In 1952, after his release from prison, Little visited Elijah Muhammad in Chicago, Illinois. Then, like many members of the Nation of Islam, he changed his surname to "X". In his autobiography, Malcolm X explained the "X": "The Muslim's 'X' symbolized the true African family name that he never could know.
For me, my 'X' replaced the white slavemaster name of 'Little' which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears."
The FBI opened a file on Malcolm X in March 1953 after hearing from an informant that Malcolm X described himself as a Communist. Soon the FBI turned its attention from concerns about possible Communist Party association to Malcolm X's rapid ascent in the Nation of Islam.
In June 1953, Malcolm X was named assistant minister of the Nation of Islam's Temple Number One in Detroit. By late 1953, he established Boston's Temple Number Eleven In March 1954, Malcolm X expanded Temple Number Twelve in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two months later he was selected to lead the Nation of Islam's Temple Number Seven in Harlem.
He rapidly expanded its membership. After a 1959 television broadcast in New York City about the Nation of Islam, The Hate That Hate Produced, Malcolm X became known to a much wider audience. Representatives of the print media, radio, and television frequently asked him for comments on issues. He was also sought as a spokesman by reporters from other countries.
From his adoption of the Nation of Islam in 1952 until he left the organization in 1964, Malcolm X promoted the Nation's teachings. He taught that black people were the original people of the world, and that white people were a race of devils.
In his speeches, Malcolm X said that black people were superior to white people, and that the demise of the white race was imminent.
While the civil rights movement fought against racial segregation, Malcolm X advocated the complete separation of African Americans from white people. He proposed the establishment of a separate country for black people as an interim measure until African Americans could return to Africa.
Malcolm X also rejected the civil rights movement's strategy of nonviolence and instead advocated that black people use any necessary means of self-defense to protect themselves.
Malcolm X's speeches had a powerful effect on his audiences, generally African Americans who lived in the Northern and Western cities who were tired of being told to wait for freedom, justice, equality, and respect.
Many blacks felt that he articulated their complaints better than the civil rights movement did.
Many white people, and some blacks, were alarmed by Malcolm X and the things he said. He and the Nation of Islam were described as hatemongers, black segregationists, violence-seekers, and a threat to improved race relations. Civil rights organizations denounced Malcolm X and the Nation as irresponsible extremists whose views were not representative of African Americans.
Malcolm X was equally critical of the civil rights movement.
He described its leaders as "stooges" for the white establishment and said that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a "chump".
He criticized the 1963 March on Washington, which he called "the farce on Washington". He said he did not know why black people were excited over a demonstration "run by whites in front of a statue of a president who has been dead for a hundred years and who didn't like us when he was alive".
Malcolm X has been widely considered the second most influential leader of the movement after Elijah Muhammad. He was largely credited with increasing membership in the Nation of Islam from 500 in 1952 to 25,000 in 1963.
He inspired the boxer Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali) to join the Nation of Islam. Ali later left the Nation of Islam and became a Sunni Muslim, as did Malcolm X.