The Two Conversions of Malcolm X

Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X at a Nation of Islam rally, 1961

In Dreams from My Father, President Obama recalled his confusion about identity when he was a student at the Punahou Academy in Hawaii. “I had no idea who my own self was.” He didn’t feel comfortable talking about white folks with his black friends on the basketball court. Then one night it hit him that black people “were always playing on the white man’s court…by the white man’s rules.” He said he was haunted thereafter by the possibility that “being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat.”

To find out more about what he might be facing, Obama read Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, and Du Bois. But these black writers didn’t speak to him. He concluded that they had all ended up victims of Jim Crow in one way or another. However, the book that didn’t let him down was The Autobiography of Malcolm X:

Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life.

Malcolm X embodied a blackness that could stand up to the white man’s rules. There may be no slave master’s name to be X-ed out in Obama’s story, but knowledge of his father’s Africa came later; and anyway it was his valiant mother who first put him in touch with his black heritage. In the absence of his father, Obama received the breath of masculine racial pride from Malcolm X—who at the time of his assassination in 1965 was characterized by most whites and many blacks as an extremist.

Yet Obama also found in him a symbol of “some hope of eventual reconciliation,” which he may well conceive of himself as representing as well. He can perhaps imagine black and white meeting in his person because they do so as equal ingredients. In Obama’s account, he didn’t have to be ashamed of the black part of himself, because Malcolm X showed him that being black didn’t mean being conquered. Black nationalism was black macho. The image that Malcolm X projected held the promise of retaliatory power. In his eulogy for Malcolm X, the actor Ossie Davis praised the “shining prince” of “our living black manhood.”

Angela Davis has observed that the cult of Malcolm X as the personification of black manhood implied that male supremacy was the only response to white supremacy and obscured the part of his legacy that stood for intellectual growth. Most civil rights histories cast him as the pivotal voice in a drama of mass transformation, the shift in general black opinion away from believing in the effectiveness of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence to conceding the justice in the militancy of the disaffected blacks in the Northern cities. People still view King and Malcolm X as opposites, though James Cone in his engaging Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (1991) argued that they complemented each other, shared the same social goals, and were even moving toward one another at the end of their lives. But everyone finds in Malcolm X the Malcolm X that he or she needs, because in the last year of his life his political thought was branching out in different directions.


The Autobiography of Malcolm X, first published in 1965 and written with the help of Alex Haley, opens with stories of racial violence as family history. He was born Malcolm Little; his mother told him that when she was pregnant with him in Omaha in 1925, mounted Klansmen knocked out their windows with rifle butts. He describes his father, Reverend Earl Little, an itinerant Baptist minister, as a six-foot-four, very black, one-eyed man who did not frighten easily. The Littles were followers of Marcus Garvey, whose crusade for black pride following World War I inspired millions of black people around the world.

Garveyism advocated a black nationalism that challenged segregation by rejecting white society in favor of self-sufficiency. Garvey deemed the struggle for equal rights in America pointless and held that the true destiny of black people was to find their own homeland, to return to Africa. Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association did not die out with his imprisonment for fraud in 1925 and subsequent deportation back to Jamaica in 1927. Former UNIA members then turned up in other organizations or religious bodies. Garveyism helped to prepare the way for many alternative faiths in black communities. Malcolm X began his public career by advocating the Nation of Islam’s separatist program, in which one can discern an echo of Garvey’s race solidarity movement.

The Littles ended up in Lansing, Michigan, where the local white hate society wore black robes instead of white ones. Malcolm X’s first vivid memory, he said in his autobiography, was of the night in 1929 when the Black Legion burned down their house. His father shot at them, but the family barely escaped with their lives. In 1931, his father was killed in a gruesome accident. Black people whispered that the Legion had attacked him and laid his body across the tracks where he was nearly cut in half by a streetcar.

After his father’s death, his mother found it hard to look after eight children. Malcolm X remembered the humiliations of charity. Some days he was so hungry he was dizzy, he said. He and his siblings watched helplessly as their mother drifted toward a complete breakdown. In 1937, she was taken to the state mental hospital in Kalamazoo where she remained for twenty-six years. Her children went into foster care.

