Activist and religious leader Malcolm X was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965 in New York City. He was 39 years old.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925. His family moved from Nebraska to Michigan when he was six years old following threats from the White supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, after his father, James Earl Little, a Baptist preacher, preached openly about Black nationalism, according to HISTORY.
Following years in the foster care system (his dad was killed and his mother, Louise Little, was admitted to a mental institution), Malcolm X turned to a life of crime and was sent to prison for a burglary conviction in 1946 when he was 21 years old and living in Boston.
During his six years in prison, he became acquainted with and became a staunch proponent of the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a religious and African-American political movement that promoted racial separatism as well as Black nationalism.
After his release from prison, Malcolm X quickly rose through the ranks of the NOI, becoming a minister and its national spokesman and even founding the newspaper Muhammad Speaks (now known as Final Call). His teachings and beliefs were often seen in direct opposition to those of another famed religious leader in the 1950s and 1960s, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
King promoted harmony amongst the Black and White races and nonviolence during the Civil Rights Movement, one Malcolm X initially condemned because of its views on racial integration.
“I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem,” he wrote in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The activist’s views on the Civil Rights Movement eventually shifted in the 1960s because he moved away from Black separatist beliefs. He urged the NOI to get more involved in it, something he felt Muhammad was unwilling to do.
Malcolm X ultimately left the NOI following tension with its leaders, and began to study more traditional Muslim teachings. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, that is considered mandatory for all adult Muslims, and changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
In 1964, Malcolm X created the Organization of Afro-American Unity, “which advocated black identity and held that racism, not the white race, was the greatest foe of the African American,” writes HISTORY.
During a June 1964 speech at the founding rally of his organization, Malcolm famously called for justice and equality for Black people “by any means necessary.”
The growing strain between the Organization of Afro-American Unity and the NOI led to death threats against the activist. Two days before his murder, Malcolm X spoke to photographer and writer Gordon Parks in an interview and said the NOI was trying to kill him.
Malcolm X was preparing to address his organization at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on Feb. 21, 1965 when he was shot and killed. Investigators determined that three members of the NOI—Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson—were responsible for his death. All three were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Hayer admitted his role in Malcolm X’s slaying; Butler and Johnson maintained always their innocence.
Rumors about who was really responsible for Malcolm X’s death and the subsequent investigation into the case have circulated for over five decades. Thousands of pages of declassified documents have revealed the government surveilled Black leaders, such as Malcolm X, and infiltrated groups, such as the NOI, at that time. It has been speculated that Louis Farrakhan, the current NOI leader, was responsible for the assassination, a claim that he still denies.
Malcolm X is survived by his six daughters, Attallah Shabazz, Qubilah Shabbazz, Ilyasah Shabazz, Gamilah Lumumba Shabazz, Malikah Shabazz, Malaak Shabazz.