Assassination of Malcolm X

Malcolm X, a radical African American civil rights activist and spokesman, broke with the Nation of Islam, a group of which he had been a leading member. Shortly after this break, he was assassinated, probably by members of the group.

Summary of Event

Perhaps no twentieth century African American leader better expressed the anger and frustrations of urban African Americans than did Malcolm X. During the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X, the national spokesman of a black separatist Muslim sect known as the Nation of Islam, articulated in militant language the effects of the nation’s historical pattern of racism against African Americans and the social consequences the country faced if significant change did not occur. Before his assassination in 1965, Malcolm X had come to symbolize the disenchantment of African American ghetto residents, a group who were disillusioned about the benefits of racial integration and becoming increasingly impatient with the dominant nonviolent philosophy of the Civil Rights movement. Assassinations and attempts;Malcolm X
African Americans;civil rights leaders
[kw]Assassination of Malcolm X (Feb. 21, 1965)
[kw]Malcolm X, Assassination of (Feb. 21, 1965)
Assassinations and attempts;Malcolm X
African Americans;civil rights leaders
[g]North America;Feb. 21, 1965: Assassination of Malcolm X[08340]
[g]United States;Feb. 21, 1965: Assassination of Malcolm X[08340]
[c]Terrorism;Feb. 21, 1965: Assassination of Malcolm X[08340]
[c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 21, 1965: Assassination of Malcolm X[08340]
Muhammad, Elijah
Malcolm X
Garvey, Marcus
Hayer, Talmadge
Butler, Norman 3X
Johnson, Thomas 15X

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, to Louise Norton Little Little, Louise Norton and J. Early Little Little, J. Early . His father, a Baptist preacher, worked as an organizer for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the black nationalist organization led by Marcus Garvey. In his later life, Malcolm too, would consider himself a black nationalist. In 1931, Malcolm’s father died mysteriously in East Lansing, Michigan, where the family had relocated. Thereafter, Malcolm’s life was marked by a series of crises.

The impoverished family, now comprising Malcolm, his mother, and six siblings, was soon separated: Malcolm’s mother was committed to a mental hospital and no longer influenced his development. Malcolm was placed in a foster home and began to get into trouble as he grew older. Hoping to change the direction of the troubled teen’s life, Ella, an older half sister, brought him to live with her in Boston, Massachusetts. Although he possessed a good mind, he did not find school rewarding and dropped out to work at odd jobs. An attraction to street life overcame his interest in legitimate employment, however, and he gradually gravitated toward hustling, drugs, and petty crime.

For a time, Malcolm loved the culture of urban street life and seemed to flourish in it. In the 1940’s, he wore the zoot suit and wide hat popular among young African American and Hispanic hipsters and patronized the night spots in Boston’s Roxbury and New York’s Harlem ghettoes. The seedy side of this life proved to be his downfall. His graduation to the more serious crime of burglary eventually landed him in prison, and at twenty years of age, he began serving six years of a ten-year sentence in Massachusetts’s Charlestown and Norfolk penitentiaries.

Initially, Malcolm was hardly a model prisoner. In many ways, however, prison proved to be his redemption, for it was in prison that Malcolm converted to a version of Islam that changed his life. Largely through the efforts of his sisters and brothers, who visited him regularly, Malcolm was introduced to the ideas and philosophy of a little-known Muslim sect, the Nation of Islam Nation of Islam , headed by Elijah Muhammad. Gradually, Malcolm abandoned his aggressive behavior, adopted Muslim prayer and life practices, and enmeshed himself in the teachings of Muhammad.

Malcolm absorbed the Muslim interpretation of the history of races, an interpretation that explained how and why white people came to be regarded as “devils” and the oppressors of black people throughout the world. Based on Muhammad’s teaching, Malcolm’s own life experiences, and wide reading in history, politics, and economics, Malcolm came to understand how central the role of white people had been in causing the lowly conditions of African Americans. Muhammad could not have found another adherent with a wider breadth of knowledge about black and white race relations than Malcolm. Their attraction to each other and Malcolm’s commitment to spreading Muhammad’s message placed Malcolm in an ideal position for elevation to a more visible role in the Islamic organization.

Malcolm X.

(Library of Congress)

Shortly after his parole in 1952, Malcolm was appointed minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem by the Muslim leader. Articulate and intellectually gifted, Malcolm undertook his duties with a passion and energy unmatched by his peers. He increased the membership in his own temple and traveled throughout the country organizing new mosques. By 1959, the sect could boast of forty-nine temples nationwide and more than forty thousand members. In six years, temple establishment increased nearly tenfold, and Malcolm almost single-handedly accounted for this.

