Who was Malcolm X? The life and death of a complex American hero

Two men imprisoned for the civil rights leader’s 1965 murder will be exonerated this week

Malcolm X
(Image credit: 2012 AFP)

Two men found guilty of the assassination of the US civil rights leader Malcolm X are to have their convictions quashed.

The exoneration of Muhammad A Aziz and Khalil Islam, each of whom spent more than 20 years in prison for the killing, means “rewriting the official history of one of the most notorious murders of the civil rights era” in a “remarkable acknowledgement of grave errors” made during the case, said The New York Times.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office launched a review of the convictions in 2020, after meeting representatives from the non-profit legal group the Innocence Project, reported the BBC.

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The 22-month investigation found that the FBI and the New York Police Department withheld “key” evidence that would likely have resulted in their acquittal.

Aziz, Islam and a third man, then known as Thomas Hagan, were convicted in 1966 of Malcolm X’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. All three men have since been paroled, although Islam died in 2009.

Malcolm X was murdered on 21 February 1965, after three men opened fire on him at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan as he prepared to address an audience.

The militant Black Nationalist leader was the spokesperson for the Nation of Islam during the 1950s and 1960s. An articulate, charismatic and unapologetic speaker, he argued that there was no such thing as peaceful revolution and that racism should be fought against "by any means necessary".

Half a century after his death, his legacy continues to resonate around the world – but it isn't without its controversies.

His early years

Born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Nebraska, Malcolm X was one of eight children. His family were vocal civil rights campaigners and were routinely harassed and attacked by white supremacist groups, often with no subsequent intervention from the authorities.

"When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, 'a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home,'" Malcolm said, according to one his biographies. "Brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out".

In 1929, his family home was set on fire by a racist mob. "The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned to the ground," he said.

His father Earl Little died when Malcolm was six, his body discovered on nearby railway tracks. Authorities ruled his death an accident, although insurers claimed it was a suicide, thereby his life insurance policy – but Malcolm maintained that his father was murdered by members of the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan splinter group.

His mother went on to have a nervous breakdown and spent the last 26 years of her life in a state mental hospital. Despite being highly gifted, Malcolm dropped out of school at 15 after being told he was better suited to being a carpenter than a lawyer.

He later moved to New York and then Boston where he turned to a life of crime, consisting of drug dealing, pimping and robbery. He was eventually arrested in 1946 and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

There he was introduced to the Nation of Islam and welcomed by the group's leader, Elijah Mohammed. He told Malcolm to drop his last name, which he said was inherited from the slave owners, and replace it with the letter X in memory of the African name that had been stolen from his family.

His political views

He was in many ways "the polar opposite of Dr Martin Luther King" argues Katy Stoddard in The Guardian. "Where King called for civil rights through peaceful protest, Malcolm X often advocated violence as the only means of forcing change on a reluctant American society."

Despite fighting for a common cause, the two civil rights activists initially possessed a clear disdain for one another. Malcolm criticised Martin Luther King for advocating non-violence, arguing that it taught the black community to be "defenceless in the face of attack". King was equally critical of Malcolm X. "I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice," he once said.

During a visit to the UK in 1964, Malcolm X told Manchester University students that civil rights would be attained "by the ballot or the bullet". He had plans to take his fight to the United Nations, "charging the US government with failure to protect its black citizens from racist white terrorists," the Washington Post reports.

He was also strongly opposed to white liberals getting involved in the civil rights movement, using an analogy of "coffee which is strong and hot until you add cream and then it gets cooler and cooler until you don’t have any coffee."

In 1964, he left the Nation of Islam following a bitter dispute over the direction of the group and the personal choices of its leader. During the last year of his life he travelled extensively in Africa and the Middle East and converted to Orthodox Sunni Islam, taking the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

"Federal surveillance and death threats from the Nation of Islam shadowed Malcolm’s last frenetic year alive," writes Peniel E Joseph in The Root.

His death

On 21 February 1965, Malcolm X was shot in the chest as he stepped up to the podium to deliver a speech at a rally in Harlem, New York. Three members of the Nation of Islam were arrested for his murder.

"Malcolm died, in the end, how he lived: working, teaching and inspiring ordinary black people," says Joseph. The shot that killed him "tore through his chest and resounded around the world," wrote Hugh Muir in The Guardian. He accuses the American authorities of being "silently complicit" in his assassination.


One of Malcolm X’s most controversial statements was made in the wake of President John F Kennedy's assassination, which he said represented "the chickens coming home to roost". His "misogyny and violence against women, prior to Malcolm's embrace of the Nation of Islam," also goes unreported as did his "casual anti-Semitism", argues Muir.

Malcolm X is also accused of covering up "the extent of his addiction to drugs, the crimes he committed against others in the black community, including his robbery of one of his own acquaintances, and the depth of his involvement in the running of prostitutes."

His legacy

History has turned Malcolm X into both a martyr and a national icon. In 1999, the US Postal Service announced it would feature him on a stamp, to mixed reaction. "I don’t know if he'd appreciate that," the activist and black studies scholar Richard Newman said at the time. "It's ironic to see him honoured by the government he despised."

Regardless of how he is remembered by the government, Malcolm X has gone on to inspire generations of civil right activists in America and abroad who are fighting for radical change instead of asking for gradual reforms.

His daughter Ilyasah Shabazz said recently that her father would be “proud” of young activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, which was sparked by the death of George Floyd last year.

“These are issues, vision and concerns that he raised 50-plus years ago. And so I think it’s important for us to come together and keep fighting for justice in Malcolm’s name,” she told The Washington Post in May, on what would have been the civil rights leader’s 96th birthday.

“He said it would be this generation of young leaders that would recognize that those in power have misused it and will demand change and have the capacity to recognize one’s humanity, not from a Black and White perspective, but from a right and wrong perspective,” she continued.

“It was our young people who organized through social media and had people of every ethnic, every nationality, everything that you can possibly imagine, the human family, coming together in 50 states in this country and 18 countries abroad proclaiming ‘Black Lives Matter.’”

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