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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 16 : Out | Summary



The chapter begins in 1961 when Elijah Muhammad's illness suddenly worsens. Members of the Nation of Islam are upset because "to us, the Nation of Islam was Mr. Muhammad." He is their moral and spiritual example, Malcolm says.

Malcolm X regrets that the Nation of Islam has a policy of not engaging in politics. He thinks this policy hurts their reputation. People in black communities say, "Those Muslims talk tough, but they never do anything." Apart from that one regret he feels blessed. He is busy, and the Nation of Islam is growing in New York City.

Malcolm also hears rumors about himself. People say he's making a lot of money. In fact Betty begs him to set aside some money for their family, but Malcolm refuses, saying the Nation of Islam will provide whatever they need. From his present-day perspective he remarks, "I could never have been a bigger fool!" Rumors also fly about Malcolm's vanity and ambition; people say he is hungry for publicity. In response to these rumors Elijah Muhammad's son Herbert, who was now in charge of the Nation of Islam newspaper, ordered it to stop printing news about Malcolm X's work. However, Elijah Muhammad also names Malcolm X the Nation of Islam's "first National Minister," a great honor.

News reports say a group in Louisiana has put a $10,000 reward on Malcolm X's head. However, Malcolm tells readers "the threat of death was much closer to me than somewhere in Louisiana." He does not yet say who threatened him, but only that when he found out, "it nearly drove me to Bellevue [a mental hospital in New York]."

Then Malcolm finds out Elijah Muhammad has had affairs with women in the Nation of Islam. He sums up what he knows by pointing to an incident in 1963 when two of Muhammad's former secretaries name him in paternity lawsuits as the father of their children. As a result, Malcolm changes the focus of his speeches. He talks more about "social doctrine ... current events, and politics," and stays silent about "the subject of morality."

Malcolm tells readers he heard rumors about Muhammad as far back as 1955, but he rejected the evidence. He believed Allah had driven his brother Reginald insane as a divine punishment for "harboring evil thoughts about Elijah Muhammad," and Malcolm did not want to meet the same fate. However, in 1962 he hears many Muslims are leaving the Chicago Mosque over the scandal, so he begins to face the truth. He breaks a Nation of Islam rule and speaks to three of Muhammad's former secretaries. They had left the Nation of Islam in disgrace, sentenced with isolation, so it is against the rules for Malcolm to contact them. The secretaries tell Malcolm that Muhammad had fathered their children. They also tell him Muhammad told members that Malcolm would betray him one day and was therefore "dangerous." Malcolm realizes that "while he was praising me to my face, he was tearing me apart behind my back."

Malcolm writes to Elijah Muhammad, telling him that rumors of immorality are being spread about him. Malcolm struggles to come to an understanding of Muhammad's actions. He considers the sinful things done by great men in the Bible: Noah got drunk; David had an adulterous affair with Bathsheba. In April 1963 Malcolm flies to Phoenix to talk to Muhammad about these issues. Muhammad admits the truth, but he also says it is just as Malcolm imagined; Muhammad is destined to commit sins, as a fulfillment of prophecy. Returning home to New York Malcolm tries to prepare six other ministers for the shock. He tells them about Elijah Muhammad's sins and his belief that he is destined to sin in order to fulfill prophecy.

In November 1963 President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Elijah Muhammad orders Nation of Islam ministers to make no comments to the press. At a speaking engagement Malcolm responds to an audience question with a comment on the violence of white society. The violence white people had inflicted on black people is now claiming white victims as well. Malcolm sums this idea up in the phrase "the chickens coming home to roost."

Malcolm's phrase makes national newspaper headlines. Elijah Muhammad orders Malcolm X "silenced" for 90 days; he is not allowed to speak in public. He is also forbidden to teach in his home mosque, Mosque Seven. Then Malcolm hears another minister has been urging Muslims to kill him. This minister has been saying of him, "If you knew what the Minister [Malcolm X] did, you'd go out and kill him yourself." Malcolm realizes only Elijah Muhammad could have given permission for this "death talk."

The boxer Cassius Clay invites Malcolm and his family to be his guests in Miami. Clay fights the boxer Sonny Liston, and Malcolm and his family enjoy a vacation from the stress of the Nation of Islam. During this time Malcolm thinks about Elijah Muhammad's actions. He thinks Muhammad should have admitted to his followers what he had done, even if he called it "fulfilling prophecy." Instead Muhammad covered up the truth.

Back in New York the "first direct order" for Malcolm's death is "issued through a Mosque Seven official." The man ordered to carry out the job tells Malcolm instead. In turn Malcolm tells the man about "what was really going on in Chicago" with Elijah Muhammad's former secretaries and people leaving the mosque.

Malcolm pauses his story to tell the reader "the most dangerous black man in America was the ghetto hustler." The hustler does not respect the white power structure, Malcolm says. That is the source of his danger; he is unafraid. Malcolm also calls the anger of black people in cities "black social dynamite."

Malcolm sees no future in the Nation of Islam, so he starts his own organization, Muslim Mosque, Inc. He flies to Boston to meet with Ella and asks her to loan him the money to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Ella agrees.


Something of Detroit Red the hustler returns in this chapter. Early in the chapter Malcolm says he has only one "personal disappointment" about the Nation of Islam. People say the Nation of Islam is "all talk." Malcolm says he worries the Nation of Islam could one day be "separated from the Negroes' front-line struggle." But he also sounds like Detroit Red in his concern about his religion's reputation. In an honor culture, members win or lose honor by their willingness to lay their life on the line. Malcolm is willing to die for his religion, and it pains him to hear talk that implies he or the religion is weak. Malcolm himself makes a connection between the Nation of Islam's jealous infighting and ghetto hustling. When Elijah Muhammad puts the word out that Malcolm will be reinstated "if he submits," Malcolm recognizes an act of manipulation. Muhammad is manipulating "the wire," to use a phrase from Malcolm's hustling days, to make it look like Malcolm has rebelled. As Malcolm says, "I hadn't hustled in the streets for years for nothing. I knew when I was being set up."

Elijah Muhammad role in ordering Malcolm's death contradicts his image as a "lamb" and "gentle, sweet" man. However, the death orders are completely in line with the history of the Nation of Islam. In the 1930s Elijah Muhammad was a fugitive, fleeing Nation of Islam members who wanted to kill him. When addressing crowds in the 1960s Muhammad fears assassination. Even the belief system contains the seeds of murderous violence. In Yacub's History the society of Original Man is presented as happy. (In a somewhat sober and cautious utopian myth, the original paradise was "when seventy per cent of the people were satisfied, and thirty per cent were dissatisfied.") Africa would have been happy (or happy enough) if Yacub had not bred the white devils. When the white devils return to Africa they bring dissent, war, and misery, where there was none before. This logic—everything would be fine, except for this one element—is also the logic of genocide and murder. If just one person or one race stands in the way of paradise, why not get rid of them?

The Nation of Islam is vulnerable to this kind of infighting because of its power structure. Elijah Muhammad is also the sole ruler of the Nation of Islam. As Malcolm says, "to us, the Nation of Islam was Mr. Muhammad." Running afoul of Elijah Muhammad is the same as being eternally damned. A ruler who can bestow great honor by naming someone his favorite also has the power to name someone a traitor who must be eliminated.

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