At a Glance

  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written by Alex Haley, using interviews the journalist conducted with Malcolm X over the two years prior to his assassination. As a result, though the book is written from Malcolm X's perspective, it reads more like a novel, especially where Haley took liberties with the timeline for dramatic effect.
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X follows Malcolm through his spiritual development as a Muslim. For much of his adolescence and early adulthood, Malcolm was a pimp, a drug dealer, and a thief before spending ten years in prison for robbery. In jail, he converted to Islam. He went on to become a powerful religious and political figure of similar stature to Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Malcolm X devoted the last decade of his life to political activism, in addition to spiritual development. He was an influential figure in the Civil Rights Movement, inspiring African Americans to fight for their rights. Unlike Dr. King, Malcolm X didn't preach pacifism, and he advocated for direct action against the racist forces in America. Like Dr. King, Malcolm X was assassinated, though the exact reason for the assassination are still debated. 

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is an interesting and exciting book. Although it is based on fact, it reads like a novel. It tells the story of a young African American who inherits the gifts of courage and self-reliance from his father and mother and rises to international prominence despite overwhelming odds. As a child, Malcolm often went hungry. His father, an itinerant preacher, was constantly moving because of threats from white bigots who resented his espousal of the back-to-Africa program of Marcus Garvey. Malcolm’s worldview was forever affected by his memories of late-night raids by the Ku Klux Klan and his father’s murder by members of another white supremacist organization called the Black Legion. His widowed mother eventually suffered a nervous breakdown under the strain of trying to rear eight children on welfare, and she had to be institutionalized. Malcolm became a virtual orphan and a ward of the state.

Along with his remarkable strength of character, the young African American child was exceptionally intelligent and got outstanding grades in the nearly all-white schools he attended. His academic success motivated him to achieve financial success, but he soon realized that most doors were shut to African Americans at that time. Eventually, he drifted into a life of crime. His book is full of interesting, often shocking, anecdotes, and many of these have to do with his adventures as a con artist, pimp, gigolo, drug peddler, rapist, burglar, and armed robber. In 1946, he was sentenced to ten years in Charlestown State Prison in Massachusetts for a series of burglaries.

Malcolm’s autobiography reads like an exciting novel comparable to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) or Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), with one important difference. Malcolm writes about his early years from a mature perspective. He constantly interrupts his narrative to interject observations about how his life experiences mirrored the experiences of countless African Americans of his time. He stresses the fact that the majority of African Americans had consciously or unconsciously adopted white values and were hoping somehow to achieve the impossible feat of becoming white.

Malcolm was attracted to white women and describes many of his affairs with them. Telling about these affairs in retrospect, he philosophizes that his attraction was only another symptom of African Americans’ adoption of white values and their own feelings of inferiority that are a natural consequence.

One of the most striking anecdotes in the novel describes the time when Malcolm was “conking” his hair—that is, using a mixture of lye, eggs, and potatoes to make his hair straight—and found that the water had been shut off. The lye was burning his scalp; in desperation he stuck his head into the toilet to wash it out. To him, this incident symbolized the humiliating position of the African American who had accepted the belief that white features were desirable while African features such as kinky hair were ugly and shameful.

Malcolm used the penitentiary’s extensive library for self-education and found that he had voracious interests in languages, philosophy, politics, religion, and other subjects. While in prison, he became acquainted with the tenets of the Black Muslim’s Lost-Found Nation of Islam, a religion that proclaimed the superiority of the black race and stigmatized the white race as devils. He corresponded with the Black Muslims’ founder, Elijah Muhammad, and went to serve under him in Chicago after he was released from prison in 1952.

His relationship with Elijah Muhammad was the most important of his entire life. Perhaps the older man became a substitute for the father Malcolm had lost in childhood. As Malcolm X, Malcolm Little became Elijah Muhammad’s most loyal and most successful disciple, preaching from Harlem Mosque Number Seven as well as on street corners and anywhere he could gather an audience. He discovered that he possessed the rare gift of spellbinding oratory, attributable to his intelligence, his extensive self-education, his strong motivation for self-fulfillment, and his deep belief in the teachings of his mentor. He quickly rose from assistant minister to minister to national minister in the Black Muslim organization.

Malcolm had such a bad reputation in prison that fellow inmates referred to him as “Satan.” His conversion to the Black Muslim faith, however, transformed his character. He gave up smoking, drinking, drugs, profanity, and sexual promiscuity. He gave up zoot suits, conked hair, and all the other flashy affectations he now considered clownish. His cropped hair and conservative business suits reflected his moral transformation.

