What Everyone Should Know About Malcolm X

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Malcolm X, the Muslim-American minister and activist, is one of the most well-known figures of the Black power movement. By inspiring people through concepts of Black pride and Black nationalism, the formerly reviled leader is experiencing a resurgence through movies like One Night in Miami and new reports that the FBI and and NYPD may have been implicated in his death. 

Now, 56 years after his assassination on Feb. 21, 1965, it’s important to reexamine his legacy, controversies, and how his human rights work and rhetoric continues to shape the U.S. today. 

1. Malcolm X was born on May 19, 1925
Malcolm grew up in poverty. After moving to Harlem, he got mixed up in drugs and crime before ending up in prison at the age of 21 for theft. He educated himself in prison, and joined the controversial Nation of Islam, a movement that preached Black self-reliance and for the African diaspora to return to Africa.

2. Malcolm X Was a Proponent of Black Nationalism
Malcolm X became an extremely popular preacher, drawing ire and admiration through his fiery speeches, his university speaking engagements, and televised debates. For instance, he called for “freedom by any means necessary,” and criticized the Civil Rights movement by saying “In my little humble way of understanding it, it points toward either the ballot or the bullet.”

3. Malcolm X Officially Broke with Nation of Islam Over Treatment of Women
While Malcom X was already starting to break with the Nation of Islam over ideological tensions, including their inaction to LAPD violence in 1962, Malcolm X broke with Nation of Islam when it was revealed that the leader of Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, was taking advantage of the women in the movement.

4. His Name Is a Nod to His Ancestor’s Enslavement
Many enslaved people had their last names replaced with their slave master’s. Born Malcolm Little, he changed his name in prison to Malcolm X, to symbolize his unknown African surname.

5. His Relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Was Interesting
Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King were both sons of preachers, and were figureheads in the fight to free Black Americans. But they disagreed on some basic principles of Civil Rights and Black liberation. MLK lambasted Malcolm X for his radicalism, while Malcolm X thought the Civil Rights movement did little to improve the material conditions of Black folks, and was too afraid to challenge white society.

6. His Autobiography Solidified Him as a Black Icon
His autobiography was published after his assassination and became a bestseller, inspiring a number of Black youth and Black movements. Alex Haley, the legendary author of Roots, helped him write it.

7. He Changed His Views Later in Life
As former President Obama notes in his book, he admired Malcolm X and the fact that he “safely abandoned” controversial views later in life, like separations of the races. Privately, he once told Coretta Scott King that his criticisms were also an attempt to get white society to see the Civil Rights movement as a moderate alternative.