Malcolm X's Birthday

Malcolm X's Birthday

Date Observed: May 19
Locations: Communities nationwide

May 19 marks the birth of Malcolm X, given the name Malcolm Little at birth on May 19, 1925. Malcolm X is remembered on his birthday in cities across the United States and in other countries for his leadership and activism for civil rights on behalf of African Americans and people of African descent everywhere. Hundreds of public forums pay tribute to Malcolm X on his birthday, but only in Berkeley, California, is the date an official holiday with city offices and schools closed.

Historical Background

During the 1950s and early 1960s and after his death in 1965, Malcolm X was a highly controversial figure among the predominately white American public but an icon to many African Americans, especially on college campuses. He advocated black nationalism, which meant promoting cultural pride among African Americans, rebuffing racial integration, working to advance black economic power, and developing African-American political organizations. Black nationalists also promoted interaction between people of African descent wherever they happened to live. His ideas, however, developed over his short and sometimes volatile lifetime.

Born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm was one of eight children of Earl and Louise Little. Malcolm's father was a Baptist minister who spoke out for civil rights. He supported Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, whose purposes included unifying people of African descent whatever their nationality, improving their living conditions, founding black businesses, and establishing independent black states in Africa (see also Marcus Garvey's Birthday).

Earl Little's advocacy for racial justice brought death threats from a white supremacist group known as the Black Legion. In an attempt to escape the threats, the family moved to Lansing, Michigan, but in 1929 their home was burned down. Another tragedy struck in 1931, when Malcolm's father was found dead on the trolley tracks. The Little family was convinced that the Black Legion was responsible, but according to police both the arson of the Little home and death of Earl Little were accidental.

Following his father's death, Malcolm's mother had an emotional breakdown and had to be institutionalized. As a result, the children were separated and sent to different foster homes and juvenile facilities. Malcolm was an excellent student and hoped to become a lawyer, but he became disillusioned when a teacher told him that a black man in the 1940s could not realistically achieve that goal. He left school and drifted into a life of crime in Harlem and Boston.

In 1946 Malcolm was arrested for burglary in Boston. He received a sentence of 10 years in prison and served seven years. There, he was exposed to the teachings of the Nation of Islam - Black Muslims. He was determined to turn his life around and became a follower of the religion and the teachings of Minister Elijah Muhammad. It was then that he took the surname X, in keeping with the Nation of Islam's practice to symbolize that a person was an ex-Christian, ex-Negro, and ex-slave. In other words, the X meant that Malcolm would no longer be known by a name that came from a white slave owner.

Nation of Islam Leader

After he was paroled in 1952, Malcolm X became a preeminent spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, helping to increase membership by the thousands. He often bitterly denounced white domination of African Americans and was a fervent supporter of black nationalism.

The concept of black nationalism did not begin with the Nation of Islam. During the 1800s and early 1900s, black leaders such as Paul Cuffe (1759-1815), Martin Delaney (1812-1885), and Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) urged African Americans to find true equality by creating a separate black nation rather than being assimilated into the whitedominated United States. With the rise of the Nation of Islam, racial separatism became a religious doctrine, and Elijah Muhammad publicly rebuked whites as being an "evil race" and misleading black people with their emphasis on wealth and power. In a July 1970 issue of Muhammad Speaks Newspaper, he wrote: "Black Man, these are your days. The white man's days are gone."

At the same time, however, Muhammad stressed that African Americans should seek their own individuality and not accept the "Negro" and "colored" identity as defined by the dominant white society. He also emphasized economic independence. His sermons and writings often focused on "Knowledge of Self" and "Do for Self."

Echoing these themes, Malcolm X continued to proselytize for the Nation of Islam, and by 1954, Muhammad had appointed him minister of New York Temple No. 7 in Harlem. In 1957, he became the Nation's national representative, second in rank to Muhammad himself. The following year, Malcolm X married Betty Sanders, who became Betty Shabazz, and the couple had six daughters. While raising their family, Betty Shabazz earned a master's degree in public health administration and a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

During the 1960s, Malcolm X was ever more militant in his fiery speeches. After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Malcolm X publicly declared that the president's death amounted to "the chickens coming home to roost, that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, had finally struck down this country's Chief of State."

