Malcolm X (1925–1965), Black Muslim Leader

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Malcolm X
(1925–1965), black Muslim leader.

Malcolm X, national spokesperson for the Nation of Islam in the early 1960s and founder of the Sunni Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1965, was the most important model for African-American Islamic identity in the twentieth century. He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925, to parents who were black-nationalist organizers for Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. After his father was murdered by white supremacists in 1931 and he and his siblings were dispersed to separate foster homes by the public-relief authorities in Lansing, Michigan, in 1939, Malcolm became a troubled teenager, deeply involved in criminal activities in Boston and New York in the 1940s.

His spiritual transformation from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X occurred in a Massachusetts prison from 1947 to 1952, as he became a self-educated, disciplined convert to the Nation of Islam. Utilizing the Islamic concept of jihad—the struggle for the truth—as an internal struggle with the ego and as an intellectual struggle with knowledge and words, Malcolm X established a powerful role model for African-American Islamic identity that attracted thousands of young converts to the Nation of Islam in the 1950s and 1960s. In this context the surname "X" signified the intellectual and spiritual search for the African identity that was lost during slavery and the recovery of dignity and self-esteem through the discipline and the structures of the Nation of Islam.

After his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became a traveling minister for the Nation of Islam. He "fished" for new converts and established many new temples in black communities across the United States in the 1950s. The young male membership of the Nation of Islam had been decimated by FBI persecution in the 1940s, and Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, used Malcolm's youthful charisma and oratory to invigorate the membership of his community. In the early 1960s the Nation of Islam achieved national prominence as the richest black organization in American history as a result of Elijah Muhammad's successful black-nationalist economic programs and Malcolm's militant speeches and television appearances as the national spokesperson for his community.

However, in the wake of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, a public controversy between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X evolved into a permanent separation related to the politics of religious identity in the black Muslim community. Muhammad's conservative political vision for his community, which conflicted with Malcolm X's public image as a militant spokesperson and symbol for black nationalism in the United States, eventually led to the latter's official break with the Nation of Islam in 1964. Establishing a new spiritual and political identity, Malcolm abandoned the heterodox, racial-separatist philosophy of the Nation of Islam and converted to the multiracial Sunni Islam during the last year of his life.

In March 1964 he founded the Sunni Muslim Mosque, Inc., in Harlem, as the base for a spiritual and political program to eliminate economic and social oppression against black Americans. Then Malcolm made the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in April 1964. There he changed his name from Malcolm X to El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, which signified the adoption of a new identity that was linked to mainstream Islam. Malcolm's Sunni Islamic identity became a significant model for many African Americans who have converted to mainstream Islam since the 1960s.

After Mecca, Malcolm traveled extensively through North and West Africa, establishing important religious and political linkages with Third World nations. These profound international experiences deepened his pan-African political identity, which connected African-American Islam to global black unity and West African cultural and political roots. When Malcolm came back to the United States he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity in New York City on June 29, 1964, to promote his political perspective, which linked the African-American struggle for social justice to global human rights issues in the Third World.

During the last months of his life, as he was stalked by his enemies in the intelligence community, the Nation of Islam, and the New York City Police Department, Malcolm's powerful jihad of words critiqued capitalism, Christianity, imperialism, and worldwide racial oppression. He planned to use his political connections in the Muslim world to bring the case of the American government's human-rights crimes against African Americans before the United Nations. Malcolm X was shot to death during a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on February 21, 1965.

See alsoAfrican-American Religions; Civil Rights Movement; Conversion; Islam; Jihad; Muhammad, Elijah; Nationof Islam; Prisonand Religion; Proselytizing.


Evanzz, Karl. TheJudasFactor:ThePlottoKillMalcolmX. 1992.

Haley, Alex. The Autobiography of MalcolmX. 1965.

Strickland, William, and Cheryll Y. Greene. MalcolmX: Make It Plain. 1994.

Turner, Richard Brent. Islam inthe African-AmericanExperience. 1997.

Richard Brent Turner