The Autobiography of Malcolm X Summary

Overview

Summary of the Autobiography
The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley chronicles the rise of Malcolm X, from his years as a street hustler, dope peddler, and thief to becoming one of the most influential African-American leaders in the American civil rights’ movement.

Journalist Alex Haley first approached Malcolm X about writing his autobiography in 1963. The autobiography was a culmination of nearly two years of intensive interviews with Malcolm X, which concluded in 1965 after his tragic assassination.

The autobiography traces Malcolm’s early years in Michigan, where he was one of eight children of the Reverend Earl and Louise Little. By 1937, when Malcolm was 12-years-old, his father had been brutally murdered and his mother institutionalized.

Malcolm vividly recounts his teenage years, spent in Boston, Chicago, and New York City’s Harlem. The reader enters Malcolm’s world of street hustlers and pimps, and witnesses the devastating effects racial segregation and prejudice had on African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1946, Malcolm is sentenced to a 10-year prison term for robbery. It is in prison where he undergoes a moral and spiritual transformation, after he discovers the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam. For the first time in his life, Malcolm studies and learns about the proud history and traditions of black people throughout the world. According to Elijah Muhammad, white people are “devils” because they have oppressed and exploited black people for centuries. Elijah Muhammad believed that black separatism was the only way to resolve the problem of racism in America.

Malcolm decides to devote his life to spreading the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Upon his release from prison in 1953, Malcolm moves to Detroit and initiates a Nation of Islam recruitment drive. Soon, he is traveling across the United States, electrifying his audiences as he eloquently preaches about the Nation of Islam movement.

Malcolm’s marriage to Betty Shabazz in 1958 is a joyful time; he and his wife move to Queens, New York.

The reader is aware of Malcolm’s growing disenchantment with the Nation of Islam movement. Malcolm wants the movement to take a more activist role in combatting America’s racism. Meanwhile, Malcolm senses that Elijah Muhammad has become jealous of his enormous popularity. This jealousy, in fact, leads Muhammad to begin distancing himself from Malcolm.

Finally, when Elijah Muhammad silences Malcolm for 90 days, Malcolm decides to create a new organization, substantially different from the Nation of Islam, that will fight America’s racism with political activism.

Malcolm makes two pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca. There, he is amazed by the true sense of “brotherhood” practiced by people of all races and nationalities. As a result of his spiritual awakening, he renounces his black separatist beliefs.

The book’s Epilogue details the tragic assassination of 39-year-old Malcolm X. Haley writes that although it has never been proven, most people believe that Black Muslims were responsible for Malcolm’s death.

The Life and Work of Malcolm X
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the remarkable true story of an African-American man’s rise—from street hustler, dope peddler, and thief—to one of the most dynamic and influential African-American leaders in modern America. The Autobiography of Malcolom X spans four decades: from his birth on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, to his tragic assassination on February 21, 1965 in New York City.

As one of eight children of the Reverend Earl and Louise Little, Malcolm Little (as he was named at birth) grew up amidst poverty and racial prejudice. His father, the Reverend Little, was a Baptist minister and organizer for Marcus Garvey’s UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association). As Garvey’s disciple, the Reverend Little crusaded throughout the Midwest with his family, preaching and encouraging his congregations to return to their ancestral homeland, Africa.

In 1931, when Malcolm was six-years-old, his father was brutally murdered in Lansing, Michigan. Although never proven, it was believed that the Reverend Little had been killed by a local hate group. Life for the Little family changed drastically after that. Their financial problems worsened. In addition, Mrs. Little, suffering from enormous anxiety and stress caused by the responsibility of raising eight children, was eventually institutionalized. Consequently, in 1937, the Little children were separated; they lived with friends, foster families, or on their own in Lansing.

Malcolm attended school only through the eighth grade. He spent much of his teenage years on the streets of Boston, Chicago, and New York City’s Harlem. In February 1946, at the age of 20, Malcolm was convicted of robbery and sentenced to a ten-year prison term. There he underwent a moral and spiritual transformation when he discovered the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Known as the “Messenger of Allah” (Allah is the Muslim god), Muhammad instilled a sense of admiration and self-respect among his black followers by his condemnation of white people. He blamed whites for the abject conditions of black people in North America, and felt that the only way to resolve the long-standing injustices was through black separatism.