Malcolm X was eventually moved to a reform school in Mason, Michigan. “I noticed again how white people smelled different from us, and how their food tasted different.” He was allowed to go to school in town and to have an after-school job washing dishes. Because as a black kid he was a novelty, he was popular. Looking back, he admitted that he was proud of trying so hard “to be white,” not realizing that he was little more than a mascot. Nevertheless, he stayed near the top of his class until an incident just before he entered high school that he called “the first major turning point of my life.” He said he wanted to become a lawyer and his English teacher told him “that’s no realistic goal for a nigger.” He should plan on carpentry instead. A change came over him that baffled his teachers and friends.

His father’s oldest child from his first marriage, Ella, lived in Boston. Malcolm X had visited her in the summer of 1940 and found her and Boston much different from anything he knew in Lansing. Ella arranged to take custody of him. “No physical move in my life has been more pivotal or profound in its repercussions,” he said. He arrived in Boston a hick in a green suit. In the black section of Roxbury, he who had never smoked became enthralled to poolrooms and bars, pimps and gamblers.

Instead of going to school, he got a job as a shoeshine boy at the Roseland Ballroom. It had mostly white dances, but more than two decades later he got excited recalling his proximity to Duke Ellington or Count Basie. He took to wearing the zoot suits of the hipster, a style banned by the War Production Board in 1942 ostensibly because the suits used up too much material, but probably because the look was associated with draft dodgers. Malcolm X pretended to be mad when the draft board finally caught up with him.

He also “conked” his hair, i.e., straightened it with the use of lye. “This was my first really big step toward self-degradation,” he said, “when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair.” He was a wild lindy hopper, escorting his black girlfriend off the dance floor one night only to look into the eyes of a white girl, Sophia he calls her in the Autobiography, with whom he would have a relationship throughout the war. “Even among Harlem Negroes, her looks gave me status.”

A job selling sandwiches on the railroad took him to New York. There was Billie Holiday having a drink at the Braddock Hotel on 126th Street. His sort of job was plentiful in wartime, so he didn’t care how he behaved toward passengers and superiors. He switched to working as a waiter at Small’s Paradise, one of Harlem’s hottest dance clubs. The job at Small’s didn’t last and in time he was such a part of the scene that he had a nickname, “Detroit Red,” because of his bright red hair. He listened to the old-time hustlers. “My ears soaked it up,” he said.

I was a true hustler—uneducated, unskilled at anything honorable, and I considered myself nervy and cunning enough to live by my wits, exploiting any prey that presented itself. I would risk just about anything.

Malcolm X was a numbers runner; he peddled reefer to famous jazz musicians on tour; he sold reefer on 110th Street, “the worst of the ghetto,” once he got too hot to sell it anywhere else; he was such a sharp poker player in Grand Central Station that police warned him not to let them catch him there again without a ticket; he steered white civilian thrill seekers—Harlem was off-limits to white servicemen—to speakeasies and to prostitutes, black and white. “I got my first schooling about the cesspool morals of the white man from the best possible source,” he said: “from his own women.” Sophia came down often from Boston to be with him, even though she was married. He said he had little respect for her. He has harsh things to say about white women—and about women in general—throughout the book. He also returns more than once in the Autobiography to the “weird sexual tastes” of rich white people.

In retrospect, he saw himself and his fellow hustlers as “black victims of the white man’s American social system.” He paid particular attention to the squalid fates of old-timers, the paranoia and bleak final sick rooms. His memories of Harlem included tender portraits of losers—“Cadillac” the pimp, “Alabama Peaches” the white hooker, “Jumpsteady” the cat burglar. Though hustlers drew together for comfort, the laws of the streets were merciless, and criminals also preyed on one another. Malcolm X’s autobiography as a conversion tale stresses the evil he was saved from, but at the same time he was looking back on a period and a milieu rich with interest. He noted that Harlem was then a very tense place, and you could smell the trouble to come.

