How did Malcolm X overcome the obstacles of his early life and become an influential figure in the civil rights movement?

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On May 19, 1925, Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska, to parents Louise and Earl. Earl, a Baptist, was a follower of Marcus Garvey and a leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

From his birth, violence played a significant role in Malcolm’s life. Malcolm stated that four of his uncles were killed by white violence. His family relocated to Wisconsin due to threats from the Ku Klux Klan. In Wisconsin, the family received death threats from the white racist group the Black Legion.

When Malcolm was six, his father died in a tram accident. There was much suspicion around this death, and Louise believed he had been murdered at the hands of the Black Legion. His father’s death served as a major obstacle in Malcolm’s young life. Later, his mother suffered a mental break after her boyfriend disappeared following a pregnancy. This nervous breakdown landed her in Kalamazoo State Hospital.

In essence, Malcolm was left an orphan and turned to a life on the streets, which included drug dealing, gambling, prostitution, and robbery. In Boston in 1945, Malcolm committed a series of robberies and was arrested and imprisoned.

In prison, Malcolm turned to reading, education, and the Nation of Islam. These endeavors helped him renounce his past crimes and reenergized him to choose a new path forward in the future.

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According to his autobiography, prison is what turned Malcolm X's life around and helped him overcome the obstacles that had held him back.

Malcolm was born into unfortunate circumstances: his father, a follower of Marcus Garvey and an angry man who often beat Malcolm, died when he was six. His mother was unable to adequately care for her children due to poverty and mental illness. Malcolm spent part of his childhood in foster care. Limited in his opportunities as a black man with little schooling, the adult Malcolm turned to a life of crime, ending up in prison.

In prison, as he describes in his autobiography, he taught himself to read by copying out the entire dictionary, starting with the word aardvark, because he wanted to be able to respond to the letters he received in prison. Literacy opened new worlds to him, allowing him to feel free even in a prison cell. While in prison, another significant change occurred when he became a convert to Islam and a follower of Elijah Muhammad, the black separatist Nation of Islam leader. His newfound religious beliefs instilled a sense of self discipline and pride into Malcolm. He changed his name from Little, which he thought was imposed on him by white society, and became Malcolm X. With new literacy skills, discipline, pride, and a transformed sense of identity, Malcolm was able to become an important leader in the Nation of Islam and in the struggle for black equality in the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s.

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Malcolm X grew up and was raised in rundown areas. During his early life, his family was forced to move several times—first to Milwaukee and then to Lansing, Michigan—because of the increased violence of clannism and the KKK. At the age of 6, Malcolm’s father was killed, and rumors speculated that it had come about as the result of a hate crime. The death of his father put his family into a state of extreme poverty, and his mother was forced to sell a portion of their property to make ends meet. Malcolm also dropped out of high school, supposedly because a white teacher had once told him that the practice of law—Malcolm’s passion at the time—was “no realistic goal for a n*****.” In order to support himself, Malcolm moved to the Harlem region of New York, where he sold drugs and engaged in petty crime to get by.

It was during this time that Malcolm X met Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black Muslims in the United States. However, by 1964, Malcolm’s political philosophies had become too radical for him to remain in the organization, and he eventually broke ties with Elijah. Of the Black Muslims’ more conciliatory political positions, Malcolm said:

Yes, I’m an extremist. The black race in the United States is in extremely bad shape. You show me a black man who isn’t an extremist and I’ll show you one who needs psychiatric attention.

Malcolm X would go on to be the foremost representative of the black power movement in the United States. Not since the political activism of Marcus Garvey in the 1920’s had the United States witnessed such a strong voice of black militancy as that of Malcolm X. Many historians have argued that the traumatic experiences of his early life—the constant relocation of his family, the mysterious death of his father, his poverty and subsequent turn to narcotics-dealing and crime—hardened Malcolm X into a radical representative of black rights.

Malcolm X did not believe that there was any space for a black professional to succeed in a predominately white-dominated society, regardless of personal ambition or skill. Towards the end of his life, he had begun to temper some of his anti-white rhetoric, and had started to preach a biracial message of social change. Unfortunately, Malcolm X was assassinated by a rival association of Black Muslims in Harlem in 1965, with his most enduring legacy being his incredulousness to interracial cooperation.

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Before becoming a leader of Pan-Africanism during the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X engaged in criminal activities as early as age 9. He began stealing food while growing up in Lansing. He was later involved in drug dealing, prostitution, and gambling and spent 6.5 years in in jail.

Upon his release, he began an in-depth study in African American history, particularly slavery. He came to the conclusion that black people have never been free and, in America, have a racially motivated disadvantage. This mentality later influenced his approach to black civil rights. His advocation of African Americans pursuing freedom by "any means necessary," including violence, may have been influenced by his criminal past. For more information on Malcolm X's past, refer to the source below.

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