In 1953, upon his release from prison, Malcolm X (the name change “X” stood for his long-lost African name) was appointed assistant minister for the Nation of Islam movement. He traveled across the United States and eloquently preached about his new-found religion, converting thousands of black people.

In late 1963, Elijah Muhummad suspended Malcolm X from the Nation of Islam because of their differences on the fundamental precepts and strategies of the Black Muslims.

In 1964, Malcolm X made his first pilgrimage to Mecca. As a result of this visit, he established the Organization for Afro-American Unity, since he was determined to work proactively in the struggle for racial equality. Rather than adhere to the Nation of Islam’s “non-engagement policy,” Malcolm was intent on developing political strategies to combat America’s racism.

Hostilities between Malcolm X and the Black Muslims heightened. He began receiving anonymous death threats.

On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. Although three men were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his murder, the question of who ordered Malcolm X’s assassination remains a mystery. Malcolm X is survived by his wife, Betty Shabazz, and four daughters.

In 1992, the African-American film director, Spike Lee, made a film, Malcolm X, based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Denzel Washington portrayed Malcolm X in this critically-acclaimed motion picture.

The Life and Work of Alex Haley
Alex Haley (August 11, 1921–February 10, 1992) was a chief journalist in the U.S. Coast Guard for 20 years before he began his civilian writing career. He first wrote about the Nation of Islam movement in 1960 in a Reader’s Digest article. Subsequently, he was introduced to Malcolm X and conducted a personal interview with him for an article for Playboy magazine. The Playboy interview was the inspiration for The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This bestselling classic was a culmination of nearly two years of intensive interviews.

Mr. Haley won literary fame for his exhaustively researched book on his family’s history, Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the book traces his maternal ancestry back to Africa.

Mr. Haley wrote stories and articles for numerous publications and published a novella, A Different Kind of Christmas, in 1988.

Estimated Reading Time

The average silent reading rate for a secondary student is 250 to 300 words per minute. Since each page has approximately 400 words on it, an average student would take about two minutes to read each page. The total reading time for the 460-page book would be about 16 hours. Reading the book according to the natural chapter breaks is the best approach.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was hailed as a literary classic shortly after it appeared. Its description of Malcolm X’s discovery of an African American identity continues to inspire its readers. The two most memorable phases of Malcolm X’s life described in his autobiography, and quite possibly the two phases most formative of his identity, are his self-education and religious conversion while in prison and his last year of life, in which he set out to organize a multiracial coalition to end racism. The first of these phases followed a difficult childhood and life as a criminal. In prison, Malcolm X felt inspired by fellow inmates to improve his knowledge. He started on a rigorous program of reading books on history and philosophy. He also worked on his penmanship and vocabulary by copying an entire dictionary. His readings revealed to him that school had taught him nothing about African and African American history. School had also been silent on the crimes that Europeans and European Americans had committed against people of color. In prison, members of the Nation of Islam urged Malcolm X to reject the negative self-image he had unconsciously adopted and to replace it with black pride.

Malcolm X taught the Nation’s doctrine of black self-reliance after his release from prison, and he married Betty Shabazz, eventually becoming the father of six children. Disappointed by the divergence between the practices of some of the leaders of the Nation of Islam and the rules of self-discipline and honor that the Nation taught, he left the Nation and, after traveling to Mecca, became an orthodox Muslim. Islam and his experiences in the Middle East and Africa also changed his outlook on racial relations. Before, he had seen an unbridgeable gulf between African Americans and European Americans. His positive experiences with white Muslims, white students, and white reporters caused him to reevaluate that position. Deciding that cooperation between whites and blacks was possible, he remained devoted to the liberation of people of African descent to the end of his life.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is important as an account of the life of a charismatic American intellectual. The book is also an important literary work in the African American tradition of the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois and in the American tradition of Benjamin Franklin. Like Douglass and Franklin, Malcolm X can be described as a self-made man.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X Summary

Chapter One: "Nightmare"
The Autobiography of Malcolm X begins with Malcolm Little telling about his years as a...

