10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X

Patrick Lynch - March 23, 2018

Malcolm Little remains a divisive figure in American history. Known to the world as Malcolm X, his followers claim he was an advocate for the rights of African-Americans. His detractors suggest he was a thug who preached violence, hate, and segregation. Regardless of how you view him, there is no doubt that Malcolm X is one of the most influential African-Americans of all time. Even today, over 50 years after his death, Malcolm X’s career and motivations are the subjects of fierce debate.

He initially became one of the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) most vocal leaders and helped promote black supremacy. Eventually however, he became disillusioned with the NOI, left the organization, and denounced racism. Unfortunately, he didn’t get much of an opportunity to walk down a new path because on February 21, 1965, less than a year after repudiating the NOI, the group took the ultimate revenge as three of its gunmen murdered Malcolm X in Manhattan. As famous as Malcolm X is, not everything about his life is common knowledge so in this article, I look at 10 interesting facts about the former NOI member that you may not be aware of.

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X
Louise and Earl Little – Emaze

1 – His Father Was Possibly Murdered by the KKK

Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925. His mother Louise and father Earl were admirers of Marcus Garvey, the Pan-African activist. Earl was also a Baptist lay speaker who bravely spoke out against racism. Malcolm’s parents also instilled a sense of black pride and self-reliance in their children. Malcolm was the middle child of seven and before he was even born, his father was the subject of KKK threats. It was an era when the Klan’s popularity was rapidly expanding and in 1925, the Klan came to the Little household and threatened the family.

The Littles were forced to flee from the Klan and moved first to Milwaukee and then to Lansing in Michigan. If they thought they were safe from white supremacist violence, they were sadly mistaken because in 1929, a white racist group called the Black Legion burned down the Little home in Lansing. The vigilante terrorist group had been formed by William Shepard in Ohio in the 1920s and a chapter was formed in Michigan (Highland Park) in 1931. An estimated one-third of the group was from Detroit which was a known KKK hotbed at the time.

Tragedy hit the Little family in 1931 when Earl died. The official story said that he had been hit by a streetcar in a terrible accident. However, his family believed that the Black Legion murdered Earl and laid his body on the streetcar tracks to be run over. Earlier that day, Louise had a dream about the death of Earl and later described it to Malcolm. He believes that his mother’s capacity for premonition was passed on to other family members and in his autobiography, he mentions details of his own premonitions in later life.

It was impossible for the Littles to prove the involvement of the Black Legion so if Earl was murdered, the racist group got away with it. Louise had a nervous breakdown and was placed in an institution when Malcolm was just 13-years old. These negative encounters with whites filled the young man with a burning rage. He also claimed that an uncle of his was lynched by white supremacists. The family even had problems with the insurance company in the wake of Earl’s death as one provider claimed he committed suicide and refused to pay. Malcolm’s life was to become a whole lot harder after his mother was sent to Kalamazoo State Hospital.

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X
Malcolm X with a copy of Muhammad Speaks – FosterClub

2 – Malcolm Spent His Teenage Years in Foster Care

Malcolm had no idea what a ‘settled’ home was in his youth and teenage years. Although he was born in Nebraska, his family moved to Wisconsin and Michigan in quick succession. After Earl died, Louise Little began to unravel as the strain of losing her husband and trying to take care of the children on a shoestring budget proved too much. After one of the insurance companies refused to pay out on Earl’s policy, the entire family had to take on different odd jobs.

Louise was initially able to get household work and sewing jobs because of her light complexion. Sadly, her employers fired her once they ‘discovered’ she was black. The family’s finances were in tatters and Louise had to purchase necessities on credit and eventually had to go on welfare because she couldn’t find a job. Louise’s mind started to break down due to the undeniable stress she was under and she began to lose control of the kids.

