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Malcom X
Photo: Library of Congress

Malcolm X

1925 - 1965

Malcolm X is often remembered for the militant, incendiary rhetoric of his early career. But just before his death, he was developing a much different voice-one of reconciliation. Forty years after his death, many still discuss his revolutionary impact and the leader he might have become.

Standing six feet-four inches tall, Malcolm Little (aka Detroit Red) cuts an impressive figure when he's sent to prison at age 20. A few years into his sentence, he learns about the Nation Of Islam (NOI), a militant Islamic sect promoting a separate black nation within the U.S.. Paroled in '52, Malcolm joins the NOI as a direct disciple of its leader, Elijah Muhammad. He takes the name "X" to symbolize rejection of his slave name.

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

Malcolm X
Jan. 7, 1965

Elijah Muhammad sends Malcolm around the country, opening temples and ministering on his behalf. A bold speaker, Malcolm is generally credited with building the ranks of the NOI from 500 in '52, to 30,000 in '63. But a conflict is brewing between Malcolm and Muhammad, centering on Malcolm's increasing power-and Muhammad's sexual relationships with young NOI women.

In '64, Malcolm breaks from the NOI. By now, the FBI is filing information about the black radical. Several orthodox Muslims encourage him to look beyond the NOI, and explore orthodox Islam. He decides to make the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. His trip is a life-altering experience. The fellowship and compassion Malcolm sees between Muslims of all races directly oppose his personal experience. He begins to view Islam as the one religion that might bridge the problems between races.

Returning to the U.S. in June, he helps to found the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), based on a non-religious, non-sectarian program for human rights. Meanwhile, FBI informants in the NOI have uncovered an assassination plot undertaken on the part of NOI operatives loyal to Elijah Muhammad.

On February 21, '65, Malcolm is just starting to speak when a disturbance breaks out in the crowded ballroom. In the melee, a man steps forward and shoots Malcolm with a sawed-off shotgun. Two more men charge the stage with handguns. The assailants are caught by the angry crowd, and later convicted of first-degree murder. Malcolm X, leader of a potential revolution in human rights that will never be fully realized, is dead at age 40.

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