Biography of Brother Malcolm X Shabazz
Born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, his mother, Louise Little, was a housewife and mother of eight. Earl Little, his father, was a supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Malcolm’s outspoken Baptist preacher father gave street corner speeches promoting the need for black people to move “Back to Africa,” which was Garvey’s major ideal.
Little’s activism attracted unfavorable attention from a white supremacist organization called the Black Legion, an offshoot of the extremely racist Ku Klux Klan. Malcolm’s family had to move twice before he was four years old, so his early beginnings well acquainted him with racism, politics and morbid worries over the lives of his relatives.
In 1929 their Lansing, Michigan home was burned down, and two years later, Earl Little was killed. It was thought that two men, members of the Black Legion, had found him in a local bar, hit him over the back of the head, and murdered him by laying him on trolley tracks in front of a streetcar. Little had two life insurance policies out on himself, but the authorities ruled that his death was a suicide. Another time, Ku Klux Klan members rode up to their house, and Louise Little had to grab a shotgun and point it at them to make them leave. Malcolm had tried a moment before to grab the shotgun himself. It wouldn’t be the first time he was kept from using a gun on his enemies.
Malcolm’s mother suffered a major emotional breakdown several years after the death of her husband. She was then committed to a mental institution, and she was in and out of such institutions for 26 years. Her children were sent out to a variety of foster homes and orphanages. Malcolm, an especially bright “middle” child, had been the only one for whom his family had bought eyeglasses; thus the famous bespectacled looks of Malcolm X were born.
Malcolm was a terrific student and scored high on all of his tests, graduating from junior high with top honors. However, a favorite female teacher of his dashed his dreams of becoming a lawyer, telling him it was not a “realistic goal for a nigger.” After that, Malcolm dropped out, moving to Boston, Massachusetts, where he working odd jobs such as shoe shining. Tiring of low paying, unrealistically drab jobs, he traveled to Harlem, New York – where he began his infamous life in the Black Underworld of petty crimes. He was managing various narcotics, prostitution and gambling rings by 1942, having started in the seamy underground life as a “gay” male prostitute and pimp just to make his living. One time he broke into a pawn shop, stealing only a watch.
Malcolm formed a partnership with another man, “Shorty” Jarvis. They moved back to Boston, and in 1946 they were arrested and convicted on burglary charges. Malcolm was sentenced to ten years in prison but was paroled after serving seven years. A romantic story was made up about how he had robbed a bank by using a gun loaded with blanks, and that he’d done it for the love of a beautiful white woman, just to get media coverage.
In reality, he used his jail time to further his education, reading books in the prison library. One of these books was the Koran, the holy book of Islam, and Malcolm’s brother Reginald would visit him in prison and assist him with converting to the Moslem religion. Reginald Little belonged to the Nation of Islam – and he was quite enthusiastic about it.
Elijah Muhammad was the Nation of Islam leader who initially attracted Malcolm’s attention. Muhammad’s teachings were that white people were purposefully keeping black people in America from political, economic and social power, justice and success. The Nation of Islam was fighting for a section of the country to become Black America, separate from the part of the USA controlled by white people. Malcolm decided to become a devout Muslim and follower of Muhammad, and changed his last name from Little to X. He hated the name Little, which he considered to be a slave name, and Muhammad’s giving him the name of “X” meant a lot to him.
He was finally paroled in 1952, and as he was very handsome, bright and articulate, he was immediately appointed a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. He became a media darling, having a tall, youthful and charismatic presence on camera, and he was seen as the best possible Nation of Islam spokesperson. Elijah Muhammad had him establish mosques in several cities, such as Detroit and Harlem, and Malcolm X used newspapers, radio and television to get the Nation of Islam’s political ideology across to Black America and others. His drive, conviction, obvious honesty in his political ideology and extreme devotion to the cause attracted a huge number of new members to the Nation of Islam, swelling its membership from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963. It is purported that he met his wife to be, Betty Sanders, outside of a radio station in a hallway around this period of time, but they probably actually met after a speech Malcolm X gave at a Harlem Islamic temple.
The mounting controversy surrounding the brilliant young black militant leader got him featured in a TV special with Mike Wallace in 1959, “The Hate that Hate Produced.” The program touted Malcolm X as one of the Nation of Islam’s most prominent leaders. His fame (or infamy) had begun to succeed beyond that of his leader, Elijah Muhammad, which may have caused some jealousy on Muhammad’s part. The younger, sexier Malcolm X attracted beautiful women, which Muhammad wanted.
