You are getting a free preview of a TIME Magazine article from our archive. Many of our articles are reserved for subscribers only. Want access to more subscriber-only content, click here to subscribe.
Malcolm X had been a pimp, a cocaine addict and a thief. He was an unashamed demagogue. His gospel was hatred: “Your little babies will get polio!” he cried to the “white devils.” His creed was violence: “If ballots won’t work, bullets will.”
Yet even before his bullet-ripped body went to its grave, Malcolm X was being sanctified. Negro leaders called him “brilliant,” said he had recently “moderated” his views, blamed his assassination on “the white power structure” or, in the case of Martin Luther King, on a “society sick enough to express dissent with murder.” Malcolm’s death, they agreed, was a setback to the civil rights movement.
Alias John Doe. In fact, Malcolm X —in life and in death—was a disaster to the civil rights movement.
Malcolm’s murder, almost certainly at the hands of the Black Muslims from whom he had defected, came on a bright Sunday afternoon in full view of 400 Negroes in the Audubon Ballroom, a seedy two-story building on Manhattan’s upper Broadway. Characteristically, he had kept his followers waiting for nearly an hour while he lingered over tea and a banana split at a nearby Harlem restaurant.
Entering the auditorium at last, Malcolm cried “As-salaam alaikum [Peace be unto you].” The audience replied in unison: “Wa-alaikum salaam [And unto you be peace].” Suddenly a disturbance broke out several rows back. “Get your hand off my pockets!” a man shouted. “Don’t be messing with my pockets!” At the distraction, Malcolm raised his hands. “Now brothers!” he cried, “Be cool, don’t get excited . . .”
As he spoke, three men rushed down the aisle toward him. Eight feet away, they opened fire. One Negro with a double-barreled sawed-off shotgun blasted Malcolm at point-blank range. “There was what sounded like an explosion,” said a dazed woman. “I looked at Malcolm, and there was blood running out of his goatee.” Men and women threw themselves to the floor as the gunmen squeezed off at least a score of shots. Thirteen shotgun pellets tore into Malcolm’s chest and heart; several slugs from .45-and .38-cal. pistols shattered his thighs and legs. A woman screamed: “Oh, black folks, black folks, why you got to kill each other?”
The man with the shotgun was hit in the left leg by a bullet from the pistol of a Malcolm X bodyguard. Crippled, he was caught by Malcolm X’s furious followers, knocked down, kicked and stomped on. Cops rescued him, took him to a hospital, and charged him with homicide. He was Thomas Hagan, alias Talmadge Hayer, a New Jersey thug with a dreary police record.
Minutes after the shooting, Malcolm’s body was lifted from the stage, placed on a rolling bed that had been wheeled over from the nearby Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, and rushed to an emergency operating room. A team of doctors laid open his chest, tried to revive him via open-heart massage. But Malcolm X was dead. Because he had not yet been formally identified, he was at first entered on hospital records as John Doe.
“That White Rapist.” The man who lived as Malcolm X and died as John Doe was born Malcolm Little, in Omaha on May 19, 1925. His father was a Baptist preacher and an enthusiast for Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement. The family moved to Lansing, Mich., where, Malcolm claimed, white racists set fire to his parents’ home in 1929. Two years later, when Malcolm was six, his father was run over by a streetcar, his body cut almost in half. Police called it an accident, but Malcolm insisted that his father had been bludgeoned by whites and placed across the tracks. Soon afterward his mother was committed to a mental asylum in Michigan.
In his youth, Malcolm prided himself on his reddish hair and light skin, an inheritance from his maternal grandfather, a white man. Years later he wrote in his autobiography: “I was for years insane enough to feel that it was some kind of status symbol to be light-complexioned. Now I hate every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me.”
He quit school after the eighth grade, eventually made his way to New York. Nicknamed “Big Red,” he was a gangling zoot-suiter who fancied yellow-toed shoes and straightened his hair with lye in a scalp-searing process called “conking.” He worked briefly as a waiter at Small’s Paradise, still one of Harlem’s top nightspots. But an honest dollar was not for Malcolm Little. He was caught pimping on the side and fired. He thereupon turned himself into a full-time hustler whose specialties were fixing up white men with Negro whores and Negro men with white whores. He peddled marijuana, became a cocaine addict and, to satisfy his $20-a-day craving, took to burglary. In 1946 he wound up with a ten-year prison sentence in Boston.
Bleached-Out. At the gloomy state prison in Charlestown, Malcolm copied a dictionary from A to Z. He wanted to improve his vocabulary, and he did. He was to become a spellbinding speaker.