Malcolm was Elijah Muhammad’s diligent disciple for more than ten years. Another major turning point in his life arrived when he became aware that his master was not the saintly character Malcolm had taken him to be. Malcolm discovered that Elijah Muhammad was not only interested in personal enrichment but also sexually promiscuous and had seduced several of his former secretaries, who had borne him illegitimate children.

Although disillusioned with his mentor, Malcolm remained a devout Muslim. He went to Mecca in search of further spiritual enlightenment and experienced a powerful religious conversion. He renamed himself el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. After this experience, he considered himself at least equal to Elijah Muhammad in religious enlightenment and founded his own Muslim organization, which he called the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

After Malcolm broke with the Black Muslim sect, he was harassed and threatened by its members, who presumably were working under orders from Elijah Muhammad. In speeches and interviews, Malcolm frequently predicted that he would be assassinated. His house was firebombed, and he had to send his wife and four daughters out of town for their own safety. His remarkable courage and dedication to his cause were evident in his behavior during this critical period. He refused to hide from his invisible enemies, making repeated public appearances in Harlem and elsewhere to proclaim his crusade for the spiritual and political unification of black people all around the world. He openly attacked Elijah Muhammad for “religious fakery” and “immorality.”

The most striking things about Malcolm X’s autobiography are his candor, his motivation, and his anger. Few characters in novels have undergone such transformations as this man did in real life. Reader see Malcolm change from an ignorant child into a sophisticated urbanite, then into a vicious criminal, then into an embittered convict, and finally into a highly devout, ascetic religious leader who is ready to sacrifice his life for the good of others. The one thing that remained consistent throughout his adult life was his anger at the way white society had cheated him by shutting its doors to opportunity and forcing him into a life of crime and degradation. He believed that his life story was the story of his race.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X ends with Malcolm living as a hunted man, having been repeatedly threatened by the followers of his former idol. In 1965, the year his autobiography was published, Malcolm died in a blaze of shotgun pellets and pistol bullets while addressing an audience in Harlem. Three followers of Elijah Muhammad eventually were convicted of the crime; however, countless conflicting rumors circulated concerning who might have been the masterminds behind the plot.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X became a martyr to the cause he believed in. Perhaps only King can be compared to Malcolm X for courage and dedication to the cause of ending racial bigotry in the United States.

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written in conjunction with Alex Haley, Malcolm X reveals his early life as a big-city hustler, defends his view of the white man as “the devil” and his conversion to Islam, and explains his eventual abandonment of the black separatist movement (which in its most extreme mode called for the United States Congress to grant land for a black state) in favor of a “Human Family,” a “Human Society” united under the one God and the one moral code of Islam. His purpose, simply put, was to invoke social change in America: “I have given to this book so much of whatever time I have because I feel, and I hope, that if I honestly and fully tell my life’s account, read objectively it might prove to be a testimony of some social value.”

At midpoint in the work, Malcolm states that his whole life “had been a chronology of—changes,” and his autobiography is an attempt to chronicle and explain these changes. The nineteen chapters of the autobiography can be thematically grouped into three parts. The first nine chapters chronicle Malcolm’s youth and adolescence in the Midwest, focusing on the strength of family relationships and hardships suffered from conflicts with the white community. Chapters 10 through 16 are devoted to his conversion to Islam and his rise and fall from power within the organization led by Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam. In chapters 17 and 18, Malcolm recounts his trip to Mecca (referred to as his hajj) and the change it effected on his early extremist views of whites. The final chapter, titled “1965,” the year of Malcolm’s assassination, serves as a sort of epilogue in which he outlines his newly discovered sense of the need for international, interracial solutions to racism.

Malcolm was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but moved at an early age with his family to Wisconsin, then Michigan. Born Malcolm Little, son of a preacher and organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, he was a gifted student, popular among his many white classmates, and apparently destined for success. Then one day a teacher told him that despite his obvious intelligence he should pursue a career more appropriate for a black boy, that of a carpenter. Suddenly faced with the odds against his success in a white man’s world, Malcolm set off to the big city. He moved first to Boston to live with his elder sister, Ella, then to New York where he worked on the railroad before succumbing to drugs and crime.

