A vintage colorized photo of Human Rights activist, Malcolm X.

Malcolm X: The “Campaign of Terror” Against a Human Rights Champion

Malcolm X, later known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, grew up in a poor family in Michigan. While imprisoned for robbery, he converted to the Nation of Islam (NOI). After his release, he became a major figure of the Civil Rights Movement by promoting Black nationalism, self-defense, and liberation. He later left the NOI, converted to orthodox Sunni Islam, and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity. In 1965, he was assassinated while giving a speech in New York City (Britannica). 


• Support the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a community organization fighting for Black self-determination in the South.

Donate to the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center.

• Consider: How does your understanding of Malcolm X’s legacy differ from what you learned growing up (if you learned about him at all)? Where did you first learn about him?

What Did Malcolm X Believe?

Malcolm X rose to prominence as a leader of the NOI, a religious faith that includes Black nationalism and elements of traditional Islam. “Those of us who do work against the prison-industrial complex are very much influenced by the stance towards education which [Malcolm X] received from the Nation of Islam. And the Nation of Islam continues to do important work in prisons today,” said political activist Dr. Angela Davis. After he left the Nation, Malcolm’s beliefs changed, adopting a more evolved understanding of white supremacy and increasingly feminist ideas (YouTube). 

Throughout his life, Malcolm X advocated for the autonomy, dignity, and self-defense of Black people. He opposed U.S. military intervention and racial violence and advocated for solidarity between marginalized groups in the United States and worldwide.

How and Why Was Malcolm X Killed? 

The federal government feared Malcolm X would unite the Black freedom struggle and saw him as one of the chief threats to domestic security. He was a central target of the federally-funded “campaign of terror” called COINTELPRO, whose tactics included infiltration, subterfuge, propaganda, and murder. The FBI stoked tensions between Malcolm and the NOI after he left the faith as they worked to “neutralize” and “destroy him (Grunge, Jacobin). 

Malcolm X became an even greater threat when he built bridges between the Black freedom struggle and international movements, connecting with Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Cuba’s Che Guevara, and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah (Monthly Review). 

Malcolm was gunned down while speaking in New York City in 1965. Japanese American revolutionary Yuri Kochiyama ran to him and held him as he died (NPR). Four years after he was killed, an FBI memo “took credit for their efforts leading to the 1965 assassination.” 

Three NOI members were convicted for his murder in a trial later ruled a “serious miscarriage of justice” (CNBC). Two were exonerated just last year: Muhammad Aziz, 83, and Khalil Islam, who had already passed away. 

Given FBI infiltration into the upper echelons of the Nation of Islam and the Bureau’s stated desire to see Malcolm X eliminated, there are real questions as to how active a role the government played in his murder (Jacobin). This year, Malcolm’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, called for a federal inquiry into the actual circumstances of his death (MSN). 

What Did He Say?

November 10. 1963

If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it’s wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it’s wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.”

April 3, 1964

“If birth made you American, you wouldn’t need any legislation; you wouldn’t need any amendments to the Constitution; you wouldn’t be faced with civil-rights filibustering in Washington, D.C., right now. …No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of Americanism.”

February 14, 1965

“Don’t struggle — only within the ground rules that the people you’re struggling against have ‘laid down.’ Why, this is insane. But it shows you how they can do it. With skillful manipulating of the press, they’re able to make the victim look like the criminal, and the criminal look like the victim.”

What Did Other People Say About Malcolm X? 

“While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Indeed, the foundation of my political awakening in my late teens was firmly established when I both completed [his] autobiography and learned from reading it other books that I should read.” – bell hooks

Malcolm X made a certain kind of popular critical discourse possible that perhaps had not been heard in the U.S. since, possibly, W.E.B. Du Bois.” – Dr. Angela Davis

“Do something about Malcolm X.” – FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, telegram to New York field office, 1964.

1826 1408 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

All stories by : Andrew Lee
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