Marion S. Trikosko/Library of Congress
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X waiting for a press conference, Washington, D.C., 1964

In 1945, he got into a misunderstanding with a proud old-timer whose honor demanded that he kill Malcolm, and he had to leave town. Boston was to be his downfall where, no longer in zoot suits but heavily into cocaine and armed, his burglary team consisted of two black friends, his white girlfriend Sophia, and her sister. He was clever about everything, except when he took a stolen watch to be repaired. He went to pick it up; detectives were waiting. The average sentence for a first-time burglary offense in 1946 was two years, but the police and the court were incensed that white women had been in league with black men. Described as victims, the white women served only a few months of five-year sentences, while the black men received eight to ten years.

Malcolm X was such a difficult inmate that he earned the nickname “Satan.” But he met an older black man who talked about Thoreau. Soon Malcolm X was reading dictionaries and taking correspondence classes. He said that every book he read, whether by Du Bois, H.G. Wells, Schopenhauer, or Spinoza, a “black Spanish Jew,” added to his understanding of the black man’s afflictions. Prison became his university, making him a model for the jailed autodidacts of the late 1960s—Etheridge Knight, Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson. He would end his Autobiography with one major regret: his lack of formal education.

Today, when everything that I do has an urgency, I would not spend one hour in preparation of a book which had the ambition to perhaps titillate some readers. But I am spending many hours because the full story is the best way that I know to have it seen, and understood, that I had sunk to the very bottom of the American white man’s society when—soon now, in prison—I found Allah and the religion of Islam and it completely transformed my life.

The beginnings of the Nation of Islam are murky. A black man named Wallace D. Fard was delivering the Lost-Found Nation of Islam’s message of black salvation to the ghetto poor in Detroit in the early 1930s. Black people were the original people, the lost tribe of Shabazz, he said, and needed to reclaim their Islamic heritage, while white people, the creation of a rogue Shabazz scientist, were doomed. Fard disappeared in 1934, never to be heard from again. One of his followers, Elijah Poole, now calling himself Elijah Muhammad, moved to Chicago, where he announced that Allah had spoken to him in the person of Fard and that he was his prophet.*

Malcolm X’s siblings in Detroit first acquainted him with the mysteries of Elijah Muhammad while he was in prison. The Last Messenger to the black people of America taught that history had been “whitened”:

When this devil race had spent two thousand years in the caves, Allah raised up Moses to civilize them, and bring them out of the caves. It was written that this devil white race would rule the world for six thousand years.

The prison authorities noticed the change in Malcolm X. He no longer smoked or ate pork. He gave up his conk.

He was paroled in 1952. He made his way to Chicago and to the Messenger, who bestowed on him his “X.” The Nation of Islam aimed to wake up black people who supposedly had been asleep for centuries, but it was Malcolm X who gave a jolt to the sect. Just as he goes into detail about the workings of the criminal life in his autobiography, so he explains at length the doings of the Nation of Islam. He worked tirelessly, increasing membership, organizing temples in several cities, and made the Black Muslims into a potent force in black urban America, especially in Harlem. In 1959, he founded the Black Muslim newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. Because of him, he claimed, membership rose from four hundred to 40,000. The Black Muslims had remarkable success recruiting among the black prison population.

Malcolm X’s constant ridicule of white power had a tone the country had not heard to that degree from a twentieth-century black leader in public before. His charisma and growing fame stoked a jealous rage in Elijah Muhammad. Murray Kempton once said that the Messenger prohibited Black Muslims from participating in civic life because he did not want to risk the Nation’s tax-exempt status as a religious body. In any case, family members and other Muslim ministers urged him to contain the overweening ambitions of Minister Malcolm X.

The controversy surrounding Malcolm X’s remarks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination—in a violent society, it was an example of “the chickens coming home to roost”—gave the Messenger the pretext he needed to silence the disciple who had become his rival. Malcolm X was not allowed to speak in public and then in the winter of 1964 he was expelled from the Nation. As his relationship with the man who had been a father figure to him collapsed, to speak for himself became, among other things, a form of protection.

