I will focus on two key moments in Malcolm X's life when his identity transitions—his years in prison at Norfolk Prison Colony in Massachusetts where he discovers the Nation of Islam (NOI), and his estrangement from the Nation of Islam in 1963.
Malcolm X had been involved in criminal activity since his teen years in Roxbury, Boston where he lived with his older sister, Ella. He then moved to Harlem and spent his young adulthood working as a numbers-runner (an illegitimate form of the lottery in poor black communities), a thief, and a drug dealer in Harlem. He got his nickname "Detroit Red" as a result of his upbringing in Lansing, Michigan and the natural red tint of his hair, which he straightened with a lye-based concoction called "congolene." Malcolm X, then Malcolm Little, was sent to prison for burglarizing the homes of wealthy white people. In addition to running numbers, he had become the leader of a ring of thieves which operated in Roxbury and Harlem.
Malcolm was in prison from 1946 to 1952. In 1948, he was imprisoned at Norfolk, along with his brother, Reginald, who introduced him to the NOI's philosophy. Malcolm quit smoking and gambling, refused to eat pork, and spent long hours in the prison library, memorizing the dictionary. He also read historical works, such as Will and Ariel Durant's eleven-volume work, The Story of Civilization. He also began to participate in debate classes. In his autobiography, Malcolm credited the NOI with helping him understand how American society taught him to devalue his blackness and to believe that white people were superior, despite his father's murder by white supremacists. Reflecting on his interactions with white people throughout his life, he began to espouse the NOI's belief that white people were evil. While in prison, he changed his name from "Little" to "X" to symbolize his ignorance of his true African origins.
After he left prison, he quickly became one of the NOI's most charismatic and influential spokespeople. Shortly after meeting the NOI's leader, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm helped to organize temples in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and even some in cities in the South. He first worked at a temple in Boston and was soon promoted to Temple No. 7 in Harlem—the largest and most prestigious in the nation, second to the NOI's headquarters in Chicago. He lectured and debated around the world and represented a contrasting vision to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s messages of civil disobedience and integration, believing that black people should defend themselves against violence.
Not long after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm publicly commented on the tragic event as America's "chickens coming home to roost," meaning that white people's toleration of the routine violence inflicted against black people had now come to claim the life of someone they loved. The NOI reprimanded and silenced Malcolm, thereby excusing him from his duties as a proselytizer. He used the time to take a trip around the world and to go on his first pilgrimage to Mecca. While in Saudi Arabia, he has his second epiphany. He began to question the NOI's position on all whites being evil. While on his holy pilgrimage, he drank from the same cup as white men and noticed Muslim men of all colors, united in brotherhood. This realization, coupled with learning that Elijah Muhammad maintained sexual relationships with numerous young women in the NOI, some of whom bore his illegitimate children, led to Malcolm X's exit from the Nation of Islam.
When Malcolm returned to the United States in 1964, he formed the Organization for Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Its purpose was not separatism, as with the NOI, but to build self-sustaining black communities. He was willing to accept help from whites, but only after the organization became solidly sustainable.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was gunned down by members of the NOI. One of the great misfortunes of his assassination is that he was unable to fulfill his vision, which became more predominant in 1965 after the radicalization of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), by then under the leadership of Stokeley Carmichael, and the rise of the Black Panthers. Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophies about civil rights were also becoming more radical and sought to challenge American power more directly. This was evident in his critiques of the Vietnam War, as well as his work to help low-wage workers organize. King was assassinated while trying to organize sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. We can only dream of what could have been accomplished if the leaders' lives and ideas began to converge.