The Autobiography of Malcolm X Summary and Review

by Alex Haley, Malcolm X
Has The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley, Malcolm X been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Aside from Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X is probably the most well-known name from the era of the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. However, whereas King’s “I have a dream” speech and tragic murder are general knowledge, a lot of people only know a bit of what Malcolm X said, wrote or of his life story. In this summary, we get to know Malcolm X from his perspective: where he came from, how he entered into the Nation of Islam and his journeys to the Middle East and Africa. These are all significant features of one of the most influential African-Americans from the last century. You’ll discover:
  • what the X signifies and how he came to adopt it;
  • how his life transformed after John F. Kennedy’s assassination; and
  • why he split from the Nation of Islam.
Note: The following book summaries contain strong, offensive language; a racist term is utilized to demonstrate the author's experience, which is central to his story.

Malcolm’s Early Years

On May 19, 1925, Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little. His father, Reverend Earl Little, was a Baptist preacher who assisted in spreading the teachings of Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Malcolm was the seventh of eight children and his mother, Louise, struggled to take care of all of them. Louise was born in the West Indies, a product of her mother’s rape by a white slave master, meaning that Louise was very fair-skinned which occasionally resulted in her being mistaken for a white woman. Malcolm was born with reddish hair and a light complexion – the lightest of all of his siblings. Malcolm felt like it was that distinction in his appearance that drove his mother to treat him more harshly than her other children. In her eyes, he was a living, breathing reminder of the rapist in her family’s past. Meanwhile, maybe because of this very difference, his father favored Malcolm, often taking him to UNIA meetings. However, his father’s attempts to generate a sense of pride and identity in the black community led to his tragic end. One of Malcolm’s earliest memories was from when they lived in Lansing, Michigan. He awoke in the middle of the night in a panic: white supremacist group, The Black Legion, had set the Littles’ house on fire, but fortunately, the family escaped unharmed. Predictably, it got worse. When Malcolm was only six years old, his father was killed. Despite having been fatally battered and beaten, the police ruled his death an accident. After that, Louise struggled to preserve the family as a single mother. She was prideful and didn’t want to resort to government aid, but ultimately had to. This involved dealing with child welfare officers, who were particularly cruel to Louise, working to turn her children against her. They finally succeeded, placing Louise in a state mental hospital when Malcolm was 12 and sent all of the kids to live with separate families.

Malcolm’s Rocky School Years

Malcolm didn’t have an easy experience in school, and at 13 years old, he got into trouble after pranking one of his teachers. Following getting scolded for wearing a hat in class, he put a tack on his teacher’s chair when they weren't looking. As a result, Malcolm was expelled and sent to a detention home. The people who operated the home treated him well, but they openly used the word “nigger” around him and talked about him like he couldn't understand what they were saying. It was the first time Malcolm lived with white people, and he started to see that it was customary for them to treat black people as though they didn't have the equivalent intellect or sensitivity as whites. A year later, Malcolm began junior high, where that sort of treatment persisted. He was one of only a couple of black students in the school and tried his best to integrate with his white classmates. He joined the basketball team but wasn’t permitted to dance in the presence of any white females at their post-game parties. Malcolm was also elected class president that year, but he grew to feel that his classmates were handling him like a mascot and not an equal. When his teacher asked him what he wanted to be, Malcolm replied, “a lawyer,” and was hurt when told he should be more realistic and consider being a carpenter instead. But Malcolm quickly witnessed a new world on a visit to Boston. The summer after seventh grade, Malcolm visited his half-sister Ella, who lived in the Roxbury area. For the first time, he viewed black people proudly being themselves in their neighborhood and not striving to be white. When Malcolm went back to Lansing, he couldn't stand the racist jokes of his teachers and classmates any longer; he knew there was a better place for him.