More important, he learned in prison about the Black Muslims, an extremist sect founded in Detroit in 1930 by a shadowy peddler named W. D. Fard, and ruled since Fard’s mysterious disappearance in 1934 by Elijah Muhammad. The Muslims offered Malcolm what Marcus Garvey had offered his father—and then some. They had caparisoned their movement with the trappings of religion, along with a mythology holding that the first human beings were Negroes. Other races—red, yellow and white—resulted only after a wicked and long-lived scientist named Yacub succeeded over many generations of genetic experiments in achieving a “bleached-out white race of people.”
Paroled in 1952 after serving six years, Malcolm Little became Malcolm X,* loudly acclaimed the Muslims’ professed prohibitions against tobacco, alcohol and pre- or extra-marital sex. He shrugged off his sordid past on the ground that “it was all done when I was part of the white man’s Christian world.” In 1958, he married a Muslim Sister named Betty Shabazz before a justice of the peace in Michigan. “An old hunchbacked white devil performed the wedding,” Malcolm said later, “and all of the witnesses were devils.” At the time of Malcolm’s death, Betty was pregnant and the mother of four children: Daughter Attilah, named after the Hun; Daughter Quiblah, after Kublai Khan; Daughter Ilyasah, Arabic for Elijah; and Daughter Lamumbah, named after the Congo’s wild-eyed Patrice Lumumba.
Savage Speaker. Malcolm soon proved one of Elijah Muhammad’s best recruiters—in an organization that, then and now, desperately needed recruits. The Black Muslims had received little public notice until the civil rights movement and its street demonstrations catapulted them into the news. Today, Black Muslims claim up to 250,000 members. A much more accurate estimate would accord the group 2,000 in New York, 500 in Chicago, 350 in Los Angeles, 230 in Detroit, 220 in Washington, 150 in both St. Louis and San Francisco, 100 in Kansas City, under 100 in each of 70 other cities, including Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis and Jacksonville. Still, it is a nice racket for Elijah, son of a Georgia sharecropper. He socks each member for $8.30 in dues a week, requires each to sell (or pay for) as many as 200 copies of the 200 Muslim newspaper every two weeks, saddles everybody with an additional $125 assessment for Savior’s Day, Feb. 26.
Malcolm was also a savage speaker. After the 1962 plane crash in France that killed 121 whites from Georgia, he rose before a Los Angeles audience and said: “I would like to announce a very beautiful thing that has happened. I got a wire from God today. He really answered our prayers over in France. He dropped an airplane out of the sky with over 120 white people on it because the Muslims believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We will continue to pray and we hope that every day another plane falls out of the sky.”
The Comeuppance. In demand as a speaker, not just among Negroes but before white civic groups and on college campuses, Malcolm gained in popularity and became a threat to Elijah Muhammad’s leadership of the Black Muslims.
All Elijah wanted was a chance to give Malcolm his comeuppance—and in 1963 Malcolm offered him the opportunity. After President Kennedy’s assassination, Malcolm publicly called the murder a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.” Cried he: “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.”
This was outrageous enough for Elijah to suspend Malcolm from the Black Muslim movement. Malcolm quit for keeps, soon had formed his own white-hating Organization of Afro-American Unity, and urged Negroes to form rifle clubs.
Malcolm, who made a point of getting along well with the press, also began leaking stories of immorality among the Muslims. In an open letter, he accused Elijah of having fathered eight illegitimate babies by six teen-age secretaries at Black Muslim headquarters in Chicago. Other defectors—including two of Elijah’s sons—began following Malcolm out of the sect. Naturally, this did not sit well with Elijah. “Only those who wish to be led to hell, or to their doom, will follow Malcolm,” said his biweekly newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. “The die is set, and Malcolm shall not escape.”
Premonitions & Bombs. From the moment he left the Black Muslims, Malcolm had premonitions of mortality. “No one can get out without trouble,” he said. “This thing with me will be resolved by death and violence.” For once he was right. Two weeks ago, in the dead of night, fire bombs gutted Malcolm’s home in East Elmhurst, N.Y., forcing him to flee with his family in nightclothes. Malcolm blamed it on the Muslims; they, in turn, accused Malcolm of planting the bombs in the house himself, partly for publicity purposes, partly because they had lent him the house in the first place and were now about to evict him.
For a few days the Malcolm X family stayed with friends. On the eve of his death, Malcolm checked into an $18-a-day room at the New York Hilton. Within a few hours, three Negroes turned up in the lobby, began questioning a bellhop about his room number. They left when hotel detectives started taking an interest in their interest. Next day Malcolm X left the hotel for a speaking engagement—at the Audubon Ballroom.
