Monthly Archives: February 2016

February 29, 1940: McDaniel wins Oscar

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mcdaniel-wins-oscar

On February 29, 1940, Gone with the Wind is honored with eight Oscars by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. An epic Southern romance set during the hard times of the Civil War, the movie swept the prestigious Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Film Editing, and Actress categories. However, the most momentous award that night undoubtedly went to Hattie McDaniel for her portrayal of “Mammy,” a housemaid and former slave. McDaniel, who won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, was the first African American actress or actor ever to be honored with an Oscar.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1895, McDaniel demonstrated her talents as a singer and actress while growing up in Denver, Colorado. She left school while a teenager to become a performer in several traveling minstrel groups and in 1924 became one of the first African American women to sing on U.S. radio. With the onset of the Great Depression, she was forced to take work as a ladies’ washroom attendant in a Milwaukee club. The club, which hired only white performers, eventually made an exception and let her sing, and she performed there for a year before setting her sights on Hollywood.

In Los Angeles, she won a small role on a local radio show called The Optimistic Do-Nuts and before long had become the program’s main attraction. In 1932, she made her film debut as a Southern house servant in The Golden West. In American movies at the time, African American actors and actresses were generally limited to house servant roles, and McDaniel apparently embraced this stereotype, playing the role of maid or cook in nearly 40 films in the 1930s. Responding to criticism by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that she was perpetuating stereotypes, McDaniel responded that she would rather play a maid on the screen than be one in real life. Furthermore, she often subverted the stereotype by turning her maids into sassy, independent-minded characters who sometimes made white audiences shift uncomfortably in their seats.

Her most famous role was as Mammy in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. Directed by Victor Fleming and based on the best-selling Margaret Mitchell novel of the same name, the movie remains the highest-grossing movie of all time when inflation is taken into account. Although she was honored with an Oscar, liberal African Americans sharply criticized McDaniel for accepting a role in which her character, a former slave, spoke nostalgically about the Old South.

McDaniel’s film career declined in the late 1940s, and in 1947 she returned to radio as the star of the nationally broadcast The Beulah Show. In the program, she again portrayed an effervescent Southern maid but in a markedly un-stereotypical manner that won praise from the NAACP. In 1951, while filming the first episodes of a television version of the popular show, she had a heart attack. She recovered to do a few more radio programs but in 1952 died of breast cancer at the age of 57.

February 28, 1953: Watson and Crick discover chemical structure of DNA

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/watson-and-crick-discover-chemical-structure-of-dna

On this day in 1953, Cambridge University scientists James D. Watson and Frances H.C. Crick announce that they have determined the double-helix structure of DNA, the molecule containing human genes.

Though DNA–short for deoxyribonucleic acid–was discovered in 1869, its crucial role in determining genetic inheritance wasn’t demonstrated until 1943. In the early 1950s, Watson and Crick were only two of many scientists working on figuring out the structure of DNA. California chemist Linus Pauling suggested an incorrect model at the beginning of 1953, prompting Watson and Crick to try and beat Pauling at his own game. On the morning of February 28, they determined that the structure of DNA was a double-helix polymer, or a spiral of two DNA strands, each containing a long chain of monomer nucleotides, wound around each other. According to their findings, DNA replicated itself by separating into individual strands, each of which became the template for a new double helix. In his best-selling book, The Double Helix (1968), Watson later claimed that Crick announced the discovery by walking into the nearby Eagle Pub and blurting out that “we had found the secret of life.” The truth wasn’t that far off, as Watson and Crick had solved a fundamental mystery of science–how it was possible for genetic instructions to be held inside organisms and passed from generation to generation.

Watson and Crick’s solution was formally announced on April 25, 1953, following its publication in that month’s issue of Nature magazine. The article revolutionized the study of biology and medicine. Among the developments that followed directly from it were pre-natal screening for disease genes; genetically engineered foods; the ability to identify human remains; the rational design of treatments for diseases such as AIDS; and the accurate testing of physical evidence in order to convict or exonerate criminals.