Because of the public outrage that followed, Elijah Muhammad banned Malcolm X from speaking publicly for three months, which was extended to a longer period. The ban was one reason Malcolm X resigned from the Nation of Islam. He also became disillusioned after learning that Elijah Muhammad had fathered children with two of his former secretaries. The act of adultery would be reason to expel any other Muslim, but Muhammad kept his high position in the Nation of Islam.

In 1964 Malcolm X established his own Organization of Afro-American Unity and the Muslim Mosque, Inc., which held a series of Sunday night public rallies in Harlem. There, Malcolm gave speeches and also appeared in other cities outlining his militant philosophy. He declared that blacks should carry weapons to defend themselves against whites, arguing that blacks were justified in arming themselves because the government would not do its job and protect African Americans. In his view, the only way blacks could truly be free and achieve equality was through revolution. During one talk in 1964 at Palm Gardens in New York, he declared, "Historically, you just don't have a peaceful revolution. Revolutions are bloody, revolutions are violent, revolutions cause bloodshed and death." He noted that revolution could be achieved in the United States "without violence and bloodshed. But America is not morally equipped to do so." On April 3, 1964, Malcolm X gave his famous and controversial "The Ballot or the Bullet" speech in Cleveland, Ohio, which added that African Americans needed to recognize their common oppression and use either votes or guns to stop the racial exploitation.

Malcolm frequently criticized Martin Luther King Jr. for promoting nonviolence and civil disobedience. He believed these were fruitless strategies that appeased whites and made "Uncle Toms" of African Americans. He also argued against integration and for African Americans to separate themselves from the dominant white society.

A Life Change

During 1964, Malcolm made the Hajj - the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia - and thus fulfilled one of the pillars of Islam. The trip changed his life. He met people of other cultures and was treated with respect. From Jedda, Saudi Arabia, Malcolm X wrote a letter to his family and friends about his impressions. This excerpt of his letter appears in his Autobiography: "There were tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white."

After completing the pilgrimage, he took the Muslim name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, and returned to the United States a changed person. He was ready to lead a movement for racial justice and to unify African Americans in the struggle. Although he still did not agree with King's approach, Malcolm offered to help in the nonviolent civil rights movement by sending armed units to defend King and other leaders. But King refused such an approach on moral grounds.

Even as he talked of defending others, Malcolm himself was threatened and several attempts were made on his life, including a firebombing of his home. Tragically, he was assassinated on February 14, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem where he was to deliver a speech. As he stood to speak, three men in front of him fired guns at the same time, killing him. Three Nation of Islam members were convicted of murdering Malcolm X: Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson.

After Malcolm's funeral, Martin Luther King sent a telegram to Betty Shabazz, saying, "While we did not always see eye-to-eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems we face as a race."

Legacy of Malcolm X

The legacy of Malcolm X is not always easy to see because people generally "don't think about the internal change it produced," according to James H. Cone, professor of religious studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York and author of Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare . In comparing the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X for a News & Observer (Durham, North Carolina) reporter, Cone noted: "King changed the way white people think about black people; Malcolm changed the way black people think about themselves." Sonia Sanchez agreed, speaking during a PBS documentary: "He expelled fear for African Americans. That's why we loved him. He said it out loud, not behind closed doors. He took on America for us." African Americans who were clearly influenced by Malcolm X included leaders in the black power movement, such as Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Toure, who articulated a political philosophy that demanded liberation and self-determination for African Americans. Many African Americans began to embrace the "Black is Beautiful" concept. In schools, there were demands for black studies and respect for the African roots of black Americans.

Since his death, Malcolm X has been recognized increasingly by people of many ethnic backgrounds for his efforts to fight racism, poverty, and the repression of African people in America and elsewhere. Films such as Spike Lee's Mal- colm X, music videos, poetry, political essays, and biographies honor him. So do t-shirts and posters with Malcolm X's words "By whatever means necessary" - doing whatever it takes to empower the oppressed.

In the words of Malcolm X scholar Manning Marable: "Malcolm X was the most remarkable historical figure produced by Black America in the 20th century. That's a heavy statement, but I think that in his 39 short years of life, Malcolm came to symbolize Black urban America, its culture, its politics, its militancy, its outrage against structural racism and at the end of his life, a broad internationalist vision of emancipatory power."

Creation of the Holiday

One of the first Malcolm X birthday celebrations was held in Washington, D.C., where the Malcolm X Cultural Education Center was established in 1971 to honor his life and legacy. Between 50,000 and 75,000 people attend this event each year.

