Is Published

The Autobiography of Malcolm X offered white Americans revealing insights into life in the nation’s black ghettos and helped explain the attraction of the racially exclusive Nation of Islam for African Americans.

Summary of Event

Malcolm Little, better known by his adopted name of Malcolm X, was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965, shortly after leaving the Black Muslim movement. In November of that year, his autobiography (coauthored by Alex Haley) was published. The cultural and political significance of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the memoir of one of the most controversial leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, should be approached from several perspectives. In the immediate context of the Civil Rights movement of the mid-1960’s, Malcolm X’s account of the various stages of his life was quite significant. This was true because his autobiography represented personal insights into different aspects of black life in the United States that many Americans knew something about but could not picture accurately in their minds in relation to their own experience. African Americans;civil rights leaders
Autobiography of Malcolm X, The (Malcolm X)
[kw]Malcolm X Is Published, The Autobiography of (Nov., 1965)
[kw]Autobiography of Malcolm X Is Published, The (Nov., 1965)
African Americans;civil rights leaders
Autobiography of Malcolm X, The (Malcolm X)
[g]North America;Nov., 1965: The Autobiography of Malcolm X Is Published[08630]
[g]United States;Nov., 1965: The Autobiography of Malcolm X Is Published[08630]
[c]Literature;Nov., 1965: The Autobiography of Malcolm X Is Published[08630]
[c]Social issues and reform;Nov., 1965: The Autobiography of Malcolm X Is Published[08630]
Malcolm X
Muhammad, Elijah
Garvey, Marcus
Haley, Alex
Shabazz, Betty

One very important aspect of his book was Malcolm X’s description of the family life of African Americans. His family, like so many of their generation, had left the traditional rural setting of the southern United States to implant themselves in the very different environment of the northern states, first in Omaha, Nebraska, then in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan. The autobiography depicted elements of racism in small towns, ranging from patronizing social discrimination expressed through social services and foster-home arrangements to out-and-out violence in the activities of the Ku Klux Klan. Not only was Malcolm X’s boyhood marked by firsthand witnessing of white-inspired racial violence, but it also exposed him to black-run movements that the average American had never before seen described with precise and personal details. A case in point was Malcolm’s description of the follower of Marcus Garvey, the earliest movement to try to declare, in a very limited context, the superiority of black culture.

A second aspect of Malcolm X’s autobiography that spelled out details of a milieu that many who lived in typical America could not have imagined came in the opening pages, in which he described his involvement as a young adult in the fast life of urban Boston and New York. Various forms of racial interaction, ranging from the dance scene and zoot suits of the early 1950’s to the sleaziness of prostitution, drug trafficking, and robberies, were all parts of Malcolm Little’s experiences, until his criminal conviction and imprisonment. These sorts of interactions gave personal meaning to lifestyles that affected hundreds of thousands of African Americans on a daily basis. Malcolm X’s autobiography made it clear that many of them were unwilling to go on accepting such stereotypes as the 1960’s progressed.

Without a doubt, however, it was Malcolm X’s revelations concerning his exposure to the Black Muslim movement that sent shock waves across the United States when his autobiography appeared. His descriptions of the basic beliefs of the Nation of Islam Nation of Islam , as expounded by its original leader and prophet, Elijah Muhammad, opened a hitherto unknown world to readers of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Few had realized that, for Black Muslims, white people were viewed as a satanic force whose influence was to be rejected vigorously by the Nation of Islam. Beyond the complexity of the adopted beliefs of the Nation of Islam, readers of Malcolm X’s autobiography learned of the actual practical organization of the movement, including its almost puritanical elite units, the Fruit of Islam Fruit of Islam . These groupings had been visible near Nation of Islam mosques and in the streets of large American cities, but until Malcolm X’s book, few had any understanding of their rigorous code of ethics.

Something similar could be said for Malcolm’s explanation of the place of women in the community of Black Muslims. His emphasis was on their extreme pride in propriety of appearance and behavior. This code was meant to belie widespread popular images of the depravity of ghetto existence in the 1960’s.

Malcolm X’s ultimate message concerning race relations, however, would turn away from the exclusivism of the mainly U.S.-based Nation of Islam movement and call for a much wider view of the problems of injustice in the United States and in other areas of the world. He came to espouse, for example, what he believed were the universal principles of brotherhood contained in orthodox Islam, which rejected race as a form of identity in favor of an ideology calling for human justice in all societies and among all races.

At the time of its publication, then, the autobiography became something more than an exposé of the American Black Nationalist Black Nationalism movement: It was a personal witnessing by a black militant of the tenets of universal faith to which he, at least, attributed the potential to resolve the increasingly divisive struggle for civil rights all over the world. Possibly because his autobiography ended with a disavowal of the Black Power Black Power movement
African Americans;Black Power movement movement that was then gaining momentum, both in the Nation of Islam and in more radical violence-oriented groups such as the Black Panthers, he fell to assassins’ bullets fired by African American rivals.


Whatever readers throughout the world may have learned from the diverse contents of Malcolm X’s autobiography, whether these concerned “inside details” of black ghetto existence, the inequities of open or latent racism, or the declared principles behind the Nation of Islam movement, the book symbolized the unresolved dilemma his career seemed to represent. Stated succinctly, the question remained: Which way should the Civil Rights movement turn?

