Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X rose to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s as a civil rights leader and vocal proponent of Black self-determination in the United States. Before founding the Organization for Afro-American Unity, he gained recognition as a prominent member of the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist and separatist movement.
Unfortunately, Malcolm X was shot and killed in New York City’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. The murder shook the country and sparked discussions about racism and political violence in the United States. Even decades after his death, Malcolm X’s legacy and the circumstances of his passing are still hotly contested topics.
How did Malcolm X die?
On February 21, 1965, in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York, Malcolm X was shot and killed. Three former members of his religious group, the Nation of Islam, were found guilty of his murder.
(In 2021, two were found not guilty.) Before this, tensions had been rising between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam, with the latter group threatening to kill Malcolm.
Who was Malcolm X?
Malcolm X spent his early years on the run after his birth in Omaha. His father was slain when Malcolm was only six years old; the official cause of death was a streetcar accident, but historians suspect Klansmen were responsible.
Malcolm grew up to become a clergyman and activist in the African-American community, noted for his commitment to the principles of black pride and self-determination. He had become a major player in the civil rights movement by the late 1950s.
Malcolm converted to Islam while serving time in jail for larceny and burglary in the late 1940s, and upon his release in 1952, he became a member of the NOI. He soon rose to prominence inside the organization as a key figure and articulate leader.
In contrast to the then-dominant concepts of integration and racial acceptance, Malcolm X placed emphasis on black people developing their own authority, structure, and riches, which was considered as provocative in mainstream America. In addition, he was a firm believer in the value of self-defense in place of nonviolent protest.
“He did not preach violence, he preached self-defense.” The lead researcher for Manning Marable’s 2011 biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. “America has never been nonviolent with black people so instead of accusing Malcolm of being violent, we need to ask America about its violence.”
According to Ali, Malcolm’s convoluted upbringing made him stand out from other black leaders of the period.
“This was someone who had come out of prison [and] emerged as a major leader of a growing organization at a time when most civil rights organizations did not even have a prison program, much less [would] hire a convict to be their spokesperson,” Ali tells TIME. “Malcolm represents this belief and hope in black potential, wherever that potential may be.”
“He always imagined black freedom transcending the boundaries of the United States.”“He always saw himself as a citizen of the world, and connected to black people around the world.”
What happened on the day of the assassination?
When Malcolm spoke at the Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965, he requested that no metal detectors be set up as a precaution. Malcolm had first continued the NOI’s traditional practice of conducting searches of rallygoers after he had left the group.
Although he continued to use a personal security team, he finally put an end to them in January 1965. Peter Bailey, a former OAAU member and close friend of Malcolm’s, is described in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention as saying, “[Malcolm] wanted to break away from the image” the searches represented.
There were roughly 400 people in the Audubon Ballroom to hear Malcolm speak, but there was no obvious police presence. This was odd, as police presence is usually obvious at his events.
When Malcolm started his speech, someone in the audience apparently started arguing with him. Someone ran onto the stage, approached Malcolm, and shot him as he and his security guards sought to quell the chaos. Two more people then rushed to the stage and opened fire. Malcolm took 21 bullets to the body.
What is Malcolm X’s legacy?
“Malcolm X’s legacy is all of the social justice movements that sprung up in the wake of his death. It’s the Black Panther Party. It’s Black Lives Matter.”
“Malcolm was an organic intellectual who loved black people profoundly; he sacrificed his life helping them find ways to uplift and defend themselves.”
“He was always a man of faith.”
“He had a deep belief in a power greater than himself that motivated him and allowed his imagination to dream for freedom of black people that was not readily apparent at the time.”
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