In chapters 10 through 16, Malcolm relates his life in prison and his salvation through Islam. Arrested and incarcerated for robbery in 1946 at the age of twenty, he spent six years at Charleston State Prison and the Norfolk Massachusetts Prison Colony, where, influenced by his brother’s letters introducing him to Elijah Muhammad, he converted to Islam. While still in prison, he developed a passion for black history and began a five-year process of self-education which included reading and copying every page of the dictionary. He read so much and in such bad light that he permanently ruined his eyes. In the course of his reading, he developed a deep, blanket hatred of white men which was to last until the final years of his life. Rejecting even the name bestowed on him by the white man, he changed his name to Malcolm X.

After leaving prison he moved to Detroit, where he became increasingly involved with the Nation of Islam, eventually assuming the position of minister of Temple Seven in New York. There he met and was married to Betty X; they had five daughters, one born after his death. Malcolm rose swiftly within the Nation to become its most prominent spokesman and organizer. Under his direction two universities of Islam were established to educate school-age Muslim children in Detroit and Chicago. He entered the college lecture circuit promoting black nationalism with the support of Elijah Muhammad, even though the Nation eschewed overt involvement in political or social activities. Malcolm became so popular that rumors began to circulate that he was making a fortune for himself even though all of his earnings went directly to the Nation; in fact, after his assassination both his wife and his attorney revealed that he had died penniless, without even life insurance.

Malcolm later discovered that Elijah Muhammad had begun to attack him behind his back. The final rift came in 1963, when Malcolm made a comment after the death of President John F. Kennedy that his assassination was a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.” The statement was intended to indicate that the white man’s violence had finally come back on him, but was widely regarded as being a personal attack on the president. As a result of Malcolm’s comment, Elijah Muhammad silenced him for ninety days. Malcolm saw the censure as the first step in his expulsion from the Nation of Islam. He foresaw the next two steps in his ousting: He was suspended as a minister; then, he was isolated, which amounted to total ostracism by the members of the Nation. In anticipation of his expulsion, Malcolm left the Nation, and organized Muslim Mosque, Inc., of Harlem, and began plans for his first trip to Mecca.

Chapters 17 and 18 chronicle Malcolm’s trip to Mecca, where he saw at first hand the errors of the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, particularly those regarding attitudes toward white men in general, for he met many white Muslims who were “color-blind.” At this point he rejected his former condemnation of all whites but continued in his condemnation of the suppression of “the collective 22 million black people in the United States.”

After his hajj, Malcolm began a successful series of speaking engagements in Egypt, Lebanon, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal, and Morocco. Upon his return to New York, Malcolm called for an indictment of the United States before the United Nations on charges of “denial of human rights” to American blacks.

In the final months of his life, Malcolm reflected on his accomplishments and his failures. He voiced pride at having raised the consciousness of American blacks and whites. Proud of his leadership role, he accepted his labeling by critics as a “demagogue,” for he considered himself to be both model and teacher for his black brothers and sisters. He was proud to have arrived at an awareness that “it isn’t the American white man who is a racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.” It was at this point in his life that Malcolm came to view racism not as a civil rights problem but as a “human rights” problem. Malcolm’s only regret, he stated, was not that he made mistakes, for he acknowledged that he had made many. Rather, he most regretted his lack of formal education, which he believed would have better armed him for his battles.

Appended to the work is a seventy-five page epilogue written by Alex Haley in which Haley recounts the events surrounding the composition of the work and the assassination of Malcolm on February 21, 1965.

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In nineteen chapters, The Autobiography of Malcolm X traces his life from his birth as Malcolm Little in Omaha to his troubled youth and eventual imprisonment to his ultimate emergence as one of the most important and powerful voices for social change and black rights in the 1950’s and 1960’s. An introduction by M. S. Handler and an epilogue by Malcolm’s collaborator, Alex Haley, furnish perspectives on Malcolm as well as on the events leading up to and following his assassination in 1965. The book ends with a brief tribute to Malcolm by actor Ossie Davis, who delivered the eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral.

The first half of the autobiography outlines Malcolm’s youth, the breakup of his family, and his life on the streets. At age six, Malcolm lost his father, who was presumably murdered by white supremacists angered at Earl Little’s preaching of Marcus Garvey’s “back-to-Africa” philosophy. Six years later, Malcolm’s mother was placed in a mental institution, where she remained for twenty-six years, and her eight children were separated and sent to various foster homes. At fourteen, Malcolm quit school and went to live with his half sister Ella in Boston. Eventually moving to Harlem, Malcolm became a hustler, drug dealer, and finally leader of a burglary ring.