Crick and Watson later had a falling-out over Watson’s book, which Crick felt misrepresented their collaboration and betrayed their friendship. A larger controversy arose over the use Watson and Crick made of research done by another DNA researcher, Rosalind Franklin, whose colleague Maurice Wilkins showed her X-ray photographic work to Watson just before he and Crick made their famous discovery. When Crick and Watson won the Nobel Prize in 1962, they shared it with Wilkins. Franklin, who died in 1958 of ovarian cancer and was thus ineligible for the award, never learned of the role her photos played in the historic scientific breakthrough.

February 27, 1827: New Orleanians take to the streets for Mardi Gras

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/new-orleanians-take-to-the-streets-for-mardi-gras

On this day in 1827, a group of masked and costumed students dance through the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana, marking the beginning of the city’s famous Mardi Gras celebrations.

The celebration of Carnival–or the weeks between Twelfth Night on January 6 and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian period of Lent–spread from Rome across Europe and later to the Americas. Nowhere in the United States is Carnival celebrated as grandly as in New Orleans, famous for its over-the-top parades and parties for Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday), the last day of the Carnival season.

Though early French settlers brought the tradition of Mardi Gras to Louisiana at the end of the 17th century, Spanish governors of the province later banned the celebrations. After Louisiana became part of the United States in 1803, New Orleanians managed to convince the city council to lift the ban on wearing masks and partying in the streets. The city’s new Mardi Gras tradition began in 1827 when the group of students, inspired by their experiences studying in Paris, donned masks and jester costumes and staged their own Fat Tuesday festivities.

The parties grew more and more popular, and in 1833 a rich plantation owner named Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville raised money to fund an official Mardi Gras celebration. After rowdy revelers began to get violent during the 1850s, a secret society called the Mistick Krewe of Comus staged the first large-scale, well-organized Mardi Gras parade in 1857.

Over time, hundreds of krewes formed, building elaborate and colorful floats for parades held over the two weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday. Riders on the floats are usually local citizens who toss “throws” at passersby, including metal coins, stuffed toys or those now-infamous strands of beads. Though many tourists mistakenly believe Bourbon Street and the historic French Quarter are the heart of Mardi Gras festivities, none of the major parades have been allowed to enter the area since 1979 because of its narrow streets.

In February 2006, New Orleans held its Mardi Gras celebrations despite the fact that Hurricane Katrina had devastated much of the city with massive flooding the previous August. Attendance was at only 60-70 percent of the 300,000-400,000 visitors who usually attend Mardi Gras, but the celebration marked an important step in the recovery of the city, which counts on hospitality and tourism as its single largest industry.

February 26, 1919: Two national parks preserved, 10 years apart

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/two-national-parks-preserved-10-years-apart

On this day in history, two national parks were established in the United States10 years apart–the Grand Canyon in 1919 and the Grand Tetons in 1929.

Located in northwestern Arizona, the Grand Canyon is the product of millions of years of excavation by the mighty Colorado River. The chasm is exceptionally deep, dropping more than a mile into the earth, and is 15 miles across at its widest point.The canyon is hometo more than 1,500 plant species and over 500 animal species, many of them endangered or unique to the area,and it’s steep, multi-colored walls tell the story of 2 billion years of Earth’s history.

In 1540, members of an expedition sent by the Spanish explorer Coronado became the first Europeans to discover the canyon, though because of its remoteness the area was not further explored until 300 years later. American geologist John Wesley Powell, who popularized the term “Grand Canyon” in the 1870s, became the first person to journey the entire length of the gorge in 1869. The harrowing voyage was made in four rowboats.

In January 1908, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt designated more than 800,000 acres of the Grand Canyon a national monument; it was designated a national park under President Woodrow Wilson on February 26, 1919.

Ten years later to the day, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law a bill passed by both houses of the U.S. Congress establishing the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

Home to some of the most stunning alpine scenery in the United States, the territory in and around Grand Teton National Park also has a colorful human history. The first Anglo-American to see the saw-edged Teton peaks is believed to be John Colter. After traveling with Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, Colter left the expedition during its return trip down the Missouri in 1807 to join two fur trappers headed back into the wilderness. He spent the next three years wandering through the northern Rocky Mountains, eventually finding his way into the valley at the base of the Tetons, which would later be called Jackson Hole.

