By Madeleine Stiffler
Born May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm X took the civil rights movement by storm through advocation of black empowerment and Islam within the black community. Rather than siding with the common view of “peaceful protest” as seen expressed through other influential African American leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X urged the importance of the black community protecting themselves from white violence “by any means necessary.” Unfortunately, the messages of Malcolm X have been misconstrued and often put him at odds with nonviolent teachings. His character and sophistication helped him gain national prominence and recognition in the Nation of Islam, a belief system that combined Islam with black nationalism. After his assassination in 1965, his bestselling book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, promoted his ideas and further inspired the Black Power movement.
In 1931, Malcolm’s father was allegedly murdered by a white supremacist group called Black Legionaries; however, the authorities claimed his death was an accident. Malcom’s mother and her children were also denied her husband’s death benefits. At the age of six, Malcolm began living in a foster home as his mother suffered from a nervous breakdown. Despite being incredibly intelligent and a good student, Malcolm dropped out of school following eighth grade and he began wearing zoot suits, dealing drugs, and earned the nickname “Detroit Red.” At 21, Malcolm went to prison for larceny. But, in jail it was where he discovered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the head of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam, a black nationalist group. Soon after his discovery, Malcolm adopted the last name “X” as a rejection of his slave name “little.” After serving six years in prison, he was released and went on to become the minister of Mosque No. 7 in Harlem, where his speaking skills and sermons encouraging self-defense earned the organization new admirers. By 1960, The Nation of Islam grew to 40,000 members. Throughout his teachings and politics, Malcolm gained the wrath of the FBI who conducted surveillance of him from his time in prison until his death. As a matter of fact, J. Edgar Hoover told the FBI’s New York office to “do something about Malcolm X.”
After leaving the Nation of Islam in 1963 as a result of being discouraged by corruption, Malcolm founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964. This new group focused on a more moderate view which identified racism, not the white race, as the enemy of justice. The new philosophy became influential amongst members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. February 21, 1965 in New York City, Malcolm X was assassinated. While he did predict he would have more influence after death, his martyrdom, intellectualness, and speeches contributed to the development of black nationalist ideology and the black power movement to help African Americans in their fight for human and civil rights, as well as independence and self-determination in the 1960s and 70s.