Malcolm X (el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz) was a human rights activist and Muslim minister who is considered a key figure of the Civil Rights Movement.
He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska on May 19th, 1923. As a teenager, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. While there, Malcolm converted to Islam and adopted the name Malcolm X. He devoted himself to the Nation of Islam, rising to become one of the organization’s most influential and well-respected leaders by the time he was released on parole in 1952.
After his release, Malcolm X used his platform to advocate for causes such as Black empowerment and supremacy, and often criticized other civil rights leaders for their stance on nonviolent protests and the hope of racial integration throughout the country. Due to his status in the public eye and as an influential member of the Nation of Islam, he was subjected to years of surveillance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in an attempt to catch him on charges of communism.
Malcolm X met his wife, Betty Sanders, in 1955 at one of his speaking engagements, and after she continued to repeatedly show up to his lectures and public gatherings, they soon became a couple. Betty changed her name to Betty X in 1956, joining the Nation of Islam at his request. Malcolm followed strict cultural norms when it came to courting her, including never taking her on any dates where they would be alone together, and instead loved to take her to dinner parties and other public events. Two years later, in 1958, Malcolm proposed to Betty over the phone, and they were married two days after the call. Together, they had six daughters— though his youngest twins, Malaak and Malikah, were both born after he had passed.
In regards to Malcolm X’s sexuality, there are many conflicting accounts about how he lived his life. While Malcolm was a fervent supporter of equality and human rights, details about his sexuality remained hidden from his public persona.
Bruce Perry’s biography, Malcolm— The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (1991) dissected over 400 interviews, interactions, and written accounts from Malcolm X's close friends and family about everything from his childhood to his assassination. While the biography was not well received by critics, many consider Malcolm— The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America to be the most complete and well-rounded account of Malcolm X’s personal life.
Perry spoke to several of Malcolm X's friends from childhood that he continued relationships with well into adulthood, and many believed that Malcolm’s sexuality was fluid. Friends interviewed talk about same-sex liaisons throughout his early adolescence. Later Malcolm X reportedly worked as a sex worker in his late teens to early twenties, often bragging about how he “earned money servicing queers”, and how he was sexually involved with his boss William Paul Lennon, for whom Malcolm worked as a butler.
It is hard to unravel the story of a man who died so unexpectedly and so young. For religious reasons, many of his followers have also denied and attempted to cover up his sexual life before his marriage.
In the early 60s, Malcolm grew unhappy with the Nation of Islam and turned to Sunni Islam after completing a pilgrimage to Mecca. During his religious reawakening, he took on a second name— el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. Malcolm struggled to exist between two separate branches of Islam, and soon formed the Islamic Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI).
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were and are often compared, as they were two men using different means to achieve the same ends at the same time.
Throughout 1964, Malcolm X encountered conflicts with the Nation of Islam, reportedly receiving several death threats, and was assassinated on February 21st, 1965. Several members of the Nation of Islam were charged with his murder and quickly sentenced.
Although his activism was controversial at times, Malcolm X has become a widely respected and celebrated member of the African-American and Muslim-American communities due to his relentless pursuit of racial justice.