Other adventurers followed in Colter’s footsteps, including the French-Canadian trappers who gave the mountain range the bawdy name of “Grand Tetons,” meaning “big breasts” in French. For decades trappers, outlaws, traders and Indians passed through Jackson Hole, but it was not until 1887 that settlers established the first permanent habitation. The high northern valley with its short growing season was ill suited to farming, but the early settlers found it ideal for grazing cattle.

Tourists started coming to Jackson Hole not long after the first cattle ranches. Some of the ranchers supplemented their income by catering to “dudes,” eastern tenderfoots yearning to experience a little slice of the Old West in the shadow of the stunning Tetons. The tourists began to raise the first concerns about preserving the natural beauty of the region.

In 1916, Horace M. Albright, the director of the National Park Service, was the first to seriously suggest that the region be incorporated into Yellowstone National Park. The ranchers and businesses catering to tourists, however, strongly resisted the suggestion that they be pushed off their lands to make a “museum” of the Old West for eastern tourists.

Finally, after more than a decade of political maneuvering, Grand Teton National Park was created on February 26, 1929. As a concession to the ranchers and tourist operators, the park only encompassed the mountains and a narrow strip at their base. Jackson Hole itself was excluded from the park and designated merely as a scenic preserve. Albright, though, had persuaded the wealthy John D. Rockefeller to begin buying up land in the Jackson Hole area for possible future incorporation into the park. In 1949, Rockefeller donated his land holdings in Jackson Hole to the federal government that then incorporated them into the national park. Today, Grand Teton National Park encompasses 309,993 acres. Working ranches still exist in Jackson Hole, but the local economy is increasingly dependent on services provided to tourists and the wealthy owners of vacation homes.

February 25, 1964: Clay knocks out Liston

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/clay-knocks-out-liston

On February 25, 1964, 22-year-old Cassius Clay shocks the odds-makers by dethroning world heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston in a seventh-round technical knockout. The dreaded Liston, who had twice demolished former champ Floyd Patterson in one round, was an 8-to-1 favorite. However, Clay predicted victory, boasting that he would “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” and knock out Liston in the eighth round. The fleet-footed and loquacious youngster needed less time to make good on his claim–Liston, complaining of an injured shoulder, failed to answer the seventh-round bell. A few moments later, a new heavyweight champion was proclaimed.

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942. He started boxing when he was 12 and by age 18 had amassed a record of over 100 wins in amateur competition. In 1959, he won the International Golden Gloves heavyweight title and in 1960 a gold medal in the light heavyweight category at the Summer Olympic Games in Rome. Clay turned professional after the Olympics and went undefeated in his first 19 bouts, earning him the right to challenge Sonny Liston, who had defeated Floyd Patterson in 1962 to win the heavyweight title.

On February 25, 1964, a crowd of 8,300 spectators gathered at the Convention Hall arena in Miami Beach to see if Cassius Clay, who was nicknamed the “Louisville Lip,” could put his money where his mouth was. The underdog proved no bragging fraud, and he danced and backpedaled away from Liston’s powerful swings while delivering quick and punishing jabs to Liston’s head. Liston hurt his shoulder in the first round, injuring some muscles as he swung for and missed his elusive target. By the time he decided to discontinue the bout between the sixth and seventh rounds, he and Clay were about equal in points. A few conjectured that Liston faked the injury and threw the fight, but there was no real evidence, such as a significant change in bidding odds just before the bout, to support this claim.

To celebrate winning the world heavyweight title, Clay went to a private party at a Miami hotel that was attended by his friend Malcolm X, an outspoken leader of the African American Muslim group known as the Nation of Islam. Two days later, a markedly more restrained Clay announced he was joining the Nation of Islam and defended the organization’s concept of racial segregation while speaking of the importance of the Muslim religion in his life. Later that year, Clay, who was the descendant of a runaway Kentucky slave, rejected the name originally given to his family by a slave owner and took the Muslim name of Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali would go on to become one of the 20th century’s greatest sporting figures, as much for his social and political influence as his prowess in his chosen sport. After successfully defending his title nine times, it was stripped from him in 1967 after he refused induction into the U.S. Army on the grounds that he was a Muslim minister and therefore a conscientious objector. That year, he was sentenced to five years in prison for violating the Selective Service Act but was allowed to remain free as he appealed the decision. His popularity plummeted, but many across the world applauded his bold stand against the Vietnam War.

