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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 12 : Savior | Summary



Malcolm is paroled in 1952 and moves to Detroit on the advice of his siblings, who think he needs to study with other practicing Muslims. Ella is not a member of the Nation of Islam but she also advises him to leave Boston to avoid trouble with the police. In Detroit Malcolm moves in with his brother Wilfred's family and gets a job at the furniture store his brother Wilfred manages. Malcolm enjoys the communal feeling among the black people at Temple Number One. However, he thinks the Nation of Islam is too passive about gaining converts; they have "an assumption that Allah would bring us more Muslims."

Malcolm goes with other Detroit members to hear Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. He is deeply moved by the sight of "the Messenger," who has suffered and sacrificed "to lead us, the black people, because he loved us so much." Malcolm reconstructs Elijah Muhammad's speech from that day. He speaks of the "wilderness of North America" in which black people are "mentally, morally, and spiritually dead." He singles out Malcolm X for praise, to Malcolm's surprise.

From his present-day perspective Malcolm alludes to his later split with Elijah Muhammad. He does not speak ill of Elijah Muhammad. He told Muhammad at the outset of their quarrel that he "still believed in him more strongly than he believed in himself." He says now to readers only "envy and jealousy" have kept them apart. Malcolm receives the name X from the temple in Chicago, the X standing for his unknown last name, obliterated by his ancestors' slave master.

Malcolm puts a lot of energy into recruiting for the Nation of Islam. However, his "brainwashed black brothers" are "too deaf, dumb, and blind, mentally, morally, and spiritually, to respond." The members of Temple Number One in Detroit make frequent trips to see Elijah Muhammad in Chicago where they are guests in his home.

The minister of Temple One asks Malcolm to address the worshipers, and Malcolm speaks passionately about Christianity and slavery. In 1953 he is named Assistant Minister at Temple Number One. He speaks about slavery, rape, and the hypocrisy of white oppressors expecting Christian love from black people. Malcolm registers with the draft board for the Korean War. He writes down he is a Muslim and a conscientious objector.

Elijah Muhammad's mother, Mother Marie, tells Malcolm the story of Elijah Muhammad's life. Mr. Muhammad also recounts his story. He was born in Georgia, the son of a Baptist minister. Elijah Poole, as Muhammad was then known, was a "frail" adolescent with "a most uncommonly strong love for his race." He worked at sawmills and on farms. Later he married and moved to Detroit where he met "Master W.D. Fard" in 1931. Fard taught him that "God's true name was Allah" and told him that the black people in America were "Lost Sheep." He had come to bring them back to their "true religion." Fard also said a "Finder and Savior of the Lost Sheep" would come "near the Last Day, or the End of Time." This Savior was the one "to whom the Jews referred as The Messiah, the Christians as The Christ, and the Muslims as The Mahdi." Muhammad later realizes Fard is this Savior. Fard sets up a University of Islam and gives Elijah the name Elijah Karriem. Classes at the university aim to help adults overcome "the 'tricknology' of 'the blue-eyed devil white man.'" Elijah also receives private instruction from Fard, who teaches him "things never revealed to others."

In 1934, Muhammad tells Malcolm, "Master W. D. Fard disappeared, without a trace." Muhammad tells Malcolm that jealous Muslims made attempts on his life. Muhammad went on the run, "from city to city," fleeing the jealous and the "hypocrites." In 1942 Muhammad was arrested and served three and a half years in prison. Upon his parole he "returned to his work ... to remove the blinders from the eyes of the black man." Malcolm absorbs the story and preaches about the greatness of Elijah Muhammad, "this little, gentle, sweet man." Malcolm remarks he was "his most faithful servant," and he "did believe in him more firmly than he believed in himself."


Fard's version of Islam sounds similar to Christianity. Black people are lost in "the wilderness;" he is "the Savior" who prophesied to appear at the end of time. Islam and Christianity do have a lot in common. Islam counts Jesus among its prophets; like Christianity, Islam has an eschatology, a doctrine about the last days. It is striking that Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm are unconcerned about Fard's disappearance, since he is supposed to be the Christian Savior, the Jewish Messiah, and the Muslim Mahdi all in one.

According to Malcolm, Muhammad was arrested in 1942 for his teachings. Technically, the arrest was for "draft-dodging, although he was too old for military service." In fact Muhammad encouraged other black people to evade the draft during World War II. The U.S. government found this a violation of the draft law, called the Selective Service Act. Muhammad's black separatism brought him in conflict with the government. The United States could not afford to have a large segment of its population decline to recognize the authority of the state. In later years some black activists came to regard Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam as irrelevant. In contrast to the Civil Rights activists, the Nation of Islam seemed all talk and no action. (Alex Haley describes this in his epilogue.) But the United States government found the talk itself alarming enough to arrest Elijah Muhammad.

The description of Elijah Muhammad's life contains signs of Malcolm's future troubles. The Nation of Islam is central and hierarchical, with one man at the very top. As Malcolm said to his burglary ring in Chapter 9, "In any organization, someone must be the boss." Initially that "someone" in the Nation of Islam is W.D. Fard. Having one great charismatic leader leads to favoritism and jealousy, a recipe for trouble in the organization. Muhammad takes special classes with Fard, where he learns "things never revealed to others." One could imagine an open organization, where everyone has access to the true teachings. Muhammad after all made his prophecy long ago, in books anyone can access. In the Nation of Islam access to some of this knowledge is jealously guarded, granted only to the privileged. When Elijah Muhammad takes over from Fard, he cannot live a peaceful life as the honored leader of the Nation of Islam. Instead he becomes a fugitive, hounded from city to city under threat of murder.

When Malcolm speaks of Muhammad from his present-day perspective, he assures readers that he has a fundamental respect for the leader, even after their split. He says they would be together today except for jealousy and envy. "Except for jealousy" makes it sound like jealousy is an accident intruding on the fundamentally peaceful relationship between Malcolm and Muhammad. But Muhammad's story shows jealousy, envy, and the eviction or murder of traitors are all built into his organization. Admiring a great man is a short step from envying him.

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