Tuesday marked the 58th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, arguably the greatest U.S. leader of any color in the 20th century. He was 39 when he died on Feb. 21, 1965, the same age as Martin Luther King Jr. when he was assassinated in 1968. Without reaching 40, these two leaders seem to have lived a thousand years.

Malcolm X, Black nationalist and human rights activist, is shown Feb. 9, 1965, 12 days before he was assassinated in New York during a speech. He was 39 when he was killed. Victor Boynton/Associated Press, File

Malcolm X was way ahead of his time. He redefined the freedom movement as one of human, not just civil, rights. He carried the U.S. struggle against racism into the global arena, linking it to the anti-colonial movements of Black people in Africa, and of people of color around the world. As a Nation of Islam minister, he advocated Black pride, Black power and the rejection of white standards of beauty as soon as the early 1950s. His charismatic leadership enlarged the Nation of Islam from 400 members to 40,000 by 1960.

Despite Malcolm’s enduring influence, the anniversary of his assassination passed with little notice in the mainstream media. His birthday on May 19 will never become a national holiday, though he appeared on a commemorative stamp in 1999 and continues to inspire activists and live in the work of contemporary Black artists like Erykah Badu and the Wu-Tang Clan.


Malcom X journeyed from street hustler and prisoner to international voice for the oppressed. Who else traveled so far and carried so many people with him?

His most ardent followers were found in the simmering, poverty-plagued ghettos of urban America. Malcolm’s call to action was “by any means necessary,” a militant and uncompromising stance that shook up the powers-that-be. He made it easier for those who professed nonviolence to push America forward. As a speaker, he was electrifying. Even today, listening to his speeches is literally spine-chilling.


Malcolm feared nothing and no one. “I live like a man who is dead already,” he said. After revealing that Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad had impregnated several of his teenage secretaries, Malcolm X knew his days were numbered. “I’m probably a dead man already,” he told Mike Wallace during an interview.

Les Payne’s and Tamara Payne’s riveting, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “The Dead are Arising,” recounted Malcolm, as a teenage delinquent, coolly telling a cop who had stuck a gun in his face, “Go ahead, Whitey. Pull the trigger.” And that was during the 1940s.

He was born Malcolm Little and spent much of his youth in Lansing and Detroit, Michigan. After dropping out of school, he moved to Boston, where he became a small-time criminal and street hustler. He sold weed, ran numbers, stole money and worked with pimps. In 1946, at the age of 21, Malcolm was imprisoned for six years for burglary. In prison, he absorbed the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Stressing self-discipline, self-determination and self-sufficiency, the Nation of Islam had cleaned up addicts and alcoholics. A light went on in Malcolm’s head. He gave up pork and cigarettes and felt remorse and guilt for his past.

The Nation of Islam advocated racial separatism and considered white people devils. After prison, Malcolm spread the word as the popular minister of Mosque No. 7 in Harlem, using racial pride and identity as an antidote to the debilitating effects of racism.


Brilliant and analytical, Malcolm wasn’t afraid to acknowledge error. He separated from the Nation of Islam in 1964. During a pilgrimage to Mecca, he was moved by the racial unity he witnessed among orthodox Muslims. In June 1964, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity.


He remained a Black nationalist, asserting African Americans must control their institutions and economies to gain equality. But he altered his views of whites and race relations, affirming that whites and Blacks were all part of the human family.

Malcolm had become a pariah within the Nation of Islam. On stage at the Audubon Ballroom in New York, he was gunned down in front of his wife and children by a member of the Nation of Islam. The FBI and New York City Police Department were complicit in his assassination.

As time was running out, Malcolm was moving fast. Who knows what he could have become?

Malcolm X never sought honors while he lived; nor would he covet them now. But nearly 60 years after his death, the world still hasn’t caught up to him.

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