On May 19, 1925, a man with a rather insignificant sounding name was born in a rather insignificant town. However, despite the seemingly trivial nature of his birth, his early childhood and even his ordinary sounding name, Malcolm Little, would grow to have a roar that would shake the foundation of this country down to its very core. On this day, Malcom X was born in Omaha, Nebraska during a time of great turbulence in America. This danger was especially palpable for outspoken African Americans.
As was mentioned in his 1965 book with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm’s father was killed when he was six-years-old and his mother was placed in a mental institution when he was 13. He would spend much of the remainder of his childhood in foster homes. By the time he was 20-years-old, Malcolm Little had gone to prison for larceny and breaking and entering. It is there where he would meet his fate and gain his faith. It was there where he would attain the moniker Malcolm X after learning of the Nation of Islam from letters sent by his brother, Reginald. The “X” would stand in place of Little, which was seen as the name of his ancestors' former slave masters.
He would become a member of the Nation of Islam and would quickly rise in the organization’s leadership ranks following his parole in 1952. Malcolm X was loved by poor African American men in particular because he represented something that was absent from many of their lives, respect. During Jim Crow, the average poor black man knew to tread lightly whenever the egos and sensibilities of whites were at stake. These were times when the Ku Klux Klan’s membership numbered in the hundreds of thousands and lynchings were a constant fear and a discernable danger as well. Racism was not submerged beneath a veil of false patriotism, but it was out in the open and celebrated to a large extent.
However, in Malcolm X, the poor black man had a sterling example of strength and resolve. He was not fearful of racist whites. On the contrary, he advised the descendants of African slaves in America to defend themselves from their oppressors because it was their God-given right to do so. Up until the coming of Malcolm X, many black leaders in America hung their hats on appealing to the conscience of the white majority. Malcolm appealed to the majestic sense of manhood that burned within the hearts of many African American men.
He is arguably the contemporary black man’s favorite figure from the civil rights era. He was fiery, intelligent, determined, a damn good dresser, and he spoke rebelliousness when others would rather African Americans maintain a strategy of fear and avoiding eye contact with whites to survive in a racist world.
In the late 1950s, Malcolm changed his name to El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. In 1963, after saying that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a case of “chickens coming home to roost” during an interview with The New York Times, Malcolm was publicly censured by NOI leader Elijah Muhammad and ordered not to speak publicly for 90 days for suggesting that America’s fallen leader was indicative of karma being revisited upon the United States. Another source of contention between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X were rumors, which were later substantiated as fact that pointed out Muhammad’s infidelity with several of his secretaries. A third source of agitation between Malcolm X and the NOI was his growing celebrity status. Some believe this, as well as his increased political awareness, led Malcolm X to leave the Nation of Islam on March 8, 1964.
In his departure, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz said that he wanted to organize a Black Nationalist organization to “heighten the political awareness” of the African Americans. He even expressed a desire to work with other civil rights leaders. He would go on to found Muslim Mosque, Inc and the secular Organization of Afro-American Unity. In April 1964, Malcolm X gave his famed “Ballot or the Bullet” speech in which he advised African Americans to be wise about whom they vote for, and also suggested African Americans take up arms to attain full equality if the U.S. government continued to prevent the exercising of African American civil rights.
On February 21, 1965 Malcom X was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan at the Audubon Ballroom when he was shot by three men, one armed with a sawed-off shotgun, the other two with semi-automatic handguns. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm. Each gunman maintained his innocence throughout their respective incarceration stints. His viewing was held at Unity Funeral Home in Harlem from February 23-26 and he was laid to rest on February 27. Malcolm X was 39-years-old at the time of his death.