20th Century's 5 Most Significant Political Assassinations

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

Malcolm X

Human rights activist and Muslim leader Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965. He was 39 years old. By then, the prominent leader had been traveling abroad to promote his ideas in Europe and Africa. When he adopted himself into the Nation of Islam in 1952, he became a proponent of their radical teachings. They included provocative ideas, including that white people, are devils and that blacks are the superior race. This was not altogether outlandish given segregation was still widely practiced throughout the United States.

Racial segregation 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 had to come from the drastically contrasting messages coming from the African American leaders. Where Martin Luther King revered peace, Malcolm X revered violence.

Malcolm X before a 1964 press conference, Public Domain

Malcolm X had a very different outlook on solutions being explored 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.

Throughout 1964, tensions between X and the Nation of Islam intensified. X was forging a new path for himself. He sounded more diplomatic by incorporating ideas about “equality” into his speeches. He often ended his talks by saying 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 a meeting that the Nation of Islam were actively trying to kill him.

Two days later while giving a speech in Harlem, he was sabotaged. Using a sawed-off shotgun, 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.