Malcolm X (el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz) was a human rights activist and Muslim minister who is considered a key figure of the US Civil Rights Movement.
Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska in 1923, as a young man he was sentenced to 10 years on charges of grand larceny, breaking and entering, and firearms possession. While incarcerated, Malcolm converted to Islam and adopted the name Malcolm X. He joined the Nation of Islam and rose 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 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 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, making sure they would never be alone together on dates and instead taking 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 his death.
In regards to Malcolm X’s sexuality, there are 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 Perry’s biography the most complete and well-rounded account of Malcolm X’s personal life.
Perry spoke to several of Malcolm X's childhood pals whose friendship with X continued well into adulthood, and many believed that his sexuality was fluid. Friends interviewed spoke about same-sex liaisons throughout his early adolescence and reported that Malcolm X operated as a sex worker in his late teens. X is reported to have often bragged 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 difficult 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. This tension came to a head in 1964, when X encountered conflicts within the Nation of Islam, reportedly receiving several death threats, culminating in his assassination on February 21st, 1965. Several members of the Nation of Islam were charged with his murder and quickly sentenced.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. have often been compared, not only as two of the most influential figures in the Civil Rights Movement, but as two men who occupied opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum on how to achieve political change. Although his activism and rhetoric were controversial at times, Malcolm X has become a widely respected and celebrated figure in the black and Muslim communities in the US due to his relentless pursuit of racial justice.