Some of you might be wondering who I'm talking about. Odds are, you already know this person under a different name. The anniversary of his death was just last week.
He was born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, but grew up in Lansing, Michigan. He had six siblings, two half-sisters, and a half-brother. Everyone in his immediate family was black. His father was killed by racists and his mother was locked up in a mental institution. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade. Growing up wasn't easy.
As a teenager, he moved to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella. His height made him look mature for his age, so he was able to get a job shining shoes. He learned to dance, bought wild-looking suits (they were fashionable at the time), and made friends with an older crowd. He even met a girl, Sophia.
He got a job on a railroad, washing dishes for the dining car and doing other similar tasks. The train on which he worked went from Boston to New York. Once he saw Harlem, he knew where he belonged - the night life, the music, the excitement of it all. So he quit his job on the railroad and began work at a restaurant. From time to time, Sophia would come and visit him in Harlem.
He became known as "Detroit Red." Detroit, because he was from Michigan. Red, because of the reddish color of his hair. Detroit Red learned to gamble, deal drugs, steer prostitutes, and rob people's homes. He became a drug addict.
When he was called in for the military draft, he was terrified.
So he dressed up in one of the wild outfits from his youth, spread rumors that he was insane, and told a military physician that he couldn't wait to steal guns from the military to kill white people. He was deemed "mentally disqualified" to join the army.
Detroit Red moved back to Boston. He told his friends about what he had learned in the streets of Harlem, and pretty soon they had their own "hustle" going. Sophia and her sister, being white, were able to enter the homes of the wealthy without making anyone suspicious. The two girls would draw a floor plan of the building for Detroit Red and his two accomplices. Then they would break in at night and steal anything that looked valuable. Everything went according to plan.
Until they got caught.
Sophia and her sister received almost no punishment because of the color of their skin. Detroit Red, on the other hand, served six years in prison before being put on parole.
In prison, he was so angry and desperate for drugs he would pace in his cell and curse at everything in sight. He was known as "Satan." Later, when he was transferred to another prison, he began reading. His family taught him about the religion of Islam.
Pretty soon he was writing to one of the leaders of the Islamic world, Elijah Muhammad. He also wrote about Islam to his old friends from Harlem. He gave up eating pork, prayed, and even tried to convert fellow inmates.
When he was released from prison, he didn't go back to his old ways. He went to see Elijah Muhammad. He became a minister of Islam. He married a fellow Muslim by the name of Sister Betty. Even after he and Elijah Muhammad had a disagreement and he was forced to go his own way, he continued to fight for causes in which he believed. He used his power to try to stop racism and show African Americans reasons to be proud of their heritage. His name became an emblem.
He went from being Malcolm Little . . . to Detroit Red . . . to Satan . . . to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz . . . but you might just know him as Malcolm X.
Author's Note: Sources:
"The Autobiography of Malcolm X" as told to Alex Haley