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Malcolm X

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Malcolm X

    1925 – 1965 African American Muslim

    leader

    During the 1960s, Malcolm X (formerly Malcolm Little) rose through the ranks of the Nation of Islam, a militant religious group that promotes the formation of a separate African American nation, to become one of the most prominent and controversial figures in the United States. A formidable critic of American society, particularly the racist practices of whites, Malcolm X challenged the civil rights movement and its notions of integration and nonviolence. Toward the end of his life, however, he converted to Sunni Islam and shifted his focus to Pan-Africanism.

    Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm Little had a turbulent childhood. When he was just six years old, the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group, burned his family's home in Lansing, Michigan. Shortly thereafter, his father was murdered and his mother was confined to a mental institution. Malcolm and his seven siblings spent many years in foster homes. At the age of fifteen, he became involved in the world of drugs and crime, which eventually led to imprisonment in Massachusetts.

    During his incarceration ( 1946 – 1952 ), Little experienced an intellectual and social transformation. He read a variety of books about history, philosophy, politics, and religion, and improved his speaking skills. In 1948 he embraced the teachings of Elijah Muhammad , the leader of the Nation of Islam, and discarded his last name for the symbolic X (ex-Christian, ex-Negro, ex-slave). Particularly attractive was Elijah Muhammad's claim that God is a black man who will liberate African Americans and destroy their white oppressors.

    Malcolm's social experiences, intellectual accomplishments, and dedication to Elijah Muhammad enabled him to advance rapidly within the Nation of Islam. In 1952 he began organizing Muslim temples in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, as well as in the southern and western United States. Elijah Muhammad soon recognized Malcolm's abilities and charisma and appointed him the leader of Temple Number Seven in Harlem (New York City), the largest and most prestigious temple aside from the organization's headquarters in Chicago. Malcolm X became the national representative of the Nation of Islam, and under his direction, its membership greatly increased.

    Preaching the message of black identity, pride, and independence across the United States and around the world, Malcolm X became a favorite media personality. He challenged Dr. Martin Luther King's emphasis on nonviolence, encouraging followers to defend themselves by any means possible. As Malcolm X became more involved in domestic and international politics, however, his worldview gradually changed, and he began to question the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. He instituted Arabic instruction in Temple Number Seven. Testing his leader's policies of political inaction and avoidance of contact with Sunni Muslims, Malcolm spoke out on a variety of civil and human rights issues. He also maintained close contact with Muslim diplomats.

    Elijah Muhammad and other officials within the Nation of Islam became uneasy about Malcolm's success and concerned about the potential threat to their power. After Malcolm made controversial public comments on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy ( November 1963 ), he was suspended. In 1964 Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam to establish the Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-African Unity. After participating in the hajj, Malcolm X converted to Sunni Islam and changed his name to El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. The experience also led him to shift his focus from forming a separate black nation to Pan-Africanism.

    Tension between Malcolm's followers and members of the Nation of Islam led to threats against his life. On February 21, 1965, while delivering a speech in New York City, he was shot and killed by members of the Nation of Islam. Some have accused the U.S. government of arranging his murder. See also Elijah Muhammad ; Farrakhan, Louis; Nation of Islam.

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