At this point, Malcolm had begun to steal food for the family and was occasionally caught in the act. Welfare agents suggested sending him to a foster home but Louise responded by whipping Malcolm in a frantic attempt to keep him in line. It didn’t work and Malcolm was sent to live with a foster family. Soon after, Louise was sent to a mental hospital and Malcolm later blamed the white authorities for their role in ruining his mother’s life. Although he was treated reasonably well in the detention home he lived in, they treated him as a pet. Malcolm later wrote that whites in America did not think of blacks as human beings and would only accept them if they were willing to be treated as inferiors.

Malcolm had to attend a high school that was almost entirely white and although he was one of the brightest students in his classes, teachers told him that blacks should not have lofty aspirations. The complete lack of support from the teachers at the school in Lansing forced Malcolm to leave when he was just 15 years of age. He moved to Boston to live with his half-sister, Ella Little-Collins, and never returned to school. Ella was part of Boston black society’s upper class and was dismayed when Malcolm did not transition into a respectable life. He believed that the blacks of this area were guilty of mimicking white society’s habit of identifying social status by occupation.

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X
Picture of Ella and Malcolm in 1941

3 – He Had a Brief and Unsuccessful Boxing Career

As powerful as Malcolm X’s rhetoric was, his fighting skills were almost the complete opposite of his oratory abilities. In 1937, Joe Louis, also known as the ‘Brown Bomber’, won the world heavyweight boxing title with an eighth-round KO of champion James J. Braddock. Within a year, Louis had avenged his sole professional loss with a crushing first-round destruction of Max Schmeling. As a result, Louis became a role model and an icon to many young black men and women in the United States.

Malcolm had developed a close relationship with his brother Reginald but after Louis won the title, another one of the Little brothers, Philbert, took up boxing like so many young African-Americans around the country. Philbert showed early promise by winning his first few fights and Malcolm became worried that the pugilist in the family would become Reginald’s favorite sibling. In fact, Malcolm was so concerned that he decided to become an amateur boxer too. Unlike Philbert, Malcolm showed no natural ability in the Sweet Science and soon learned a painful lesson in what proved to be a brief and forgettable stint in the ring.

In 1937, Malcolm signed up to become a boxer and claimed he was 16 years old as that was the minimum age limit in Lansing at the time. He was fairly tall for his age and weighed 128 pounds which meant he competed in the amateur bantamweight division at the time. His first fight was against a white opponent named Bill Peterson who was actually 16 years old. It transpired that both boys were afraid of one another but it was Peterson who emerged victorious. Malcolm reportedly suffered multiple knockdowns and to save face, he felt the need to fight again despite his fears.

The rematch between the pair occurred in Alma in 1937 but it was an even bigger disaster than the first fight. Malcolm later wrote: “The moment the bell rang, I saw a fist, then the canvas coming up, and ten seconds later the referee was saying “Ten!” over me. It was probably the shortest ‘fight’ in history.” He realized that boxing was not for him and later wrote that it was Allah’s way of protecting him from becoming ‘punchy’. As well as marking an embarrassing time in his life, the incident also shows just how emotionally dependent he was on Reginald.

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X

4 – He Was Constantly Judged By His Color During his Youth

When you consider his life story, it gets easier to understand why Malcolm X had such distaste for white America. As a child, he witnessed his family getting harassed and threatened by white supremacist groups for no other reason than they were black and Earl refused to play the role of the servile negro. Malcolm staunchly believes his father was murdered by white men, and a large insurance company run by white men cheated his family out of money. The strain on Louise caused a breakdown and she was placed in a mental facility by white authorities, while his family was broken up.

His disdain for white people only grew while at school and in foster care. Although the Swerlin family, the couple that ran the detention home he was in, was kind to him, they still viewed him as inferior because of his race. Nonetheless, Malcolm responded positively and his school performance improved to the point where he was elected class president while in the seventh grade. The Swerlins were delighted because the young man was learning how to succeed according to the terms of white society and Malcolm was becoming a subservient black male who ‘knew his place’.

