The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Chapter 13 : Minister Malcolm X | Summary

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Summary

Malcolm X decides to become a minister of the Nation of Islam and spends months studying with Elijah Muhammad in preparation for his new calling. He is a minister briefly in Boston and Philadelphia, and then Muhammad appoints him minister of Temple Eleven in New York. Malcolm preaches passionately against the Christian church. He also denounces the crimes of the devil white man, "an orgy of greed and lust and murder." He describes the history of slavery: "on your slave foreparents' bloody, sweaty backs [the white man] built this empire." Every service ends with Malcolm asking those ready to commit to the Nation of Islam to stand up. He is effective at winning recruits, particularly among black Christians.

In Boston Malcolm sees Shorty again. Shorty jokes he can't convert to Islam yet because "he [hasn't] had enough pork chops and white women." During his time in Boston Malcolm's half-sister Ella comes to hear him preach.

In New York Malcolm wants to see Sammy the Pimp and West Indian Archie again. He learns Sammy quit the numbers game but was later found murdered. West Indian Archie is glad to see Malcolm. He has aged a lot in the nine years since Malcolm saw him. They reconcile and agree never to talk about their feud again. Malcolm is saddened by the visit because Archie looks like he is near death.

Malcolm explains his strategy in "fishing" for converts to the Nation of Islam. He and his fellow Muslims work the crowds gathered for other groups. They find converts at Black Nationalism meetings. Black Nationalism is not a single organization but a set of ideas about black people gaining independence. Its proponents include such different thinkers as Marcus Garvey, W. E. B Du Bois and Malcolm X. Another rich harvest for the Nation of Islam is at black Christian churches. Malcolm calls church members "the best 'fishing' audience of all, by far the best-conditioned audience for Mr. Muhammad's teachings." The Nation of Islam's "strict moral code and discipline" are hard for potential converts to accept, says Malcolm. It forbids sexual intercourse between unmarried people, as well as pork, cigarettes, and alcohol. Malcolm tells people, "The white man wants black men to stay immoral, unclean and ignorant."

As a Nation of Islam minister, Malcolm often presides over funerals. In contrast to Christian funerals, Nation of Islam services are somber and unemotional. Elijah Muhammad teaches that "Christians have their funerals for the living, ours are for our departed." When he officiates at funerals, Malcolm quotes passages from the Bible saying there is no afterlife. He later learns that Islamic teachings and funeral customs are very different from the Nation of Islam's.

Malcolm sometimes helps open temples in other cities, including Atlanta. The Nation of Islam buys him a car, and he puts 30,000 miles on it in five months, traveling for the Nation of Islam. Malcolm stays away from women. He says he is too busy with his duties as a minister. Many Muslim sisters are attracted to him. Others complain his preaching is too critical of women. Malcolm explains to his readers, "I had seen too many men ruined ... by women."

The temples hold classes every night. Thursday night's classes are for women. In these classes women and girls learn "how to keep homes, how to rear children, how to care for husbands." Sister Betty X teaches Thursday classes at Temple Seven in New York. Malcolm notices Betty and at first does his best to ignore her. One day he takes her to the museum for educational reasons. He likes the way she thinks and admires her religious devotion. When he starts thinking about marriage, he is shocked and breaks off contact with Betty. He wonders what would happen if he made his feelings known to her. He promises himself she will not get the chance "to embarrass me." He says women brag about rejecting men.

Elijah Muhammad approves of Malcolm's wish to marry and he approves of Betty. Malcolm calls Betty on the phone from Detroit to propose: "I just said it to her direct: 'Look, do you want to get married?'" Betty is shocked but agrees. They marry in Indiana, where they can get a marriage license in one day. Malcolm refers to customs like kissing the bride as "All that Hollywood stuff!" They soon have four daughters: Attallah, "named for Attilah the Hun (he sacked Rome)"; Qubilah, "named after Qubilah Khan"; Ilyasah, "Arabic for 'Elijah'"; and Amilah.

Malcolm describes an incident of police brutality in 1959. Police, who were "breaking up a street scuffle between some Negroes, ordered other Negro passers-by to 'Move on!'" Two Nation of Islam members did not "scatter and run" the way the police expected. The police severely beat one of them, Johnson Hinton, with their clubs and took him to the police station. Malcolm and other Nation of Islam members demanded to see him. Malcolm then said Hinton needed to be taken to a hospital. A crowd of Nation of Islam members walked from the police station to the hospital. They then stood silently in front of the hospital, and a crowd of onlookers gathered behind them. Malcolm refused the order to disperse the crowd. The story was reported in a Harlem newspaper, The Amsterdam News.

Analysis

Malcolm and the Nation of Islam have a canny strategy for winning converts. They approach people already interested in similar ideas or beliefs. People who are already church members only have to be persuaded to change religions, a smaller step than convincing an atheist to accept the faith. Malcolm describes working the crowds at Black Nationalism meetings. The Nation of Islam shares many ideas with Black Nationalism; in Chapter 15 Malcolm preaches black nationalist ideas. "The American black man," he says, should concentrate on "building his own businesses, and decent homes for himself."

Malcolm mentions working the edges of the crowd at black nationalist meetings. Perhaps he and his fellow Muslims did this for convenience. However, they may have found that people on the edges of a crowd were also at the social margins of the group. Switching loyalties to another group is a kind of betrayal. It is easier to do this if someone does not also have deep social ties within the group.

With Christians it might have been the opposite tactic that works best. Elijah Muhammad's teachings (and Malcolm's presentation of them) strongly criticize Christianity. Someone indifferent to the Christian church would also be indifferent to anti-Christian talk. But someone deeply attached to Christianity may be vulnerable to a discussion of Christianity's failings, and Malcolm X has a long list. Malcolm also strengthens the message by connecting Christianity to racial injustice. Christianity asks black people to focus on the hereafter, says Malcolm, and thereby to accept injustices in the present life. In contrast, Malcolm encourages his listeners to look at Christianity within the context of racial oppression in the United States and points out that the "white man has his milk and honey ... right here on this earth!"

Malcolm's rapid courtship of Betty is revealing. He treats her with utmost respect, but when he speaks of women and marriage he presents an interesting perspective. He views women as capable of bringing a "good man" to ruin. He sees Betty as having the potential to reject and humiliate him, and he even claims to know women enjoy this. His abrupt proposal seems devised to limit Betty's chances of humiliating him. He never dates her or courts her, so she never has the chance to develop a sense he is interested in her. He even proposes on the phone, where he can quickly get away by hanging up.

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