Who was Malcolm X and Why was Malcolm X a controversial figure in the African American Civil Rights Movement?

Malcolm X (1925-1965), was born in Omaha, Nebraska, as Malcolm Little.

When Malcolm was six years old, his father, a Baptist minister, was murdered after receiving threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Malcolm’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown and Malcolm was sent to a foster home, then to a reform school.

After high school, Malcolm moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he eventually became involved in crime and was sentenced to prison for burglary in 1946. In prison, Malcolm became interested in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black Muslims (also called the Nation of Islam). When Malcolm was released in 1952, he joined a Black Muslim temple in Detroit and changed his name to Malcolm X. In 1958 he married Betty Shabazz; they had six daughters.

By the early 1960s, Malcolm was a vocal spokesman for the Nation of Islam. He spoke out angrily against the unfair treatment of blacks and warned America that blacks would no longer tolerate it.

Malcolm X’s message appealed to the many African Americans who felt betrayed; they believed that Martin Luther King’s efforts weren’t working. Many were impatient with the tactics of integration and were tired of being treated unfairly. The blacks who lived in urban ghettos felt left behind and ignored.

But in 1964, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and made a pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, renounced his previous belief that all whites are evil, and took the Arabic name El-Hajj Malik EI-Shabazz. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm was assassinated while addressing a rally in New York City. His killers were allegedly connected with the Black Muslims. At Malcolm X’s funeral, the actor Ossie Davis called him “our own black shining prince.”

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to writer Alex Haley, was published in 1964. The book was a best-seller, and it continues to be overwhelmingly popular.

In 1992, filmmaker Spike Lee made a notable film about the life of Malcolm X, entitled Malcolm X. He continues to be a highly controversial figure, but he is a hero to many.