In 1970, he was allowed to return to the boxing ring, and the next year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s draft evasion conviction. In 1974, he regained the heavyweight title in a match against George Foreman in Zaire and successfully defended it in a brutal 15-round contest against Joe Frazier in the Philippines in the following year. In 1978, he lost the title to Leon Spinks but later that year defeated Spinks in a rematch, making him the first boxer to win the heavyweight title three times. He retired in 1979 but returned to the ring twice in the early 1980s. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome and has suffered a slow decline of his motor functions ever since. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1996, he lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Ali’s daughter, Laila, made her boxing debut in 1999.

At a White House ceremony in November 2005, Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

February 24, 1836: Alamo defenders call for help

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/alamo-defenders-call-for-help

On this day in 1836, in San Antonio, Texas, Colonel William Travis issues a call for help on behalf of the Texan troops defending the Alamo, an old Spanish mission and fortress under attack by the Mexican army.

A native of Alabama, Travis moved to the Mexican state of Texas in 1831. He soon became a leader of the growing movement to overthrow the Mexican government and establish an independent Texan republic. When the Texas revolution began in 1835, Travis became a lieutenant-colonel in the revolutionary army and was given command of troops in the recently captured city of San Antonio de Bexar (now San Antonio). On February 23, 1836, a large Mexican force commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana arrived suddenly in San Antonio. Travis and his troops took shelter in the Alamo, where they were soon joined by a volunteer force led by Colonel James Bowie.

Though Santa Ana’s 5,000 troops heavily outnumbered the several hundred Texans, Travis and his men determined not to give up. On February 24, they answered Santa Ana’s call for surrender with a bold shot from the Alamo’s cannon. Furious, the Mexican general ordered his forces to launch a siege. Travis immediately recognized his disadvantage and sent out several messages via couriers asking for reinforcements. Addressing one of the pleas to “The People of Texas and All Americans in the World,” Travis signed off with the now-famous phrase “Victory or Death.”

Only 32 men from the nearby town of Gonzales responded to Travis’ call for help, and beginning at 5:30 a.m. on March 6, Mexican forces stormed the Alamo through a gap in the fort’s outer wall, killing Travis, Bowie and 190 of their men. Despite the loss of the fort, the Texan troops managed to inflict huge losses on their enemy, killing at least 600 of Santa Ana’s men.

The brave defense of the Alamo became a powerful symbol for the Texas revolution, helping the rebels turn the tide in their favor. At the crucial Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 910 Texan soldiers commanded by Sam Houston defeated Santa Ana’s army of 1,250 men, spurred on by cries of “Remember the Alamo!” The next day, after Texan forces captured Santa Ana himself, the general issued orders for all Mexican troops to pull back behind the Rio Grande River. On May 14, 1836, Texas officially became an independent republic.

February 23, 1945: U.S. flag raised on Iwo Jima

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-flag-raised-on-iwo-jima

During the bloody Battle for Iwo Jima, U.S. Marines from the 3rd Platoon, E Company, 2nd Battalion, 28th Regiment of the 5th Division take the crest of Mount Suribachi, the island’s highest peak and most strategic position, and raise the U.S. flag. Marine photographer Louis Lowery was with them and recorded the event. American soldiers fighting for control of Suribachi’s slopes cheered the raising of the flag, and several hours later more Marines headed up to the crest with a larger flag. Joe Rosenthal, a photographer with the Associated Press, met them along the way and recorded the raising of the second flag along with a Marine still photographer and a motion-picture cameraman.

Rosenthal took three photographs atop Suribachi. The first, which showed five Marines and one Navy corpsman struggling to hoist the heavy flag pole, became the most reproduced photograph in history and won him a Pulitzer Prize. The accompanying motion-picture footage attests to the fact that the picture was not posed. Of the other two photos, the second was similar to the first but less affecting, and the third was a group picture of 18 soldiers smiling and waving for the camera. Many of these men, including three of the six soldiers seen raising the flag in the famous Rosenthal photo, were killed before the conclusion of the Battle for Iwo Jima in late March.

In early 1945, U.S. military command sought to gain control of the island of Iwo Jima in advance of the projected aerial campaign against the Japanese home islands. Iwo Jima, a tiny volcanic island located in the Pacific about 700 miles southeast of Japan, was to be a base for fighter aircraft and an emergency-landing site for bombers. On February 19, 1945, after three days of heavy naval and aerial bombardment, the first wave of U.S. Marines stormed onto Iwo Jima’s inhospitable shores.

The Japanese garrison on the island numbered 22,000 heavily entrenched men. Their commander, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had been expecting an Allied invasion for months and used the time wisely to construct an intricate and deadly system of underground tunnels, fortifications, and artillery that withstood the initial Allied bombardment. By the evening of the first day, despite incessant mortar fire, 30,000 U.S. Marines commanded by General Holland Smith managed to establish a solid beachhead.

During the next few days, the Marines advanced inch by inch under heavy fire from Japanese artillery and suffered suicidal charges from the Japanese infantry. Many of the Japanese defenders were never seen and remained underground manning artillery until they were blown apart by a grenade or rocket, or incinerated by a flame thrower.

While Japanese kamikaze flyers slammed into the Allied naval fleet around Iwo Jima, the Marines on the island continued their bloody advance across the island, responding to Kuribayashi’s lethal defenses with remarkable endurance. On February 23, the crest of 550-foot Mount Suribachi was taken, and the next day the slopes of the extinct volcano were secured.

By March 3, U.S. forces controlled all three airfields on the island, and on March 26 the last Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima were wiped out. Only 200 of the original 22,000 Japanese defenders were captured alive. More than 6,000 Americans died taking Iwo Jima, and some 17,000 were wounded.

February 22, 1980: U.S. hockey team makes miracle on ice

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-hockey-team-makes-miracle-on-ice

In one of the most dramatic upsets in Olympic history, the underdog U.S. hockey team, made up of college players, defeats the four-time defending gold-medal winning Soviet team at the XIII Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York. The Soviet squad, previously regarded as the finest in the world, fell to the youthful American team 4-3 before a frenzied crowd of 10,000 spectators. Two days later, the Americans defeated Finland 4-2 to clinch the hockey gold.

The Soviet team had captured the previous four Olympic hockey golds, going back to 1964, and had not lost an Olympic hockey game since 1968. Three days before the Lake Placid Games began, the Soviets routed the U.S. team 10-3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Americans looked scrappy, but few blamed them for it–their average age, after all, was only 22, and their team captain, Mike Eruzione, was recruited from the obscurity of the Toledo Blades of the International League.

Few had high hopes for the seventh-seeded U.S. team entering the Olympic tournament, but the team soon silenced its detractors, making it through the opening round of play undefeated, with four victories and one tie, thus advancing to the four-team medal round. The Soviets, however, were seeded No. 1 and as expected went undefeated, with five victories in the first round.

On Friday afternoon, February 22, the American amateurs and the Soviet dream team met before a sold-out crowd at Lake Placid. The Soviets broke through first, with their new young star, Valery Krotov, deflecting a slap shot beyond American goalie Jim Craig’s reach in the first period. Midway through the period, Buzz Schneider, the only American who had previously been an Olympian, answered the Soviet goal with a high shot over the shoulder of Vladislav Tretiak, the Soviet goalie.

The relentless Soviet attack continued as the period progressed, with Sergei Makarov giving his team a 2-1 lead. With just a few seconds left in the first period, American Ken Morrow shot the puck down the ice in desperation. Mark Johnson picked it up and sent it into the Soviet goal with one second remaining. After a brief Soviet protest, the goal was deemed good, and the game was tied.

In the second period, the irritated Soviets came out with a new goalie, Vladimir Myshkin, and turned up the attack. The Soviets dominated play in the second period, outshooting the United States 12-2, and taking a 3-2 lead with a goal by Alesandr Maltsev just over two minutes into the period. If not for several remarkable saves by Jim Craig, the Soviet lead would surely have been higher than 3-2 as the third and final 20-minute period began.

Nearly nine minutes into the period, Johnson took advantage of a Soviet penalty and knocked home a wild shot by David Silk to tie the contest again at 3-3. About a minute and a half later, Mike Eruzione, whose last name means “eruption” in Italian, picked up a loose puck in the Soviet zone and slammed it past Myshkin with a 25-foot wrist shot. For the first time in the game, the Americans had the lead, and the crowd erupted in celebration.

