Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. Malcolm was the fourth of eight children born to Louise, a homemaker, and Earl Little, a preacher who was also an active member of the local chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and avid supporter of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Due to Earl Little’s civil rights activism, the family faced frequent harassment from white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and one of its splinter factions, the Black Legion. In fact, Malcolm X had his first encounter with racism before he was even born.
“When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, ‘a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home,'” Malcolm later remembered. “Brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out.” The harassment continued; when Malcolm X was four years old, local Klan members smashed all of the family’s windows, causing Earl Little to decide to move the family from Omaha to East Lansing, Michigan.
However, the racism the family encountered in East Lansing proved even greater than in Omaha. Shortly after the Littles moved in, in 1929, a racist mob set their house on fire, and the town’s all-white emergency responders refused to do anything. “The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned to the ground,” Malcolm X later remembered.
Two years later, in 1931, things got much, much worse. Earl Little’s dead body was discovered laid out on the municipal streetcar tracks. Although Malcolm X’s father was very likely murdered by white supremacists, from whom he had received frequent death threats, the police officially ruled his death a suicide, thereby voiding the large life insurance policy he had purchased in order to provide for his family in the event of his death. Malcolm X’s mother never recovered from the shock and grief of her husband’s death. In 1937, she was committed to a mental institution and Malcolm X left home to live with family friends.
Now a free man, Malcolm X traveled to Detroit, Michigan, where he worked with the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, to expand the movement’s following among black Americans nationwide. Malcolm X became the minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem and Temple No. 11 in Boston, while also founding new temples in Harford and Philadelphia. In 1960, he established a national newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, in order to further promote the message of the Nation of Islam.
Articulate, passionate and a naturally gifted and inspirational orator, Malcolm X exhorted blacks to cast off the shackles of racism “by any means necessary,” including violence. “You don’t have a peaceful revolution,” he said. “You don’t have a turn-the-cheek revolution. There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution.” Such militant proposals—a violent revolution to establish an independent black nation—won Malcolm X large numbers of followers as well as many fierce critics. Due primarily to the efforts of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam grew from a mere 400 members at the time he was released from prison in 1952, to 40,000 members by 1960.
By the early 1960s, Malcolm X had emerged as a leading voice of a radicalized wing of the Civil Rights Movement, presenting an alternative to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a racially integrated society achieved by peaceful means. Dr. King was highly critical of what he viewed as Malcolm X’s destructive demagoguery. “I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice,” King once said.
In 1958, Malcolm X married Betty Sanders, a fellow member of the Nation of Islam. The couple had six children together, all daughters: Attallah (b. 1958), Qubilah (b. 1960), Ilyasah (b. 1963), Gamilah (b. 1964) and twins Malaak and Malikah (b. 1965). Sanders later became known as Betty Shabazz, and she became a prominent civil rights and human rights activist in her own right in the aftermath of her husband’s death.
In May 2013, Malcolm X’s grandson, Malcolm Shabazz—son of the civil rights leader’s second daughter with wife Betty Shabazz, Qubilah Shabazz—was beaten to death in Mexico City, near the Plaza Garibaldi. He was 28 years old. According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, police believe Malcolm Shabazz’s death was the result of a “robbery gone wrong.”