Gunmen killed Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, in Harlem, N.Y. silencing an important voice in the civil rights movement. But he continues to live in our collective memory as an icon in the pantheon of fearless Black leaders.
Here are 15 facts about the man who championed Black human rights in the United States.
1. White supremacist groups targeted his father
Malcolm X’s father, the Rev. Earl Little, was a supporter of the pan-African leader Marcus Garvey, which caught the attention of the Ku Klux Klan and other White supremacist groups. Little, a Baptist minister, was under constant threat.
2. Children in his family separated
At age six, Malcolm X’s father died under mysterious circumstances, likely at the hands of white supremacists. After his mother suffered a nervous breakdown, welfare workers separated Malcolm X and his siblings.
3. White teacher discouraged his ambitions
Although Malcolm X was thriving in school, his eighth-grade teacher discouraged him from pursuing his interest in becoming a lawyer. The teacher suggested that carpentry was a more realistic goal for a young Black man. That prompted Malcolm X to quit school and become a hustler.
4. Detroit Red
Friends nicknamed Malcolm X “Detroit Red” because of the color of hair. As a hustler in Boston and Harlem, he got involved in drug dealing, gambling and pimping.
5. FBI surveillance
During one of his many prison stints, Malcolm X penned a letter to President Harry Truman declaring himself a communist who opposed the Korean War. This caught the attention of the FBI, which began surveillance of Malcolm X that continued for the rest of his life.
Fellow prisoners nicknamed Malcolm X “Satan” because of his hostility toward religion.
7. Memorized the dictionary
His intellectual and spiritual awakening came while serving a prison sentence. Malcolm X worked feverishly to improve his reading and writing skills. To that end, he tied to memorizing the dictionary and improve his penmanship by copying entire pages.
8. Nation of Islam
Part of his awakening was spiritual. Upon leaving prison in 1952, Malcolm X moved to his brother’s house near Detroit, where he attended the local Nation of Islam mosque.
9. Slave name
To make a clean break with white, European culture, Malcolm X dropped his last name (Little), which he said was his “slave name” and replaced it with the letter “X.”
10. Minister Malcolm
He rose rapidly in the Nation of Islam and was named minister of the prestigious Temple 7 in Harlem, where he spent a decade as head of the mosque.
11. Newspaper publisher
Malcolm X founded the newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, which he printed in the basement of his home. He’s credited with starting the tradition of requiring male members of the Nation to sell newspapers on street corners.
12. Elite university engagements
Recognized as an engaging speaker, elite universities, like Harvard and Oxford, invited Malcolm X to speak and debate.
13. El-Jajj Malik El-Shabazz
Malcolm X changed his name a second time. After splitting from the Nation and converting to traditional Islam, he took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
14. Home firebombed
After breaking away from the Nation, Malcolm X announced that members who remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad, the founder and leader of the Nation, were plotting to kill him. One week before he was killed, someone threw Molotov cocktails into his Queens, N.Y. home.
The growing hostility between the Nation and Malcolm X ended with gunmen fatally shooting him at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem while he was delivering a lecture.