Today Is the 38th Anniversary of the Assassination of Malcolm X: We Hear His Famous Speech, “The Ballot Or the Bullet”

StoryFebruary 21, 2003
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Today is the 38th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X was one of the greatest leaders this country saw in the last century.

On February 21, 1965, he was shot to death as he spoke before a packed audience in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. He was just 39 years old.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska.

His mother, Louise Norton Little, raised the family’s eight children. His father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and avid supporter of Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey.

The white supremacist organization Black Legion threatened Malcolm’s father with death many times, forcing the family to relocate twice when Malcolm was a toddler. When he was four years old, Malcolm and his family watched white men burn their home to the ground. Two years later, his father’s mutilated body was found lying across the town’s trolley tracks. Malcolm’s mother had an emotional breakdown several years later and was committed to a mental institution. Her children were split up amongst foster homes and orphanages.

Despite this, Malcolm excelled in school and graduated from junior high at the top of his class. He lost interest in school when his favorite teacher told him his idea of becoming a lawyer was QUOTE “no realistic goal for a nigger.”

He dropped out, and eventually wound up in Harlem, New York, where he became a drug dealer, a pimp and a thief. At the age of twenty, he was caught and sentenced to several years in prison for robbery.

In prison, Malcolm renewed his studies and found the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam.

By the time he got out of prison, Malcolm had converted to Islam and changed his name. He considered “Little” a slave name and chose the surname “X” to symbolize his lost African name.

Malcolm was appointed a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. He established new mosques in Detroit, Michigan Harlem, and other cities. He was largely credited with increasing the Nation of Islam’s membership from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963.

As Malcolm X’s fame began to supersede Elijah Muhammad’s, tensions grew within the Nation of Islam. FBI agents infiltrated the organization. Shortly after learning Elijah Muhammad was betraying his own teachings and having affairs with several women, Malcolm X split with the Nation of Islam. He founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Malcolm X was shot to death on February 21, 1965 by Black Muslims. Many believe the FBI helped to foment the tensions between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.

Salim Muwakkil is senior editor of the Chicago-based magazine In These Times and a columnist with the Chicago Tribune. In a recent article he wrote:

“[Nearly four decades after Malcolm X was gunned down,] his fame continues to spread. Malcolm X helped give birth to the cultural nationalist movement with his rhetorical embrace of African culture. He also nurtured 'revolutionary' nationalists (like the Black Panther Party) by focusing on anti-colonial struggles in the Third World. He gave sustenance to many African-American radicals who embraced his socialist prescriptions even as he provided spiritual fuel for the growth of many Islamic organizations in the black community. With his emphasis on alternative scholarship, Malcolm is also cited as a progenitor of the 'Black Studies' academic movement.”

We turn now to a speech Malcolm X gave in Detroit just a year before he was gunned down. It is known as 'The Ballot or the Bullet.'


  • Malcolm X, speaking in Detroit in 1964.

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