In the eighth grade, Malcolm was speaking to his English teacher, a man named Mr. Ostrowski. Malcolm said he wanted to become a lawyer but Ostrowski shot down the suggestion by saying it was “no realistic goal for a nigger.” According to the teacher, Malcolm should focus on a more ‘attainable’ goal such as being a carpenter. Malcolm was extremely upset because he had witnessed Ostrowski give very different advice to white students, even those of inferior intellect to Malcolm.

By now, he realized that he was getting judged on the basis of color rather than capabilities. Before this incident, Malcolm paid little attention to the abusive comments he received as a black man but afterward, he started taking notice and reacted to it. The previously bright and bubbly young man was replaced by a sullen and moody teenager. The Swerlins were concerned about him but by then, Ella had already visited him. After visiting Ella in Boston, Malcolm decided to move there and was transferred to his half-sister’s custody. Later, he wrote that it was the most significant move of his life. Had he stayed in Mason, he would have become a “brainwashed black Christian.” However, life in Boston took a dark turn.

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X

5 – His Criminal Behavior Landed Him in Prison

Malcolm initially engaged in criminal activity when he was just nine years old in Lansing but there were mitigating circumstances. He was simply trying to help his family who were in dire economic straits so he stole food from grocery stores. There is little evidence that he continued along this path as a teenager and it was only when he moved to Boston that things started to go sour for Malcolm. While there, he became attracted to the openness of the ghetto when compared to the dull and strait-laced behavior of Ella and her social circle.

Malcolm quickly made friends with a man named Shorty who was also from Lansing. Their common background meant they shared a bond and Shorty soon took Malcolm under his wing. He taught the young man about ghetto life and helped him get a job as a shoe-shiner at the Roseland Ballroom. It was there that he learned all about ‘hustling’. The man he was replacing at the Ballroom told Malcolm about the various hustles he could do to boost his earnings. For instance, he learned how to ‘shame’ customers into giving him tips as he handed out towels in the restroom.

After work, Malcolm met Shorty and his friends who enjoyed gambling, drinking liquor, and smoking marijuana. During the 1940s, Malcolm was fired from two railroad jobs and became a waiter at Small’s Paradise in Harlem, New York. The nightclub’s clientele included career criminals and they taught him about various criminal activities in the city including robbery, selling drugs, pimping, and the numbers. After getting fired from Small’s, Malcolm became part of the Harlem underworld and got involved in the numbers racket.

While he became known to the city’s narcotics squad, Malcolm continued to work in numerous rackets and eventually graduated to armed robbery. His first arrest was for apparently stealing and pawning Ella’s fur coat and he was later arrested for allegedly mugging someone at gunpoint. His third arrest was the one that almost ruined his life. Malcolm committed burglary in several homes in Boston and when he was caught and convicted, he started serving an eight-to-ten-year sentence at Charlestown State Prison in 1946.

Malcolm served seven years of his sentence and became known as ‘Satan’ by his fellow inmates because of his habit of frantically pacing around his cell, cursing God and the Bible. His attitude changed while inside and soon, he was a voracious reader. He later wrote: “In every free moment I had, if I was not reading in a library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge.” He received letters from his family urging him to look into the Nation of Islam (NOI), as it was “the natural religion for the black man.” While still in prison, he began correspondence with NOI leader, Elijah Muhammad. By the time he became a free man, Malcolm’s path had been made clear.

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X
Malcolm X speaks with Elijah Muhammad sitting behind in the hat – My Walk with Farrakhan Blog

6 – He Transformed the Nation of Islam From Little-Known Movement into National Phenomenon

One of his first moves upon release was to visit Elijah Muhammad in Chicago in August 1952. At this time, the NOI was still a tiny organization with only a few hundred members. However, it started to gain an increasing number of followers, mainly African-Americans in prison who were lost and in need of guidance. Part of the religion involved preaching adherence to a stringent moral code and members were encouraged only to be reliant on themselves and their fellow African-Americans. Rather than integrate, the NOI wanted black Americans to create their own schools, churches and supply networks.