As racial tensions due to segregation and the civil rights movement mounted during the turbulent sixties, Malcolm X captured the government’s attention, as well as the FBI’s. Like they were doing with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they infiltrated his organization, secretly placing bugs, wiretaps and cameras around their headquarters and homes to monitor the Nation of Islam’s activities. As membership in the Nation of Islam increased, an FBI member even became Malcolm X’s personal bodyguard. Stories about affairs Malcolm X was having with fellow male members of the Nation of Islam began freely circulating in the country.
In 1963, Malcolm X learned that Elijah Muhammad, who was still his leader in the Nation of Islam, was having relationships with six women within the organization, all young and beautiful, and some of those relationships had born children out of wedlock. Malcolm X, being a political and social conservative who fought for the rights of women to dress in a conservative and non revealing manner, was highly disgusted by Muhammad’s behavior. He wanted his leader to be censured, perhaps even dismissed.
Malcolm X proclaimed he had stuck with the teachings of Islam, which included remaining celibate until his marriage to Betty Sanders in 1958. Obviously he had not been a virgin when he’d gotten married, as he had lived life in the Black Underworld for several years, but he claimed that he had at least tried to maintain a conservative life once he’d converted. So Malcolm X denied Muhammad’s attempts to cover up his affairs, blasting claims about them to the media. He said he was deeply affronted by his leader’s actions, as he had considered him to be “the living prophet of God.” He stated he felt guilt ridden about helping so many people join the Nation of Islam, an organization he said he now believed was built on lies, deception, unfair practices and dishonesty.
Around this time, Malcolm X made a comment regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. “He never foresaw the chickens would come home to roost,” was the famous comment where the media and public lost a lot of sympathy for Malcolm X and his cause. And Elijah Muhammad had Malcolm X formally “silenced” for ninety days, although Malcolm X claimed it was for other reasons. So in March of 1964, Malcolm X formally terminated his membership in the Nation of Islam, founding an altogether new religious organization, the Muslim Mosque. And that same year, Malcolm X went on his first formal pilgrimage to Mecca, which is what devout Moslems are supposed to do at least once during their lifetimes.
He said the pilgrimage, also known as “the Hajj,” was “the most positive experience of my life,” and found himself expressing his beliefs, thoughts and ideas with many diverse people of many diverse cultures, several of whom were white people. For the first time, Malcolm X felt he could communicate with blonde, blue eyed people he could even call his “brothers in Islam.” This experience changed his mind completely about integration, making him give up on the idea of a United States internal Black Nation and giving him hope for a better future.
The idea of a separate country within the United States was seen by then as highly impractical anyway, so now when Malcolm X gave speeches, he was going to preach to all races, not just African Americans. It was during this devout Moslem holy walk that local Moslems gave Malcolm his Sunni Muslim last name, Shabazz; now he had a real last name, not just a symbol. Still, he would always be more typically known by the name Malcolm X. He and his wife both declared themselves to be Sunni Moslems.
While he was on the pilgrimage to Mecca, he discussed his difficult official position with the members of the Nation of Islam, who had been discussing plots to kill him. “I know they are going to kill me,” he told his wife Betty. “Take care of the children for me.” He said he had faith he would see her and their children again someday, in the Heaven of Islam. The FBI also warned their officials that Malcolm X had been marked for assassination, as an undercover official had been ordered by the Nation of Islam to plant a bomb in Malcolm X’s car.
There had been repeated attempt on the life of Malcolm X all through it, from his birth on, and he was getting “used to it” somewhat. He was born with a naturally ruddy hair color, which he hated, as it proved he was part white; it caused his buddies to call him “Detroit Red” as a nickname. In the courtroom, he had denounced his white heritage and his ruddy hair. One time his friends “conked” his hair to make it an even red color, which looked somewhat unnatural.
Malcolm X often used to say he wished he was completely Negro or African American – or perhaps mostly so – and part Native American. He claimed some of his bushy red hair was a result of being part Indian, and a quote of his involved Black Americans being crushed under Plymouth Rock. At one time, he painted a picture of a very large blue black flower, sort of a rose, covering the entire picture canvas. It seems to have represented how much he wanted to be “blue black,” or totally black.
