“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was published in 1965 as a joint effort between journalist Alex Haley and African American rights activist, Malcolm X. The book was written from a series of interviews that Haley conducted with Malcolm during the final two years of his life and published in the year he was assassinated after which an epilogue was added.
Haley’s authorial voice was left intentionally silent in the book to give the text the impression that Malcolm was speaking directly to the reader in the same tone as his speeches and lectures.
Throughout the book, the story of Malcolm’s life is told, from his humble beginnings as the son of a preacher in Omaha, Nebraska to his tenure as a powerful public speaker and the face of black nationalism and the religion of the Nation of Islam. The novel ends with an epilogue that talks about the assassination of Malcolm X by three shooters from the Nation of Islam and the aftermath of his effect on the world.
The book has sold millions of copies and was adapted into a film by the famous director Spike Lee in 1992.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in the beginning of the 20th century to a father who was a Baptist preacher and a mother who was from the island of Grenada. Malcolm’s father, Earl worked for Marcus Garvey’s UNIA campaign, an association that supported the return of black Americans to Africa. His mother, Louise was half-white, the product of the rape of a black woman by a white man that she never knew. Because of this, Louise is able to pass for white in their town and sometimes works as a maid.
Because of Earl’s work with the UNIA, he is targeted by white supremacy groups routinely. Malcolm’s family moves to Lansing, Michigan in 1929. Shortly after their move, however, another white supremacy group burned down their house. Malcolm recalls this as one of his first lessons about what it means to be black in America. As he grows, he notices that the blacks in Lansing are only allowed to do menial jobs like shining shoes and waiting tables.
When Malcolm is only six years old, his father is killed by white men. The insurance company claim that Earl’s death was a suicide and refuse to pay the family what they are owed. Because this was also the same time as the onset of the Great Depression, Malcolm’s family lives in abject poverty without his father, eating only dandelions until they are able to get welfare. Malcolm begins stealing food and Louise is blamed for it. Louise is seen as insane by the welfare agents for trying to maintain a strict Seventh Day Adventist diet even when food is so scarce and she is sent to a mental hospital. Malcolm and his siblings are split up into foster homes. Malcolm asserts that this taught him to blame the state for taking away his mother’s dignity and splitting up his family.
Malcolm is sent to live with the Swerlins, a white family in Lansing. Although the Swerlins are kind to Malcolm he spends his time with them feeling more like a mascot, or a family pet. He excels in school, although he never feels comfortable there. When he realizes that there is only one paragraph about black history in his textbook, he tells the teacher who laughs as she replies that though slavery is a thing of the past, black people are still considered to be lazy and stupid.
When Malcolm tells another teacher that he wishes to become a lawyer, the teacher tells him that he should shoot more for something he can achieve, like a carpenter. Malcolm is hurt by this, as he has seen this teacher support the dreams of white students who were less intelligent than him. Malcolm realizes that even though they are well meaning, these white people don’t see him as an equal because he is black. As Malcolm grows up, he faces racism and exclusion in many aspects of his life. He often visits his mother in the mental hospital and visits his brothers and sisters in their foster homes.
In 1940, Malcolm visits his sister, Ella in Boston and decides to move to the city. The Swerlins are upset that Malcolm wants to leave and Malcolm is unable to explain why he wishes to move away. He moves into an upstairs room in his sister’s house in a wealthy black neighborhood in Boston when he is 15. Malcolm quickly notices the class differences in Boston between the upper class blacks who live in his sister’s neighborhood of Roxbury and the lower class blacks who live down the hill. He finds himself more comfortable with the latter as he feels that the blacks in Roxbury are too busy trying to imitate white people and obsessing over their menial jobs.
Malcolm begins going to a pool hall where an employee named Shorty takes him under his wing. Shorty is a saxophone player and has contacts at ballrooms all over Boston. He manages to finagle a job for Malcolm at the Roseland State Ballroom as a shoeshine boy. Selling marijuana and alcohol and acting as a middle man for black pimps and white customers, Malcolm soon learns, are where the real money comes from at his job. He begins playing cards and doing drugs and with some of his first money, he buys a zoot suit, a type of flamboyant suit that men often wore in the mid-20th century.
