Chapters thirteen and fourteen of The Autobiography of Malcolm X provide very vivid descriptions of the impact of media on Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam’s tireless efforts at disseminating their message throughout the African American world. Chapter thirteen, titled “Minister Malcolm X,” provides a description of Malcolm’s early zealous efforts at spreading the Minister Elijah Muhammad’s message about the evils of white society and the Christianity forced upon Black people as a means of furthering white control over them. The United States, of course, is a large country with a large population of African Americans, and the Nation of Islam intended to communicate to as many of those African Americans as possible. As one of the main messengers of the movement, Malcolm X struggled to disseminate that message as widely and as forcefully as possible.
The path of mass distribution of the Nation of Islam’s teachings had been laborious, with disciples going block by block, street corner by street corner to reach as many of their fellow African Americans as possible. It is in chapter thirteen that Malcolm X and his colleagues gradually discover the key to success:
I think I was all the angrier with my own ineffectiveness because I knew the streets. I had to get myself together and think out the problem. And the big trouble, obviously, was that we were only one among the many voices of black discontent on every busy Harlem corner. The different Nationalist groups, the “Buy Black!” forces, and others like that; dozens of their stepladder orators were trying to increase their followings. I had nothing against anyone trying to promote independence and unity among black men, but they still were making it tough for Mr. Muhammad's voice to be heard. In my first effort to get over this hurdle, I had some little leaflets printed. There wasn't a much-traveled Harlem street corner that five or six good Muslim brothers and I missed. We would step up right in front of a walking black man or woman so that they had to accept our leaflet, and if they hesitated one second, they had to hear us saying some catch thing such as “Hear how the white man kidnapped and robbed and raped our black race.”
These leaflets proved enormously effective at arousing the interest of more and more African Americans, as one leaflet placed into the hands of one pedestrian on a busy New York street would reach many more. The mass distribution of literature helped greatly to spread the Nation’s message. If success in the effort at expanding their reach was facilitated through the broader dissemination of leaflets and other forms of printed information, the role of the media would also prove to be the proverbial double-edged sword.
In chapter fourteen, titled “Black Muslims,” Malcolm and the others would soon learn an important lesson in the malleability of audiences and the ways in which mass communications could be manipulated and/or abused to affect the message. In the chapter’s beginning passages, Malcolm describes being approached by an African American journalist named Louis Lomax who asks whether the Nation of Islam would cooperate in the production of a documentary for broadcast on national television. The program that resulted, titled by the show’s producers “The Hate that Hate Produced,” cast the Nation of Islam in a more volatile, violent light than the Nation’s leaders had anticipated. The program featured, as Malcolm described in this chapter, sound recordings of Elijah Muhammad and other ministers of the Nation “teaching Black audiences the truth about the brainwashed Black man and the devil white man.”
Concurrent with the documentary’s production and broadcast was the preparation of a book by C. Eric Lincoln about the Nation of Islam furthered the Nation’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience. As noted in this chapter, the Nation viewed these developments as a major advance in their efforts, although the impact of the documentary’s biased tone clearly proved problematic:
On the wire of our relatively small Nation, these two big developments—a television show, and a book about us—naturally were big news. Every Muslim happily anticipated that now, through the white man's powerful communications media, our brainwashed black brothers and sisters across the United States, and devils, too, were going to see, hear, and read Mr. Muhammad's teachings which cut back and forth like a two-edged sword.
Despite the negative imagery featured in the documentary, the coincidence of television program and scholarly tome set the tone for the Nation’s future outreach efforts. Malcolm was dispatched by Elijah Muhammad to serve as a major spokesman for the movement, with regular newspaper columns in receptive papers published to further spreading the message of Islam and the evils of Christianity. The role of the media as depicted in this chapter is clearly spelled out by the author(s) [Alex Haley coauthored The Autobiography of Malcolm X]:
You will often hear today a lot of the Negro leaders complaining that what thrust the Muslims into international prominence was the white man's press, radio, television, and other media. I have no shred of argument with that. They are absolutely correct. Why, none of us in the Nation of Islam remotely anticipated what was about to happen.
What “was about to happen,” of course, was the broadcast of the documentary that employed (very typically) manipulated words and doctored images in order to convey a sense of reality at variance with what really happened, a phenomenon to which Malcolm compared the famous 1938 Mercury Theater radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” which some listeners took as truth and reacted hysterically to the alien invasion that did not exist. The message audiences received was of unrelenting hate with no sense of the more positive messages the Nation had hoped to convey.
The impact of the media as related by Malcolm X in his autobiography is one of enormous consequences, both positive and negative, an invaluable lesson in how mass media can function.