Malcolm X

Malcolm X arrives at London Airport in 1965. He had just flown back from France after being refused admittance to that country on the grounds that his presence might incite disturbances.

Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Malcolm X had an incredibly turbulent life. But despite the chaos and a lack of education, he became a powerful motivator who drew thousands of blacks to join the Nation of Islam and embrace black pride.

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb., Malcolm's father, Earl Little, was a preacher and civil rights activist. Because of his activism, the family was often harassed by white supremacist groups. The Littles moved to East Lansing, Mich., to escape the harassment, but supremacists there murdered Earl in 1931. Malcolm's mother, Louise, never recovered from Earl's death, and was eventually committed to a mental institution [source: Biography].

Malcolm fell into a life of drugs and crime. After landing in jail in 1946, he began to read voraciously. He also converted to the Nation of Islam, a small sect of black Muslims who believed black Americans should establish their own state. Malcolm then dropped the surname "Little," which he considered a slave name, changing it instead to "X" in honor of his unknown African ancestors. Soon, he was preaching the need for a violent revolution to establish an independent black nation. Malcolm X was a passionate person, and turned out to be a naturally gifted orator. When he was released from prison in 1952, there were 400 members in the Nation of Islam. By 1960, largely due to his efforts and charisma, there were 40,000 [source: Biography].

In 1964, Malcolm X left the Nation, disillusioned after learning leader Elijah Muhammad had violated his own teachings by committing adultery. He went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and converted to traditional Islam. He also became less angry and more inclusive of other races, realizing violence wasn't necessary to achieve his goals. Unfortunately, in 1965, when he was getting ready to deliver a speech in Manhattan, three members of the National of Islam rushed the stage and shot him. He died instantly at age 39 [source: Biography].