Malcolm begins making so much money that he is able to quit his job and patronize the Roseland as a customer. Ella is happy to hear that Malcolm quit his job, but only because she insists that she get him another one with her own contacts – one that she will approve of and that doesn’t have as much of a criminal side. She gets him a job as a clerk in a drugstore in Roxbury. Malcolm despises the people there, but enjoys the company of a high school girl named Laura that comes in often. Malcolm and Laura develop a friendship and he confesses to her that he wants to become a lawyer and Laura is supportive.
Laura wishes to go out with Malcolm, but she must lie to her overprotective grandmother in order to do so. Laura and Malcolm begin dancing at the Roseland together, and Malcolm attracts the notice of an older white woman named Sophia. Soon, Malcolm dumps Laura and begins dating Sophia. Though Sophia has other boyfriend, Malcolm enjoys dating her for the status symbol that dating a white woman provides him. When Ella finds out about this relationship, she disapproves and Malcolm soon moves out of her house and moves in with Shorty.
Later in life, Malcolm learns that after he broke up with Laura she had a falling out with her grandmother and began doing drugs and prostituting herself. He blames himself for the way her life turned out. Malcolm begins working at a job on a train from Boston to New York. Being in New York dazzles him. After he is fired from this job for being too aggressive in his salesmanship, Malcolm takes another as a waiter in a restaurant in Harlem. He learns a lot about the seedy underbelly of the city and begins investing money in the local lottery.
Malcolm begins associating with black gangsters left over from the 20’s and 30’s and pimps. One pimp named Sammy becomes his close friend. Malcolm’s friends begin calling him “Detroit Red” because of the red-ish tint to his hair. With Sammy’s help he begins selling marijuana again and eventually smoking it himself. When the police start looking for him he begins having to move around weekly in order to avoid them. He starts becoming addicted to the drugs that he is selling and Sammy suggests that he start selling up and down the east coast in order to avoid the police. Sophia marries another man but continues to see Malcolm on the side.
Eventually Malcolm is summoned by the draft board in order to be drafted into World War II. When he meets with them, he dresses strangely and tells the army psychiatrist that his dream is to lead the southern blacks into killing the southern whites. At one point, Malcolm begins robbing houses because he is no longer able to sell drugs since the narcotics are too familiar with him. He also begins dealing with guns and doing harder drugs to deal with his stress. Malcolm’s brother Reginald comes to live with him right around the time that living conditions in Harlem begin worsening. Dance halls begins shutting down and this stems the flow of tourists. The locals suspect that the police are closing down the dance halls to stop black men from dancing with white women.
Malcolm and Sammy have a fight after Malcolm slaps one of Sammy’s prostitutes and the pimp pulls a gun on him. They eventually make up but never trust each other as well again. As a result, Malcolm begins to grow closer with Reginald. Among many other illegal pursuits, Malcolm again begins working on the streets steering white men toward black brothels and bootlegging alcohol from Long Island.
He continues to play the local lottery and places bets with a dealer known as “West Indian Archie”. At one point, Archie accuses Malcolm of cheating and gives him 24 hours to return his money. That night, Malcolm gets so high that he sleeps well into the next day and misses the deadline. Archie humiliates Malcolm in front of a crowd in a bar but does not shoot him. The next day, Malcolm gets into a fist fight with another hustler and is searched by the police.
With so many people out for him, Malcolm feels unsafe in Harlem and Shorty convinces him to come back to Boston. When Ella and Shorty see Malcolm again after years away, they are horrified by how much he has changed. Now a gambling, foul-mouthed, drug-addict, Malcolm manages to talk Shorty into joining his burglary ring. Sophia and her younger sister are also included as they are able to scope out white neighborhoods. This continues until Malcolm accidentally blows Sophia’s cover one day while he is high on cocaine. Sophia’s husband gets involved and Malcolm is arrested.
In court, Malcolm is judged twice as harshly for consorting with a white woman. He is sentenced to ten years in prison. Malcolm is sent to a Massachusetts prison where his first days are marked with drug withdrawal and solitary confinement. Because of his aggressiveness, he is nicknamed “Satan” by the other prisoners. Another prisoner named Bimbi befriends Malcolm. Bimbi is a black man who is respected by the prisoners and the guards alike for his confident and intelligent way of speaking.
