Malcolm X - Civil Rights Activist of the 1960s


Malcolm X was one of the most important civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. He was much respected for changing his life from a criminal to a fighter for the rights of African Americans.

Born in the American Midwest in 1925, Malcolm Little had a very troubled childhood. When he was six his father died after a streetcar had run over him. At the age of 12 his mother was put into a mental hospital after a nervous breakdown. Malcolm spent the rest of his childhood with foster parents. In his youth he thought that white racists were responsible for everything that had gone wrong in his early life.



As a student Malcolm dreamed of becoming a lawyer. However, he soon became involved in criminal activities. At the age of 21 Malcolm was sent to prison where he joined the Nation of Islam, or Black Muslims, as they were often called. They hated white people and referred to them as devils. In contrast to the non-violent teachings of Martin Luther King, the Black Muslims thought they could fight whites through violence. In prison Malcolm changed his last name to X, which stands for the unknown name of Malcolm’s African ancestors.

Malcolm X quickly rose up the ranks of the Nation of Islam and supported the group’s leader Elijah Muhammed.  In his passionate speeches he tried to convince black supporters that they should be proud of their black ancestry and should live separately, apart from the white population.

After quarrelling with important members of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X left the movement in 1964. During his stay in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where he met many different people, Malcolm X slowly started changing his opinion of whites and gave up his violent attitudes towards them. After returning to the United States he formed his own group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.



In his later life Malcolm X worked together with Martin Luther King, even though he did not share his ideas.  In 1965 the black leader was shot during a speech he was giving in New York.  It was thought that members of the Nation of Islam were responsible for the murder.



Related Topics



  • ancestor = member of your family who lived a long time ago
  • attitude = feeling
  • civil rights = the rights that everybody should have, like the right to vote or to be treated fairly by the law
  • convince  = to make someone feel that something you say is true
  • devil = evil spirit in some religions
  • even though = despite
  • foster parents = a place where a young person is brought up by someone other than their parents
  • however = but
  • in contrast to = different from
  • involved = mixed up
  • it was thought = people thought that
  • lawyer = person who represents people in court or helps them in legal matters
  • mental = about the brain
  • movement = here : political group
  • nervous breakdown = a mental illness in which a person becomes very worried and tired and cannot deal with the things they do everyday
  • non-violent = peaceful
  • passionate = full of fire and emotion
  • population = people
  • prison = building or room where people are kept because they have done something against the law
  • proud = to be honoured
  • quarrel = have an argument
  • racist = someone who believes their own race is better than all the others and treats people of other races unfairly
  • ranks = position in an organization
  • refer to = call
  • respected = to think a lot about someone
  • responsible = to blame; it is their fault
  • separately = away from, alone
  • share = have the same
  • stay = while he was there
  • streetcar = kind of bus that runs along metal tracks on the road
  • support = help , work for
  • troubled= difficult, with many problems
  • Unity = union
  • youth = life as a young person