(The entire section is 1455 words.)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X Summary and Analysis

Chapter 1: Nightmare

New People:
Malcolm Little: the narrator and main character

Louise Little: Malcolm’s mother

The Reverend Earl Little: Malcolm’s father, a Baptist minister

Yvonne: Malcolm’s youngest sister

Robert: Malcolm’s younger brother

Philbert: Malcolm’s older brother

Wilfred: Malcolm’s older brother

Hilda: Malcolm’s older sister

Reginald: Malcolm’s younger brother

Wesley: Malcolm’s younger brother

The Gohannas: a family with whom the young Malcolm goes to live

Big Boy: the Gohannas’ nephew

Mrs. Adcock: a woman who lived with the Gohannas

Summary
...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Chapter 2: Mascot

New People:
Bill Peterson: white boxer who fights Malcolm

Maynard Allen: works for the state welfare agency

Mr. and Mrs. Swerlin: a white couple in charge of the detention home

Lucille Lathrop: white cook-helper who works for the Swerlins

Duane Lathrop: Lucille’s husband

A judge: in charge of Malcolm’s case in Lansing

Mr. and Mrs. Lyons: a West Indian couple whose children attend school with Malcolm

Mr. Ostrowski: Malcolm’s English teacher

Mr. Williams: Malcolm’s history teacher

Ella: Malcolm’s half-sister who lives in Boston

Earl: Malcolm’s half-brother

Mary: Malcolm’s...

(The entire section is 583 words.)

Chapter 3: “Homeboy”

New People:
Shorty: Malcolm’s friend

Freddie: works as a shoeshine boy

Summary
Malcolm lives with Ella and her family in an area known as “the Hill” in Roxbury, a large black neighborhood in Boston. Most black people residing in the Hill are servants, or have other types of menial employment; a small number are white-collar workers.

Shorty helps Malcolm get a job shining shoes at the Roseland State Ballroom. Malcolm soon discovers that shoe-shining is only part of the job. His additional responsibilities include selling liquor, marijuana, and pimping. He develops a taste for Roxbury’s black urban fashion and lifestyle. He purchases his first “zoot suit,” and...

(The entire section is 344 words.)

Chapter 4: Laura

New People:
Laura: a black high school honors student

Mamie Bevels: waitress at Roseland

Sophia: a white girl Malcolm meets at Roseland

Summary
Dancing becomes Malcolm’s first and foremost passion. He quits his shoeshining job and takes a job as a soda fountain clerk, enabling him to go out dancing at night. At work, he meets Laura, a sheltered black girl living with her grandmother. He takes Laura dancing at Roseland and the two are a dancing sensation.

Malcolm stops dating Laura after he meets an attractive, wealthy white woman he refers to as Sophia. Meanwhile, Laura’s life drastically changes. In defiance of her grandmother, she starts drinking liquor...

(The entire section is 348 words.)

Chapter 5: Harlemite

New People:
Old Man Rountree: elderly Pullman porter and friend of Ella’s

Pappy Cousins: Yankee Clipper steward

Ed Small: owner of Small’s Paradise, a popular Harlem nightspot

Charlie Small: Ed’s brother, who interviews Malcolm for a job

Summary
In 1942, Malcolm is hired by a railroad company to work as a dishwasher on its Boston to Washington, DC run. Soon, he is promoted and begins selling food on the “Yankee Clipper,” the train that runs between Boston and New York City. On his first trip to New York’s Harlem, he visits several nightclubs and sees such famous black celebrities as Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. Immediately deciding that...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Chapter 6: Detroit Red and Chapter 7: Hustler

New People:
The Forty Thieves: a group of men who steal clothing from stores to resell at one-third of the store’s prices

The Four Horsemen: a group of crooked black policemen who patrol Harlem’s Sugar Hill neighborhood

Brisbane: a West Indian policeman who is one of The Four Horsemen

“Cadillac” Drake: a Harlem pimp

Sammy the Pimp: a pimp and best friend of Malcolm

“Alabama Peach”: a white prostitute who works for Sammy

“Dollarbill”: a Harlem pimp

“Fewclothes”: a former pickpocket and regular customer at Small’s Paradise

“Jumpsteady”: a burglar and regular customer at Small’s Paradise

...

