On the eve of Black History Month, I thought it would be appropriate to include the complex civil rights leader El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz–otherwise known as Malcolm X.

Malcolm Little

He was born to a family who were already well-immersed in black self-determination, specifically with the teachings of Marcus Garvey. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist minister who personally made the case to President Hoover that Marcus Garvey was unjustly arrested.

However, his father was killed by the white supremacist gang the Black Legion, which left Malcolm with his single mother, Louise, and several siblings. They struggled to survive and had to rely on government assistance, which his mother was reluctant to accept. After Louise suffered a mental breakdown, his siblings were separated and raised by orphanages and foster homes.

After leaving school, he moved to Harlem to start life as a hustler. He spends a great deal in his autobiography writing about his experience dodging death and arrest. Eventually, he and cohorts engaged in a series of burglaries, which he was sent to prison for.

Malcolm X

While serving time in several prisons, Malcolm would eventually be introduced by his brother Reginald to the Nation of Islam. As a result, he spent his prison time studying the English language, writings by Elijah Muhammad, and the history of the United States that provides a comprehensive view of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

He was given the name X upon being inducted into the Nation of Islam. The reason for that change is because according to them every African-American surname is considered a “slave name” given by the slave master. In Malcolm’s case, that “slave name” is derived from a slave owner named Little.

He would go on to become a firebrand minister of the Nation of Islam and eventually as Elijah Muhammad’s most loyal follower. He would engage in debates with academics and missionaries when it came to race issues. In the speeches that he gave to the press, Malcolm never directed the discussion to himself, rather to what Elijah Muhammad would think.

However, when Malcolm discovered that Muhammad had illegitimate children with his female secretaries, it was decided that Malcolm would be silenced. The Nation of Islam took this opportunity by taking what he said about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy out of context.

El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz

Upon embarking on the Hajj, Malcolm discovered that the Nation of Islam had corrupted the meanings of Sunni Islam, and he started to meet Muslims of many colors and classes. He would eventually meet with world leaders in Africa, who were horrified by the treatment of African-Americans. Upon seeing how not all white people are cynical, selfish, or hateful, Malcolm returned to the United States with a changed point of view–and a changed name.

Since every Muslim who embarks on the Hajj is given the moniker El-Hajj, that would become part of his new name, while Malik derives from the Arabic word for “king.” While the name Shabazz originally came from Elijah Muhammad’s theory that the Shabazz tribe were the progenitors of the African race, it became more contextualized as a name for black self-determination. There is the speculation that it derives from the Arabic words meaning “mighty nation.”

Although denouncing the Nation of Islam and black supremacy, Malcolm would continue to support black self-determination.

Shabazz would be the surname that would be passed down to his daughters. After Malcolm’s assassination, they would continue to spread awareness of their father’s legacy and contribution to the black community.


  • “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told To Alex Haley.” 1st Trade Edition. Ballatine Books. February 1992.
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