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Controversial, divisive, iconic: Malcolm X (1925-1966) was a key figure in the African-American rights movement. An advocate of black nationalism and a prominent figure in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X became famous for his eloquent and articulate indictments of racial inequality in the United States of America.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. Malcolm was one of eight children in a family that was forced to move around due to the abuse and harassment they were subjected to by white supremacist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan and the Black Legion. Despite moving in an attempt to escape the intimidation, the family had their house burned down and Earl Little was found dead in suspicious circumstances, although police at the time attributed both events to accidents. Following the death of his father, Malcolm’s mother was committed to a mental institution and the siblings were separated. Malcolm stayed in numerous foster homes and despite demonstrating exceptional ability as a high school student, he became caught up in criminal activities, leading to his incarceration in 1946 for larceny offences.

While serving a ten-year sentence, he spent much of his time in the prison library. He also rejected his surname on the basis that ‘Little’ was not his family name, but the name of the slave owner of his ancestors. Instead, he chose to go by the name ‘Malcolm X’, the ‘X’ signifying the lost name of his African forefathers. It was also in prison that Malcolm became involved with the Nation of Islam, an African American political movement which saw a huge growth in popularity during the time of Malcolm’s membership. The organization was led by Elijah Muhammad, and advocated for the separation of blacks and whites, while rejecting the strategy of non-violence adopted by the civil rights movement. During this time, Malcolm amassed as many critics as he did followers, giving powerful speeches in which he called for the empowerment and awakening of black Americans and earning him the reputation of being a militant radical, on the fringes of the civil rights movement and at odds with other prominent activists such as Martin Luther King Jr.

Malcolm grew disillusioned with the Nation of Islam following his discovery that Muhammad was engaged in a number of extra marital affairs, contrary to the teachings of the organization. Malcolm publicly left the Nation of Islam in 1964 and established his own organization, Muslim Mosque Inc. Malcolm embarked on a period of self-reflection and personal growth, during which he traveled throughout the Middle East and Africa, made a pilgrimage to Mecca and converted to Sunni Islam. Malcolm began to draw similarities between the struggle for racial equality in the US and the struggle for independence faced by many post-colonial nations around the world. His philosophy and spiritual outlook started to soften and his ideology seemed to be realigning to one more in tune with the non-violent activists that he had previously been critical of.

Ironically, it was as he started to shift towards a non-violent strategy that he was assassinated at the age of 39 on February 21, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan as he prepared to address the crowds. The three men convicted of his shooting were all members of the Nation of Islam. One thousand five hundred people attended his funeral, at which an extract of a letter he had sent to a friend during his period of travel was read out: "My journey is almost ended…I am writing these things so that you will know for a fact the tremendous sympathy and support we have among the African States for our Human Rights struggle. The main thing is that we keep a United Front wherein our most valuable time and energy will not be wasted fighting each other."

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Significant Accomplishments of Malcolm X

  • One of the most sought-after speakers in the USA (according to the New York Times in 1963)
  • Formed the Muslim Mosque Inc and Organizations of Afro-American Unity
  • Led the 1963 Unity Rally in Harlem, one of the largest civil rights events in US history

Malcolm X Quotes

“If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven't even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won't even admit the knife is there.”

“I'm for truth, no matter who tells it. I'm for justice, no matter who it's for or against.”

“You can’t separate peace from freedom, because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”

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