The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

Malcolm X is often thought of as the violent Civil Rights leader, but that is a simple way to define a complex man. Learn more about him, his background, and his philosophies on life, religion, and African-American civil rights in this summary of his autobiography.


Malcolm X was an extremely important U.S. Civil Rights leader and acted as the main spokesperson for the religious-based group Nation of Islam

Malcolm X was an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. As a core member of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a religious-based organization headed by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X was known for calling for separation of the races and violent (if necessary) response to physical attacks from European-Americans or from police.

In order to find out more about Malcolm's beliefs, journalist Alex Haley contacted him to see if he would be interested in sharing his life story and philosophy. Their meetings together over a number of months led to a work called simply The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a national bestseller.

Summary of The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is split roughly into three parts: First, Malcolm's childhood and early adulthood. Second, Malcolm's time in prison and his conversion to Islam/the Nation of Islam (NOI); and finally, Malcolm's work with the NOI until his break with the group.

Malcolm's Childhood and Early Adulthood

Malcolm X starts by talking about his childhood growing up near Lansing, Michigan. Early in Malcolm's life, his father was mysteriously killed by people that Malcolm claimed were white supremacists. He then tells of his mother trying to hold a household full of children together as a single parent, her eventual mental breakdown, and his movement into foster homes as a result. During this time, Malcolm was discouraged from becoming a lawyer by a well-meaning teacher that told him to aim for a career more suited for African-Americans, and Malcolm became unhappy in Lansing.

He quickly moved to Boston with his cousin Ella, where he met his friend Shorty and took a married girlfriend, Sophia. Later, Malcolm moved to Harlem in New York, becoming a heavier drug user. After losing a job, he began engaging in illegal activities in order to make a living. He and a small gang, including Shorty, Sophia, and Sophia's sister, began to burglarize houses until they were caught when Malcolm tried to get a stolen watch fixed and was caught by the watchmaker. Malcolm was sentenced to ten years in prison as a result.

Malcolm's Time in Prison/Conversion to Islam

Malcolm considered himself an atheist when he entered prison, but both an inmate named Bimbi, who convinced him that atheism was not a strong position to hold, and his family, who had all converted to Islam, led him away from this position. Malcolm's family urged him to write to the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm re-taught himself to write and read at a high level in order to do this, and he and Muhammad stuck up a relationship. Eventually, Malcolm converted to Islam, which Muhammad taught 'Yacub's History,' a story that tells of an evil black scientist who created an evil race of Europeans through cross-breeding that took over the world. It should be noted that this story is not a part of Islam at all, but because Islam was a fairly unknown religion in America at the time, Malcolm accepted this story.

Eventually, Malcolm got out of prison for good behavior and immediately went to work for Muhammad and the NOI. He rose through the ranks as a skillful speaker that drew in hundreds of converts with ease, and eventually, he ended up back in New York as the head of a NOI temple located in Harlem. Malcolm was so well-known and popular that people often presented him as the head of the NOI, something that Malcolm denied even as Muhammad becomes jealous.

Malcolm's Work With the NOI/Break From the Group

Malcolm X on a religious pilgrimage to the Middle East

Malcolm's work with the NOI led to his helping to establish numerous temples across the United States. He also made a number of speeches. Most speeches called for African-American separation from European-Americans and physical protection against attacks from European-Americans; they also promoted Islam as the natural religion for African-Americans rather than Christianity and called for a day when Islam would replace Christianity as the primary religion of the world. This set him at odds with other civil rights leaders who called for 'integration' rather than 'separation'

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