February 21 marked 50 years since the assassination of the civil rights leader Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little in 1925, he had a rough childhood. His father was killed by a KKK-like group, his mother had a nervous breakdown which left young Malcolm in a foster home and at the age of twenty-one he was arrested for multiple burglaries. In prison Malcolm X was converted to Islam and began to follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam. By mid-1954, X had been released from prison and was a leading figure in the Nation of Islam, heading up a large temple in Harlem.
Malcolm became an increasingly prominent figure in America as he publicly rallied and preached on the streets of Harlem and at major universities. He was an articulate, engaging and passionate speaker. In contrast to Martin Luther King Jnr’s approach of rallying for African-American Civil Rights, Malcolm X argued for black identity and integrity. Both approaches were effective in different ways. King’s approach was passive civil disobedience whereas Malcolm X proposed that followers defend themselves “by any means necessary”.
Malcolm X effectively laid the intellectual foundation for the Black Power movement in the 1970s and 80s through his speeches and critiques which continued to push for a positive black identity.
X also positively influenced the respected SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) which led many influential and non-violent protests such as the 1961 Freedom Rides – which involved many students riding de-segregated buses across the US only to face waves of brutal violence from the white community in many bus terminals.
Malcolm X’s work was seen abroad as well; he visited many countries in Africa, giving interviews, meeting officials and speaking in public. Prominent leaders in Ghana, Egypt and Algeria invited him to serve in their governments. In Europe, Malcolm X spoke in Paris, participated in a debate at Oxford University and spoke out against racism.
Although King and X were seemingly at odds with each other, Malcolm X abandoned the Nation of Islam in 1963 and adopted orthodox Islam which preaches the equality of races.
Malcolm X was assassinated February 21st 1965 whilst giving a lecture in Harlem. Three Nation of Islam members were convicted for his murder.