Malcolm ‘X’ was born Malcolm Little on 19th May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, one of eight children born to Earl and Louise Little (née Norton). His father was an outspoken Baptist preacher, and both Earl and Louise were staunch supporters of Marcus Garvey, the leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
His father’s outspoken championing of civil rights resulted in death threats from the white supremacist group Black Legion, and they are generally supposed responsible for the death of Earl Little in Lansing, Michigan, on 28th September 1931 (although the cause of death recorded officially was that he had been run over by a tram). His death resulted in Louise’s gradual mental breakdown: she was admitted to an institution in 1939, and young Malcolm and his siblings were split between a number of foster homes and orphanages.
Despite being a bright student, Malcolm became disillusioned with studies when a teacher commented that his intention of becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger". He dropped out of school and travelled to New York, where he became embroiled in a life of petty crime which included prostitution, gambling and narcotics. He also managed to avoid being drafted into the military. He moved to Boston and continued his criminal enterprises, which resulted in his arrest in Boston on 12th January 1946. He was convicted of burglary, carrying an illegal firearm and larceny, and sent to Charlestown State Prison for eight to 10 years.
From prison he renewed contact with his brother Reginald, who urged him to join the militant Black Islamic organisation called the Nation Of Islam. Headed by Elijah Muhammad, the organisation fought for the political and economic empowerment of African Americans. NOI claimed that African-Americans had lost their original Muslim faith when sold into slavery from Africa, and advocated a return to their original faith. Malcolm commenced direct correspondence with its leader from prison, reading extensively about Islam. He became a devout follower, changing his name to Malcolm ‘X’ when he was paroled on 7th August 1952: the ‘X’ signified his original, lost tribal name, the surname Little having been imposed on his ancestors by their slave master.
Malcolm proved a valuable asset to the Nation of Islam as an impassioned, articulate orator. Over the next decade he was largely responsible for lifting the public profile of the organisation, from an obscure movement of around 500 to a nationally recognised political force with 30,000 followers. During his meteoric rise he became Minister of New York Temple No. 7 in June 1954: there he met Betty Sanders, whom he married on 14th January 1958. High profile Nation of Islam converts directly attributable to Malcolm included the professional boxing legend Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali. By 1963, Malcolm was second only to Elijah Muhammad in influence within the organisation. Malcolm X had become a media force to be reckoned with.
However, Malcolm became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam over time: his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, had numerous illicit affairs, in direct contravention of Islamic teachings, and Malcolm also witnessed NOI ministers living luxurious lives at the organisation’s expense. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm made an ill-advised speech about Kennedy having been the architect of his own downfall, which caused widespread public consternation and resulted in a 90-day public speech ban imposed by Muhammad. He respected the ban, but it proved the final straw in his relationship with Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. On 8th March 1964 he publicly split from the organisation, renouncing Muhammad specifically and the Nation of Islam in general.
He formed his own movement, the Muslim Mosque Inc., on 12th March 1964. Muhammad responded by insisting that Malcolm return all Nation of Islam property, including the home in which he lived in East Elmhurst, New York, which Malcolm refused to do. Relations thereafter became increasingly volatile, and he was the focus of repeated attacks by members of the Nation of Islam, unable to leave his home without bodyguards.
At the urging of Islamic friends, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca in April 1964, which affected his political outlook profoundly. On his return he took a new name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and began preaching a more inclusive, non-violent philosophy that extended beyond the strict racial boundaries of the teachings of the Nation of Islam – although he still maintained that Black people had the right to defend themselves against any White aggressors. He founded the Organisation of Afro-American Unity, which included all people of African descent in the Western hemisphere, and the tensions between himself and the Nation of Islam increased even further to the point where the Nation of Islam leadership are alleged to have directly ordered the assassination of Malcolm and his family.
On 14th February 1965 Malcolm’s East Elmhurst home, still the subject of a bitter legal ownership battle with the Nation of Islam, was firebombed. Malcolm and his family were fortunate to escape physical injury, and no one was ever prosecuted in relation to the attack.
