This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for May 19, 2017: Ode to the Joyful Ones

May 19, 2017: birthday: Malcolm X

Today is the birthday of Malcolm X (books by this author), born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska (1925). When he was four years old and living in East Lansing, Michigan, white supremacists set fire to the family’s home. The East Lansing police and firefighters—all white—came to the house when called, but stood by and watched it burn. When he was six, his father was murdered. Police declared his death a suicide, which invalidated the family’s life insurance policy. Little’s mother never recovered from her husband’s murder, and entered a mental institution when the boy was 12. When he was 14, he told his high school teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer. The teacher told him to be realistic and consider a career in carpentry instead. Little dropped out of school the following year.

He was arrested for larceny in 1946, and while in prison, an older inmate encouraged him to use his time to educate himself. Little began checking out books from the prison library, and when he found his vocabulary too limited for some of them, he copied out an entire dictionary word for word. He also began a correspondence with Elijah Mohammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, and once released, became one of their most prominent organizers. He took the surname “X” to symbolize his lost African heritage.

But in 1964, Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam when he learned that his mentor was having multiple affairs, contradicting his own teachings. Seeking clarity, Malcolm that year made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Here, for the first time, he related to people of all races, and returned to America with a new message. He stopped preaching the rigid separatism that had been his trademark, and instead called for people to work together across racial lines.

At the end of 1964, over many conversations, Malcolm X dictated his life story to the writer Alex Haley. The book was almost finished when, in February of 1965, Malcolm X was shot and killed while speaking at a rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. He was 39 years old. A few months later Alex Haley published The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). It has since seen over 40 editions and sold in the tens of millions.