Malcolm Little was born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, the fourth of seven children. His father was an outspoken Baptist lay speaker who brought his children up to be self-reliant and proud of their race. White racist threats and attacks blighted family life, leading his father to relocate a couple of times. In 1929, their home was burnt down; a year or two later his father died (his mother, Louise, believing he had been murdered). Later, when Louise was committed to hospital, the children were separated and sent to foster homes.
Until his early 20s, Little held a variety of jobs while living with his half-sister in Boston. He moved to Harlem, New York City, in 1943, and became involved with various criminal activities. After committing several robberies back in Boston, and being arrested, he was jailed at Charlestown State Prison in 1946. While inside, he became a voracious reader; and, thanks to his siblings, turned to a newly-formed religious movement, Nation of Islam, that worked to improve the lot of African Americans, and, ultimately, the return of the African diaspora to Africa. He soon was communicating regularly, by letter, with the movement’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. In 1950, he began signing his name Malcolm X (the X, he explained, signified the true African family name that he could never know).
Malcolm X’s rise through Nation of Islam came swiftly after his parole in 1952. He was first made assistant minister of the Temple Number One in Detroit, but then established Boston’s Temple Number 11, and expanded Temple Number 12 in Philadelphia, before being selected to lead Temple Number 7 in Harlem. He continued to launch new temples, and was a powerful presence and recruiter for the organisation. In 1955, he met Better Sanders; they married in 1958, and they had six children.
Malcolm X first became a significant public figure in 1957, when he took control of a crowd of people protesting at police brutality against a National of Islam member, Johnson Hinton. By this time, also, Malcolm X had become a person of interest to both the FBI and the New York City police. The media began reporting on his activities, and, in 1960, several African nations invited him to official functions linked to a meeting of United Nations General Assembly. In particular, Fidel Castro, Cuba’s leader, held one-to-one talks with Malcolm X and invited him to visit Cuba.
After a period of tension with Muhammad, Malcolm X broke from Nation of Islam in 1964. He founded Muslim Mosque, Inc, and Organization of Afro-American Unity. He gave his famous ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’ speech, and he converted to Sunni Islam. That same year he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and he met the Saudi Arabian leader, Prince Faisal. While increasingly he was becoming an international figure (with extensive visits in Africa, as well as to France and the UK), tensions at home with the Nation of Islam led to death threats, and, eventually, his murder. He was assassinated on 21 February 1965 in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom where he was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Three Nation of Islam members were convicted of the murder. Subsequently, various conspiracies were alleged, not least that an FBI infiltrator might have exacerbated tensions between Malcolm X and Muhammad. Also, one of the organisation’s Boston ministers later admitted that he might have helped stoke up the atmosphere which ultimately led to the murder.
Wikipedia’s biography has this to say about Malcolm X’s legacy: ‘[He] has been described as one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history. He is credited with raising the self-esteem of black Americans and reconnecting them with their African heritage. He is largely responsible for the spread of Islam in the black community in the United States. Many African Americans, especially those who lived in cities in the Northern and Western United States, felt that Malcolm X articulated their complaints concerning inequality better than the mainstream civil rights movement did. [. . .] In the late 1960s, increasingly radical black activists based their movements largely on Malcolm X and his teachings. The Black Power movement, the Black Arts Movement, and the widespread adoption of the slogan “Black is beautiful” can all trace their roots to Malcolm X.’ Further information can also be found at the official Malcolm X website.
In 1964, during two trips to Africa and the Middle East, Malcolm X kept a detailed diary. This did not emerge into the public domain until a few years ago (when found with other archival material). It was edited by Herb Boyd, a journalist and associate of Malcolm X’s, and one of Malcolm’s daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz, and published as The Diary of Malcolm X by Third World Press. However, in 2013, with publication due in November, a corporation representing Malcolm X’s wife and his heirs (other than the daughter Ilyasah, obviously) claimed the book was being published without the family’s permission, and went to court to stop Third World Press. The poet and black activist, Haki R. Madhubuti, who owns the Press, claimed he had a valid legal contract, and that any delay would put the company in financial jeopardy. See Publishers Weekly, The Guardian, or Melville House for more on this.
The foreword and introduction of the book can be read freely online at Amazon. Here are a few paragraphs taken from the introduction.
‘From the middle of April to the end of May and later from July to November of 1964, Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) kept an extensive meticulous diary of his journeys to Africa and the Middle East, including his pilgrimage to Mecca.
While his diary has been discussed and occasionally cited [. . .], it exists mainly in the archives of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, where it is available for scholars and researchers.
The diary came to the Schomburg several years ago after a circuitous route from Florida where it was among Malcolm’s possessions in a storage bin, and then from San Francisco where an auction house was preparing to put the lot up for bids. Fortunately, the family, through its attorney, was able to rescue the valuable memorabilia, and to house a good portion of it at the Schomburg.
Malcolm was a keen collector of keepsakes, documents, books, newspapers, films, and, of course, the record of his life. Volumes I and II of his diary total more than 200 pages in microfilm.’ [See San Francisco Bay View for more on the Malcolm X materials.]
On publication of the diary, Herb Boyd said: ‘The diary humanizes [Malcolm X] in a way that some of these other scholars set out to do . . . This is Malcolm, uninterrupted, without any kind of editorial interference. . . The diary is certainly the most critical thing that he left behind that has not been examined.’ And, Madhubuti said: ‘It’s one of the most important books that we’ve published.’
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director, The Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University, was more expansive: ‘The publication of The Diary of Malcolm X is a great historical event in African American intellectual history. Reading these entries has the effect of overhearing a profound thinker’s most private and uncensored thoughts about everything from his split with Elijah Muhammad to the cost of 16mm film in Accra. I found this a riveting and deeply moving experience, one that only made me even sadder at the senselessness of his assassination. Every student of Malcolm X, and the history of black political leadership, should read this compelling book.’
More about Malcolm X’s diary can be read at Black Star News and The Root (which also has one quoted extract from the diary, as follows).
15 July 1964
‘I find all the African delegates at all levels are strongly sympathetic to our cause, [. . .] But American propaganda through the USIS [United States Information Service] has been powerful[,] influencing most of them to think we hate Africa & don’t identify with her in any way. Most of them are shocked by my strongly pro-African sentiments - shocked and elated.’