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Chapter 8: Trapped and Chapter 9: Caught

New People:
Sophia’s 17-year-old sister: dates Shorty

John Hughes: owns a gambling house in Boston

Rudy: a friend of Shorty’s and a member of Malcolm’s burglary ring

Sophia’s husband: goes looking for Malcolm when he finds out Sophia has been seeing him

Sophia’s husband’s friend: takes Sophia and her sister out to dinner

Detective Slack: police detective investigating Malcolm

Detective Turner: police detective investigating Malcolm

Summary
Malcolm moves back to Boston after West Indian Archie, who wrongfully believes Malcolm has stolen money from him, threatens to kill him. Malcolm lives with his longtime...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

Chapter 10: Satan

New People:
Bimbi: Malcolm’s fellow inmate in Charlestown State Prison

John: Malcolm’s fellow inmate in Norfolk Prison Colony

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad: the leader of the Nation of Islam

“Mr. Yacub”: according to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, he created the white race 6,600 years ago

Master W.D. Fard: a half-black, half-white man who gave Elijah Muhammad Allah’s message and divine guidance

Summary
In 1946, Malcolm is sentenced to ten years in prison. He is sent to the dilapidated Charlestown State Prison with his friend Shorty, who has been given an eight-to-ten year sentence. Malcolm’s wild atheistic rantings in prison earn...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Chapter 11: Saved and Chapter 12: Savior

New People:
Lemuel Hassan: minister of Detroit’s Temple Number One

Sister Clara Muhammad: Elijah Muhammad’s wife

Mother Marie: Elijah Muhammad’s mother

Summary
In Norfolk Prison Colony, Malcolm devotes himself to studying the teachings of Muhammad. In addition, he reads the classics, and studies philosophy, science, and world history. Each day, he writes a letter to Muhammad, professing his devotion to the Nation of Islam. He writes letters to his former friends and acquaintances from his hustling days, telling them about his new-found religion. He writes letters, protesting “how the white man’s society was responsible for the black man’s condition in this...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Chapter 13: Minister Malcolm X

New People:
Brother Lloyd X: a Muslim follower in Boston, Massachusetts

Brother Osborne: a Muslim follower in Springfield, Massachusetts

Brother James X: a Muslim follower in Atlanta, Georgia

Sister Betty X: Malcolm’s wife

Brother John Ali and his wife: a couple who share a house with Malcolm and his wife in Queens, New York

Various Brothers and Sisters: Muslim followers

Summary
Malcolm quits his factory job to work full-time spreading Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. He travels all along the East Coast, opening numerous Muslim temples. He visits several of his old friends in Boston, including Shorty and West Indian Archie. In 1958, he...

(The entire section is 287 words.)

Chapter 14: Black Muslims

New People:
Louis Lomax: black journalist who profiles the Nation of Islam in a television documentary

Professor C. Eric Lincoln: black scholar who writes a book about the Nation of Islam

James Hicks: editor of the Amsterdam News, a Harlem newspaper

Summary
The Nation of Islam movement is gaining national, as well as international, prominence. In 1959, two newspapers serving black communities, Harlem’s Amsterdam News and Los Angeles’ Herald Dispatch, begin carrying regular columns written by Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad about the Nation of Islam. Malcolm founds a newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and visits Africa to spread Elijah Muhammad’s...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Chapter 15: Icarus

Summary
Malcolm becomes a much sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit. He is an incredibly powerful and charismatic speaker, preaching about past and current injustices and the atrocities that have been committed by white men against black people.

