Malcolm Little was born on 19th May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother was born in Grenada in the West Indies and his father was a Baptist minister whose preaching caused the family problems with the Klu Klux Klan. Malcolm was one of 8 children. He also had two step-sisters and a step-brother.
As a young child, two white men burnt down their family home. His father built a new four room house himself. His father then died when he was six. The family began to struggle to put food on the table without a father figure and he began to steal food.
His mother suffered a breakdown and was sent to a mental institution. The children were split up by the state and Malcolm went to live with another family.
A little while later Malcolm went to live with Ella, his grown up half-sister, and moved from Michigan to Massachusetts.
He got a job as a shoe shiner at a ballroom. It didn’t take him long to learn how to hustle and get a few extra dollars by selling liquor, reefers and putting some of the gentlemen at the dances in touch with the local prostitutes.
Later, he got a job on the railroads, working firstly as a dishwasher on the Boston to New York line and then later as a sandwich man. It enabled him to see the ‘Big Apple’ on his nights off and he became mesmerised — in particular by Harlem and the music that was experienced there at the time.
Malcolm frequented the Harlem bars and became friends with many musicians. He got fired from his railroad job after several complaints from customers about his language. His turning up to work half-high on alcohol and marijuana didn’t help either.
In 1942, aged 17 he got a job as a waiter in a bar in the centre of Harlem. Here he learnt, by speaking to customers, about various forms of hustling: pimping, con artistry, dope peddling and thievery. He also learnt the hustling society’s first rule: Never trust anyone outside your own close-mouthed circle.
One day when waiting tables, Malcolm asked a solider drinking on his own and looking depressed, if he wanted a woman. ‘Impairing the morals’ of a serviceman was not allowed in the bars. This serviceman was a military spy and Malcolm was not only taken down the police station, but fired and barred from the bar as well.
He moved into peddling marijuana and trying to avoid narcotic squad detectives that were now aware of him. Using his old railroad identification he’d travel on the trains following the touring musicians he knew and sold them drugs. Thinking he’d left town, the heat from the detectives died down and Malcolm returned to New York. His brother Reginald came to visit and he eventually convinced him to leave the Merchant Navy and join him in Harlem.
Hustling inevitably led to more and more, and worse and worse acts of illegality and immorality. Malcolm moved into robberies and stick ups. He’d get the courage to attempt them by sniffing cocaine, which would also reduce the nerves when carrying the crimes out. After several close shaves with the law and an incident over owed money with a well-known and particularly ruthless gangster, Malcolm returned to Boston.
By this point Malcolm believed he was a little bit crazy himself. He viewed drugs how other people viewed food and wore guns like other people wore neckties.
He started committing burglaries on a regular basis and became proficient at them until he tried to get a broken watch that he stole, fixed. The owner of the watch had alerted the local jewellers as to the repair needed on his timepiece and the local police were waiting for Malcolm at the store. His apartment was littered with evidence — several stolen items from burglaries and the guns used to commit them. In 1946 at 20 years of age, he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment, eventually serving seven of them.
His anti-religious attitude in prison earned him the nickname ‘Satan’. However, after letters from his brothers confirming that his siblings had converted to the Nation of Islam, he slowly began taking steps to follow them, initially by giving up cigarettes and eating pork. He also made use of the library, first reading aimlessly and then learning to read selectively, with a purpose.
In prison he had several meetings with his brother Reginald and lots of letters from his other brothers and sisters where they tried to convince Malcolm to ‘accept the teachings of the honourable Elijah Muhammad’.
Malcolm wrote to Elijah and they exchanged letters, but he was frustrated at not being able to express what he wanted to convey, so he started studying in prison. It began with simply writing out the dictionary page by page and then reading his own handwriting back to himself. He continued by reading books morning, noon and night, but now not only did he read them, he understood them. He began public speaking and debating and eventually started recruiting for Elijah Muhammad by trying to open the eyes of other black prisoners.
Upon release Malcolm moved to Detroit to become a member of a temple of practicing Muslims. A trip to Chicago to another temple was the first time Malcolm met Elijah Muhammad and Elijah invited him and his whole family for dinner. From Chicago, he was given his ‘X’ which represented his true African family name that he never could know.
Malcolm X began to try to recruit other people on the street to join and follow Elijah Muhammad’s teachings and in 1953 he was named an assistant minister.
He established new temples in Boston and Philadelphia and due to these successes was appointed to temple 7 in New York City. It was in this temple that he met his wife, Sister Betty X. In 1958 they got married. Meanwhile he kept the Nation growing by increasing the number of people attending temple 7. A television documentary helped bring the Nation of Islam to the public’s attention yet further. Malcolm X also founded a newspaper. The documentary got the Nation of Islam national attention — all of it negative. Malcolm X defended them on TV, radio and in print. The publicity meant that now upward of 10,000 people attended mass rallies the Nation of Islam were putting on. By 1961, the Nation had flourished.
Malcolm X began talking at the top colleges and universities, to audiences he really enjoyed. He found out that Elijah Muhammad never really wanted him to speak there as Elijah was envious as he believed he wasn’t equipped to speak at such intelligent audiences himself.
As well as this, it emerged that Elijah Muhammad had committed adultery with three of his secretaries, fathering four children. After speaking to each of the secretaries, Malcolm X also found out that Elijah Muhammad told them Malcolm X would leave him and turn against him and that he was ‘dangerous’.
After claiming JFK’s assassination was a case of ‘the chickens coming home to roost’, Malcolm X was silenced by Elijah Muhammad for 90 days. This was to disassociate Muslims everywhere from the ill-timed statement. Malcolm X knew it was just an excuse to get him out of the Nation of Islam and the impression was given that he had rebelled against Elijah Muhammad, so that he would be isolated indefinitely. Then direct orders for the death of Malcolm X were issued from the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm X decided to create a new organisation which would help the American black man to gain his human rights. It would differ from the Nation of Islam as it would embrace all faiths. Many people defected to his organisation.
A few weeks later, Malcolm X went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. It was here he had a radical alteration in his whole outlook about ‘white’ men. When he now said ‘white man’ he referred to specific attitudes and actions towards the black man primarily, not skin colour, as on his trip he’d seen people with a white complexion be more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been. Seeing people of all races and colours, from all over the world coming together as one had persuaded him against his previous way of thinking.
On 21st February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated whilst preparing to preach in Manhattan, suffering 21 gunshot wounds. He was 39. Three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted of his murder.
Malcolm X leaves behind a legacy of being largely responsible for the spread of Islam in the black community in the United States and has been described as one of the most influential African Americans in history.