Malcolm In Roxbury and Harlem

Luckily, his sister Ella made herself Malcolm’s legal guardian, enabling him to move to Roxbury, where he promptly learned about street life. Coincidentally, one of the first people Malcolm met was a man called Shorty, who happened to be from Lansing, Michigan. Shorty took Malcolm under his wing, showing him the finer aspects of Roxbury’s seedier side and getting him a job shining shoes at the legendary Roseland Ballroom jazz club. Not only did young Malcolm shine the shoes of musicians such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, but he additionally learned how to hustle. The job of the shoeshine boy also involved giving musicians and customers booze, marijuana or the phone numbers of local prostitutes. During this time, Malcolm indulged in booze, marijuana, flashy clothes and dancing. Shorty told Malcolm how to conk his hair – a painful method of applying hot lye to straighten curls. But he would later come to see conked hair as an emblem of self-degradation, “the brainwashed black man” damaging his hair to make it “look white.” Not yet 18 years old, Malcolm hopped from job to job before settling on steady work as a train porter, selling food and drinks to passengers. Working on the Boston to New York City line, Malcolm had his first chance to visit Harlem. In one night he fell in love with the city, and particularly the large Savoy nightclub, which was twice the size of the Roseland. Malcolm chose to move there and, in 1942, became a waiter at Small’s Paradise, a Harlem restaurant and popular cultural landmark.

A Life of Crime in 1940s Harlem

Working at Small’s Paradise granted Malcolm the opportunity to swiftly discover how many people made a living on the streets of Harlem: by hustling. Malcolm learned who to trust, who to avoid, and the ins and outs of all sorts of criminal activities, including robbery, pimping, and gambling. Malcolm would shortly put this information to work when he lost his job at Small’s after mistakingly offering a prostitute’s number to an undercover cop. After being fired, he turned to a friend identified as “Sammy the Pimp,” who said he may make money selling marijuana. From his experience at the Roseland and Savoy, Malcolm had numerous musician friends who were faithful customers. On a good day, the 17-year-old Malcolm could make $50 to $60. And when the police started to speculate Malcolm was dealing in Harlem, he took his business on the road, going on tour with musicians and keeping them in stock. But by 1943, conditions were getting tougher. The police temporarily shut down the Savoy and rumors that a black soldier was shot by a white cop almost ended in a riot. This essentially froze what little money white people were bringing into Harlem and raised the police presence. So, Malcolm found work “steering,” or accompanying white customers to secret locations in Harlem where their sexual needs could get serviced. Through all of these events, Malcolm discerned that Harlem was nothing more than a “den of sin” to white people. Malcolm was on the wrong path, and it was about to come to an end.

Prison and a Profound Awakening

By 1945, 20-year-old Malcolm was slipping into the same trap as countless hustlers: he was taking more risky opportunities to make money and expanding his drug intake to boost his confidence. Things began to get worse when a gambling controversy forced him out of Harlem. Malcolm was accused of cheating after winning a bet placed by a man called “West Indian Archie.” Archie gave Malcolm a deadline to pay him back on pain of death. Conclusively, Malcolm spiraled into a paranoid drug haze of opium, cocaine, and Benzedrine. He left Harlem, returning to Boston, in the hopes that matters would cool down. But he kept hustling. In Boston, he teamed up with Shorty and two white girlfriends to steal from affluent households. Their crime spree ended when Malcolm was arrested attempting to pawn a stolen watch. This was his first criminal offense, which normally would have resulted in a two-year sentence. But the judge was especially unsettled about Malcolm colluding with two white girls. Therefore, in February of 1946, Malcolm was sentenced to ten years in prison. It was here that Malcolm had his spiritual awakening. He was influenced by an older convict named Bimbi, who showed him that you could command respect just by being well-spoken. Bimbi encouraged him to utilize the prison library and Malcolm soon became obsessed with reading. He read anything from English and Latin dictionaries to philosophy and world history. He would spend whole nights reading, and as a consequence of the poor lighting, developed astigmatism that required him to wear corrective lenses. It was at this point that two of Malcolm’s brothers wrote to him, informing him about the Nation of Islam: a religion that was striving to help the black man better his long-forgotten identity. While in prison, Malcolm devotedly took to the message of the Nation of Islam, praying for the first time and reading more regarding the tragic history of African-Americans.

