The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Study Guide

Malcolm X and Alex Haley

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Context


Islam and the Nation of Islam

In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm describes his conversion to a sect of Islam called the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam is not affiliated with Islam, a religion that originated in the Middle East in the 7th century CE.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a man named Noble Drew Ali, or Timothy Drew, connected Islam with black nationalism. Black nationalism is an American movement seeking to instill pride in black people and encouraging them to establish economic independence from white America. Drew Ali established a temple in New Jersey for his new sect, the Moorish Science Temple of America. Later, this temple was moved to Chicago, where it was taken over by political leader Wallace D. Fard.

Fard was born in 1877 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Sometime before the 1930s he moved to the United States. Fard considered himself the successor to, and even the reincarnation of, Drew Ali. In 1939 Drew Ali died under mysterious circumstances, and the Moorish Science Temple of America split into several factions. One of these became the Nation of Islam, which teaches that Fard is a prophet, messiah, and savior.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X notes, "In 1934, Master W.D. Fard disappeared, without a trace." Elijah Muhammad, one of Fard's disciples, then took over the Nation of Islam. Muhammad later taught Malcolm about the Nation of Islam. Like Fard, Elijah Muhammad taught that white people had been invented by a black African scientist, who bred them to create a race of devils. The reign of the white devils over the world had lasted almost 6,000 years and was nearly done.

Such teachings sought to instill a sense of pride in black people. The Nation of Islam (NOI) also promoted strict sexual morals, conservative dress, and abstinence from pork, alcohol, and tobacco. In addition, the NOI taught that blacks were superior to whites and engaged in "anti-Semitic and anti-gay rhetoric." For these reasons, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a group that monitors the activities of domestic hate groups and other extremist groups, designated the NOI as a hate group.

Malcolm X first encountered Islam through the Nation of Islam. He learned to pray, a key daily practice in Islam. Like other Muslims, he abstained from pork. Later he learned that the story of the white devils and other "tales" by Elijah Muhammad infuriated the Muslims of the East.

Civil Rights Movement

Although slavery ended with ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, African Americans continued to experience inequality. In the South, strong efforts were made during the period known as Reconstruction (1865–77) to help freed slaves participate more fully in American society and achieve a degree of racial equality. Schools and hospitals were set up; efforts were made to ensure the voting rights of African Americans were implemented; and some African Americans were elected to political office at the local, state, and national levels. However, the achievements of Reconstruction were dismantled in the "Jim Crow" years (1870s to mid-1960s) that followed, when discriminatory laws enforced separation of blacks and whites. In the 20th century, African Americans were still regularly denied equal access to housing, education, jobs, voting rights, and fair trials. Civil rights efforts were largely ineffective in righting these wrongs.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement intensified, using protests to fight against racial discrimination and inequality. These efforts were focused on the South and contributed to passage of two national civil rights acts: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This legislation attempted to prevent racial discrimination in voting, housing, jobs, and public facilities.

Although the civil rights movement initially focused on the American South, these injustices occurred in the North, too. As Malcolm X says in his autobiography, it is hypocritical to imagine the North free of the South's racism. "My own life mirrors this hypocrisy," Malcolm wrote. "I am a creation of the Northern white man."

The civil rights movement employed many kinds of protests and activism in the fight for equality. In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, as Montgomery's laws required. This act sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted for 13 months. It ended with a Supreme Court ruling (Browder v. Gayle, 1956) that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. Other protests included the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, which began in North Carolina and spread to many other places in the South. Students used nonviolent tactics to occupy seats at whites-only lunch counters. In 1961 activists from the North and South joined Freedom Rides on interstate buses into the South to desegregate bus terminals. In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. coordinated a wave of sit-ins and protests in Birmingham, Alabama. King was jailed, along with other activists, after the violent police response. In response King wrote his famous "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," laying out his philosophy of nonviolent direct action and the necessity of breaking unjust laws. Other civil rights actions garnering national attention include the March on Washington in 1963 and the Selma March in 1965, where protesters, who were met with violence, marched from Selma, Alabama, to the capital of Montgomery in support of black voting rights.

Malcolm X and Civil Rights

In The Autobiography of Malcolm X Malcolm often criticizes the tactics and aims of the civil rights movement. Malcolm was suspicious of legislative victories, citing the 1954 Supreme Court decision that public schools must be integrated "with all deliberate speed," as the ruling said. Malcolm thought the Supreme Court ruling told blacks to celebrate a victory while also telling whites "here are your loopholes."

Malcolm also criticized the use of nonviolent tactics. He thought nonviolent protests were justified only if they brought results. On March 8, 1964, Malcolm delivered a Declaration of Independence speech announcing his split from the Nation of Islam. In that speech he declared that nonviolent tactics were wrong because they discouraged people from fighting back when attacked. Malcolm also felt integration into white society was not a worthy goal. Instead, he wanted "white America" to "atone" for its "crimes against the black people."

From the perspective of Martin Luther King Jr. the black nationalism of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X was extreme. In the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," King said he was not extreme; he was in the middle between two extremes. On one side was the extreme indifference of the few black people who had attained middle-class success. On the other side was the extremism of the Nation of Islam, a "force of bitterness and hatred" that "comes perilously close to advocating violence." Yet, King wrote, if white people do not respond to nonviolent protest, "millions of Negroes will ... seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies."


Nonviolent protest became less influential as the turbulent 1960s wore on. In 1965, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. led a largely failed effort to desegregate housing in Chicago by means of nonviolent protest. In the North, racism was less overt and therefore too slippery and complex for nonviolent events such as sit-ins. Frustrated by continued inequality, Northern cities were rocked with riots in the summers of 1964 and 1965.