Malcolm’s security was increased after the attack. The next night, he spoke of the firebombing to a gathering of Organisation for African American Unity members at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, New York, claiming a conspiracy between the Nation of Islam and the Ku Klux Klan was responsible for the attack. Privately, however, he confided to his biographer that he was beginning to doubt whether the attacks against him were Nation Of Islam inspired. Despite the daily threats on his life, he maintained a hectic schedule of personal appearances, including a well-publicised appointment to deliver another speech to the OAAU at the Audubon Ballroom, on 21st February 1965. Despite his private doubts about the real source of his attacks, it was to prove a perfect setting for a Nation of Islam assassination conspiracy.
Of the four men involved in the successful assassination plot on Malcolm, only one was ever identified with any degree of certainty: Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagen), a member of a paramilitary organisation charged with the protection of the Nation of Islam called The Fruits of Islam. In a sworn affidavit after the fact, Talmadge described how the conspirators had visited the Ballroom on the evening of 20th February – the night before Malcolm’s speech – where a public dance was in progress, to plan their assassination strategy. It was agreed that he would sit near the front of the auditorium with a .45 handgun, allow one of his co-conspirators to draw the attention of Malcolm’s bodyguards by standing and shouting, at which point he and two others would stand and fire at Malcolm.
Shortly after Malcolm had begun his speech to the assembled OAAU, the plan was put into action: there was a commotion in the audience, and while the focus of Malcolm’s bodyguards was directed at the source of the disturbance, a man with a sawn-off shotgun rushed forward and shot Malcolm in the chest. Almost simultaneously Hayer and his accomplice leapt up, stormed the stage, and discharged their own weapons at Malcolm.
Malcolm received a total of 15 wounds from the three weapons. Malcolm’s supporters launched an immediate counter-attack on the assassins, but three of them used the ensuing chaos to escape. Hayer was not so lucky: a bullet wound in the leg slowed him down considerably, and he was arrested by a police officer outside the Ballroom.
An ambulance was summoned but when it reached New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, Malcolm was pronounced dead.
The funeral of Malcolm X took place at the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ, in Harlem, New York on 27th February 1965. It was attended by 1500 mourners, many of whom assembled in the streets outside the church. At his graveside at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, in Westchester County, New York, friends took the shovels away from the waiting gravediggers and covered Malcolm’s coffin themselves.
In the murder investigation that followed, Hayer was the only certain suspect. Eyewitnesses claimed to have recognised two of the other assailants as Norman ‘3X’ Butler and Thomas ‘15X’ Johnson, both known agents of the Nation of Islam. This seemed unlikely, however, as both were well known to OAAU members, and they would certainly have been recognised as hostile members of the audience on that evening.
Hayer also denied that Butler and Johnson had been involved, instead identifying his co-conspirators as Leon David and Wilbur McKinley, in a sworn affidavit.
Despite this, the trials of Hayer, Butler and Johnson began on 12th January 1966, and they were all convicted of the murder of Malcolm X, in March 1966, and received life sentences.
As with other high profile assassinations, there were a number of conspiracy theories surrounding the case. The most popular involved a man named Gene Roberts, who was a Bureau of Secret Service agent, and a bodyguard of Malcolm’s at the time of his shooting. It is claimed that government agencies were uncomfortable with the international profile that Malcolm was building and the potential racial tensions that were being fomented by his message, and that Roberts had been instructed by his superiors to engineer the assassination. Roberts was not called to testify at the trials of Hayer, Butler and Johnson.
A less plausible theory points to mob involvement: Malcolm’s philosophy of black empowerment, exhorting people to take direct control of their lives, had resulted in a marked reduction in crime, and drug taking, in black neighbourhoods. Malcolm was therefore the victim of a mob hit, in the interests of protecting the business of organised crime.
The release of the Spike Lee film, ‘Malcolm X’, in 1992, caused a huge resurgence of interest in the civil rights campaigner, and Denzel Washington earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal.