50 years after Malcolm X, civil rights icon inspired fear and love

  • Human rights activist Malcolm X at Harlem Broadcasting Station, WLIB, expressing his views on the radio, with editor George S Schuyler, circa 1960-1965.
  • In this May 21, 1964 file photo, Malcolm X speaks during a news conference at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, New York.
  • Human rights activist Malcolm X speaking on stage at a rally, New York, circa 1960-1965.
  • Activist Malcolm X.
  • Black Muslim activist Malcolm X with his daughters Qubilah (L) and Attilah (R) in 1963.
  • Human rights activist Malcolm X talking to Nigerian students and African American locals in Harlem, New York, circa 1960-1965.
  • Human rights activist Malcolm X speaking on stage at a Muslim meeting in Harlem, New York, circa 1960-1965.
  • Black Muslim leader Malcolm X (L) is seen behind soda fountain with tux-clad Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) (R), while surrounded by jubilant fans after Ali beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world in Miami, Fla., in March 1964.
  • Muslim leader, Malcolm X, speaking to an unidentified African American group.
  • Black muslim leader Louis Farrakhan with black nationalist leader Malcolm X among a group at rally in New York, N.Y.
  • Malcolm X.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are seen together waiting for a press conference on March 26, 1964.
  • Portrait of American political activist and radical civil rights leader Malcolm X as he holds an 8mm movie camera in London Airport, London, England, July 9, 1964. Shortly after breaking his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, and just days after his formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), Malcolm X was in London en route to Egypt to attend a meeting of the Organization of African Unity and to meet with the leaders of various African states.
  • Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X are pictured during a Black Muslims meeting held at the International Amphitheater on Feb. 25, 1962 in Chicago, Ill.
  • Malcolm X is seen speaking to unidentified African American group.
  • Black Nationalist leader and Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X in Oxford with Eric Abrahams, right, the Student Union president, before addressing university students on the subject of extremism and liberty, on Dec. 3, 1964.
  • In this March 1, 1964 file photo, Muhammad Ali, world heavyweight boxing champion, right, stands with Malcolm X outside the Trans-Lux Newsreel Theater on Broadway at 49th Street in New York. They had just watched a screening of films on Ali’s Feb. 25, 1964 title fight with Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. Two days after the fight with Liston, Cassius Clay announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam and was changing his name to Cassius X. He would later become Muhammad Ali as he broke away from Malcolm X and aligned himself with the sect’s leader, Elijiah Muhammad. “What is all the commotion about?” he asked. “Nobody asks other people about their religion. But now that I’m the champion I am the king so it seems the world is all shook up about what I believe.”
  • Malcolm X speaks during a Black Muslim rally in Washington, D.C., in 1961
  • African-American Muslim minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X at Temple 7, a Halal restaurant patronized by black Muslims, on Lenox Avenue and 116th Street, Harlem, New York, Aug. 1963.
  • Human rights activist Malcolm X talking to a group of students in Harlem, New York, circa 1960-1965.
  • Wilfred X, Malcolm X and Filbert X, from left to right, are shown in October 1963 at the IMA Auditorium in Flint, Mich., while preparing for an appearance by Elijah Muhammad.
  • Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X speaks to television newsmen at Duffy Square, in New York, N.Y., Feb. 13, 1963. 
  • Reporter looks at bullet holes in rostrum at the Audubon Ballroom after Malcolm X was shot on Feb. 21, 1965.
  • Flanked by police officers, Civil Rights activist Betty Shabazz is filmed as she leaves the funeral of her husband, Malcolm X, New York, N.Y., Feb. 27, 1965.
  • Actor Ossie Davis delivers eulosy for Malcolm X at the funeral services for the slain black Nationalist leader in the Faith Temple of God in Christ in New York’s Harlem, Feb. 27, 1965. Davis called Malcolm a “Brave and gallant young champion.” Seated second from left in pew facing open casket is Malcolm’s widow, Betty.
  • Malcolm X is pictured during his visit to enterprises owned by Black Muslims in 1962 in Chicago, Ill.

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“… We will know him then for what he was and is. A prince. Our own black shining prince who didn’t hesitate to die because he loved us so.” — Actor Ossie Davis in his eulogy for Malcolm X. 

When civil rights icon Malcolm X was gunned down fifty years ago on February 21, 1965, he didn’t have many devoted followers. The New York Times called his life “pitifully wasted,” and he was more often than not viewed as a victim of the radical rhetoric he preached, which was occasionally tinged with violent overtones.

But in death, the man born Malcolm Little (he later adopted the ‘X’ as a repudiation of his ancestral slave name) was in many ways reborn: Thanks in part to a best-selling autobiography penned by Alex Haley, generations of African-Americans born in Malcolm’s wake came to see him as the truly revolutionary political figure that he was.

His life didn’t begin so auspiciously. Malcolm’s father was killed under suspicious circumstances and his mother was soon committed to a psychiatric hospital. He fell into a life of crime early, and was well on his way to becoming just another statistic when a fellow prisoner introduced him to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the controversial leader and founder of the Nation of Islam. 

Malcolm’s embrace and later rejection of the Nation of Islam’s black separatist philosophy would help shape the arc of his public life, and eventually lead to his premature death. It was three members of the Nation who were found to be responsible for his assassination at New York’s Audubon Ballroom, where he was shot in front of his wife and children. Other accomplices believed to have been involved in the plot have never been officially identified or charged. It has long been suspected, but never proven, that the killers were acting on the orders of Muhammad, the Nation of Islam founder. 

During his final years, Malcolm had begun to rebuke Muhammad for his strict leadership many alleged infidelities. After a high-profile pilgrimage to Mecca not long before his death, Malcolm’s previously staunch views on race began to evolve as well. In 1964, he founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity, which promoted the concept that racism of all kinds, not just white racism, was the greatest impediment to black life. And just days before he was assassinated, he made overtures to Dr. Martin Luther King through his wife Coretta, during a pit-stop in Selma.

A riveting speaker with a biting intellect, Malcolm’s black nationalist vision grew in power and influence over the ensuing decades and was made even more legendary thanks to Spike Lee’s acclaimed biopic, which featured Oscar-winner Denzel Washington in perhaps his most memorable role as the slain leader.

Fifty years ago, Malcolm X was a figure who inspired fear – but time has been kinder to his image and message, which was far more nuanced and insightful than it seemed when a shocked nation first encountered it in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

Malcolm himself may not have envisioned himself one day emblazoned on a U.S. postage stamp, but he did foresee his own demise, which came just days after his home was firebombed.

“It is a time for martyrs now, and if I am to be one, it will be for the cause of brotherhood,” Malcolm, just 39 years old, said two days before his assassination. “That’s the only thing that can save this country.”

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