Minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) was profoundly influential during the middle of the 20th century. From his birth on May 19, 1925 to February 21, 1965, the day he was assassinated at a New York City rally, he rose to the national scene as a leading voice advocating for Black self-determinism, self-defense, and pan-Africanism. His fiery rhetoric is often spoken of in tandem with (really, in contrast to) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent movement, but X was far more complex than his historical image as a firebrand suggests.
1. Malcolm X’s parents were harassed into moving by racists more than once.
Malcolm’s parents, Louise and Earl Little, were devotees of pan-Africanist and Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) founder Marcus Garvey. A Baptist preacher, Earl was a leader in their local UNIA chapter in Omaha, Nebraska, and Louise acted as secretary, tasked with inter-chapter communication. Their activities caught the ire of Ku Klux Klan members, whose threats sent the family packing for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then to Lansing, Michigan, by the time Malcolm was a year old. There, the white supremacist group Black Legion regularly harassed the Littles. Their family home burned when Malcolm was 4 (his father blamed the Black Legion), and his father was killed in what was ruled a streetcar accident when Malcolm was 6 years old (his mother also blamed the Black Legion).
2. Malcolm X grew up in foster homes.
When Malcolm was 13, his mother entered Kalamazoo State Hospital following a nervous breakdown, sending Malcolm and his seven siblings to various foster families, boarding houses, and state-run institutions. He entered a detention home in Mason, Michigan, after being expelled for putting a thumbtack on a teacher’s chair. While there, he noted that the white couple who ran it and white politicians who visited treated him kindly, but not like he was a fellow human being.
3. Malcolm X dropped out of school after discouragement from his teacher.
Malcolm was a strong student who aspired to one day become a lawyer, but he dropped out after eighth grade when a teacher told him that his dream job was “no realistic goal for a n*****.” He both diminished and recognized the power of the encounter as an adult, noting that he wouldn’t be accepted as a Black man regardless of how smart or talented he was. At the founding rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, he’d famously say, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”
4. Malcolm X worked with Redd Foxx at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack.
Before Malcolm became a national civil rights speaker and John Sanford became a nationally beloved comedian, they were known respectively as Detroit Red and Chicago Red because of their red hair. In 1943, they worked as dishwashers at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem and committed petty crimes together. Sanford, whose stage name was Redd Foxx, went on to become one of the first Black performers to play to white audiences in Las Vegas, put out several hit comedy albums, and become an icon, starring in the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son.
5. Malcolm X converted to the Nation Of Islam while he was in jail.
In 1946, Malcolm’s larcenies caught up with him, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison (he served seven before earning parole). While incarcerated, his brother Reginald urged him to convert to the Nation of Islam (NOI), and Malcolm soon started studying and then corresponding with its founder Elijah Muhammad, who preached Black self-reliance. He visited Muhammad in Chicago after getting out of prison in 1952, and quickly rose through the ranks of the organization as an assistant minister with his impressive oratory and ability to attract new members. The NOI went from 500 members in 1952 to 30,000 in a little over a decade.
6. The X in Malcolm X’s adopted name symbolizes a surname he’d never know.
Like many Black Americans, Malcolm’s roots were obscured by the slave trade that stripped him of his true ancestral last name. In 1950, he started signing his name as Malcolm X, viewing the surname “Little” as another tool of oppression. In his autobiography he wrote, “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little,’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”
7. The FBI created a file for Malcolm X after he wrote to President Truman.
While still in prison, Malcolm wrote a letter to President Harry Truman denouncing the Korean War and declaring himself a communist. The FBI created a file on him for his communist affiliation but would later surveil him because of his affiliation and ascendancy within NOI. They continued to track him and record his phone conversations until his assassination, listening in on death threats made against him.
8. Malcolm X inspired Muhammad Ali to join NOI.
On February 25, 1964, the boxer known as Cassius Clay bested Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. The next day, he proclaimed at a press conference he’d be henceforth known as Cassius X, and a few months later, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. This was the coming out of a spiritual change that had already taken place, guided by Malcolm after the two met in 1962 and cultivated a friendship. Ali was impressed by Malcolm’s speech at a NOI event and the latter became a mentor for the up-and-coming fighter.
9. Malcolm X was once opposed to integration.
As Ali’s star was rising as an athlete and NOI member, Malcolm already had one foot out the door of the organization. But during his time in NOI, Malcolm promoted the concept of separation from white society and opposed the mainstream civil rights movement for its emphasis on integration. In a speech to the NAACP at Michigan State University in 1963, Malcolm said, “The white community, though it’s all white, is never called a segregated community. It’s a separate community. In the white community, the white controls the economy, his own economy, his own politics, his own everything. But at the same time while the Negro lives in a separate community, it’s a segregated community. Which means it’s regulated from the outside by outsiders ... Separation is when you have your own. You control your own economy. You control your own politics.”
10. Malcolm X’s Hajj profoundly transformed him.
Malcolm butted heads with NOI leadership multiple times by 1964 and was viewed by NOI members as a threat to Elijah Muhammad’s leadership because of his celebrity. In March, he publicly left the organization to found Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity before converting to Sunni Islam and making Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). A state guest of Saudi Prince Faisal, the experience of praying, living, and eating with fellow Muslims of all skin colors shifted his thinking completely. Going forward, he viewed Islam as a means of overcoming racial disunity.
A version of this story originally ran in 2018 and has been updated for 2022.