In 1966 Stokely Carmichael led activists under the new militant slogan "black power." The slogan represented a split with King's nonviolent tactics. In part Malcolm X had inspired this new militancy in civil rights activists. The more revolutionary wing of the black power movement was expressed in such organizations as the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966. Although the Panthers achieved some success in organizing black communities against police brutality, they were gradually crushed by arrests, informants, and assassinations. The civil rights movement achieved some legislative gains in the areas of voting, housing, jobs, and schools, and it paved the way for the election of black representatives.


Anti-Semitism (discrimination against Jews) has been widely associated with the Nation of Islam (NOI) in general and Malcolm X in particular. While the nonviolent civil rights movement welcomed Jewish support from wealthy New York businessmen such as Allard Lowenstein and spiritual leaders such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the black civil rights movement in which Malcom X participated advocated for black nationalism. The movement sought to found a black society in America that was financially and legally independent from entrenched power structures. In this context, Jewish roots in the banking and housing industries made Jews as much an enemy of the black people as whites were in business, education, and politics.

Although Malcolm X described himself not as anti-Semitic but as "anti-exploitative," he resented the Jewish people for owning businesses, particularly apartment buildings, in black neighborhoods, and thus depriving black families of the means of upward economic and social mobility. He sought to put local businesses and housing into the hands of black families who would sell to black families.

Marcus Garvey and Pan-Africanism

Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1887. In 1914 he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The organization did not attract many Jamaican followers, and Garvey moved to the United States in 1916. He attracted followers in Harlem and in other major black ghettos in the North. Within three years UNIA claimed a following of two million people. To promote the economic independence of black people Garvey founded the Negro Factories Corporation and a steamship line, the Black Star Line. His newspaper, the Negro Voice, sought to instill in black people a new sense of pride.

As a leader of the black nationalist movement, the charismatic and controversial Garvey favored the establishment of a black nation in Africa that would be governed by black people. Garvey thought the black people of the United States could be freed by moving to this new African nation. His philosophy was also called the "back-to-Africa movement." His vision of black independence is one variety of black nationalism, the idea that blacks should seek economic, social, and political independence. As Malcolm says in Chapter 1, Garvey's cause made him "the most controversial black man on earth."

When Malcolm's father, Earl Little, preached Marcus Garvey's ideas in the 1920s, he focused on Africa as the future. Little's black nationalism reflected a distinct Christian belief in social transformation: "No one knows when the hour of Africa's redemption cometh ... It is coming." This belief, called millennialism, is the Christian idea that Christ will establish a 1,000-year reign on Earth, just before the Last Day or Judgment Day. In the context of other religions and cultures, millennialism can refer to a mystical time of peace and abundance on earth. Earl Little also predicted an end-of-times fire in connection with Africa's redemption: "It is coming. One day, like a storm, it will be here." Something of this tone of fiery prophecy can be seen in Malcolm's own comments about "black social dynamite" and the "long hot summer" of 1965 that followed Malcolm's death in February of 1965 and was characterized by race riots in places such as Los Angeles.

Garvey's ideas remained influential. In the final chapter of the autobiography Malcolm discusses his black nationalism in relation to his childhood exposure to Garvey's ideas. He also remarks that his father was murdered for promoting Garvey's ideas. Malcolm too expected his black nationalism to put him at risk of assassination.


In the 1920s Malcolm's father had preached, "No one knows when the hour of Africa's redemption cometh." Africa needed redeeming, in Earl Little's eyes, because it was under the domination of Europe, which had divided the continent into European colonies. The hour of Africa's liberation came in the latter half of the 20th century in the form of decolonization, the end of colonial rule.

From the end of World War II to the 1970s European and American colonies all over the world freed themselves or were granted their freedom to become independent nations. In 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent. The United States left the Philippines in 1946. Decolonization particularly changed the face of Africa. Starting in 1950 Kwame Nkrumah led a series of "positive actions" similar to strikes and nonviolent protests to push Britain out of Africa's Gold Coast and British Togoland. In 1960 trade-unionist and activist Patrice Lumumba became the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, after an independence movement forced Belgium to give up its colony. France fought and lost a long war to keep its colony Algeria, which became independent in 1962. Portugal withdrew from Angola in 1975.

Malcolm X was well aware of this history. On his second tour of Africa, he viewed his meeting with Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah as "the single highest honor" of the trip. He and his wife, Betty, named their fourth daughter Gamilah Lumumba after the martyred Patrice Lumumba. As early as 1957 when Malcolm was reading world history in prison, he remarked, "a new world order [is] being shaped, along color lines." He saw the new order as an alliance of nonwhite nations; Africa would be an important partner in the liberation of black Americans.

The Nation of Islam's philosophy of black nationalism had been similar to Marcus Garvey's. The Nation of Islam established black-owned businesses, as Garvey had, to promote economic independence. It also hoped to have a separatist black state to promote black political independence. However, asNew York Times reporter M.S. Handler points out in his introduction to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the United States was unlikely to willingly let black people secede and form an independent nation within its borders. Therefore the Nation of Islam's dream of a separate state potentially put black people in a politically weaker position, headed toward being crushed by the United States. After Malcolm's trips to Africa and his break with the Nation of Islam, he sought allies among the new African nations. This had the potential to strengthen the political might of black people within the United States. Malcolm sought to bring a case before the United Nations, with the backing of the same colonies that were condemning Portuguese colonialism and the institutionalized racism of South African apartheid (1948–91).

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