Malcolm X had dramatic beginnings as the child of a Baptist preacher and his wife who were often threatened by gangs of angry whites. His father spread the ideas of black activist Marcus Garvey, and his mother was a light-skinned black woman from Grenada. He had seven brothers and sisters. Malcolm was a clever child who learned very early the value of making a fuss about anything that didn't please him. After his father was murdered and his mother was committed to a mental hospital, the family was split up and Malcolm went to live with the Gohannas family, who had previously fed him when his mother couldn't provide any food.
Throughout his early life, Malcolm X proved himself to be a ingenious man, combining street smarts with basic psychology to get what he wanted. He collected a number of nicknames based on the reddish tint of his skin and hair, for example, "Red'' and "Detroit Red.'' Eventually he became a drug addict and a criminal and was sent to jail for breaking into homes. In prison he discovered books and was converted to Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. This experience forever changed him and made him appreciative of education and hard work.
Malcolm, who took the last name X to symbolize the identity that was taken from blacks by whites during the American period of slavery, became a powerful speaker and leader who represented the Nation of Islam. But his style of organizing and leading varied greatly from Muhammad's. He also became bitterly disappointed at Muhammad's moral failings. Malcolm was ejected from the Nation but was excited to begin a new organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, reflecting his then less-harsh view of whites and an interest in internationalizing the black struggle.