Being around Bimbi changes Malcolm. He begins reading more and improving his English. He learns about history, religion and biology, among other subjects and truly starts to turn his aggressiveness into well reasoned arguments. As Malcolm learns about religion, he studies the Nation of Islam and hears about the spiritual leader Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad believed that all white men were devils. Malcolm realizes that of all the white men that he has known in his life, from the white social workers who split up his family to the white policemen who arrested him, and realizes that they have all done him some kind of harm.
According to Elijah Muhammad, the first humans on earth were black and lived together peacefully in Mecca until the white people were created and conspired to abuse people people of color for the next 6,000 years. He taught that black people were stolen from Africa, stripped of their names, myths, Gods and rights and sold to white people. Malcolm begins writing to Elijah Muhammad every day and practicing the Nation of Islam religion.
In his studies, Malcolm begins developing a system of personal beliefs that revolve around Africa and the African people. He learns more about the pharaohs of Africa and the resistance of India and China against British occupation. Moving to a more relaxed prison with a focus on rehabilitation, Malcolm joins the prisons debate program and enjoys the aspect of public speaking that it brings. He begins seeing more and more success with his debates and converting people to the Nation of Islam.
In 1952, Malcolm manages to get an early release on parole. He is remanded to the custody of his brother, Wilfred and moves to Detroit to live with him. Malcolm is now able to attend meetings for the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad preaches about Malcolm’s strength and faith. Malcolm begins seriously recruiting for the religion and changes his last name to “X” to avoid using the last name that he feels was given to one of his ancestors by a slave owner.
The membership of the Nation of Islam triples over the course of only a few months and Elijah appoints Malcolm as his assistant minister for his success. Malcolm begins ministering for the religion and Elijah sends him to Boston to supervise the building of a temple there. While there, Malcolm tries to convert Shorty and Ella with no success.
After the Boston temple is complete, Elijah sends Malcolm to New York where he discovers that his old friend Sammy the Pimp has died and Archie is gravely ill. Malcolm’s success in converting black Christians to the Nation of Islam becomes more measured, but he continues to do well. He sets up a system of recruiting from black nationalist rallies where the advocates are supportive of a return to Africa.
In 1956, Malcolm meets a new convert named Betty whom he quickly falls in love with. Though he has been celibate for a while at this point, he marries Betty spontaneously and they move to Queens, New York together. The two go on to have five children together. Over the next few years, the Nation of Islam begins to garner national attention when the police start targeting it’s members. The Nation’s youth group, ‘The Fruit of Islam’ lead a mass protest that involves standing outside the police station where one of the Nation’s members has been taken. The Nation wins a lawsuit against the city for the attack and although Malcolm has access to the money, he has taken a vow of poverty and never owns much more than a car that he uses to drive from city to city. Ella, Malcolm’s sister, eventually joins the religion as well.
By the mid-1960s, the religion has large temples in Detroit, Chicago and New York. Malcolm founds a newspaper for the Nation called, ‘Muhammad Speaks’ shortly before a a writer publishes a book about the Nation that shows it in a bad light. During the press tour for the book, Malcolm spends most of his time answering phone calls and defending the Nation in interviews and speeches.
In 1959, Malcolm begins traveling outside the country to promote the religion to the leaders of countries like Arabia, Sudan and Egypt. He becomes more and more critical of the black civil rights leaders in America and their drive to promote integration. The Nation begins holding massive rallies which attract the attention of the FBI. The FBI begin tapping Malcolm’s phone and spying on the rallies in general.
Part of the Nation’s success results from it’s focus on black men who have been imprisoned or who are former drug addicts, as it offers them a way out of their current lives and a group of people who will take them at face value. The former convicts are also particularly adept at the stern economic rules that the religion insists upon.
By the beginning of the 1960s, Elijah Muhammad is growing old and the Nation buys him a house in Arizona to retire to. At this point, Malcolm, being second-in-command, begins to take over the day to day operations of the Nation. The Nation experiences a level of publicity that no one anticipated. Malcolm begins speaking at top universities until other Muslims begins to accuse him of seeking the fame and of trying to take over as head of the religion. In order to reduce the accusations, Malcolm starts taking less and less public speaking opportunities.