Good as Their Word. At the time of his death, Malcolm X had a hard-core following of no more than 100—but he was more or less admired by thousands who, deep in their hearts, were pleased by his denunciations of the white devil. “He will be avenged,” said his half sister Mrs. Ella Mae Collins. “We are going to repay them for what they did to Malcolm,” said Leon 4X Ameer, another turncoat Black Muslim who had a score of his own to set tle—a Christmas beating in Boston by karate-skilled bullyboys of the Fruit of Islam, the Black Muslim enforcement “elite.” Added Leon 4X: “I don’t know if Elijah will live out the month.”
In their vows of revenge, the Malcolm X followers were as good as their word. In Harlem, less than 36 hours after the murder, a fire bomb tossed from an adjacent rooftop through an upper window of the Black Muslims’ Mosque No. 7 sent flames shooting 30 feet into the night sky, gutted the building. Six firemen were hurt when a wall caved in, and 320 cops rushed to Harlem from three boroughs under a “rapid mobilization” order after the alarm was sounded. In San Francisco, another mosque was set ablaze, but firemen quickly doused it.
In Chicago, Elijah, a pint-sized (120 Ibs.), asthmatic man of 67, professed unconcern, despite rumors that six pro-Malcolm triggermen were after him. “We are innocent of Malcolm’s death,” he said. “Malcolm died of his own preaching. He preached violence, and violence took him away.” Despite Elijah’s protestations of Black Muslim innocence, New York police arrested and charged with Malcolm’s murder a Negro named Norman 3X Butler, described as a Black Muslim enforcer. When arrested, Norman 3X was free on $10,000 bail in the nonfatal January shooting in New York of another Black Muslim defector.
Human Shield. Chicago police ringed Elijah Muhammad’s 19-room, $50,000 red brick mansion on the South Side, reconnoitered nearby Muslim buildings. When a delivery truck pulled up to Elijah’s house with what the driver said was a grandfather clock, the police bomb squad rushed to the scene. They found that it was indeed a grandfather clock, a gift from Muslim women in Philadelphia.
What worried the police the most, though, was how to protect Elijah at the Muslims’ annual convention in the Chicago Coliseum last weekend. An anonymous caller warned, “We have arrived. Muhammad will have a lively convention.” Police combed the convention hall for bombs, quintupled their security detail to 45 men, ordered 50 more to stand by. Elijah, said one cop, will have “as much security as if he were President Johnson.”
When the convention opened, Elijah drove the four miles in the midst of an eleven-car motorcade, was surrounded by a phalanx of Fruit of Islam members inside the hall. Newsmen were frisked head to toe before entering, even had their shoes checked for hollowed-out heels. Lining the fern-decorated stage and directly below it was a human shield of 55 Fruit of Islam guards, and scores more patrolled the aisles.
The convention itself was a dud. The hall, with a seating capacity of some 7,500, was less than half filled. Elijah Muhammad could hardly be seen behind the ranks of his bodyguards as he delivered a wheezy, two-hour harangue highlighted by a warning to would-be assassins that “to seek to snuff out the life of Elijah Muhammad is to invite doom.” On the convention’s second day, Elijah failed to appear. The explanation: his asthma had kicked up again.
As for Malcolm Little-Malcolm X-John Doe, he was buried as Al Hajj Malik Shabazz, the name he earned in 1964 by making his pilgrimage to Mecca and being received as a true believer. He wore the white robe that signified his faith. In the four days before his burial, more than 20,000 persons, almost all Negroes, filed past his body as it lay on view in a glass-topped, wrought-copper casket. Following Muslim custom, when Malcolm was buried in suburban Westchester’s Ferncliff Cemetery, his head was to the east, toward Mecca.
*As Malcolm explained, the X replaces “the white slave-master name which had been imposed upon my paternal forebears by some blue-eyed devil.” With only a letter of the alphabet to serve as a surname, Muslims with the same given name add numbers before the X to keep one another sorted out. There is, for example, a James 67X. There are, however, Muslims with such surnames as Ali or Shabazz.
- TIME's Top 100 Photos of 2022
- I Tested Positive for COVID-19 Right Before the Holidays. What Should I Do?
- Column: How To Create a Sense of Belonging In a Divided America
- How to Survive the Holidays if You're a Scrooge
- Life Expectancy Provides Evidence of How Far Black Americans Have Come
- The 10 Best Albums of 2022
- Iran Has a Long History of Protest and Activism
- 6 Ways to Give Better Gifts—Based on Science