Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

Malcolm X activist

Muslim voice

Malcolm X (1925-1965), born Malcolm Little and also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was an American black Muslim minister and a figurehead and voice for the Nation of Islam movement.

After leaving the Nation of Islam in 1964, he made the Islamic pilgrimage or Hajj, to Mecca and became a Sunni Muslim. He also founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Less than a year later, he was assassinated in Washington Heights on the first day of National Brotherhood Week.

Historian Robin DG Kelley wrote:

'Malcolm X has been called many things: Pan-Africanist, father of Black Power, religious fanatic, closet conservative, incipient socialist, and a menace to society. The meaning of his public life – his politics and ideology – is contested in part because his entire body of work consists of a few dozen speeches and a collaborative autobiography whose veracity is challenged. Malcolm has become a sort of tabula rasa, or blank slate, on which people of different positions can write their own interpretations of his politics and legacy'.

Identity and branding of enslaved Africans

Malcolm Little changed his surname to X because the 'X' is meant to symbolise the rejection of 'slave names' and the absence of an inherited African name to take its place. The 'X' is also the brand that many enslaved Africans received on their upper arm.


Malcolm X had just begun to speak on 21 February 1965 in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom, when a disturbance broke out in the crowd of 400. A man yelled 'Get your hand outta my pocket! Don't be messin' with my pockets!' As Malcolm X and his bodyguards moved to quieten the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot Malcolm X in the chest. Two other men charged the stage and fired handguns, hitting him 16 times. Angry onlookers caught and beat the assassins as they attempted to flee the ballroom. Malcolm X was pronounced dead on arrival at New York's Columbia Presbyterian hospital.