talmadge Hayer, one of the men convicted of killing Malcolm X.
In 1977 and 1978, Talmadge Hayer submitted two sworn affidavits re-asserting his claim that Butler and Johnson were not involved in the assassination. In his affidavits Hayer named four men, all members of the Nation of Islam's Newark Temple Number 25, as having participated with him in the crime. Hayer asserted that a man, later identified as Wilbur McKinley, was the one who shouted and threw a smoke bomb to create a diversion. Hayer said that another man, later identified as William Bradley, had a shotgun and was the first to fire on Malcolm X after the diversion. Hayer asserted that he and a man later identified as Leon Davis, both armed with pistols, fired on Malcolm X immediately after the shotgun blast. Hayer also said that a fifth man, later identified as Benjamin Thomas, was involved in the conspiracy. Hayer's statements failed to convince authorities to reopen their investigation of the murder.
Some, including the Shabazz family, have accused Louis Farrakhan of being involved in the plot to assassinate Malcolm X. In a 1993 speech, Farrakhan seemed to boast of the assassination:
Was Malcolm your traitor or ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours? A nation has to be able to deal with traitors and cutthroats and turncoats.
In a 60 Minutes interview that aired during May 2000, Farrakhan stated that some of the things he said may have led to the assassination of Malcolm X. "I may have been complicit in words that I spoke", he said. "I acknowledge that and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being." A few days later Farrakhan denied that he "ordered the assassination" of Malcolm X, although he again acknowledged that he "created the atmosphere that ultimately led to Malcolm X's assassination." No consensus on who was responsible has been reached.
Except for his autobiography, Malcolm X left no published writings. His philosophy is known almost entirely from the myriad speeches and interviews he gave from 1952 until his death in 1965. Many of those speeches, especially from the last year of his life, were recorded and have been published.
Malcolm X at a 1964 press conferenceAfter leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X announced his willingness to work with leaders of the civil rights movement, though he felt that it should change its focus to human rights. So long as the movement remained a fight for civil rights, its struggle would remain a domestic issue, but by framing the struggle as a fight for human rights, it would become an international issue, and the movement could bring its complaint before the United Nations. Malcolm X said the emerging nations of the world would add their support to the cause of African Americans.
Malcolm X declared that he and the other members of the Organization of Afro-American Unity were determined to defend themselves from aggressors, and to secure freedom, justice and equality "by whatever means necessary", arguing that if the government was unwilling or unable to protect black people, they should protect themselves.
Malcolm X stressed the global perspective he gained from his international travels. He emphasized the "direct connection" between the domestic struggle of African Americans for equal rights with the liberation struggles of Third World nations. He said that African Americans were wrong when they thought of themselves as a minority; in a global context, black people were a majority, not a minority.
In his speeches at the Militant Labor Forum, which was sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party, Malcolm X criticized capitalism. After one such speech, when he was asked what political and economic system he wanted, he said he didn't know, but that it was no coincidence the newly liberated countries in the Third World were turning toward socialism. Malcolm X still was concerned primarily with the freedom struggle of African Americans. When a reporter asked him what he thought about socialism, Malcolm X asked whether it was good for black people. When the reporter told him it seemed to be, Malcolm X told him, "Then I'm for it."
Although he no longer called for the separation of black people from white people, Malcolm X continued to advocate black nationalism, which he defined as self-determination for the African-American community. In the last months of his life, however, Malcolm X began to reconsider his support of black nationalism after meeting northern African revolutionaries who, to all appearances, were white.
After his Hajj, Malcolm X articulated a view of white people and racism that represented a deep change from the philosophy he had supported as a minister of the Nation of Islam. In a famous letter from Mecca, he wrote that his experiences with white people during his pilgrimage convinced him to "rearrange" his thinking about race and "toss aside some of [his] previous conclusions". In a 1965 conversation with Gordon Parks, two days before his assassination, Malcolm said:
[L]istening to leaders like Nasser, Ben Bella, and Nkrumah awakened me to the dangers of racism. I realized racism isn't just a black and white problem. It's brought bloodbaths to about every nation on earth at one time or another.
Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant—the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together—and I told her there wasn't a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I've lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I'm sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all [Black] Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. 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.
That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I'm glad to be free of them.