The X is meant to symbolize Malcolm’s true family name from Africa, which he does not know, since white slave traders violently severed his family.
In his autobiography, Malcolm X writes,
“X” replaced the white slavemaster name of “Little” which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears. The receipt of my “X” meant that forever after in the nation of Islam, I would be known as Malcolm X. Mr. Muhammad taught that we would keep this “X” until God Himself returned and gave us a Holy Name from His own mouth.
He speaks about hearing Elijah Muhammad speak about how black men in America were mentally, morally, and spiritually dead because of their mistreatment and brainwashing by white people. One of the things Muhammad discussed that Malcolm X took note of was how black people weren’t able to keep their family names. Their names were replaced with the names of the slaveowners who purchased them.
Muhammad believed that the true knowledge of themselves would help lift up black men in America. Malcolm X learned about the Nation of Islam while he was in prison. He converted and, in the process, changed his name. Later in life, he converted from the Nation of Islam to standard Islam. At that point, he began using the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
Malcolm’s original family surname was Little. When in prison, he became part of the Nation of Islam. This religious group believed that blacks had originally been Muslims when taken captive and brought to America as slaves. The group wanted to separate itself from white culture and promote black culture and independence.
Malcolm actually legally changed his last name from Little to X when he was released from prison in 1952. He felt that Little was a name that had been imposed on his family in the past by white slaveowners. The last name X brought him back, he thought, to his lost African roots and helped him develop a sense of black pride and separation from white culture. It worked out to be a distinctive name that helped him remain memorable after he rose to prominence.