The Autobiography of Malcolm X

by Malcolm X, Alex Haley

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Why did Malcolm X believe that white people were devils?

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More than many of the more militant social and political activists, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) experienced a true transformation, from low-level criminal and pimp, to major figure in the separatist Nation of Islam, to moderating influence in a particularly turbulent period of the civil rights movement.  As detailed in the autobiography he wrote with journalist (and later author of Roots) Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, this controversial figure in modern American history had a prototypically difficult childhood; his father was killed (Malcolm believed murdered) when Malcolm was only six, and his mother suffered from mental illnesses and was eventually confined in a sanitarium. All the while the family was plagued by racism in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations.  Those experiences enduring racism in person, while being raised, until his death, by a father who subscribed to the notion of black separatism, heavily and inevitably influenced Malcolm’s childhood and early adulthood.  It was during his time in prison, though, that his attitudes towards whites took on a more openly hostile and quasi-theological dimension.

Malcolm’s younger brother, Reginald, was more emotionally and intellectually mature than Malcolm, and it was this younger sibling’s interest in Islam that planted the seeds in Malcolm that led to his political radicalization and adoption of Islam as a prism through which to view racial relations.  It was Reginald who introduced Malcolm, then serving time in prison, to the notion of whites as devils.  Denouncing Freemasonry, Reginald “enlightened” his older brother regarding the methods employed by whites to enslave blacks:

"The devil has only thirty-three degrees of knowledge-known as Masonry," Reginald said. I can so specifically remember the exact phrases since, later, I was going to teach them so many times to others. "The devil uses his Masonry to rule other people."

He told me that this God had come to America, and that he had made himself known to a man named Elijah-"a black man, just like us." This God had let Elijah know, Reginald said, that the devil's "time was up."

This mention of “Elijah” is a reference to Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, who preached an especially virulent and divisive form of Islam that was, ironically, inherently racist itself.  In the following passage, Malcolm continues to relate his formative conversation with Reginald – a conversation that had a profound effect on the imprisoned, spiritually-lost Malcolm:

He told me that this God had come to America, and that he had made himself known to a man named Elijah-"a black man, just like us." This God had let Elijah know, Reginald said, that the devil's "time was up."

I didn't know what to think. I just listened.

"The devil is also a man," Reginald said.

"What do you mean?"

 With a slight movement of his head, Reginald indicated some white inmates and their visitors talking, as we were, across the room.

"Them," he said. "The white man is the devil."

Malcolm and other followers of the Nation of Islam held very deeply the notion that whites personified evil, and that the only recourse for blacks was total segregation from whites.  Unlike with other followers of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (e.g., Louis Farrakhan), however, Malcolm’s spiritual journey hadn’t yet reached its apotheosis.  That development would not occur until Malcolm made the journey to Mecca, one of the fundamental tenets of Islam known as the “hajj.”  It was in Saudi Arabia, surrounded by literally millions of other Muslims of every ethnicity, including Caucasians, where Malcolm’s spiritual and political journey took its most important turn, with him returning to the United States a changed man who would break with the Nation of Islam – an event that precipitated his murder.

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