5 Things You Didn't Know About Malcolm X

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X, a black civil rights leader who was feared by some and respected by others, was assassinated at age 39. Here are five things you probably didn't know about Malcolm X.

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He Wasn't Born Malcolm X Malcolm X's birth name was Malcolm Little. Malcolm took "X" to represent his unknown African name, and  in 1950, he began signing his name "Malcolm X." By rejecting "Little," he sought to cast aside the surname that had been forced upon his ancestors by white slave owners. The letter "X," in contrast, represented his true, yet tragically unknown, African tribal name.

He Converted to Islam in Prison Malcolm was sentenced to eight to 10 years in jail in 1946 after committing burglaries in wealthy white neighborhoods. It was in jail where he converted to the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Malcolm X. He went to visit the founder, Elijah Muhammad, in 1952 in Chicago, and it was quickly discovered that Malcolm was an impressive orator with the ability to attract more members. In just over 10 years, the membership of the group rose from 500 in 1952 to 30,000.

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The FBI Followed His Every Move As a prisoner in 1950, Malcolm wrote a letter to President Harry Truman in which he declared himself a Communist opposed to the Korean War. This caught the attention of the FBI, which began surveillance of Malcolm X that continued for the rest of his life. In one document that has since come to light, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover told the agency’s New York office to “do something about Malcolm X.” 

He Created the Nation of Islam's Newspaper Malcolm X created the Nation of Islam's Newspaper and started the street-corner sales requirement. If you've seen NOI members selling newspapers on street corners, that process -- and the Muhammad Speaks newspaper itself -- were part of X's influence on the NOI. He started the newspaper and decided that members should sell the paper on corners as a fundraising method. The sales also served as a recruitment method.

He and Redd Foxx Were Dishwashers at the Same Restaurant Malcolm was working in 1943 at a Harlem restaurant called Jimmy’s Chicken Shack along with John Sanford, who later became famous as the comedian Redd Foxx. Malcolm reported that they committed petty crimes together, but Foxx’s life took a different direction after he went to Los Angeles and did his comic routine at a nightclub called the Brass Rail. Malcolm went to Boston in 1945 and was arrested that year, along with others, for committing a number of burglaries and ended up being sentenced to prison at Charlestown with an eight- to 10-year sentence to serve.