Leaving Prison and Joining The Nation of Islam

Prison proved to be great training for Malcolm to discover his public speaking voice. While there, he partook in staged debates where two people would argue opposing sides of a subject. In those debates, Malcolm discovered numerous chances to spread the message of the Nation of Islam and what he was learning in history books. He would rebuke the wrongs the white man perpetrated on the non-white people of the world in the name of Christianity and profit. He made an especially significant impression during one debate when he challenged the notion that Jesus was the pale, blond, blue-eyed image that the white man prays to, and ultimately got his debate opponent to yield that “Jesus was brown.” When released in 1952, Malcolm moved to Detroit to stay with his brother Wilfred. He was keen to dedicate his life to the Nation of Islam. Before he left prison, Malcolm was writing daily letters to Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader. Muhammad saw Malcolm’s dedication and at the first chance, invited him to dinner. During the meal, Malcolm voluntarily offered his services to the Nation of Islam. He promptly started a recruitment drive in Detroit, gradually obtaining more followers. His success was recognized by other ministers in the Nation who invited him to speak during their services. Malcolm proved to be proficient at passionately spreading the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the founder of the Nation of Islam, W. D. Fard. This included the belief that the “original man” was black and that African-Americans are all descendants of African Muslims who had their real identities removed by white men. Malcolm was showing himself to be a natural activist and speaker.

Becoming Malcolm X and Gaining National Attention

Malcolm was soon declared an official minister for the Nation of Islam. Like other ministers, he was assigned the last name of X, which stands for the true ancestral family name that had been lost forever. Malcolm X promptly began establishing new Nation of Islam temples across the country. He initiated them in locations like Boston, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. Also, in many of these cities, Malcolm attracted new members by intercepting people coming out of Christian churches and convincing them to hear about a faith that wasn’t a “white man’s religion.” Ultimately, Malcolm X was appointed a minister of his own temple in New York City. Being back in New York City after nine years elsewhere allowed Malcolm to sit down with West Indian Archie and chat. He thanked Archie for making him leave the city, likely saving his life. By the end of the '50s, the Nation of Islam was making news headlines. In 1957, a member named Brother Hinton was attacked by the police in Harlem who were breaking up a fight that he wasn't involved with. Malcolm learned of the incident and led 50 members of his congregation to the police station. He discovered Brother Hinton covered in blood and demanded that he be transferred to a hospital until the police finally conceded to that directive. Brother Hinton healed and the Nation of Islam assisted him in successfully suing the city of New York for more than $70,000. Soon after this, television and newspapers reported on the incident of police brutality and brought national attention to the Nation of Islam.

Being at Odds with the Nation of Islam

By 1961, the Nation of Islam was prospering. Large rallies were being held and, since the press was enticed by Malcolm’s passion, he used interviews to get his message spread. Malcolm desired to set the record straight regarding the Nation of Islam. It wasn't about “black supremacy,” it was about empowering the black man and providing him with a sense of pride and dignity in his identity. Malcolm also answered numerous questions about why he used the phrase “the white devil.” He explained it wasn't about broadcasting hate, but asserting the facts about the “devilish” behavior that the European and American white man had displayed to non-white races throughout history. To Malcolm, it urged the question: Why should the black man attempt to integrate with such people? The second point Malcolm sought to make to the press was to remind everyone that he wasn’t teaching his personal message, but that of Elijah Muhammad. He would even turn down interview invitations, telling people to alternatively address their questions to Muhammad. To Malcolm, Muhammad was impregnable – this was the man responsible for his salvation. So it was quite a shock for Malcolm when, in 1963, he received troubling news concerning his mentor. It turned out that two of Elijah Muhammad’s secretaries were filing paternity suits against him for fathering their children and Malcolm felt deceived and betrayed by that news. This estrangement with Elijah Muhammad increased as Malcolm’s fame grew. To Elijah and the other leaders of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was now considered a threat. After John F. Kennedy was assassinated at the end of 1963, Malcolm again made national headlines by proclaiming that the situation was a sign that “the chickens had come home to roost.” Immediately following this statement, the Nation of Islam publicly forbade Malcolm from speaking for 90 days. Then people Malcolm knew within the Nation notified him that orders had been given for his death.

