Why Did Malcolm X Adopt The Last Name ‘X’?

Malcolm X is one of the most notable figures from the civil rights movement, a 14-year long campaign by African Americans and their allies to end legalized racial discrimination and segregation in the United States. One interesting thing you might have noted about him is his last name ‘X’, and you might wonder if that was his given, or adopted name. To understand why he adopted this particular last name, you need to be familiar with two things – firstly, the history of slavery in the United States, and secondly, the goings-on in Malcolm X’s personal life.

Slavery in the United States

Prior to the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, slavery was legal in the states which made up the Confederate States of America, an unrecognized breakaway state which fought against the United States of America during the American Civil War. Throughout the period of slavery, sexual acts of violence against black, female slaves were commonplace; its main purpose is not merely to satisfy the sexual appetite of the white, male colonialists, but also to ensure the reproduction of more slaves to serve as human labor on the numerous cotton fields. As a child born to a slave woman is viewed as neither the child of the woman who gave birth to them nor the man who was instrumental in its conception, they were given slave names that often sounded whimsical or even condescending.

The Early Life of Malcolm X

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska on the 19th of May 1925. A year later, his family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and later to Lansing, Michigan, following threats to their lives made by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1931, Malcolm’s father was murdered by the Black Legion, a white supremacist terrorist organization that was active in the Midwest during the 1930s. Subsequently, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown, which resulted in little Malcolm being placed in a foster home. Malcolm then attended West Junior High School in Lansing and later Mason High School in Mason, Michigan, where he excelled in his studies. However, he dropped out before he could finish his eighth grade when a white teacher informed him that being a black person, it is unrealistic for him to aspire to a career in law.

The Nation of Islam

Following his decision to drop out of school, he turned to a life of crime and was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison in 1946 for larceny. It was in prison where he made the decision to join the Nation of Islam (NOI), a black nationalist organization that advocates for the interests of African Americans and the African diaspora. At the behest of NOI leader, Elijah Muhammad, who in his 1965 book, Message to the Blackman in America, commented that slave names will keep black people a slave in the eyes of the civilized world, Malcolm decided to adopt the last name ‘X’ to symbolize his unknown African ancestral surname. To learn more about the life of the enigmatic Malcolm X, please visit our website where we have prepared a comprehensive historical lesson on him. 

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