This Day In History: Malcolm X Is Assassinated (1965)

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On this day in 1965, human rights activist and Muslim leader Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City. He was 39-years-old. By 1964, the prominent leader had struck out on his own, traveling abroad to promote his ideas in Europe and Africa. Years earlier, in 1952, he adopted the teachings  of the Nation of Islam and became a prominent spokesperson on behalf of the group. The teachings included provocative ideas, including that whites were the devil, and that blacks are the superior race. This was not altogether outlandish, given segregation was still widely practiced throughout the United States.

Malcolm X photographs Cassius Clay after Clay became the world heavyweight champion (1964)., Public Domain

Racial segregation in the United States was little more than an extension of suppression through slavery. Ideas that the Nation of Islam advocated were the same ideas being applied to blacks, but superimposed on white society. Many in both white and black communities were distressed by Malcolm X’s statements when he spoke on behalf of the Nation of Islam. At least part of the shock came from drastically contrasting messages emerging from African American leaders. Where Martin Luther King revered peace, Malcolm X revered violence.

Malcolm X had a very different outlook on solutions being tossed to the wind during the Civil Rights Movement. While some blacks in America looked for equal rights and the end of segregation, X wanted to take segregation another direction entirely. He wanted to enhance the space between blacks and whites. He proposed that blacks return to Africa. By 1964 however, X stepped away from the Nation of Islam claiming its inflexible teachings were too old and tired to promote changes needed. It was this break that ultimately would cost him his life.

The Audubon Ballroom stage after the murder of Malcolm X. Circles on backdrop mark bullet holes. Public Domain

Throughout 1964, tensions between X and the Nation of Islam intensified. X was forging a new path for himself. He was sounding more diplomatic by incorporating ideas about “equality” into his speeches. He often denoted by the end of his talks that if things did not go their way, violence might be the answer. His appeal was grand. The Nation of Islam was so angered by his actions, one of the temples order his car be bombed. Death threats were inferred in interviews, and one minister of the Islam order said X should be beheaded.

The FBI overheard death threats and in 1965, Malcolm X announced during an interview that the Nation of Islam were actively trying to kill him.  Two days later while giving a speech, he was sabotaged. Using a sawed off shot gun, an audience member shot X in the chest. Two more individuals from the audience stormed the stage wielding semi-automatic guns. An autopsy report concluded Malcolm X died from 21 bullet wounds to his body.

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