Malcolm had already dropped his ‘slave’ name Little in 1950 and started signing his name ‘Malcolm X’. He later wrote that the X was a symbol of the true African family name he would never know. It didn’t take long for Elijah Muhammad to recognize Malcolm’s potential and he was promoted to the role of assistant minister of Temple Number One in Detroit in June 1953. Within a few months, he had established Temple Number 11 in Boston and early in 1954, he expanded Philadelphia’s Temple Number 12. The FBI began taking notice of Malcolm and in May 1954, he began leading Temple Number 7 in Harlem which immediately saw a significant bump in membership.

By 1955, NOI membership had risen to over 6,000 people but Malcolm was only getting started. He established three more temples that year and the Nation was receiving hundreds of new members a month. One of the main reasons for the increasing popularity was Malcolm himself. He was known as an eloquent, energetic, and inspirational speaker who electrified audiences. The message he delivered on behalf of the Nation of Islam was very different to the one preached by Martin Luther King Jr.

While King spoke about peaceful change and integration, Malcolm X implored African-Americans to be proud of their heritage and told them to set up communities without the help of whites. Furthermore, the NOI said that African-Americans should create their own state where they could provide solutions to their problems. Although violence was not the only answer, the Nation of Islam believed that it was justified in self-defense. In the group’s opinion, the best way for blacks in America to get what they deserved was a ‘by any means necessary’ approach.

By the late 1950s, he became known as Malcolm Shabazz or Malik el-Shabazz and his opinions were broadcast on television, radio, and in newspapers. By 1960, he was so well-known that he was invited to the official functions of numerous African nations at that year’s UN General Assembly. Malcolm readily spread the NOI’s rhetoric which stated that white people were ‘devils’, blacks were superior to whites, black people were the world’s original people, and the white race’s demise was coming. By the early 1960s, the group’s membership had swelled to over 75,000 but just as he was reaching the height of his power, Malcolm began questioning the Nation of Islam.

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X
Elijah Muhammad – BBC

7 – He Broke with the Nation of Islam After a String of Scandals

Malcolm’s relationship with Elijah Muhammad began to fracture in the early 1960s due to allegations of sexual misconduct by the NOI leader and the group’s actions in general. In late 1961, several Nation members were arrested after a confrontation with the LAPD. In April 1962, two LAPD officers assaulted several members outside Temple Number 27. The incident caused numerous angry Muslims to confront the officers who called for backup. 70 officers arrived and chaos erupted as several people were shot while a Korean War veteran named Ronald Stokes was killed.

Malcolm demanded that the NOI respond in kind. He was outraged when Muhammad rejected the idea. The Nation’s leader also blocked Malcolm’s attempts to work with civil rights organizations in a departure from how he felt about such groups in the past. This was probably the turning point in the relationship between the two men. Malcolm was also dismayed by reports of Muhammad having affairs with young NOI secretaries in what was a serious breach of the group’s teachings. Muhammad confirmed the rumors but justified his actions by citing Biblical precedent.

On December 1, 1963, Malcolm X infamously said that the murder of JFK was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.” He was pointing out that America’s climate of violence meant the country’s leaders were being killed. It was a prophetic statement since he, King, and Robert Kennedy all died within the next five years. The national press took his statement out of context and published it as an example of Malcolm’s personal hatred for all whites, and his satisfaction in seeing the death of John F. Kennedy. The Nation of Islam, mindful of the negative publicity, publicly censured Malcolm and he was not allowed speak publicly for 90 days.

At this stage, he was already thinking about leaving the group but many Nation of Islam members perceived him as a threat to Muhammad’s leadership. March 8, 1964 was a momentous day because it marked Malcolm’s official departure from the NOI. He announced his decision in public and said that while he remained a Muslim, he felt the need to break away because of the Nation’s rigid teachings which he felt was holding it back. Soon after leaving the NOI, Malcolm founded Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU); the latter was not a religious group. He also stated his desire to work with other civil rights leader, in what was a stark change to his previous rhetoric.

