...in 1946, 20-year-old Malcolm Little entered the state prison in Charlestown to begin serving a sentence for burglary. While in jail, he joined the Black Muslims, a new branch of Islam. Burning to know more about his faith, he began a campaign to improve his reading and writing. After copying an entire dictionary page-by-page, he read every book the prison library had in philosophy, history, literature, and science. He later said, "Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life." When he was paroled in 1952, Malcolm X became one of the country's most compelling black leaders.
Malcolm X, one of the most influential black leaders of the twentieth century, found his life's calling in jail. During the seven years he spent in Massachusetts state prisons, Malcolm X joined the Black Muslims, educated himself, and became an articulate and outspoken defender of black nationalism. By the time he was paroled in 1952, he was well equipped to advance the Black Muslim cause.
Born Malcolm Little, he was the son of a Baptist minister from Omaha. (On his release from prison, Malcolm adopted "X" as his surname to represent the African family name lost when his ancestors were enslaved.) His father was a strong supporter of civil rights, and the Littles were often harassed for their views. When Malcolm was six, his father died in a streetcar accident. His mother later suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital.
An angry and embittered Malcolm dropped out of school after the eighth grade. He drifted to Boston, then to New York City and back to Boston, where he began using and selling drugs. Although he worked off and on as a waiter and shoe shiner, Malcolm's real job was "hustling" drug dealing, gambling, prostitution, racketeering, and robbery. In 1946 at the age of 20, he was arrested on burglary charges. He was convicted and sentenced to eight to ten years in Massachusetts state prison.
In the prison in Charlestown, Malcolm X soon earned the nickname "Satan" for his seething hatred and cursing of God, the Bible, and all things religious. His sisters visited and wrote regularly, urging him to embrace the "black man's religion."
They introduced him to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Black Muslims. Malcolm was powerfully drawn to Muhammad's claim that the white man was the devil and that the history of the world was one long story of white men "pillaging and raping and bleeding and draining the whole world's nonwhite people."
As he absorbed Elijah Muhammad's teachings, Malcolm's confidence and dignity began to grow. He wanted to learn more, but his limited reading and writing ability made it difficult. He decided to educate himself.
He borrowed a dictionary and began systematically reading it. "In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting," he later remembered, "I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks. I believe it took me a day. Then aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I'd written on the tablet. . . . I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I'd written words that I never knew were in the world."
He proceeded to copy the dictionary's next page and eventually copied the entire book. When he was finished, he "could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying."
Through the efforts of his sister, Malcolm was transferred to an experimental prison in Norfolk, which had a large library. He spent the next five years reading. "No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand."
His desire to read was so intense that he would slip out of bed after the 10 o'clock "lights out" order and sit on the floor near the door to his cell, where he could see dimly by the glow of a bulb in the corridor. "At one hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the approaching footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I got back out of bed onto the floor area of that light glow, where I would read for another 58 minutes. That went on until three or four every morning."
Malcolm read broadly, from Socrates and Ghandhi to Herodotus and W.E.B. DuBois. He wanted to test his new faith against the writings of historians, philosophers, and scientists. Years later, he wrote in his autobiography, "I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in my prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. . . . My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America."
When Malcolm X was paroled in 1952, he went to Chicago to meet Elijah Muhammad. He joined the Nation of Islam and, within a year, had returned to Boston to become Minister at Islam Temple Number Eleven in Roxbury.
His provocative, incendiary, and often vengeful speeches challenged white authority. In contrast to nonviolent black activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X insisted that violent action might sometimes be necessary to achieve political and social equality. His impeccable personal conduct and his inspirational message won him a devoted following among black Americans.
In time, Malcolm X became disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad. In 1964 he broke with the Nation of Islam. He converted to orthodox Islam and moderated his speeches. A trip to Mecca exposed him to people of all colors who practiced the Islamic faith, shattering his long-held belief that whites were inherently evil. He began to advocate self-help, self-defense, education, and cooperation.
More militant black nationalists felt betrayed. He received death threats, and his home was firebombed. On February 21, 1965, he was assassinated as he addressed a crowd at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Three men were arrested and charged with his murder. Prosecutors claimed that the killing was meant as "an object lesson for Malcolm's followers," but no direct evidence was ever found to link the murderers to the Nation of Islam.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley (Ballentine Books, 1964).