The Autobiography of Malcolm X

by Malcolm X, Alex Haley
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What was the purpose of Malcolm X's fight for black people's rights?

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Malcolm X left prison in 1952 and was a public figure until his assassination in February 1965. Over that time he evolved from parroting the ideas of his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, to, in the last year of his life, expressing his own.

As spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm...

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Malcolm X left prison in 1952 and was a public figure until his assassination in February 1965. Over that time he evolved from parroting the ideas of his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, to, in the last year of his life, expressing his own.

As spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm argued that African Americans did not owe allegiance to the United States since their ancestors were brought to America against their will, and since their fundamental human rights had been violated ever since. While considered to be radical and disloyal, in this view you can hear echoes of Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence: "A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people." Malcolm also felt that the symbolism and mythology of America's founding were undermined by the hypocrisy of slavery and racism and thus should not be celebrated, a view encapsulated in one of his most famous quotes, "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock: Plymouth Rock landed on us!"

The solution that Malcolm X advocated on behalf of Elijah Muhammad was "the complete separation of the black race from the white race" as a means to solve the growing racial problem, which he described as a "powder keg." Thus Malcolm was an opponent of integration between white and black Americans. He famously quipped, "The only thing I like integrated is my coffee." He felt that African Americans should either function as an independent and self-sufficient community within the United States or return to Africa. The latter view echoes the preaching of Malcolm's own father, who was a supporter of Black Nationalist, Marcus Garvey.

Malcolm X also believed that African Americans should be armed and defend themselves against racist attacks. The crux of his position was that self defense is a basic human right, and that white Americans did not hesitate to defend themselves through force. He also refused to moderate his critiques of white America, "charging the White Man" with such crimes such as murder and rape against African Americans. In essence, he felt that black people were victims and had a right to be angry and assert themselves. He responded to accusations of "Black Supremacy" by saying "the White Man is in no moral position to accuse the Black Man of anything."

His confrontational approach placed him at odds with other civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, who favored nonviolent, civil disobedience—a strategy modeled after Gandhi's successful Indian independence movement. Malcolm X sometimes referred derogatorily to moderate leaders as "Uncle Toms" or "House Negros," a view on which he elaborated in a 1963 speech:

So now you have a twentieth-century-type of house Negro. A twentieth-century Uncle Tom. He's just as much an Uncle Tom today as Uncle Tom was one hundred and two hundred years ago. Only he's a modern Uncle Tom. That Uncle Tom wore a handkerchief around his head. This Uncle Tom wears a top hat. He's sharp. He dresses just like you do. He speaks the same phraseology, the same language. He tries to speak it better than you do. He speaks with the same accents, same diction. And when you say, "your army," he says, "our army." He hasn't got anybody to defend him, but anytime you say "we" he says "we." "Our president," "our government," "our Senate," "our congressmen," "our this and our that." And he hasn't even got a seat in that "our" even at the end of the line. So this is the twentieth century Negro. Whenever you say "you," the personal pronoun in the singular or in the plural, he uses it right along with you. When you say you're in trouble, he says, "Yes, we're in trouble."

After his association with the NOI ended, Malcolm began to change some of his views. His pilgrimage to Mecca gave him the chance to worship with Muslims from all races. Furthermore, he recognized that many whites sincerely opposed racial apartheid in America, and so he ended his habit of categorical denunciations of white Americans. He founded a new organization that would accept financial support from white donors but would be limited to black membership. He explained that his organization did not so much seek to exclude whites as to foster black solidarity. He died shortly thereafter, and it remains an intriguing question as to how his views would have evolved further.

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The purpose of the work done by Malcolm X was to improve the lives of African Americans. His strategies differed from those of other civil rights leaders, but his purpose and underlying message was the same. African Americans should claim power over their own identity and define that identity positively, historically and publicly.

Taken broadly, this is the aim of the entire civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X sought to secure access to employment, to protections within the legal system, and to a positive sense of self/identity for African Americans. Unlike King, Malcolm X did not always see the potential for achieving these aims through integration. 

"He opposed the mainstream civil rights movement, publicly calling for black separatism and rejecting nonviolence and integration as effective means of combatting racism" (eNotes).

For Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, the path to progress and equality was defined by self-definition and self-reliance for African Americans. This meant living (talking, shopping, going to church, etc.) in a context of racial segregation. 

Dignity and an increased general welfare for African Americans would be attained through this strategy of separatism and self-reliance. While Malcolm X remained always a dedicated social activist, he did develop different views as to how people ought to relate to one another in order to achieve social progress. 

"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—some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white!"

The purpose of his work was always to improve the lives of African Americans (and people of the African diaspora worldwide). Civil rights, for Malcolm X, perhaps had a greater emphasis on rights at times than on civility if we characterize his views as militant, which they sometimes were. Yet, Malcolm X was not militant in his actions -- not literally.

Advocating active resistance to oppression, Malcolm X nonetheless presented himself not as a soldier in arms but as an unyielding person of convictions, self-esteem and intelligence who spoke out. He made speeches and lived according to his beliefs. And he did so in a way that inspired many others to do likewise and to see themselves as the arbiters of their own value as human beings.  

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Malcolm X fought for the rights of black people to enable them to free themselves from what he considered to be the yoke of white identity they could not escape if they lived in a dominant white culture.  His autobiography tells the story of why Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X. He did this  as a statement of protest to the white society that took away his real name through slavery years ago. Malcolm believed in separatism, that black people need to assert their identity as black and can only do this by denouncing white culture. His story recounts his life as the son of a preacher who turned to drugs and crime, and eventually when to jail where he was introduced to the Nation of Islam. He hoped that by telling his story (albeit through interviews by another person) he would persuade others to believe in his views.  In other words, the autobiography is didactic in intent and proselytizes his ideas about the Nation of Islam and black identity.  His ideas are very different from those of Dr. Martin Luther King, and they were and remain very controversial.

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