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The life and martyrdom of Malcolm X

Malcolm X was assassinated at the age of 39 on 21 February 1965 while addressing the Organisation of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom in New York, and his legacy continues to profoundly shape young minds on matters of education, liberation, and social justice.

February 21, 2024 at 7:00 am

February marks the start of Black History Month, an annual celebration in the US which is also observed at various times in other Anglosphere countries as a tribute to the contributions, achievements and challenges of the African diaspora. One prominent figure stands out each year, forever linked with this event. Not only is he remembered for his enduring revolutionary impact on the African-American community and the Global South, but also because it was in this very month that Malcolm X met his tragic end.

On 21 February, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York, Malcolm X (known latterly in his life as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) was assassinated while addressing the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). His assailants included members of the group in which Malcolm had previously risen through the ranks: the Nation of Islam (NOI). At the time of his death, he was just 39 years old.

In the build up to his killing, El-Shabazz knew he was a marked man, owing to constant surveillance from the FBI and local authorities in addition to threats from the NOI after his fallout with their leader, Elijah Muhammad, and his eventual embracing of Sunni Islam.

In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with author Alex Hayley, El-Shabazz said that, “It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence.” The book opened with one of his earliest childhood memories: fleeing with his family after the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) burnt his house down, having killed his father, an outspoken Baptist preacher, influenced by the teachings of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.

Although he grew up in Lansing, Michigan, El-Shabazz was born Malcolm Little on 19 May 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska. Interestingly, this was the year before the precursor to Black History Month began; Negro History Week was established by African-American scholar and educator Carter G Woodson.

After his father’s murder, his mother’s mental health deteriorated, and this led young Malcolm and his siblings to go into foster care. He would later become involved in Boston’s criminal underworld before becoming more entrenched in that lifestyle in the “Black mecca” of new York City’s Harlem. He was eventually arrested and imprisoned.

Although he was once nicknamed “Satan” for his irreligious views, once in prison Malcolm underwent a transformative journey. Despite being illiterate, he used his time to educate himself, opening his mind to knowledge and discovering a sense of belonging within the NOI after his eldest brother Wilfred recruited him into the group.

“I’d put prison second to college as the best place for a man to go if he needs to do some thinking,” he recalled of his life behind bars. “If he’s motivated, in prison he can change his life.”

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Ascending through the organisation as a minister and the group’s national spokesman, Malcolm X, as he became known, oversaw a surge in NOI membership through the 1950s and into the 1960s, arguably eclipsing Elijah Muhammad in popularity and prominence. With his fiery sermons and oratory he was described as “the angriest black man in America” and held an uncompromising revolutionary stance. This inspired numerous young African-Americans to adopt a more assertive, bolder attitude in standing up for their rights.

His message resonated with notions of black masculinity and appealed to those who began to see Islam as more conducive to their aspirations and solidifying their sense of identity, contrasting it with a Christianity they perceived as having failed and pacified them.

Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.

Malcolm’s approach stood in stark contrast to the non-violent civil rights movement led by Dr Martin Luther King, who he once said was spearheading “the only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy.” For Malcolm X, all revolutions — real revolutions — involved “bloodshed”. It goes without saying that, between the two civil rights leaders, the mainstream establishment favoured King over Malcolm. The former was perceived as more acceptable, whereas the latter was viewed as a formidable threat; someone to be feared. Nevertheless, irrespective of their methods, both were assassinated, with credible suspicions pointing towards state involvement.

In 1964, Malcolm announced his split from the NOI, after some internal disputes and scandals involving Elijah Muhammad, before undertaking a tour of the Middle East, Africa and Europe, visiting many Muslim countries in the process. He performed the Islamic pilgrimage, the Hajj, to the holy city of Makkah. Thereafter he was called El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

The unifying experience of the Hajj saw his beliefs change yet again upon joining the mainstream of the Islamic faith. He witnessed “pilgrims of all colours from all parts of this earth displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood like I’ve never seen before.” His departure from the NOI also split the organisation, with many following El-Shabazz into mainstream Islam, including none other than Elijah Muhammad’s son, Warith Deen Mohammed. The most famous African-American Muslim, if not one of the most famous people of the modern age, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, severed ties with El-Shabazz while still a member of the NOI, a decision Ali later came to regret when he too entered mainstream Islam, without the opportunity for reconciliation.

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While on his travels it also became clear that Malcolm moderated some of his views and beliefs, including the segregation of blacks and whites in the US and Black Nationalism. Instead, he embraced internationalism. It was around this time that El-Shabazz became increasingly vocal in his opposition to Zionism and the “illogical” occupation of Arab Palestine. It is also worth mentioning that he visited Gaza in Palestine, namely the Khan Yunis refugee camp, which is currently being attacked by the Israeli occupation forces as part of the genocidal war being waged on the Palestinians in the coastal territory.

Writing in the Egyptian Gazette in 1964, El-Shabazz stated: “Did the Zionists have the legal or moral right to invade Arab Palestine, uproot its Arab citizens from their homes and seize all Arab property for themselves just based on the ‘religious’ claim that their forefathers lived there thousands of years ago? Only a thousand years ago the Moors lived in Spain. Would this give the Moors of today the legal and moral right to invade the Iberian Peninsula, drive out its Spanish citizens, and then set up a new Moroccan nation… where Spain used to be, as the European Zionists have done to our Arab brothers and sisters in Palestine?”

In short, the Zionist argument to justify Israel’s present occupation of Arab Palestine has no intelligent or legal basis in history… not even in their own religion.

Not long after his return to America, El-Shabazz’s mission to unite oppressed people globally and spread the message of Islam in the US was ended abruptly by his assassination. Many, including El-Shabazz himself, believed that such an inevitability would likely involve the FBI, given his knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of the Nation of Islam, the movement in which he had played a crucial role in developing.

Even today, the exact circumstances surrounding his death are a mystery, especially following last year’s exoneration of two of the three men convicted of killing the civil rights icon. A 2020 Netflix documentary Who Killed Malcolm X? alleged that one of the assassins was William Bradley, also known as Al-Mustafa Shabazz, who lived in Newark, New Jersey, and that he got away from the scene of the crime, despite his involvement being an “open secret” in the local community for many years. The alleged killer died two years before the filmmaker got the chance to interview him. Allegations linking the US government to the assassination persist to this day.

Last year, on the 58th anniversary of Malik El-Shabazz’s martyrdom, one of his daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz, announced that she intended to sue the FBI, the CIA, New York City Police Department (NYPD) and other agencies in a wrongful death lawsuit. The various government agencies are accused of fraudulently concealing evidence that they “conspired to and executed their plan to assassinate Malcolm X.”

Malik El-Shabazz’s legacy continues to have a profound impact on shaping young minds around themes such as education, liberation and social justice. With the current global focus on the injustice and tyranny being inflicted on the Palestinian people, such ideas are as pertinent as ever and will be a reminder that the Palestinian revolution and liberation can be achieved “by any means necessary,” including armed struggle. In this context, one Malcolm X quote certainly stands the test of time: “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”

READ: Malcolm X’s daughter to sue CIA, FBI and other agencies over his assassination

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.