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As an influential African-American leader, Malcolm X climbed to fame in the mid-1950s as an outspoken national minister of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm challenged the civil rights movement (Malcolm X, Enotes.com). He openly called for black independence and snubbed nonviolence and integration as an effective means of contesting racism. In the 1960s, however, Malcolm rejected Muhammad and the Nation of Islam and embraced conventional Islam. He authenticated his various experiences in The Autobiography of Malcolm X(1965), a work prepared with the help of American writer Alex Haley. TheAutobiographywas published after Malcolm’s death and has been called a compelling and irreplaceable book.
Malcolm X was born as Malcolm Little. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska. Malcolm was exposed to the black separatist movement and white supremacy at an early age. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist minister and a follower of black nationalist, Marcus Garvey. When the Little’s resided in Nebraska, the Ku Klux Klan tried to stop Reverend Little from spreading the teachings of Garvey (Malcolm X, Enotes.com). The Little’s left Nebraska, eventually settling in Mason, Michigan, where they saw that the racial climate wasn’t any better. In 1929, members of a white supremacist group allegedly burned down the Little’s home and later killed Malcolm’s father. His father’s death was officially labeled a suicide. Unfortunately, this left Louise Little to care for her children alone. Incapable of handling the finances and emotional demands of being a single parent, Louise was put in a mental institution, and her children were sent to different foster homes. In spite of the distresses of his early adolescence, Malcolm was surrounded by the best students in his class. However, soon, Malcolm became infuriated with his white teachers and classmates; because he thought they didn’t see him as their equal. He felt they saw him as their mascot; so his interest in his academics declined and he dropped out of school after the eighth grade. While Malcolm lived in Boston, New York City, and later Detroit, he maintained several low-paying jobs. Malcolm altered his outward appearance, so that he could fit into his new urban environment, by treating his hair with harsh chemicals to straighten it and often wearing a zoot suit. Malcolm went by the name of Detroit Red, which came from his fair complexion and red hair. He made his living as a hustler, pimp, and drug dealer. In 1946, due to his life of crime and dating a white woman, Malcolm was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison.
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During his time in prison, Malcolm met a fellow inmate named, Bimbi. Bimbi introduced Malcolm to the prison’s huge library and he became an eager reader. After learning that his siblings began following the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm began reading and embracing his teachings as well. Eventually Malcolm initiated a daily correspondence with Elijah Muhammad. In 1952, Malcolm was released from prison and became a devoted follower of Muhammad. He assumed the name Malcolm X to signify the loss of his true African name and to reject the slave name of Little. In 1953, Malcolm was appointed as the assistant minister of Detroit’s Temple Number One of the Nation of Islam. He believed that every black person would gravitate to Muhammad’s teachings. Malcolm climbed swiftly in the ranks of the Nation, becoming Muhammad’s national representative. In 1954, he became the head of a major mosque in Harlem, New York. It was there Malcolm became known as an articulate spokesperson for the radical black perspective. Malcolm was very head strong and saw whites as an enemy of black people. He did not agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his peaceful and nonviolent approach to racism and injustice in America. Malcolm even mocked the assassination of John F. Kennedy by saying, “the chickens are coming home to roost” (The Autobiography of Malcolm X). After making this heartless comment, Malcolm was silenced for ninety days by Elijah Muhammad. Unfortunately his remark about Kennedy’s assassination hurt Malcolm’s career and gave Muhammad the opportunity to expel his national minister from the movement’s hierarchy; because he had conflict with the Nation of Islam for some time. Malcolm secretively condemned Elijah Muhammad’s materialism for his lavish lifestyle and maintaining relationships with several different women and fathering their children.
Eventually Malcolm X officially detached himself from the Nation of Islam. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca, and took the name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. In Mecca, he undertook a transformation in his beliefs. Malcolm said, “Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds, some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists and some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white” (X, Malcolm, “Learning to Read”). Malcolm even took a diplomatic trip to Africa, and he began the work of uniting blacks across the world, later establishing the Organization of Afro-American Unity in the United States. In doing this, Malcolm now believed that the Nation of Islam saw him as a threat. He stated, “Now I’m out.” “And there’s the fear that if my image isn’t shattered, the Muslims in the movement will leave” (X, Malcolm. The Autobiography of Malcolm X). Indeed, Elijah Muhammad wrote in his periodicalMuhammad Speaksthat Malcolm was worthy of death.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated while delivering a speech to an audience of four hundred followers in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York. Malcolm was gunned down in the presence of his wife, Betty and four children. The three men associated with the Nation of Islam, Talmadge Thayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson were caught and eventually convicted for Malcolm’s murder.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which describes Malcolm X’s life from his early stages of life to the time of his assassination. It was published after Malcolm’s death, and although some journalists questioned Alex Haley’s impact over the work’s production, commentators commonly agreed that the story is Malcolm X’s own. Many of Malcolm’s speeches have also been published, includingMalcolm X Speaks (1965) andMalcolm X: The Last Speeches(1989), but his autobiography continues to be by far his most noted contribution to literature. Malcolm X has increasingly been recognized as a leading figure in the African-American struggle for acknowledgment and equality.The Autobiography of Malcolm Xhas grown and become prominent. In fact, director and filmmaker Spike Lee directed a widely-known screen version of theAutobiography in 1993, entitled Malcolm X.
In 1985, Charles H. Nichols proclaimed that the Autobiography of Malcolm Xis probably the most influential book read by this generation of Afro-Americans. Ironically, the book, designed to be a condemnation of American and European bigotry and exploitation, is a celebratory declaration of the possibilities of the human spirit. The Autobiography of Malcolm X has encouraged In the decades since its initial publication, the Autobiographyhas prompted various analytical readings. Truman Nelson concluded, “Its manifold unsolved ambiguities will make it stand as a monument to the most painful of truths: that this country, this people, this Western world has practiced unspeakable cruelty against a race, an individual, who might have made its fraudulent humanism a reality” (Truman Nelson: “An Interview”).
Malcolm X’s abilities as an orator have received much praise from commentators who have commended his ability for prompting in his audiences the intensity and dedication that he demonstrated for his beliefs.
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