It looked somewhat also like a gun blast, which is what he figured would end his life, and it would have signified the Scottish “flower of manhood.” This is supposedly the male chest, which is where he was shot during his assassination, with the several gun blasts also exploding out his back. However, during an alleged first attempt to assassinate him, he was also stabbed in the chest four times. There is a photo of how he was given a “bum’s rush” by Nation of Islam members, being pulled along down a building’s interior hallway in a row of black men, with his long tie flapping around the supposed stab wounds, but he didn’t die of this. At any rate, he did end up being mortally wounded in the chest, which may explain his painting of a blossoming “flower of manhood” – in black and blue.
I recall also seeing a Black Comics cartoon of a white boy looking version of Malcolm X, surrounded by three Negro but odd looking men, who looked intent to harm him. He seemed to be screaming loudly in sexual pleasure. I don’t know who did that cartoon, or what was meant by it exactly.
Malcolm X actually usually traveled with bodyguards, but as said before, one of them was even an FBI infiltrator. Nobody knew where Malcolm X was going to be killed; it was only a question of when. In February of 1965, Malcolm X’s family’s house, a small one in East Elmhurst, New York, was firebombed, one week before he was assassinated. No one was hurt by the firebombing, but the assassination on February 21 was a success.
Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom was packed to the rafters for a speech by the famous Malcolm X Shabazz, one where he was going to pay tribute to his father by once again affirming his own ties to the Back to Africa Movement. His friend Alex Haley, who had helped him write “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” was a proponent of going back to Africa, as were many other African Americans.
As Malcolm X was speaking, three gunmen rushed the stage, firing directly into his chest fifteen times. The entire crowd at the ballroom, including Malcolm X’s wife, Betty X Shabazz, raced up to the podium, but it was too late. Betty cradled his dying body in her arms. She stated later that his bare, exploded and scarlet dead chest was “a pitiful sight.” Four of their girl children were unfortunately present at the scene.
Only 39 years old, the same age as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be when he was shot in 1968, Brother Malcolm X Shabazz was pronounced dead at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Almost two thousand people attended the funeral, which was held in Harlem about one week later at the Faith Temple Church. His friends insisted on burying Malcolm X themselves, rather than letting white gravediggers do it, so they took away the shovels and buried him. This was at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. Just a few months later, Betty gave birth to twin daughters, which were Malcolm X’s; they had a total of six children, all of whom were daughters. Some say they had two more children, boys.
The three assassins were Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. They were convicted of first degree murder in 1966, and purportedly sentenced to die. Two of them were captured at the scene, and all three were members of the Nation of Islam.
It is thought the death of Betty X’s husband was ordered by a superior in the group. The Nation of Islam was a large group of African Americans forced to reorder their priorities in a country dominated by white racial supremacists, murderers, thieves, prostitutes and many other weird people who seemed to be “out to get them” or stop them from leading anything like healthy, moral lives. There is an story that some black people tried to set Malcolm X up with a job sprinkling talcum powder for sex kicks on a dirty old man. It’s said that he refused the job, and that was the beginning of him reclaiming himself.
There have been many documentaries, books and movies about the legend that was Malcolm X. A lot of the stories about him have been proven to be untrue, urban legends that sprouted up about the Nation of Islam’s and Black America’s charismatic and forceful young leader. There was quite a resurgence of interest in Malcolm X in 1992, when director Spike Lee released the nationwide movie “Malcolm X,” starring Denzel Washington. The film received two Oscar nominations, but was mostly seen in its paid version by African American crowds – white people didn’t seem to want to see it for unknown reasons.Malcolm X – Wife and Family
Nobody seems to know about Betty Sanders early life and family background. She was born, however, in Detroit, Michigan, and is the daughter of Shelman Sandlin and a woman named Sanders. Sanders was an illegitimate child, one with a troubled upbringing, and she was given over to foster parents, growing up in a nice, middle class house in Detroit. Due to her difficult childhood, she devoted her life to African American childcare, health and sexual education.
Betty moved to NYC to get away from the narrow minded views of the white South, studying nursing at Brooklyn State Hospital. One night, her friends took her to hear Malcolm X speak about the Nation of Islam at an Islamic temple in Harlem. Essence Magazine, a magazine specifically for American black women, stated in 1992 that Betty’s friend offered to introduce her to Malcolm X after he was done speaking.