In 1977 the city of Berkeley, California, designated Malcolm X's birthday, May 19, to be an official city holiday. Citizens had petitioned the city council to do so since the late 1960s. The law became effective in 1979. Malcolm X.


Celebrations of Malcolm X's life occur annually in most major American cities on his birthday May 19, or for several days around that time. Some occur on the third Sunday in May. Malcolm X may also be commemorated during African-American History Month.

Celebrations conducted across the United States take varied forms. In Lansing, Michigan, for example, the El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Charter School celebrated Malcolm's life in 2005 with a jazz concert and multi-media presentation on the history of AfricanAmerican education.

In New York, the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee and the Sons and Daughters of Afrika conduct an annual pilgrimage and caravan to the gravesite of Malcolm X. First conceived by Malcolm's sister Ella Little-Collins, the pilgrimage includes participants who come from as far south as Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and from as far north as Boston.

At the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was murdered, people gather to honor his life. The Harlem ballroom was reopened on May 19, 2005, as the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center.

Other events include the annual photo exhibit of Malcolm X at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem; Malcolm X Jazz Festival in Oakland, California; and Malcolm X events on college campuses across the United States.

Contacts and Web Sites

Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center 3940 Broadway New York, NY 10032-1543

Malcolm X Cultural Education Center 2100 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., S.E. Washington, DC 20020 202-678-8352

Malcolm X Jazz Festival Eastside Arts Alliance P.O. Box 17008 Oakland, CA 94601

Malcolm X Project, directed by Manning Marable with the Shabazz family Center for Contemporary Black History 760 Schermerhorn Extension - MC 5512 Columbia University 1200 Amsterdam Ave. New York, NY 10027 212-854-7080; fax: 212-854-7060

"Malcolm X: A Search for Truth," online exhibit Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 515 Malcolm X Blvd. New York, NY 10037 212-491-2200

Official Web Site of Malcolm X, presented by CMG Worldwide, agent for the Estate of Malcolm X

Further Reading

Breitman, George, ed. Malcolm X Speaks. New York: Grove Press, 1966. Cone, James H. Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992. Goodman, Amy. Interview with Manning Marable. Democracy Now!, February 21, 2005. . Marable, Manning. "By Any Means Necessary: The Life and Legacy of Malcolm X." Speech at Metro State College, Denver, Colorado, February 21, 1992. .org/zmag/articles/barmarable.htm Marable, Manning, ed. Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, Winter 2005. (Malcolm X issue). Muhammad, Elijah. "What Is Islam? What Is a Muslim?" Muhammad Speaks News- paper, July 17, 1970. . Myers, Walter Dean. Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary. New York: Scholastic, 1994. (young adult) Rickford, Russel John. Betty Shabazz: Her Life with Malcolm X and Fight to Preserve His Legacy. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2004. Rummel, Jack. Malcolm X. New York: Chelsea House, 2004. (young adult) Sagan, Miriam. Malcolm X. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1997. (young adult) Terrill, Robert E. Malcolm X: Inventing Radical Judgment. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004.

Writings by Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. New York: Grove Press, 1966. "The Ballot or the Bullet." Speech delivered April 3, 1964, in Cleveland, OH. http://www
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Malcolm X's Birthday

May 19
Malcolm X, whose original name was Malcolm Little (1925-1965), was an outspoken leader in the black nationalist movement of the 1960s. He converted to the Muslim faith while serving time in prison for burglary, and upon his release began touring the country on behalf of the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad. In 1964 he was suspended from the sect and started his own religious organization. But hostility between Malcolm's followers and the rival Black Muslims escalated. He was assassinated at a rally in Harlem shortly after his Pilgrimage to Mecca.
Because during most of his career Malcolm X advocated violence (for self-protection) and had a reputation for fanaticism and racism, his leadership was rejected by most other civil rights leaders of his day. But, as reflected in his The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as Told to Alex Haley, his pilgrimage to Mecca changed his outlook. After performing the pilgrimage rites, Malcolm composed and sent a letter back home. It read, in part: "For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors .... There were tens of thousands of pilgrims ... from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white."
His birthday, May 19, is still observed in most major American cities with a large African-American population.
AAH-2007, p. 279
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 374
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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