Only months before Malcolm X’s assassination, black leaders associated with the nonviolent Nonviolence
Civil disobedience Civil Rights movement, most prominently Martin Luther King King, Martin Luther, Jr.
[p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;protests and demonstrations , Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had riveted the attention of the world on their determined efforts to exercise the civil rights of thousands of demonstrators on a march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. Malcolm X, then still a fervent believer in the Nation of Islam, withheld his support from such movements, which were perceived to be a form of begging for the white majority’s help in defending minority rights. Instead, at that time Malcolm X preferred to support what he considered to be the courage of a different sort of champion of black rights, represented by the heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay. Clay, who had taken on the name Muhammad Ali when he joined the Nation of Islam, drew attention to the strength of conscious, but still pacifist, civil disobedience when he refused to be inducted into the armed forces as a statement of his opposition to the U.S. interventionist policy in Vietnam.

Malcolm X’s declared militancy on the issue of active application of black rights raised the question of appropriate boundaries and ethical as well as legal legitimacy. Before his “conversion” from the Black Muslims, he would have argued that black ethics existed as part of the identity of black people; no reference to a more universalist source of justice was necessary. In fact, what was not part of the Nation of Islam was by definition unjust through its suppression of black identity. The concept of “enemy” loomed large.

By his espousal of more universalist concepts of ethics in the orthodox Islamic religion, Malcolm’s impact on the late 1960’s and the decades that would follow cannot be said to have been clear. To the degree that African Americans chose to disavow the narrowness of Nation of Islam definitions and to search beyond extremist stands for more universal perceptions, his impact has had two sides: clarification of the true nature of Islam and increasing disinclination to couch all racial justice questions in terms of “us against them.”

There seem, therefore, to have been several longer-term results that stemmed from Malcolm X’s unique involvement in the Civil Rights movement. His autobiography opened a new, necessarily disconcerting world for the majority of Americans who had very little inkling of what black culture signified to those who lived it. This world contained both positive and negative features, although the latter tended to outweigh the former. Rejection of continuation of the status quo of racism assumed that these negative factors had to be eradicated, but few knew how to proceed.

Because the last stages of Malcolm X’s career opened him to a philosophy that was based more on universal concepts of justice for oppressed peoples than on specific theories of racial inequities, there was some hope that there might be a gathering together of at least some of the many militant movements of the mid-1960’s around a single positive social reform theme. The major drawback that promised to complicate such a drawing together was connected to the fact that Malcolm X’s revised views reflected a clear association with the Islamic religion. Even though his eventual views espoused an Islam that was a reflection of a principal world religion, not a “devised” faith along the lines of the Nation of Islam movement, they were nevertheless religious views. This had two repercussions for those who might have considered, if he had lived, recognition of his leadership within a circle of civil rights movements and activist political reform groups.

On the black side, there definitely remained a strong insistence, at least among the more radical groups, on Black Power, which depended on a continuing exclusivist and confrontational perception of social justice. These African Americans would have rejected Malcolm X’s last messages on racial bases. On the other hand, less racially radical, integrationist movements such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference very obviously depended on their identification with specifically Christian religious principles as the basis of their racial reform policies. Here, Malcolm X’s specific identification with Islam would have prevented, at least in the short run, a coming together of such integrationist groups around altered philosophical and religious principles.

Finally, one must consider that another aspect of Malcolm X’s controversial position by 1965 would surge to the forefront in the year of his death and become, for the next five years at least, the overwhelming focal point of American political activists’ efforts. That was the question of American involvement in Vietnam, which became a catalyst for racial and political ferment. Although it took Malcolm X’s messages into consideration, activism tended to rush into a number of different ideological and organizational directions. His message and his ideals remained part of American culture, however, as exemplified by the positive response to Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X and by the fact that such a film even was made. African Americans;civil rights leaders
Autobiography of Malcolm X, The (Malcolm X)

Further Reading

  • Bassey, Magnus O. Malcolm X and African American Self-Consciousness. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005. Discusses Malcolm X’s role in the development of modern African American racial identity. Bibliographic references and index.
  • 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 about the work and its literary and cultural significance. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Clark, Kenneth B. The Negro Protest. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963. Comprises three sets of interviews with prominent African American spokesmen of the period: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Clarke, John Henrik, ed. Malcolm X: The Man and His Times. New York: Macmillan, 1969. This volume contains a wide range of contributions by persons who either knew Malcolm X or knew a great deal about him because of their association with the Civil Rights movement. It also contains some original speeches delivered by Malcolm X at various stages in his activist career.
  • Cronon, Edmund David. Black Moses. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. An authoritative history of the career of Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Malcolm Little’s father was involved in the ideas of the UNIA, and its principles of self-help and pride in African heritage were an inspiration for the Nation of Islam movement.
  • Goldman, Peter. The Death and Life of Malcolm X. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. This book deals primarily with the later stages of Malcolm X’s life and the circumstances that led to his assassination. Although it focuses on Malcolm’s “conversion” away from the Black Muslim movement and therefore is a complement to his own autobiographical reflections, it provides considerable insight into the ideas and attitudes of a number of different civil rights associations and analyzes their differences in light of what Malcolm X represented.
  • Warren, Robert Penn. Who Speaks for the Negro? New York: Random House, 1965. Underlines the diversity of leadership options faced by the militant black nationalist and more moderate integrationist movements.

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