The Pilgrimage to Mecca

Malcolm X had to reassess his whole life at this period. The man to whom he’d devoted his life had let him down and was now ready to kill him. When Malcolm’s assistant told him he’d been urged to plant a bomb in his car, X knew it was severe. To evade the threats and reaffirm his spiritual beliefs, Malcolm resolved to take a pilgrimage to Mecca. He was interested in expanding his knowledge about Islam. Over the years, people had talked to Malcolm about “true Islam” and how it deviated from Elijah Muhammad’s teaching. So, he was eager to make the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, a sacred duty that each Muslim is asked to do at some time in their life. The journey was eye-opening. On his journey, Malcolm discovered that the orthodox Muslim religion was very distinct from what he’d been led to believe. As he traveled the holy land he observed Muslims of all colors. He was especially impressed when he was given brotherly respect and hospitality by blue-eyed, blond-haired people who'd be deemed as white back in the United States. He met Saudi Arabia’s Prince Faisal and was presented with books to read and advised not to be misled by false prophets. Affected by his experiences, he penned a letter to the US press stating his surprise at the examples of brotherhood that he’d encountered amongst all races and that he had to rethink his previously held beliefs. After Mecca and Cairo, Malcolm went to Beirut, Nigeria, and Ghana. Along the way, he made appearances at colleges and met with politicians. He attempted to rally support from these countries, claiming that just as much effort should be made to assist African-Americans as there was to help black South Africans.

“Letter from Mecca”

Malcolm returned to New York in May of 1964, two days following his 39th birthday. The press had numerous questions for him upon his arrival. Malcolm elaborated on his new perspective. He explained he was starting to realize that white people were not inherently racist. Yet, he still believed that white “so-called Christian” society had established the feeling of superiority into generations of white people and it had led to a destructive predicament. It could be witnessed in the riots breaking out within ghettos throughout the United States. These ghettos had developed as a consequence of generations of racism and mistreatment by white society. Malcolm perceived it to be “sociological dynamite” that had been planted by whites and he stated that unless action was taken to rectify the situation, it was only a matter of time before it erupted. To resolve the problem, Malcolm knew it was time for a new, all-inclusive message to be spread. To broadcast the word and split with the Nation of Islam publically, Malcolm founded the organization Muslim Mosque, Inc. But he discerned that more conventional efforts would be required to produce the type of sociological change needed to free black people from the ghetto. To be more inclusive he started the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). While white people couldn’t join OAAU, Malcolm had valuable advice for those who desired to help. One of his biggest regrets was an occurrence years earlier when a white college girl asked him what she could do and he’d responded with “Nothing.” He explained that now he would tell that girl to start an organization in her neighborhood to spread the word of anti-racism and anti-violence amongst white people.

Malcolm's Murder

The death threats that surrounded Malcolm X gave all his actions more gravity. His father and four out of six of his uncles died as a result of violence and Malcolm felt like he would be murdered by a white racist or the Nation of Islam. While he was at peace with this chance, he was not at peace with his family getting threatened. He was particularly upset when violence came upon his house. Malcolm was fighting a lawsuit led by the Nation of Islam, who was attempting to force his family out of the home provided to them by the Nation many years in the past. On the night of February 13, 1965, Malcolm and his wife Betty, who was pregnant with their sixth child, were frightened awake by a Molotov cocktail thrown through their front window. But that was just a prelude to the tragedy on February 21, 1965. On that day, the OAAU organization was holding a meeting at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. Malcolm’s wife and children were in the audience. When he walked onstage, three gunmen from the Nation of Islam opened fire, killing him almost immediately. Betty shielded their children, covering them with her body during the shooting. But after the shooters left the scene she dropped down next to the body of her husband, crying, “They killed him.” Actor and friend Ossie Davis gave a touching eulogy at Malcolm's funeral. Davis predicted that some would think of Malcolm X as a racist or a man of hate, but he pointed out that Malcolm never affiliated with any violence. And if people listened closely to what he said, they would hear the words of someone who only wanted the best for his people. To Davis, Malcolm portrayed a fine example of a strong, uncompromising black man.

In Review: The Autobiography of Malcolm X Book Summary

The key message in this book: Malcolm X was a multifaceted person. Like many others, he grappled with understanding himself and the world around him. But he continued to be diligent and throughout his life, he stayed inquisitive and searched for the truth. Through his hard work and commitment, he proved that redemption is possible in a lifetime.