A gifted and electrifying public speaker, Malcolm X got his education in a series of prisons in Massachusetts, where he served six years for burglary. After dropping out of school Malcolm rose in the ranks of hustlers and numbers runners in Harlem, a career he realized would end in misery, impoverishment, and jail or death. After his conversion to the Nation of Islam, Malcolm became its most outspoken minister, often giving the press trenchant statements about black power, white morals, and the political ills of the United States. When he discovered his mentor Elijah Muhammad was a weak, wicked, and cowardly man, Malcolm X undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca. He returned with new ideas about racial harmony and Pan-Africanism but was murdered before he could develop them.
Elijah Muhammad was born Elijah Poole in Sandersville, Georgia, in 1897, the son of a Baptist minister. Elijah worked in saw mills as a young man, often rising to the position of foreman. His life changed when he met W.D. Fard, who eventually called him a Savior and Finder who would save the black people of the United States with "the black man's natural religion," the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad took over leadership of the Nation of Islam in 1934 and was its sole leader when he exiled Malcolm X in 1964.
Four of Earl's six brothers died by violence, one of them by lynching, so Earl dedicated himself to Marcus Garvey's ideas of a black nation in Africa. Earl was a fiercely independent and fiery preacher, both for God and for Garvey. He was lenient with Malcolm because of his light skin. In arguments with his wife, he turned to violence. Earl died a mysterious death, which his wife claimed was murder.
Louise was not the product of a mixed marriage but of rape, and Malcolm claimed she was ashamed of her fair skin and straight hair, signs of the crime against her mother. Louise had a gift for intuition, and she foresaw her husband's violent death, but he ignored her warning. Widowed young and left with children to feed, Louise cracked under the strain and spent many years in a mental institution.
Shorty worked various hustles in Boston before attaining his dream of being a professional jazz musician. Malcolm claimed Shorty was obsessed with white women. In later years Shorty declined to follow Malcolm into the strict Nation of Islam, saying he loved pork and women too much.
West Indian Archie
West Indian Archie was "one of Harlem's really bad Negroes," Malcolm said. He served time in Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York, before moving to Harlem and making a name for himself. He was a prestigious numbers runner with a photographic memory; he remembered everyone's bets and only wrote them down later. He was willing to put his life on the line to protect his reputation.
Betty Shabazz, who adopted this name when she and Malcolm left the Nation of Islam, is a modest presence in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Much of Malcolm's courtship of her, if it can be called that, was devoted to ignoring her. She was devoted enough to the Nation of Islam to forsake her parents, who cut off her funds for nursing school in an effort to persuade her to drop her new beliefs. Betty and Malcolm had four daughters at the time of his death. Betty gave birth to twin girls months after Malcolm's murder.