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 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.