In the 1960s, as the spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X rose to become one of the most recognizable men in America often pitted — philosophically at least – against more moderate civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X converted to Islam in the 1950s while serving a prison sentence for burglary. After his release, the popular narrative of his life suggests that he completely embraced the religion and used the Nation of Islam as a foundation to launch some of the era’s harshest critiques of white America and racism.
But by 1964, Malcolm X had grown weary of the Nation of Islam’s ideology and its leader’s philandering. So after being silenced by the organization, he left the NOI.
After completing the Hajj — a pilgrimage to Mecca required of all muslims who are physically able — Malcolm X rejected the racially divisive Nation of Islam teaching of that time. In a letter, he said that seeing muslims of “all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans,” interacting as equals helped him to see the Islamic faith as a way in which racial problems could be conquered.
He spent the rest of his life trying to build a new organization while fighting off what he said were death threats from the Nation of Islam. On Feb. 21, 1965, at the beginning of an Organization of Afro-American Unity meeting in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X was gunned down by assassins affiliated with the Nation of Islam.
In his eulogy for Malcolm X, Ossie Davis called Malcolm X, “A Prince. Our own black, shining prince, who didn’t hesitate to die because, he loved us all.”