Elijah Muhammad is eventually sought after in paternity suits for two of the Nation’s past secretaries. Malcolm disbelieves the accusations at first, until Elijah confesses that they are true and assures Malcolm that he, like many great men in scripture, deserves to be seen for his accomplishments more than his occasional mistakes. Malcolm assumes that Elijah will apologize to the Nation but he never does.
After President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, Malcolm breaks the order from Elijah that he is not to comment on the situation. Malcolm insinuates that the assassination was a case of “chickens coming home to roost” and Elijah immediately orders him to be silent for 90 days afterward in punishment.
Malcolm begins worrying that the Nation is planning to fire him. He feels that Elijah has betrayed him by ordering him to stay silent. He hears rumors that there is an order out for his death from the Nation. Panicked and troubled by the religion that he loves turning on him, Malcolm accepts the offer from the boxer Cassius Clay to visit him in Florida. The men hit it off, and Clay decides to take the name “Muhammad Ali” after their meeting in order to pay tribute to his Muslim heritage.
Malcolm begins trying to think of ways to continue to work for the political interests of black people now that he has been exiled from the church. He founds an organization called “Muslim Mosque Inc.” and strives to pursue black independence from white economics and politics. However, before he sets up the organization, Malcolm decides to take a religious trip to the holy city of Mecca. During his stay, he stays for a short time with a friend of the Shawarbi, Omar Azzam, who lets him stay in his suite at the Palace Hotel. Saudi Arabia’s price Faisal lends Malcolm a car to make the trip to Mecca.
In Mecca, Malcolm is astounded by the lack of racial divides between the light and dark skin people. This changes his perspective and he decides that the problems between blacks and whites in America must stem from the years of black slavery and how whites are taught to view blacks as less. He writes home, signing the letters with “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” which he now sees as his official name although the rest of the world still knows him as Malcolm X.
Malcolm flies to other non-white countries to meet with their leaders about the plight of black Americans. When he returns to America, he is surrounded by reporters who implies that he has a hand in the race riots erupting across the country. This frustrates Malcolm and he tries to assure the public that he has a different outlook on race relations after his trip.
In Harlem, Malcolm starts a new organization calls Afro-American Unity which is available to all people of color. In closing, Malcolm says that he believes that black people have to band together before unifying with whites to fight racism. He says that he will continue to fight for this but that his fight is hindered by the fall that his reputation has taken. Lastly, he predicts that he will not live to see the publication of his autobiography and that he will die a violent death.
In the epilogue, the co-writer of the book, reporter Alex Haley talks about the first time he met Malcolm X and the man’s distrust of reporters who he felt were working for white America. Malcolm opened up to Haley after many interview sessions and Haley began working on the autobiography shortly before Elijah and Malcolm’s falling out. The epilogue talks about the final two years of Malcolm’s life and the death threats that lead up to his assassination.
Malcolm was killed on February 21st, 1965 when he was shot by three audience members at a lecture hall in Harlem. The killers are thought to be the Nation of Islam but comments that Malcolm made shortly before his death lead Haley to believe that a more powerful organization also wanted him dead. Haley ends with a description of Malcolm’s funeral which is highly attended and the speech from the Sheikh who said that Malcolm has ascended to paradise.
Malcolm X – because the book is an autobiography, Malcolm himself is the main character. In the beginning, he is the child of a preacher from Nebraska with no money and no respect from the white people of his town. After Malcolm’s father leaves, he and his siblings live in poverty with his mother until she is remanded into a mental institution. Malcolm and his siblings are split up into foster homes and Malcolm considers this his first betrayal by white America.
Though the white family that adopts him and the white teachers at his school mean well, Malcolm spends his childhood feeling excluded and made to feel different because of his skin color. This creates a resentment in him that is fed by the racial aggressions that develop as he ages and becomes a man. At the age of 15, Malcolm leaves his foster family to move in with his sister in Boston. At this point, he begins to live life as a criminal, alternatively selling and using drugs and working for pimps and madames as well as racking up high gambling debts.