Analysis
The reader is deeply affected by Malcolm’s use of intensely graphic details to describe white people’s inhumanity toward non-white people throughout history. For example, he cites America’s bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, noting that America chose to drop the atomic bomb on its non-white, Japanese enemy rather than on its white, Nazi German enemy. He speaks of the injustice of the internment camps that...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Chapter 16: Out

New People:
Dr. Leona A. Turner: Malcolm’s family doctor

Cassius Clay: famous Muslim heavyweight boxer

Sonny Liston: famous heavyweight boxer who fights Cassius Clay

Floyd Patterson: famous heavyweight boxer who fights Cassius Clay

Summary
Thanks to Malcolm’s tenacity and dedication to the Nation of Islam, more than 100 mosques opened throughout the United States by 1961. Although his commitment to the movement remains unswerving, he is convinced that “our Nation of Islam could be an even greater force in the American black man’s overall struggle—if we engaged in more action.”

Meanwhile, Malcolm has become aware of the fact that...

(The entire section is 930 words.)

Chapter 17: Mecca

New People:
Wallace Muhammad: Elijah Muhammad’s son and Malcolm’s friend

Dr. Mahmoud Youssef Shawarbi: a Muslim lecturer, writer, professor, United Nations advisor, and close advisor to Prince Faisal, who helps Malcolm make his pilgrimage to Mecca

Prince Faisal: the ruler of Saudi Arabia

Abd ir-Rahman Azzam: author of The Eternal Message of Muhammad, who lives in Jedda

Muhammad Shawarbi: son of Dr. Shawarbi; a student at Cairo University

Dr. Omar Azzam: son of Mr. Azzam, and a Swiss-trained engineer who lives in Jedda

Muhammad, the Mutawaf: a young man who serves as a guide to Malcolm on his pilgrimage to Mecca

Hussein Amiri,...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Chapter 18: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz

New People:
Kasem Gulek: member of the Turkish Parliament whom Malcolm meets on Mount Arafat

Sheikh Abdullah Eraif: mayor of Mecca

Muhammad Abdul Azziz Maged: Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Chief of Protocol, who serves as an interpreter for conversations between Malcolm and Prince Faisal

Professor Essien-Udom: author of Black Nationalism, and a professor at Ibadan University in Lagos, Nigeria

Larry Jackson: black Peace Corps’ volunteer whom Malcolm meets in Nigeria

Julian Mayfield: author and leader of Ghana’s group of African-American expatriates

Ana Livia: Mayfield’s wife

Dr. Kwame Nkrumah: President of Ghana

...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Chapter 19: 1965

Summary
In 1964, Malcolm embarks upon a large-scale campaign to gain support for his new organization. He holds public meetings and appears on numerous televison and radio programs. The American media continues its attack on Malcolm, calling him “the angriest Negro in America.”

He revisits the Middle East and Africa, and has meetings with many world and religious leaders. Among the prominent world leaders with whom he has private audiences are President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt; President Jomo Kenyatta, of Kenya; and Prime Minister Dr. Milton Obote of Uganda.

Upon his return to the United States, he continues his crusade to fight racism, renaming his organization the Organization of...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Epilogue by Alex Haley

New People:
Alex Haley: the person to whom Malcolm tells his autobiography, and writer of the autobiography’s epilogue

Ossie Davis: popular actor and friend of Malcolm, who eulogized Malcolm

Reverend Milton Galamison: militant clergyman, who was scheduled to be the co-speaker with Malcolm at the Audubon Ballroom on the day Malcolm was assassinated

Brother Benjamin X: Malcolm’s assistant at the Muslim Mosque, Inc.

Stanley Scott: United Press International reporter who was at the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm was assassinated

Bishop Alvin A. Childs: Malcolm’s funeral was held at his church, Church of God in Christ

Summary
In this...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

On Malcolm X by Ossie Davis

Summary and Analysis
Actor Ossie Davis eulogized Malcolm X at his funeral. He writes this short essay in response to a magazine editor’s question, “Why did you eulogize Malcolm X?”

To Davis, Malcolm represented “refreshing excitement.” He considered Malcolm “one of the most fascinating and charming men I have ever met,” and a “hero.” He admired and was intrigued by Malcolm’s relentless energy. “He [Malcolm X] kept shouting the painful truth we whites and blacks did not want to hear from all the housetops. And he wouldn’t stop for love nor money.”

Davis thinks Malcolm was “a true man.” He concedes, however, that “to protect my relations with the many good white...

(The entire section is 177 words.)