On 21 February 1965, the ever-divisive black rights activist Malcolm X was killed at a rally in New York. The black nationalist and latter-day advocate of racial integration was gunned down while preparing to speak at Audubon Ballroom in Harlem by three men – quickly identified as belonging to the Nation of Islam, the same organisation Malcolm X had parted ways withn only a year before.
Born Malcolm Little in Nebraska in 1925, both of his parents were followers of pan-African activist Marcus Garvey. While in prison for burglary in his early twenties, Little joined the Nation of Islam – an African-American movement that combined the elements of traditional Islam with black nationalist ideas – and began using the name Malcolm X, dropping what the Nation of Islam referred to as his ‘slave’ name. It was around this time that he first attracted the attention of the FBI – after writing a letter to US President Harry Truman declaring himself a communist.
After his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm X began taking on a more prominent role in the Nation of Islam, helping to recruit members. He also criticised the Civil Rights Movement and its leader, Martin Luther King Jr, who campaigned for racial integration. Malcolm X believed that African-Americans should return to Africa, and encouraged those who were subjected to white aggression to defend themselves “by any means necessary”.
Gradually, he became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, announcing his departure in March 1964. After leaving, relations between Malcolm X and the organisation turned sour, and several threats and attempts were made on his life over the next year.
In June 1964, he founded the Pan-Africanist Organization of Afro-American Unity – formed to champion the human rights of African-Americans – following a transformative pilgrimage to Mecca, where he witnessed Muslims “of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans” worshipping side by side. It was a transformative experience for him. On his return, he abandoned the idea that all white people were inherently bad, and became more hopeful about integration and the future.
Before his life was cut short, Malcolm X’s beliefs may have been moving towards socialism. His biography was published a few months after his assassination – he had reportedly said to its author, Alex Haley, that he would be surprised if he was alive to see its publication.
Malcolm X had also predicted his own death – either at the hands of the Nation of Islam or the FBI – to political activist Tariq Ali after he took part in a debate in Oxford in December 1964.
The charismatic activist’s words continued to fuel black national ideology and inspire African-Americans throughout the 1960s and 70s.
This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed