On his ascent to international fame, Malcolm X (1925-1965) accomplished many things in Detroit, Boston and Philadelphia, but had his most productive activist years in Harlem. A short resume after his Islamic epiphany could read:
• Assistant Minister to the Detroit Temple #1, summer 1953
• First Minister to the Boston Temple #11, winter 1953
• Acting Minister of the Philadelphia Temple #12, 1954
• Minister of the New York Temple, 1954
• Editor of the newspaper Muhammad Speaks, 1957
• Minister of the Detroit Temple, 1957
• Married Betty X, January 1958 and moved to Elmhurst, Queens
• NOI Ambassador to the Middle East, 1959
• Speaker at the Nation of Islam Rally in New York, 1961
• Led hundreds of NOI members in a Times Square rush-hour protest against police harassment, February 1963
• At Micheaux’s Bookstore at 125th Street & Seventh Ave, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Dick Gregory held a rally protesting racial violence in the South, March 1963
• New York Times reported that Malcolm X was 2nd most sought after speaker in the United States, 1963
In 1963, Malcolm X grew more confident in his national voice and began to speak on subjects without permission from Elijah Muhammad. Many of his speeches were at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem and Audubon Ballroom at the northwestern edge of Harlem. Most of the time Elijah Muhammad did not mind because Malcolm X used media exposure to increase Nation of Islam (NOI) recruitment. But when Malcolm X made his "Chickens Come Home to Roost" comment after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963, he went too far for Elijah Muhammad.
Malik El-Shabazz announcing formation of the OAAU in 1964
Fearing reprisals by the U.S. government, Elijah Muhammad publicly silenced Malcolm X as a representative of the Nation of Islam for 90 days. During that period of reflection, Malcolm discovered several matters concerning Elijah Muhammad and other NOI leaders, which were morally inconsistent with his own values. Malcolm’s split from the NOI in March 1964 became very public and very ugly. Neither side realized that J. Edgar Hoover's FBI had planted informants and disinformation to inflame tensions, making the split far worse than otherwise. These facts were hidden from the NOI until the Freedom of Information Act permitted public access to J. Edgar Hoover's CoIntelPro papers in 1993.
In April 1964, Malcolm X made his first independent trip to Africa and his first trip to Mecca, where, he abandoned blanket racism from his soul. While on the trip, his passport indicated a name change to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and he converted to orthodox Islam. When meeting with the leaders of Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal and Nigeria, he was watched by American CIA agents and photographed by journalists. Furthermore, Malcolm publicly stated for the first time that some whites can help the Negro improve his condition in America. Such a stance was anathema to the NOI.
Shortly after returning to America in May 1964, tensions escalated between Malcolm and the NOI due to housing eviction hearings brought by the NOI and his highly charged public comments about the underbelly of the NOI. The NOI apparently owned the deed on his house.
In June 1964, under the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, he publicly announced the emergence of Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) in Harlem, though it had been his brainchild before the Africa trip. The OAAU, headquartered at the Theresa Hotel, had two parts, one for people of African descent and another for all other people. By establishing a multiracial OAAU, his new speeches indicated that Malik El-Shabazz planned to establish bridges between progressive Muslim, Christian and Jewish elements in America plus African leaders, many of whom were finally escaping Colonialism. His goal was to elevate the Civil Rights Movement to a Global Human Rights Movement for all people of color. Would Malik El-Shabazz convince America's non-violent Civil Rights leaders to jointly protest American discrimination in front of United Nations during a General Assembly?
Malik El-Shabazz' OAAU mission and his emerging alliance with the non-violent Civil Rights Movement to possibly embarrass American policy makers in protest before the world set off more alarm bells with America's President Johnson, Congress and Intelligence community. What if Russia used those civil rights protests as recruitment propaganda to enlist more nations under its Communist commonwealth, as Cuba had done? America's foreign policy makers and businessmen feared more of the same occurring in newly independent nations emerging in the Caribbean, Africa and Southeast Asia. One must remember that America and Russia were deeply engaged in Cold War tactics to win the hearts and minds of African and Caribbean nations emerging form Colonialism in the 1960s. Would Russia extend an olive branch and financial support to the OAAU? For all these reasons, Malik El-Shabazz became a person of interest to the CIA abroad and the FBI at home.
His new incarnation as the mercurial El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz made him a deeply hated outcast of the NOI, a villain to imperialistic governments, and oddly, a growing ally to the Civil Rights Movement in America. In 1964-65, Malik El-Shabazz made several public speeches that America's white power structure should give the non-violent, Christian-based Civil Rights Movement what they demand (fully protected civil rights) or it would have to deal with rising elements of black resistance to job, housing and voting discrimination, Klan activity and police brutality.
Malik El-Shabazz announcing formation of the OAAU in 1964
Historians don't give Malik El-Shabazz enough credit along with Dr. King and his non-violent followers to finally convince the white power structure to move on civil rights. Given power concedes nothing without pressure, Malik El-Shabazz knew that he could represent a calm but powerful voice for the other Black America that would not respond to violence by turning the other cheek. Hoping to prevent embarrassing protests like the August 1963 March on Washington or worse, a national outbreak of riots, Congress and President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act in July 1964.
To increase his knowledge of their problems and strengthen his coalition with African and Arabic leaders, Malik El-Shabazz went to Africa and Middle East again from July through late November 1964. Upon return, he jetted across the globe, and gave more speeches and media interviews promoting his rapidly maturing new views under the aegis of the OAAU. With the passage of the Civil Rights legislation and and work beginning for the Voting Rights Act, Malik El-Shabazz continued softening his criticism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the SCLC and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He even published memos of support to them.
Another milestone occurred on 29 January 1965. Malik El-Shabazz testified before the Illinois Attorney General who was investigating NOI activities, thereby worsening relations with the NOI. It may have been his death warrant.
On 4 February 1965, he went to Selma, Alabama to speak at an AME church in support of voting rights, strengthening relations with the SCLC in town conducting a voting rights campaign. Stressing the importance of building support for a global Human Rights Movement, on 5 February 1965, Malik El-Shabazz went to London for a speech. He planned similar speeches in Paris and Geneva, but was not permitted to enter France, so he returned to London where he gave another speech instead.
A day after returning to New York, his house was firebombed in the early morning of 14 February 1964. In the face of such turmoil, he remained committed to the larger purpose of his ideals. That same evening, he gave his last major speech in Detroit. Three days later, his family was evicted from the firebombed house. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was feeling the heat and everyone around him knew it.
On 20 February 1965, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz informed Alex Haley of his doubts that the NOI had the capabilities to independently conduct many of the threats and harassment he witnessed. His suspicions were well founded because he trained many NOI members and intimately knew their organizational resource limits. For example, the NOI could not implement wiretaps necessary to access his travel itinerary. Yet, NOI agents or people posing as NOI agents greeted Malik El-Shabazz arriving at a domestic airport or delivered phone threats when only his inner circle knew his hotel and room number.
On 21 February 1965, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was assassinated by a handful of NOI members. Eyewitnesses testified that a squadron of policemen amazingly appeared in the Audubon Ballroom only moments after shots rang out. Assailants were quickly apprehended on-site and another was apprehended 5 days later. Coincidence? Looked more like convenience.
Was it, as some allege, J. Edgar Hoover surgically cultivating anger amongst the most radical group of NOI members to bump off a “Black Messiah” then catching the assailants immediately afterwards to discredit the entire NOI?
Aside from J. Edgar Hoover's anti-Black Messiah doctrine, is there another plausible theory of the truth? Keep an open mind, look at the evidence from many angles and decide for yourself.
Hear Malcolm X's riveting and thought provoking speeches online. Many lessons he taught still apply today. You can learn much more about his teachings at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center in Upper Harlem.