Eventually, Malcolm is arrested and during his stay in prison he discovers the Nation of Islam and converts to the religion, swearing off all wealth and material gain. The time he spends in prison changes Malcolm greatly. He becomes a more reserved, introspective person and teaches himself to channel his rage into impassioned arguments about the state of race relations in America. When he is released, he joins the Nation of Islam officially and begins working with Elijah Muhammad, eventually making it to his second in command. However, his time with the religion comes to an end after he begins making statements that Elijah does not approve of.
Malcolm wished that the Nation could be taken in a different, even more militant way then Elijah wanted. It is probably inevitable that two men with such strong opinions would quarrel and the eventual fight lead to Malcolm being exiled from the Nation altogether. Having devoted over ten years of his life to the religion, finding himself suddenly without it casts Malcolm into a whirlwind. He goes on a soul-seeking trip to Mecca and returns a new man, with different ideas than the ones that he has preached for twelve years. Unfortunately, Malcolm is assassinated before he is able to put his new ideas into action, an outcome that he predicted two years earlier at the end of the autobiography.
Ella Little – Malcolm’s sister. Ella is the sibling of Malcolm’s that is most present throughout the book. She lives in Boston and takes Malcolm in when he is only fifteen. Ella disapproves of Malcolm’s illegal activities early on and makes several attempts to get him a legitimate job through her contacts in town. When Malcolm joins the Nation, Ella is impressed by his turnaround and eventually joins the religion himself, leaving after Malcolm is exiled from it. Ella seemed to have loved her brother and accepted and supported him throughout his life.
Elijah Muhammad – the head of the Nation of Islam religion. Elijah was a lesser-known civil rights leader in the early 20th century. He had similar ideas to Malcolm about black rights and race relations. Both men were militant activists, although Elijah did not want to take it to the same degree that Malcolm did, which inevitably caused their rift.
Malcolm X Biography
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19th, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. The son of a preacher and a half-white woman from the island of Grenada, Malcolm was one of seven siblings in the family. As a child, Malcolm’s family moved around often to avoid the white supremacists who eventually succeeded in killing his father. The police ruled the death as a suicide and Malcolm’s family received no insurance payments from his father’s death which resulted in abject poverty for several years.
During this time, Malcolm’s mother, Louise was remanded to a mental institution for a nervous breakdown and Malcolm and his siblings were split up into foster homes. Malcolm was an excellent student, but dropped out to move to Boston to live with his sister at the age of 14. For many years, he took odd jobs to support himself, eventually tending toward criminal activities like selling drugs and working for pimps.
During the second world war, Malcolm managed to evade the draft by convincing the draft board that he wanted to exterminate southern whites. They ruled him mentally unfit, and he was not drafted into the war.
In 1945, he was arrested for a series of burglaries in Boston and sent to prison with a ten year sentence. It was during Malcolm’s time in prison that he converted to the Nation of Islam religion and became the powerful public speaker that he later came to be famous as. A fellow convict introduced him to the religion and Malcolm appreciated it’s tenants supporting black identity and independence.
Malcolm begin communicating with the leader of the religion, Elijah Muhammad in prison. When he was released early from prison for good behavior, Malcolm quickly became a proponent of the religion and was promoted to Elijah Muhammad’s second in command within a year. During this time, Malcolm met and married Betty Sanders in 1955 and the two had five children together, two of which were twins born after Malcolm’s death.
Unfortunately, this relationship only lasted 12 years, as some comments that Malcolm made after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination caused a rift between him and Elijah that eventually saw him exiled from the religion. During his time with the Nation, Malcolm became a public speaker on a nationwide scale, and his prominence created some tension between him and that Nation.
After he was exiled, Malcolm began a journey to the holy city of Mecca and then a tour of other countries that were interested in the plight of black Americans. Two years before his death, Malcolm began a series of interviews with the journalist Alex Haley that would later become the bestselling book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”.
In the final years of his life, Malcolm’s conflict with the Nation and other prominent groups led to many deaths threats and his eventual assassination by three shooters on February 21st, 1965 while speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. He was shot 21 times and died just after 3:30 pm at a nearby hospital.
Malcolm’s funeral was attended by thousands of people from all walks of life and many prominent civil rights leaders of the time. He was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, and a charity was created after his death to raise money for his family.