Betty’s reaction to that was “Big deal!” But she went to the speech. She later continued in the interview: “But then, I looked over, and saw this man on the extreme right aisle sort of galloping to the podium. He was tall, he was thin, and the way he was galloping, it looked as though he was going someplace much more important than the podium…well, he got to the podium, and I sat up straight. “Betty was quite impressed with Malcolm X’s speech. Afterwards, she caught him backstage, and they discussed racism in Alabama. She started attending all of his speeches and lectures, and by the time she graduated nursing school, she was a member of the Nation of Islam. As Elijah Muhammad bestowed the last name “X” on all of his followers, she was now Betty X, like Malcolm X, no longer encumbered with “a slave name.”
During this entire time, the relatives that Malcolm had lost pervaded his consciousness. The man kept losing relatives in an extremely bitter battle with the authorities – due to his family being seen as territorial hostiles in America. They were the descendants of slaves. This gave them an inerasable sense of lost innocence and deep bitterness. Always forced into a position of fighting back without being technically allowed to do so, having been forced out of all positions of power except for some limited religious authority, they tried their best in a sea of remote possibilities to figure out how to deal with life and death.
When Betty X went on the pilgrimage to Mecca with her husband, she also was given the Muslim last name Shabazz, becoming Betty X Shabazz.
Their family survived the firebombing of their home – due to Malcolm X’s activism – outside of Queens, New York. On February 21, 1965, Betty X and her four girls witnessed the assassination in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. It was reported Betty X covered her children with her own body on the ballroom floor as the fifteen shots rang out; people admired her remarkable courage. She had known her husband’s death was imminent.
In his book about Malcolm X, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Alex Haley wrote: “Sister Betty came through the people, herself a nurse, and those recognizing her moved back. She fell on her knees, looking down at his bare, bullet pocked chest, sobbing, ‘They killed him!'”
Malcolm X was purportedly survived by six to eight children. Needing to replenish themselves with as many children as possible, they were caught in a moment of time, in a continuous battle with the authorities. And yet, they fought back and won in many ways, most of which were nonviolent. There is a photograph of Malcolm X holding a twenty gauge shotgun near a window outside his home at the time, and in an interview, he said he would very much like to “kill me up some crackers,” meaning white people.
At least the two of them, Brother Malcolm X Shabazz and Sister Betty X Shabazz, met and loved each other, however briefly. They became a famous and beloved pair, about whom one story says they met during the taping of a Nation of Islam radio show, and another story says they met after a speech given by Malcolm X. At any rate, they finally made it to being with each other. This is an event which many people born on this Earth are not fortunate enough to enjoy in the course of their lifetimes.
Their daughter Ilyasah Shabazz wrote a famous autobiography, “Growing Up X,” and after Malcolm X’s assassination, she said her mother received lots of help from wealthy friends and celebrities. They purchased a large, beautiful home in Mount Vernon, New York for their family. Ilyasah Shabazz writes that her mother Betty X worked hard to provide for all her children, and that they led sheltered, upper middle class lives. They had luxuries such as housekeepers, chauffeured cares, exclusive social clubs, and expensive, mostly white private schools, tutors, and summer camps.
Malcolm X – Brief List of Achievements
About a year after he was paroled, in 1953, Malcolm X was named minister at the Nation of Islam’s Boston mosque. The next year, he became the minister at two other Moslem temples, one in Philadelphia and the other in New York City. “Muhammad Speaks,” the Nation of Islam newspaper, was begun by Malcolm X in 1957, and beginning in the sixties, he was asked to participate in several debates. These included forums on radio stations (Los Angeles, New York, and Washington), television programs (“Open Mind” and “The Mike Wallace News Program”) and universities (Harvard Law School, Howard University, and Columbia University).
Malcolm X befriended and was the minister for the famous heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, and he helped him convert and join the Nation of Islam. Clay announced that his new name was Muhammad Ali in February of 1964. And in March of 1964, after he left the Nation of Islam, Malcolm formed the Moslem Mosque; months later, he also organized the Organization of Afro American Unity.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which was worked on for two years with his friend writer Alex Haley of “Roots” TV miniseries fame, was published posthumously in November of 1965. The book tells many stories which have since been under dispute, but the end of the book contained scenes from the real assassination of Brother Malcolm X Shabazz.
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Karen S Cole