On this day in 1965, Malcolm X is assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam while preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in New York City; he was 39.
Born in Omaha Nebraska as Malcolm Little, Malcolm X was an African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist. To his admirers he was a courageous advocate for the rights of blacks, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans; detractors accused him of preaching racism and violence. His father was killed when he was six and his mother was placed in a mental hospital when he was thirteen, after which he lived in a series of foster homes. One such home was in Mason, MI.
In 1946, at age twenty, he went to prison for larceny and breaking and entering. While in prison, he became a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI), changing his birth name Malcolm Little to Malcolm X because, he later wrote, Little was the name that “the white slavemaster … had imposed upon [his] paternal forebears.” After his parole in 1952 he quickly rose to become one of the organization’s most influential leaders, serving as its public face; Malcolm X wrote proudly of some of the social achievements the Nation made while he was a member, particularly its free drug rehabilitation program. The Nation promoted black supremacy, advocated the separation of black and white Americans, and rejected the civil rights movement for its emphasis on integration.
By March 1964, Malcolm X had grown disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad. Expressing many regrets about his time with them, he embraced Sunni Islam. After a period of pilgrimage in Africa and the Middle East, he repudiated the Nation of Islam, disavowed racism and founded Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. He continued to emphasize Pan-Africanism, black self-determination, and black self-defense.
Two days before his murder, Malcolm X told interviewer Gordon Parks the Nation of Islam was actively trying to kill him. On February 21, 1965, he was preparing to address an audience of over 400 in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when a man rushed forward and shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun; two additional assailants charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns.
Malcolm X was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm, shortly after arriving at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The autopsy identified 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds from the initial shotgun blast.
Malcolm X’s viewing and funeral were attended by as many as 30,000 mourners and he has been described as one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history. Imminently quotable, perhaps his most prescient moment lies in his words “If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.”