92 pages 3 hours read

Malcolm X, Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1965

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Summary and Study Guide


The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a nonfiction memoir published in 1965 by American human rights activist Malcolm X, in collaboration with American author Alex Haley. The book is the result of numerous interviews Haley conducted in the two years leading up to Malcolm’s assassination in February 1965. It covers Malcolm’s upbringing in Michigan, his career as a burglar and drug dealer in New York and Boston, his conversion to Islam in prison, his involvement in and eventual break with the Nation of Islam, and his becoming one of the most important civil rights activists in the country. The book was enormously influential on Black political and artistic movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and it continues to be widely read by students and civil rights activists in the 21st century.

This study guide refers to the 2015 reprint edition published by Ballantine Books.

Plot Summary

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925, Malcolm is the son of Earl Little, a Baptist minister who spreads the Pan-African teachings of Marcus Garvey. This makes Earl the target of White supremacists, particularly after the Littles relocate to Lansing, Michigan. When Malcolm is around six years old, members of the Black Legion, a White supremacist terrorist organization, murder Earl.

In 1938, Malcolm’s mother Louise suffers a mental breakdown and is sent to the Kalamazoo State Mental Hospital, leaving Malcolm in the care of a White couple in nearby Mason, Michigan. The only Black person in his junior high school class, Malcolm thrives academically and socially. Yet a pivotal moment arrives for Malcolm in eighth grade, when an otherwise supportive English teacher tells Malcolm it is unrealistic for him to pursue a career as a lawyer. Suddenly and painfully aware of his second-class status as a young Black person, Malcolm works to escape Mason. He successfully convinces his adult half-sister Ella to take him into her home in the culturally vibrant, predominantly Black neighborhood of Roxbury in Boston, Massachusetts.

Not long after his arrival, Malcolm meets Shorty, a musician and poolroom employee who helps him navigate the Black nightlife scene in Boston. Around this time, Malcolm straightens his hair, starts wearing flamboyant zoot suits, and enters into a relationship with a young affluent White woman named Sophia. Around two years later, Malcolm relocates to New York where he gets a job as a waiter at the legendary Harlem nightclub Small’s Paradise. This puts him into contact with musicians, drug dealers, pimps, and racketeers. Before long, Malcolm supports himself by selling marijuana, engaging in burglaries and stickups, and running numbers for local gamblers. Meanwhile, he is increasingly dependent on marijuana, cocaine, and opium.

After a nearly fatal confrontation with a fearsome numbers runner, Malcolm returns to Boston in 1945 to plot his next move. Malcolm organizes a lucrative burglary ring with Shorty, Sophia, and Sophia’s younger sister. They successfully evade the authorities for several months until Malcolm is arrested after bringing a stolen watch to a repair shop. Malcolm and Shorty are each sentenced to ten years in prison, despite the fact that the average sentence for first-time burglary offenders is two years. Malcolm believes that in the eyes of the court, his true crime was corrupting the White women who conspired with him.

During his first year in prison, Malcolm earns the nickname “Satan” because of his constant and vicious invective against God and the Bible. In a letter, Malcolm’s younger brother Reginald tells him that the way out of prison is to quit cigarettes and pork. Malcolm complies, believing this to be some kind of hustle. Shortly thereafter, Reginald visits Malcolm and reveals that Reginald is now a member of the Nation of Islam, an organization that filters Black nationalism through a non-traditional interpretation of Islam. Under the teachings of the group’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam frames the contemporary Black struggle as a battle against White America, which seeks to brainwash African Americans through Christianity. Its members are observant Muslims who adhere to a strict taboo against cigarettes, alcohol, pork, and premarital sex. The Nation of Islam characterizes White people as “devils” whose time as the dominant group in American society will soon end.

Given Malcolm’s experiences with White Americans—starting with his father’s murder—the Nation of Islam’s teachings resonate deeply. Malcolm consumes books on history, philosophy, and religion voraciously, reading until four a.m. every night.

In 1952, Malcolm is released from prison. He lives with his older brother Wilfred in Detroit, where the two of them attend the Nation of Islam’s Temple Number One. Not long after, Malcolm meets Elijah Muhammad in Chicago and impresses the leader with his eagerness to recruit young Black men to their cause. Through his recruitment efforts and his blistering oratory, Malcolm ascends in the organization, eventually becoming the head of New York City’s Temple Number Seven in 1954. He also changes his name to Malcolm X, abandoning the surname given to his ancestors by slaveholders.

In 1959, the Nation of Islam becomes a household name—and an object of intense fear for many White Americans—after a Mike Wallace documentary on the group titled The Hate That Hate Produced. This catapults Malcolm into the national spotlight. White journalists frequently ask him to defend the Nation of Islam’s teachings, particularly those surrounding the term “white devils,” Black superiority and separatism, and armed Black self-defense. Meanwhile, other ministers in the Nation of Islam grow jealous of Malcolm’s national attention, turning Elijah Muhammad against him. Things come to a head when Malcolm learns that Elijah Muhammad has repeatedly broken the Nation of Islam code of conduct, impregnating multiple secretaries. In 1963, viewing Malcolm as a threat, Muhammad and his ministers prohibit him from speaking in public after Malcolm ignites controversy with comments that seemingly approve the John F. Kennedy assassination.

Effectively cut off from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm fears he will be murdered by a White supremacist or a Nation of Islam agent. Certain that his days are numbered, Malcolm takes the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which every Muslim is required to do before they die if they are able. The experience of seeing Muslims of all races and nationalities come together in the name of Allah transforms Malcolm’s thinking about the possibility of White and Black people coexisting. Although he harbors no illusions about the racist attitudes of most White Americans, Malcolm finally acknowledges that there may be a place for sincere, antiracist White people in the fight for Black human rights.