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X

8 – His Anti-White Stance Softened Over Time

While he was a member of the Nation of Islam in the 1950s, Malcolm had little time for so-called mainstream civil rights leaders. In fact, he derided them as ‘Uncle Toms’ and was exasperated at their inability to realize that white America would never willingly allow equality. He was completely against integration throughout the majority of his career as he believed it was an impossible goal. Malcolm reminded his listeners that there was little difference in the situation for blacks in the North and South of the United States. He was annoyed that civil rights activists focused on helping blacks in the South while ignoring those in the North.

By the beginning of the 1960s however, Malcolm X’s hatred of whites began to dissipate slightly. While he once believed that all whites were devils, he began to think they could be cleared of responsibility if they acted in the right way. Instead of continuing to blame the whites as a collective, or even as individuals, he believed the fault lay in the very structure of society. When he started to preach on college campuses, he was surprised at the lack of hostility he faced. Malcolm began to realize that some educated whites also wanted to solve the race inequality problem.

Nonetheless, he was still opposed to integration as late as April 1964. Malcolm referred the March on Washington as the ‘Farce on Washington’. He wrote the following: “Who ever heard of angry revolutionists all harmonizing ‘We Shall Overcome’… while tripping and swaying along arm-in-arm with the very people they are supposed to be angrily revolting against?” Yet he wanted to meet with civil rights leaders at that time, despite Elijah Muhammad’s protests. After the NOI leader forbade him from meeting with these individuals, Malcolm left the organization and began reaching out to activists.

He famously met Martin Luther King Jr. for the only time on March 26, 1964. The two men had a brief exchange and remained together just long enough for photos to be taken. While he no longer viewed all whites as the enemy, he retained his belief that violence may be necessary in the struggle. In his The Ballot or the Bullet speech in April 1964, he told African-Americans that if the U.S. Government continued to prevent them from gaining full equality, they might have to take up arms.

1964 was a busy year for Malcolm as first, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca. The journey, known as the Hajj, must be undertaken at least once in the lifetime of every able-bodied Muslim. After leaving Mecca, he visited several African countries and then made speeches in France and the United Kingdom. When he returned to the United States in February 1965, he played down his willingness to cooperate with whites in America. According to Malcolm, racism was so deeply ingrained in most white Americans that it had become a ‘subconscious trait’. Although he was gaining international recognition, his bitter split from the Nation of Islam came back to haunt him.

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X
Talmage Hayer – Tony Brown’s Journal

9 – He Was Murdered ‘By His Own’

While Malcolm X would certainly have been a viable target for white supremacist groups, it was the Nation of Islam, the organization that ‘made’ him, who was responsible for his death. In the latter stages of his time in the NOI, Malcolm began to fall out with Elijah Muhammad but he arguably left on decent terms. However, his relationship with the NOI quickly disintegrated during 1964. First, he changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and converted to traditional Islam. Then, he started speaking out against the Nation and criticized Muhammad for his infidelities when he had previously remained silent.

Muhammad had begun grooming Louis Farrakhan as Malcolm’s successor and even spoke to him about evicting Malcolm from his residence in Queens. On the day Malcolm declared that he was leaving the NOI, Muhammad called Farrakhan and told him of the plan to remove the former minister from his house which would then be given to Farrakhan. In September 1964, Farrakhan spoke at an NOI meeting in Chicago for seven hours. He said that Malcolm was a hypocrite who should be stopped at all costs.

On December 4, 1964, Farrakhan said: “Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.” An NOI member named Leon 4X Ameer left to join Malcolm’s new group and was savagely beaten on December 24. He would ave died if a police officer, who was calling to question him about his role in a robbery, hadn’t found him drowning in blood in the bathroom. Back in February 1964, a leader of Temple Number Seven had ordered the bombing of Malcolm’s car. In June, FBI surveillance also heard Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, say that her husband was “as good as dead.”

