Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska. His father, Earl, a Baptist minister and follower of the Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, was under continuous threat by the Ku Klux Klan. The family moved to Lansing, Michigan, where their house was burned by white racists in 1929, and, in 1931, Earl was murdered. Malcolm’s mother had a nervous breakdown and the eight children were sent to various foster homes.
The top student and only black in his eighth grade class, Malcolm dropped out of school after his teacher told him that a “nigger” could never become a lawyer — his dream. He went to Boston to live with his sister Ella, and turned to crime. He became a street hustler and in 1946 he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years. While in prison, though, he began a period of education and self-transformation. He joined The Nation of Islam, a black supremacist group headed by Elijah Muhammad. He took “X” as his last name, signifying his unknown African tribal name that had been lost when his family was given the slave name “Little.”
After his parole in 1952, Malcolm X became a brilliant and charismatic speaker, building the Nation of Islam from 400 to 30,000 members. In 1964 Malcolm broke with the Nation and formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Journeying to Mecca, the holiest of Muslim shrines, he took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and began speaking of international black consciousness and integration rather than racial separatism. His change of views targeted him for assassination by some members of the Nation of Islam.
While preparing to speak in a Harlem ballroom on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was shot and killed by three assassins from the Nation of Islam. It is still unclear what role the FBI, which had Malcolm X under surveillance, may have played in his death.
Historians consider Malcolm X among the half-dozen most influential African-American leaders in history. His book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley and published posthumously, is considered one of the most important non-fiction books of the 20th Century. Many black people felt that Malcolm X, by voicing the truth of their frustration and anger, gave them courage and self-respect. He told African-Americans that they had to stop defining themselves as whites had defined them in terms of subservience and inferiority. His message was strength and pride and truth.