Though the lives of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X never overlapped, they had many striking parallels.
First, both men were raised in broken families. Douglass was born a slave in 1818. He barely knew his mother and did not know the identity of his father (commonly believed to be his master, Thomas Auld). He lived first with his grandparents and then in the house of Thomas Auld's brother, Hugh. After secretly learning to read, Douglass was sent to work for a farmer known to be a harsh disciplinarian. The beatings he received failed to make him submissive, however, and he entered adulthood a highly intelligent, headstrong young man who was quick to violence.
Malcolm X was born in 1925 to a large family. He was the son of a preacher, but after his father died under questionable circumstances, his mother became mentally unstable. As a result, the family was broken up, and Malcolm Little spent much of his childhood in different homes. After moving to Harlem, Malcolm became a criminal and was imprisoned for burglary. He, too, had shown intellectual promise, but the hardships of his youth left him an embittered young man.
Both men acquired an education in captivity and were transformed by it. In his autobiography, Douglass describes how clandestinely learning to read led him to condemn slavery and recognize the hypocrisy of slaveholders who claimed to be Christians but then fought for the right to own other human beings. Malcolm X, meanwhile, became a voracious reader in prison, educating himself in history, philosophy, and literature. He also was exposed to the Nation of Islam at this time and underwent a spiritual rebirth, converting to Islam. He gained the discipline to abstain from drugs and alcohol and learned to use words as weapons rather than resorting to physical violence.
Douglass and Malcolm X both became preachers, which gave them mastery of public speaking and rhetoric. In their preaching, both men blended the spirituality of their respective religions with a relentless dedication to the cause of civil rights for African Americans. Frederick Douglass became a prominent figure when leading abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison took note of his abilities and invited him to speak before larger and larger forums.
Malcolm X began his career as a Nation of Islam preacher in Detroit. His efforts as a speaker and community organizer led to the opening of temples across the US and rapidly swelled the ranks of NOI membership. He was an impressive speaker, by turns humorous and severe. Additionally, as a tall, handsome, and well-dressed young man, the public took note of him. Within a few years, he effectively became the national mouthpiece for the NOI and its leader, Elijah Muhammad. In this role, he appeared on television and at public debates alongside other leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement.
Both men wrote impressive autobiographies. The life story of each man is now considered to be a literary classic. Without the benefit of radio or television, writing took on a greater importance for Frederick Douglass. Thus, it was his writing that brought him international renown and helped him raise the funds to purchase his freedom. Malcolm X, on the other hand, was famous as a speaker. He had already achieved international fame and then became its victim. He was ostracized from the NOI and received constant death threats. He only dictated his autobiography to Alex Halley shortly before his assassination, and the book became a bestseller after his death.
Finally, both men had the moral courage to stand up to influential leaders with whom they disagreed. Douglass broke from William Lloyd Garrison over the issue of whether slavery could be abolished within the bounds of the Constitution. Douglass felt it could and was proven right with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Douglass later broke with Elizabeth Cady Stanton over the issue of suffrage. Douglass wanted the vote for all men and women and was a committed suffragist, but he supported a 15th Amendment dealing solely with voting rights for African American men, as he felt that the American people were not yet ready for universal suffrage.
Malcolm X initially broke with the NOI after discovering corruption and sexual improprieties committed by the organization's leadership. After making a pilgrimage to Mecca, he began to preach his own message, which dropped the categorical denunciation of white Americans that he had been preaching on behalf of the NOI. Unlike Douglass, who lived out his days comfortably, Malcolm X became a martyr for the cause of civil rights, murdered in February 1965 at the age of 39.