Malcolm was well aware that the Nation of Islam had designs on his life and on February 19, 1965, he told an interviewer named Gordon Parks that the NOI was actively trying to murder him. The end came in New York just two days later when Malcolm appeared at 125th Street’s Alhambra Ballroom. Just as he was about to speak, a fight started to break out in the front row. Malcolm tried to get involved when suddenly, three men pulled out guns and started shooting. Malcolm was shot 21 times and was pronounced dead just an hour later.

One of the shooters, Talmage Hayer, was shot and wounded by one of Malcolm’s bodyguards and was arrested. The other two killers, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson, were caught and arrested a few days later. Their trial took place in March 1966 and only Hayer admitted his guilt. Even so, the other two were also found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Hayer was the last to be released, in 2010. Butler was paroled in 1985 and Johnson was freed in 1987. Both men claimed innocence and it seems as if the murder investigation was botched.

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Malcolm X
Betty Shabazz – Malcolm X’s wife – Famous Biographies

10 – There Are Allegations of a Conspiracy

It is interesting that while Hayer admitted his guilt, he was adamant that Johnson and Butler were not his co-shooters. In fact, in 1977 and 1978, he signed affidavits which named four Nation of Islam members as participants in the planning or murder of Malcolm X; and neither Johnson nor Butler were on the list. Hayer wrote that along with the other assassins, he had traveled from Newark mosque to Harlem on the morning of February 21. The three men never implicated Farrakhan or Elijah Muhammad, and Johnson said that “Malcolm X was a dead man the minute he told the media about the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s personal life.”

There is perhaps more to the murder of Malcolm X than meets the eye. On March 6, 1965, at an OAAU Liberation School meeting, Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama took notes. These notes were not uncovered until 2011. At the bottom of the meeting, Kochiyama wrote: “Ray Woods is said to have also been seen running out of Alhambra ; was one of two picked up by police. Was the second person running out.” It now seems likely that Raymond A. Wood was an undercover police officer in New York. He had begun his career with the infiltration of CORE in 1964.

Wood infiltrated a Black Liberation Movement bomb plot in 1965 just a week before the death of Malcolm X. According to the NYPD, the black officer was put back in the field immediately. So, was Ray Wood at the Alhambra on that fateful day and if so, why was he seen running away from the scene of the crime? Earl Grant was one of Malcolm’s associates and was present at the scene. He was shocked to see a dozen policemen ‘sauntering’ into a crime scene where dozens of shots had been fired. None of the officers had their guns drawn and some had their hands in their pockets.

Some people allege that the CIA, FBI or NYPD was involved and wonder why there was such a lack of police protection for a man whose life was clearly under threat. The same people also want to know why the assassins found it so easy to enter the Alhambra and why the police failed to preserve the crime scene. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s family believe that Louis Farrakhan, or Louis X, was involved and in a 1993 speech, he admitted that the Nation of Islam might have been involved. He has always denied ordering the assassination of Malcolm X. To this day, no one can agree on who gave the order to kill the one-time darling of the Nation of Islam.


Where Do We Get This Stuff? Here is a List of our Sources:

Malcolm X’s short boxing career ended in 1937 in Alma.” Sean Bradley in The Morning Sun. July 2017.

“Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.” U.S. History: Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium.

“Deadly Crossroads: Farrakhan’s Rise and Malcolm X’s Fall.” Karl Evanzz in The Washington Post. December 1995.

“Malcolm X assassination: 50 Years on, mystery still clouds details of the case.” Garrett Felber in The Guardian. February 2015.

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Malcolm X and Alex Haley. 1964.

“Malcolm X.” Foster Club. May 2008.

“An abridged biography of Malcolm X.” MalcolmX.com – The Estate of Malcolm X. 2015.

“Malcolm X.” Biography.com.