It was during six years of imprisonment for robbery that Malcolm’s life irrevocably changed. Introduced to the religion of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm began writing daily letters to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of this group, often referred to as the Black Muslims. Ashamed of the lack of education betrayed in his letters, Malcolm set out to educate himself, copying the entire dictionary to improve his vocabulary and reading all that he could obtain from the prison library.

Released from prison, Malcolm began his new life as a Black Muslim, eventually becoming minister of the church’s Harlem temple. Malcolm preached and lived the strict moral code of the Nation of Islam, which included sexual purity and abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. It was his articulation of the Muslim belief that the “white man is the devil” that brought national attention to Malcolm and made him a highly visible spokesperson for black pride and the rights of African Americans.

The last few chapters of the book record Malcolm’s break with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, his discovery of the “true Islam” in a pilgrimage to Mecca, and the beginnings of a new, more broadly based philosophy of race relations in which he counted as friends those who were “black, brown, red, yellow, and white.” His assassination by three members of the Black Muslims is told in Haley’s epilogue to the autobiography.

Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Struggle for Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s
Until a number of court cases struck down segregation of the races in the...

(The entire section is 1089 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Malcolm X uses foreshadowing to highlight how far his life has taken him as well as to prepare his readers for...

(The entire section is 389 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

1960s: In 1962, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution is proposed and, by 1964, is passed as law. One of its primary...

(The entire section is 221 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book that was "told to'' Alex Haley and published after Malcolm X's death in 1965. After finishing...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was primary source material for 1992's Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel...

(The entire section is 106 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

One Day When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X, is a 1973 screenplay by James Baldwin.


(The entire section is 201 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Berthoff, Warner, "Witness and Testament: Two Contemporary Classics,’’ in New Literary History, Vol. 2, No....

(The entire section is 397 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bassey, Magnus O. Malcolm X and African American Self-Consciousness. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005. Detailed study of Malcolm X’s effects upon racial identity and self-understanding in the United States.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Alex Haley and Malcolm X’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” New York: Chelsea House, 1996. Compilation of essays by leading scholars analyzing Malcolm’s autobiography.

Evanzz, Karl. The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992. The author accuses the federal government of harassing Malcolm X and suggests that intelligence agencies were behind the assassination plot because they were concerned about the international aspects of Malcolm X’s movement.

Friedly, Michael. Malcolm X: The Assassination. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992. Describes the assassination and the trial of three accused Black Muslims. Analyzes various conspiracy theories, concluding that no U.S. government agency was involved in the assassination plot.

Gallen, David, ed. Malcolm X: As They Knew Him. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992. Collection of memoirs and interviews describing the life and times of Malcolm X from personal observations and recollections. Contains a good chronological chart of important events in Malcolm X’s life and in the sentencing of his three assassins.

Karim, Benjamin, with Peter Skutches and David Gallen. Remembering Malcolm. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992. The story of Malcolm X as told by his assistant minister, focusing on the religious aspects of Malcolm’s career as a Black Muslim leader and the inner politics of the Black Muslim organization.

Lee, Spike, with Ralph Wiley. By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of “Malcolm X.” New York: Hyperion, 1992. A famous African American filmmaker describes his experiences in making a screen adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Lee’s brilliant adaptation revived interest in Malcolm X for a whole new generation. Contains the film script.

Malcolm X. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements. Edited and with prefatory notes by George Breitman. New York: Merit, 1965. A collection of eloquent speeches mostly made during the last eight months of Malcolm X’s life, while he was earnestly seeking new directions for himself and his movement.

Perry, Bruce. Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America. Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1991. A full-length scholarly biography of Malcolm X. Especially valuable because it contains 126 pages of detailed endnotes referring to newspaper articles, published interviews, books, speeches, and legal documents.

Stone, I. F. “The Pilgrimage of Malcolm X.” The New York Review of Books 5 (November 11, 1965): 3-5. Review essay of The Autobiography of Malcolm X by a prominent American political writer. Contains a good summary of the book with penetrating commentary on the racial situation in the United States at the time of its publication.

Terrill, Robert E. Malcolm X: Inventing Radical Judgment. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004. Academic study of Malcolm X’s life and work that focuses on his rhetorical style and its relationship to the prophetic tradition.

Wood, Joe, ed. Malcolm X: In Our Own Image. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Interesting collection of essays about Malcolm X by a number of freelance writers and academicians, including playwright Amiri Baraka and revolutionary political science professor Angela Davis.