21 February

Malcolm X (19 May, 1925 – 21 February, 1965), born Malcolm Little was an American Muslim minister and a human rights activist. To his admirers he was a courageous advocate for the rights of blacks, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans; detractors accused him of preaching racism and violence. He has been called one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history.

Malcolm X was effectively orphaned early in life. His father was killed when he was six and his mother was placed in a mental hospital when he was thirteen, after which he lived in a series of foster homes. In 1946, at age 20, he went to prison for larceny and breaking and entering. While in prison, Malcolm X became a member of the Nation of Islam, and after his parole in 1952, quickly rose to become one of the organization’s most influential leaders. He served as the public face of the controversial group for a dozen years. In his autobiography, Malcolm X wrote proudly of some of the social achievements the Nation made while he was a member, particularly its free drug rehabilitation program. In keeping with the Nation’s teachings, he promoted black supremacy, advocated the separation of black and white Americans, and rejected the civil rights movement for their emphasis on integration.

By March 1964, Malcolm X had grown disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad. Expressing many regrets about his time with them, which he had come to regard as largely wasted, he embraced Sunni Islam. After a period of travel in Africa and the Middle East, which included completing the Hajj, he repudiated the Nation of Islam, disavowed racism and founded Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He continued to emphasize Pan-Africanism, black self-determination, and black self-defense.

Throughout 1964, as his conflict with the Nation of Islam intensified, Malcolm X was repeatedly threatened. In February a leader of Temple Number Seven ordered the bombing of Malcolm X’s car. In March, Muhammad told Boston minister Louis X (later known as Louis Farrakhan) that “hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off”; the April 10 edition of Muhammad Speaks featured a cartoon depicting Malcolm X’s bouncing, severed head. On 8 June, FBI surveillance recorded a telephone call in which Betty Shabazz was told that her husband was “as good as dead.” Four days later, an FBI informant received a tip that “Malcolm X is going to be bumped off.” On 9 July Muhammad aide John Ali (suspected of being an undercover FBI agent) referred to Malcolm X by saying, “Anyone who opposes the Honorable Elijah Muhammad puts their life in jeopardy.” In the December 4 issue of Muhammad Speaks, Louis X wrote that “such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.”  The September 1964 issue of Ebony dramatized Malcolm X’s defiance of these threats by publishing a photograph of him holding a rifle while peering out a window.

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On 19 February, 1965, Malcolm X told interviewer Gordon Parks that the Nation of Islam was actively trying to kill him. On 21 February, 1965, he was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when someone in the 400-person audience yelled, “Nigger! Get your hand outta my pocket!” As Malcolm X and his bodyguards tried to quell the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun and two other men charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns. Malcolm X was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm, shortly after arriving at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The autopsy identified 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds from the initial shotgun blast.

One gunman, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagan), was beaten by the crowd before police arrived. Witnesses identified the other gunmen as Nation members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. All three were convicted of murder in March 1966 and sentenced to life in prison. At trial Hayer confessed, but refused to identify the other assailants except to assert that they were not Butler and Johnson. In 1977 and 1978, he signed affidavits reasserting Butler’s and Johnson’s innocence, naming four other Nation members as participants in the murder or its planning. These affidavits did not result in the case being reopened.

Butler, today known as Muhammad Abdul Aziz, was paroled in 1985 and became the head of the Nation’s Harlem mosque in 1998; he maintains his innocence. In prison Johnson, who changed his name to Khalil Islam, rejected the Nation’s teachings and converted to Sunni Islam. Released in 1987, he maintained his innocence until his death in August 2009. Hayer, today known as Mujahid Halim, was paroled in 2010.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published shortly after his death, is considered one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.