Malcolm X was a civil rights activist, Muslim minister, and one of the most consequential people in American history. He was also a controversial figure, adored by thousands and feared by thousands more; in essence, there is no shortage of reasons Malcolm X is important.
Malcolm X was born to a homemaker and a Baptist minister in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925. His birth name was Malcolm Little, and he was one of eight siblings. His childhood experiences greatly impacted his future political and religious positions, adn they engendered many of the most hardcore facts about Malcom X. For example, Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, was a staunch supporter of Marcus Garvey, leader of the Black Nationalists. The Nation of Islam movement, where Malcolm would eventually serve as a prominent leader, sprung from Black Nationalist philosophies. From his spiritual awakenings in prison and Mecca to his experiences as a sex worker, Malcolm X too often gets cast aside as a "negative" example of violent civil rights activism, when, in fact, his life was a great deal more complex than that.
Malcom X’s response to a question about John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination didn’t sit well with the American public. Even Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, distanced himself from Malcolm for his statement. Malcolm X suggested JFK brought his assassination on himself, and he was not at all sad about his murder.
“[President Kennedy] never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon,” Malcolm said. “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they always made me glad.”
In a later interview, Malcolm said that his statements were taken out of context.
By 1946, Malcolm X was serving a 10-year sentence for larceny and breaking and entering in the Charlestown State Prison in Boston, MA. During his first year in prison, Malcolm’s cellblock mates gave him the nickname “Satan” because of his anti-religious rants and the way he would pace up and down his cell cursing God and the Bible.
"I would pace for hours like a caged leopard, viciously cursing aloud to myself. And my favorite targets were the Bible and God. But there was a legal limit to how much time one could be kept in solitary. Eventually, the men in the cellblock had a name for me: 'Satan.' Because of my antireligious attitude," he wrote in his autobiography.
Soon after leaving prison in 1952, Malcolm X moved in with his brother, who lived in Detroit. There, he began attending a local Nation of Islam mosque and quickly became a favorite of Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad promoted him to a ministerial position and sent him to Boston and Philadelphia to seek out new converts and establish new mosques. Malcolm X then spent 10 years in Harlem where he became head of the local mosque. During his time there, he became a prominent figure in the movement. He launched a Nation of Islam newspaper and spoke at universities across the country. In his time as a figurehead for the Nation of Islam, membership grew rapidly. In 1955, there were about 6,000 members. By the early ‘60s, that number had risen to about 70,000 converts due to his influence.
Although official police records ruled that Earl Little was killed after being struck by a streetcar in 1931, the African-American community believed that he was murdered by a KKK splinter group called the Black Legion. Because of Earl Little’s outspoken support for the controversial civil rights figure Marcus Garvey, the Little family was subjected to numerous attacks by racist groups. When Malcolm was four, he recalled the KKK smashing all the windows of the family home in Omaha. Because of this, the family moved around a lot. In 1929, they ended up in Lansing, Michigan. Shortly thereafter, the Black Legion burned their home to the ground. They then moved to East Lansing and built a new home. Two years later, Earl’s body was found on the streetcar tracks. However, due to the frequency of attacks by the Black Legion, many believe that members of the hate group beat Earl and placed him on the tracks to be run over.