There were still 10 minutes of play to go, but the Americans held on, with Craig making a few more fabulous saves. With five seconds remaining, the Americans finally managed to get the puck out of their zone, and the crowd began counting down the final seconds. When the final horn sounded, the players, coaches, and team officials poured onto the ice in raucous celebration. The Soviet players, as awestruck as everyone else, waited patiently to shake their opponents’ hands.

The so-called Miracle on Ice was more than just an Olympic upset; to many Americans, it was an ideological victory in the Cold War as meaningful as the Berlin Airlift or the Apollo moon landing. The upset came at an auspicious time: President Jimmy Carter had just announced that the United States was going to boycott the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Americans, faced with a major recession and the Iran hostage crisis, were in dire need of something to celebrate. After the game, President Carter called the players to congratulate them, and millions of Americans spent that Friday night in revelry over the triumph of “our boys” over the Russian pros.

As the U.S. team demonstrated in their victory over Finland two days later, it was disparaging to call the U.S. team amateurs. Three-quarters of the squad were top college players who were on their way to the National Hockey League (NHL), and coach Herb Brooks had trained the team long and hard in a manner that would have made the most authoritative Soviet coach proud. The 1980 U.S. hockey team was probably the best-conditioned American Olympic hockey team of all time–the result of countless hours running skating exercises in preparation for Lake Placid. In their play, the U.S. players adopted passing techniques developed by the Soviets for the larger international hockey rinks, while preserving the rough checking style that was known to throw the Soviets off-guard. It was these factors, combined with an exceptional afternoon of play by Craig, Johnson, Eruzione, and others, that resulted in the miracle at Lake Placid.

This improbable victory was later memorialized in a 2004 film, Miracle, starring Kurt Russell.

February 21, 1965: Malcolm X assassinated

Previously posted at: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/malcolm-x-assassinated

In New York City, Malcolm X, an African American nationalist and religious leader, is assassinated by rival Black Muslims while addressing his Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights.

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, Malcolm was the son of James Earl Little, a Baptist preacher who advocated the black nationalist ideals of Marcus Garvey. Threats from the Ku Klux Klan forced the family to move to Lansing, Michigan, where his father continued to preach his controversial sermons despite continuing threats. In 1931, Malcolm’s father was brutally murdered by the white supremacist Black Legion, and Michigan authorities refused to prosecute those responsible. In 1937, Malcolm was taken from his family by welfare caseworkers. By the time he reached high school age, he had dropped out of school and moved to Boston, where he became increasingly involved in criminal activities.

In 1946, at the age of 21, Malcolm was sent to prison on a burglary conviction. It was there he encountered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, whose members are popularly known as Black Muslims. The Nation of Islam advocated black nationalism and racial separatism and condemned Americans of European descent as immoral “devils.” Muhammad’s teachings had a strong effect on Malcolm, who entered into an intense program of self-education and took the last name “X” to symbolize his stolen African identity.

After six years, Malcolm was released from prison and became a loyal and effective minister of the Nation of Islam in Harlem, New York. In contrast with civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X advocated self-defense and the liberation of African Americans “by any means necessary.” A fiery orator, Malcolm was admired by the African American community in New York and around the country.

In the early 1960s, he began to develop a more outspoken philosophy than that of Elijah Muhammad, whom he felt did not sufficiently support the civil rights movement. In late 1963, Malcolm’s suggestion that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a matter of the “chickens coming home to roost” provided Elijah Muhammad, who believed that Malcolm had become too powerful, with a convenient opportunity to suspend him from the Nation of Islam.

A few months later, Malcolm formally left the organization and made a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, where he was profoundly affected by the lack of racial discord among orthodox Muslims. He returned to America as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and in June 1964 founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which advocated black identity and held that racism, not the white race, was the greatest foe of the African American. Malcolm’s new movement steadily gained followers, and his more moderate philosophy became increasingly influential in the civil rights movement, especially among the leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

On February 21, 1965, one week after his home was firebombed, Malcolm X was shot to death by Nation of Islam members while speaking at a rally of his organization in New York City.