A foster child and street hustler who went on to become a world leader, Malcolm X electrified some audiences and terrified others with his aggressive brand of Islamic teachings and black nationalism.
Crime and Childhood
Born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, to a Baptist preacher and a homemaker, Malcolm knew little domestic tranquility. His parents were followers of Marcus Garvey, and family activities caught the attention of local white supremacists. In 1929 the Little home in Lansing, Michigan, was burned down, and two years later Malcolm's father Earl was killed in an alleged streetcar "accident." The strain of trying to provide for seven children proved too much for Malcolm's mother, and in 1938 Louise Little was committed to the state mental hospital. Malcolm was placed in a juvenile home until 1941, when his half-sister Ella Collins brought the 15-year-old to Boston. Over the next few years Malcolm held odd jobs, wore flashy zoot suits, and increasingly turned to a life of crime.
Malcolm's criminal activities came to a halt when he was arrested in early 1946 and charged with grand larceny. Although Malcolm's white female gang members received at most seven months in prison, Malcolm was sentenced to eight-to-10 years. During his time behind bars, Malcolm began to study under the tutelage of fellow inmate "Bimbi," and he was subsequently exposed to the teachings of the Nation of Islam and its imprisoned leader, Elijah Muhammad, who struck up a correspondence with the young convict. Upon his release in 1952, Malcolm moved to Detroit and joined the Nation of Islam, adopting the name "Malcolm X" in recognition that his ancestors' original African name was no longer known.
Building the Nation
In 1952 the Nation of Islam had four temples and only 400 members. This disappointed Malcolm, who told Elijah Muhammad every time he came to the Detroit Temple that "this place should be full." Blessed with considerable charisma and enormous energy (he typically slept only four hours a night), Malcolm set out to bring the Nation of Islam's teachings to black Americans. He traveled up and down the East Coast (putting 30,000 miles on a car in just six months), dramatically increasing membership and soon becoming leader of the Nation of Islam's chief temple in Harlem. By the end of the decade, the Nation of Islam supported 49 temples and its members numbered in the tens of thousands. Appointed national representative by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm preached a doctrine of black self-reliance, combined with regular excoriations of those he termed "blue-eyed devils." His protests of police brutality in Harlem and Los Angeles gave Malcolm X a national profile, as did a 1959 documentary on the Nation of Islam by Mike Wallace entitled The Hate that Hate Produced.
Division and Death
In 1958 Malcolm married Betty X, and soon after they began a family. Several trips to the Middle East and Africa, including a pilgrimage to Mecca, broadened Malcolm's perspective; while he continued to denounce racism in America, Malcolm's eyes were opened to the possibility of unity with white Muslims he met overseas. At the same time, rifts had opened between him and Elijah Muhammad, whose repeated adulteries had disillusioned Malcolm. Then when, despite Elijah Muhammad's warning against it, he termed President Kennedy's 1963 assassination "a case of chickens coming home to roost," he was silenced by the Nation of Islam for 90 days. Shortly thereafter Malcolm formed his own religious organization, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated. Even as his international profile increased, Malcolm began receiving death threats at home, and in February 1965 his house was firebombed. He was assassinated one week later in Harlem by members of the Nation of Islam.