By 1960, Malcolm clearly had emerged as the second most influential man in the Nation of Islam, and was the national spokesman for Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm was heard on the radio and seen on national television. Converts and sympathizers read about his views through the columns of the newspaper that he established, Muhammad Speaks, Muhammad Speaks (periodical) and in other African American urban newspapers for which he regularly wrote. In his Harlem street meetings, he railed against police brutality, and he quelled potentially explosive confrontations between African Americans and law enforcement officials. He continued to “fish” on the ghetto streets for new converts, appealing to them with a mastery of oratory that condemned white racism and the failure of liberal black and white leaders to address the real needs of the African American community. In no uncertain terms, he told listeners that African American men sought to present and defend themselves as men, violently if necessary. Change would occur in the United States, he said, either by the ballot or by the bullet.

In the span of a few short years, Malcolm’s name was as familiar as that of Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm’s national notoriety and influence sparked rivalry and jealousy within the ranks of the Nation of Islam, however. Even Elijah Muhammad, who had warned Malcolm of potential internal dangers from becoming too powerful, grew envious of his national prominence. Rival factions looked for ways to bring him down.

The opportunity occurred in December, 1963, following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, when Malcolm violated Muhammad’s order for Muslims to remain silent about the murder. In an interview, Malcolm equated the president’s death to “chickens coming home to roost,” an impolitic remark that provided the excuse for Muhammad to punish him. Discredited and officially silenced for ninety days, Malcolm’s influence within the Nation of Islam waned precipitously.

Unable to forge an effective reconciliation with Muhammad and increasingly determined to speak more broadly for African Americans independent of Nation of Islam constraints, Malcolm left the organization in early 1964 to form his own group, Muslim Mosque, Inc. Muslim Mosque, Inc. A pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, and subsequent travel to Africa expanded his understanding about the true nature of Islam, validated his status as an international personality, and helped him to define new agendas in his fight for black people worldwide. A new Malcolm with a new Islamic name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, hoped to accomplish his agenda through a more politically oriented organization of his making, the Organization of Afro-American Unity Organization of Afro-American Unity[Organization of AfroAmerican Unity] .

Malcolm remained a marked man, however, and was unable to escape the vilification of enemies in the Nation of Islam. Privately and publicly, they denounced him as a traitor to Elijah Muhammad and placed him under surveillance. From many quarters, those threatened by Malcolm’s mass appeal and influence called for violent retribution. In February, 1964, he and his family escaped death from a bomb that destroyed their home.

Malcolm’s pleas for peace with the Nation of Islam could not stave off another attempt on his life. On February 21, 1965, while speaking before a crowd of several hundred followers in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm was felled by a fusillade of bullets. In March, 1966, a racially mixed jury found three men—Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson—guilty of first-degree murder in Malcolm’s death. Despite their conviction, conspiracy theories about Malcolm’s death have remained, including theories implicating non-Muslims and even the federal government.


For the many African Americans who regarded him as their champion, Malcolm X’s death was a devastating psychological blow. For those who felt disenfranchised, lost in an uncaring system tainted by the historical effects of racism, Malcolm’s death silenced a voice that articulated their anger, frustrations, and aspirations. The urban ghetto had forged his life and he understood its victims; they understood him, too, and drew from his aggressive spirit. Malcolm’s loss also had meaning for whites, as it stilled a voice that effectively raised whites’ consciousness about their role in the plight of African Americans. In the harshest of language and the fiercest of manners, Malcolm had sought to ensure white accountability for past deeds and to encourage remedies. Assassinations and attempts;Malcolm X
African Americans;civil rights leaders

Further Reading

  • Bassey, Magnus O. Malcolm X and African American Self-Consciousness. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005. Discusses Malcolm X’s role in the development of modern African American racial identity. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Breitman, George, Herman Porter, and Baxter Smith. The Assassination of Malcolm X. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976. Investigates the authors’ claim of a cover-up regarding Malcolm’s death. Includes firsthand coverage of the trial of the murderers.
  • DiEugenio, James, and Lisa Pease, eds. The Assassinations: “Probe” Magazine on JFK, MLK, RFK and Malcolm X. Los Angeles: Feral House, 2003. Compilation of essays on the assassinations of major U.S. political and civil rights figures in the 1960’s. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Evanzz, Karl. The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992. A detailed, documented account revealing the author’s theory that the intelligence community was involved in Malcolm’s death.
  • Friedly, Michael. Malcolm X: The Assassination. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992. Explores the various conspiracy theories advanced about Malcolm’s murder. Gives extensive coverage of his relationship with Elijah Muhammad.
  • Karim, Benjamin, with Peter Skutches and David Gallen. Remembering Malcolm. New York, Carroll & Graf, 1992. An account of Malcolm’s life by an assistant minister who served under him.
  • Perry, Bruce. Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill, 1991. Revises earlier images of Malcolm’s life and public career, presenting a person whose childhood was burdened with hardship and violence and who was driven by the need for acceptance by the society he condemned as racist.
  • Strickland, William. Malcolm X, Make It Plain. New York: Viking, 1994. A popular biography of Malcolm, based on interviews and research originally conducted for a Public Broadcasting Service documentary.

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