Malcolm X (1925 – 1965) Activist, Black Leader, Minister, & former National Representative for the NOI

“A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything,” powerful words spoken by the honorable Malcolm X, black leader, activist, and former national representative for the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim organization. Malcolm X, who later went by the name el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, was a well spoken, forthright, prominent figure for the black power movement, promoting ideals of black empowerment, self preservation, cooperative economics, human rights, and justice.

Born Malcolm Little in 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm was the son of Earl Little,  a Baptist preacher and member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and Louise Helen Little his Grenadian born mother.  Malcolm was the 7th born of 12 children. Malcolm’s father had three children from a previous marriage, Ella, Earl, and Mary.  He later met and married Malcolm’s mother in Philadelphia, where their first child Wilfred was born.  Then followed Hilda, Philbert, Malcolm, Reginald, Wesley, Yvonne, and Robert. Shortly after Malcolm’s birth, the family moved to Milwaukee.

The family resided in Milwaukee for a short period of time. After the Ku Klux Klan made threats against his father, the family moved to Lansing, Michigan.  This is where Mr Little would do freelance preaching at  local churches, spreading the message of black independence.  Inspired by the work of Marcus Garvey, Mr Little faced threats from the Black Legions white supremacist group.  In spite of the opposition, he continued to urge blacks to take control of their lives.

Malcolm’s father was eventually slain by the white supremacist organization. Although Mr. Little was found with his head crushed on one side and almost severed from his body, it was claimed he had committed suicide, and the family was denied his death benefits from his father’s life insurance policy. Shortly following his death, the Welfare caseworkers sought to divide the Little family. Malcolm, then six, was taken and placed in a foster home, while Mrs. Little underwent a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. Her children were split up among various foster homes and orphanages. However, Malcolm and  his siblings remained very close to each other, in spite of being separated.

Malcolm made good grades in junior high school and excelled. Yet he dropped out after a white teacher (Mr. Ostrowski) told him that being a lawyer (which was his aspiration at the time) was “no realistic goal for a nigger”.  Malcolm recalled feeling that the white world offered no place for a career-oriented black man, regardless of talent.

Between the age of  14 and 21, Malcolm held a variety of jobs while living with his sister Ella in Boston. He found work as a shoe-shiner at a Lindy Hop nightclub. As mentioned in his autobiography, he once shined the shoes of Duke Ellington and other notable black musicians. He was also employed for a time by New Haven Railroad. In 1943, he relocated to Harlem, where he engaged in gambling, drug dealing, racketeering, robbery, and pimping. He befriended John Elroy Sanford, a fellow dishwasher at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem who aspired to be a professional comedian. Both men had reddish hair, so Sanford was called “Chicago Red” after his hometown and Malcolm was known as “Detroit Red”. Years later, Sanford became famous as Redd Foxx.

In late 1945, Malcolm and his buddy, Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis returned to Boston. Malcolm and”Shorty” along with two other accomplices committed a series of burglaries targeting wealthy families. In 1946, at the age of 21, he was arrested while picking up a stolen watch he had left at a shop for repairs. In February, he began serving an eight-to-ten-year sentence at Charlestown State Prison for larceny and breaking and entering.

While in prison he began to transform his life. He began reading books on history, philosophy, and religion. His brother Reginald would often visit him and tell him about the Black Muslims,. The Black Muslims were an Islamic religious organization whose official name was the Nation of Islam, also referred to as the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. The leader of the group was the honorable Elijah Muhammad.

Malcolm began to study the honorable Elijah Muhammad’s teachings and to practice the religion faithfully. These teachings taught that the white man is evil and doomed by Allah to destruction. Also, the teachings stressed that the best course for black people is to separate themselves from Western, white civilization—culturally, politically, physically, and psychologically. The Black Muslim teachings also prohibited personal habits such as smoking, drinking, and the eating of pork.

Malcolm X. Reproduced by permission of AP/Wide World Photos.

In addition to finding his new religion while in prison, Malcolm began copying words from the dictionary and developed the vocabulary that would help him become a passionate and effective public speaker.

In 1952 Malcolm was released from prison, and he went to Chicago, Illinois, to meet the honorable Elijah Muhammad. It was soon after this that he changed his surname to “X”. Malcolm explained the name by saying, The “X” is meant to symbolize the rejection of ” slave-names” and the absence of an inherited African name to take its place. Malcolm X became assistant minister of the Detroit Mosque. The following year he returned to Chicago to study personally under the honorable Elijah Muhammad and was sent to organize a mosque in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was in 1954 he went to lead mosque #7 in Harlem.

The Harlem Mosque rapidly expanded its membership under Malcolm’s leadership. He was an energetic and compelling public speaker, whose long hours of dedication often left him deprived of much sleep.  He read vigorously and devoted himself completely to the cause. He eventually emerged as a public figure after a weekly television broadcast”The Hate That Hate Produced” which aired locally in NYC.  The program explored the fundamentals of the NOI, and placed a spotlight on the organization, which was not a widely known organization until then, in 1959.

Then later, at the wishes of the honorable Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm was appointed to be the National Spokesperson for the NOI. As the voice of the organization he was a speech-writer, philosopher, and an inspiring speaker who was often quoted by the press. His debating skills against white and black opponents helped spread the movement’s message.

Since joining the NOI, Malcolm had strictly adhered to the teachings of the honorable Elijah Muhammad and practiced celibacy. In 1957 Malcolm met a young student nurse, Betty Jean Sanders. She had became a member of the NOI and lectured the young women on hygiene and medical facts. They were married in 1958, in Lansing Michigan. She became Betty Shabazz.  They had six daughters together, all of whom carried the surname of Shabazz. Their names were Attallah (also spelled Attillah), born in 1958; Qubilah, born in 1960; Ilyasah, born in 1962; Gamilah (also spelled Gumilah), born in 1964; and twins, Malaak and Malikah, born after Malcolm’s death in 1965.

By the summer of 1963, tension in the Nation of Islam reached a boiling point. Malcolm believed that Elijah Muhammad was jealous of his popularity. Some observers felt that there were elements within the Black Muslim movement that wanted to oust Malcolm, or force him from office. There were rumors that he was planning to take over leadership from Elijah Muhammad and that he wanted to make the organization political. Others felt that the personal jealousy of some Black Muslim leaders was a factor.

Later in the year, following the John F. Kennedy assassination, Malcolm delivered a speech as he regularly would. However, when asked to comment upon the assassination, he replied that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost” — that the culture of violence sanctioned by white society had come around to claim the life of its leader. This comment led to widespread public outcry, which resulted in him being banned from public speaking for ninety days by Elijah Muhammad himself.

On March 8, 1964, he publicly announced we was leaving the Nation of Islam. and stated he was starting two new organizations: the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He remained a believer in the Islamic religion. At this point, Malcolm mostly adhered to the teachings of the Nation of Islam, but began modifying them, explicitly advocating political and economic black nationalism as opposed to the NOI’s exclusivist religious nationalism. In March and April, he made the series of famous speeches called ” The Ballot or the Bullet”. Malcolm was in contact with several orthodox Muslims, who encouraged him to learn about orthodox Islam. He soon converted to orthodox Islam, and as a result decided to make his Hajj.

Malcolm began holding meetings in Harlem at which he discussed the policies and programs of his new organizations. Amid these new endeavors, tensions continued to increase between Malcolm and the NOI. It was alleged that orders were given by leaders to “destroy” Malcolm. In addition, the NOI sued to reclaim Malcolm’s home in Queens, which they claimed to have paid for, and won. He appealed, and was angry at the thought that his family might soon have no place to live. Then, on the night of February 14, 1965, the house was firebombed. Malcolm and his family survived, however, no one was charged in the crime.

A week later on February 21 in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm had just begun delivering a speech when a disturbance broke out in the crowd of 400. A man yelled, “Get your hand outta my pocket! Don’t be messin’ with my pockets!” As Malcolm’s bodyguards rushed forward to attend to the disturbance and Malcolm appealed for peace, a man rushed forward and shot Malcolm in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men quickly charged towards the stage and fired handguns at Malcolm, who was shot 16 times. Angry onlookers in the crowd caught and beat the assassins as they attempted to flee the ballroom. The 39-year-old Malcolm was pronounced dead on arrival at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

After Malcolm’s death in 1965, his bestselling book The Autobiography of Malcolm X popularized his ideas, particularly among black youth. In 1998, Time named The Autobiography of Malcolm X one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century. The Black Power movement, the Black Arts Movement, and the widespread adoption of the slogan “Black is beautiful” can all trace their roots to Malcolm X.


“A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.”

“We are nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us.”

“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

“My alma mater was books, a good library… I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.”

“Stumbling is not falling.”

“We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.”

“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time.”

“They put your mind right in a bag, and take it wherever they want.”

“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.”

“Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.”

“A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself.”

“I for one believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produce it, they’ll create their own program, and when the people create a program, you get action.”

“If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.”

“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation.”

“It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one, it will be for the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country.”

“Without education, you’re not going anywhere in this world.”

“…I shall never rest until I have undone the harm I did to so many well-meaning, innocent Negroes who through my own evangelistic zeal now believe in him even more fanatically and more blindly than I did.”

“When a person places the proper value on freedom, there is nothing under the sun that he will not do to acquire that freedom. Whenever you hear a man saying he wants freedom, but in the next breath he is going to tell you what he won’t do to get it, or what he doesn’t believe in doing in order to get it, he doesn’t believe in freedom. A man who believes in freedom will do anything under the sun to acquire . . . or preserve his freedom.”

“You don’t have to be a man to fight for freedom. All you have to do is to be an intelligent human being.”

“Dr. King wants the same thing I want. Freedom.”

“I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”

“I am not a racist. I am against every form of racism and segregation, every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color.”

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


Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965. Reprint, New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

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Recreate Model: Clement Mallory

Recreated-photo Photographer: Jasmine Y. Mallory

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