The first direct order for my death was issued through a Mosque Seven official who previously had been a close assistant.” What adds to his autobiography’s power as a confession of faith is its place in the story of his life. It was the last thing he did, the words of a man who considered himself marked. At moments he cannot contain his bitterness at Elijah Muhammad’s easy betrayal and cynical character and illegitimate children. Black Muslims were to live by strict rules. Malcolm X’s story is a conversion tale with a twist: the life-changing revelation turned out to be false, necessitating yet another.

The conflict between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam was a drama played out in public. His international image he considered an important asset. His prolonged trips abroad took him away from his dangerous feud with the Black Muslim leadership, and also let him step outside of himself. He says very little about his first visit to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana in 1959 as Elijah Muhammad’s emissary. When he returned to Africa and the Middle East five years later, after breaking with the Nation, he was received as a visiting dignitary. Contacts close to the Saudi royal family cut red tape for him on his pilgrimage to Mecca, where he recognized how badly in need of instruction in Islam he was. In Africa, he conferred with the leaders of emerging nations.

He who had attacked civil rights leaders for their reformist shortcomings now had to ask himself what he had to offer as a pan-African visionary. The black man in North America was economically and politically sick, he judged, and a cure began first in black unity. Black Muslims didn’t vote, but he recognized the importance of blacks voting as a bloc. He believed that there should be direct communication between American blacks and independent Africa. He was changing his mind about working with white allies. At the same time, he was speculating that to view the problems of black people only from the perspective of race inhibited the search for solutions: “My whole life has been a chronology of—changes,” he said in his autobiography.

Though his political self was intensifying in the last eight months of his life, his book does not conclude with him on a clear path. He argued that black Americans had to think beyond civil rights to human rights, but he was still full of scorn for the 1963 March on Washington as a sell-out, and his remarks blaming Jews are as unsettling as his digressions about the harm the black middle class had done to the cause of black freedom. He held up the Algerian revolution, Nasser’s Egypt, and Nkrumah’s Ghana as examples of the new spirit in Africa, and proclaimed that Africans were returning to Islam, the only force that had held white Christianity at bay. The end of the Christian era was close at hand, he predicted. The Autobiography was published less than a year after his death, along with Malcolm X Speaks, a collection of his most important addresses given in the last year of his life.


Malcolm X was not a writer, but he was profoundly gifted as an orator. His autobiography was an as-told-to project of the black journalist Alex Haley, who suggested it after interviewing him for Playboy in 1963. They’d met in 1959, when Malcolm X came to prominence because of a stand-off in Harlem where he and his followers made the police back down. A television documentary of that year, The Hate That Hate Produced, fixed their image of racial implacability. The book changed over the two years that Malcolm X worked with Haley, often meeting him at Haley’s Greenwich Village apartment after a grueling day of meetings or when just back from his travels. In his epilogue, Haley says that as his collaborator he did not meddle, that Malcolm X was adamant that he wasn’t looking for an interpreter. However, Manning Marable argues in Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention that although Haley was fascinated with Malcolm X, his contempt for the Black Muslim movement is reflected in the finished Autobiography.

Marable contends that although Malcolm X read drafts of the manuscript and regarded the book as a central part of his legacy, the concluding essayistic chapters about his political philosophy were cut, “a decision that may have been Haley’s alone.” Furthermore, Marable writes, Haley “discounted the effectiveness of black nationalism as a potential force in challenging racial inequality.” He denied the militancy of the “black ghetto masses” and misinterpreted Malcolm X’s last year of life “as an effort to gain respectability as an integrationist and liberal reformer.” That is also why, according to Marable,

the Autobiography does not read like a manifesto for black insurrection, but much more in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. This may help to explain the enormous popularity of the Autobiography and its adoption into the curricula in hundreds of colleges and thousands of high schools.

Yet Malcolm X’s voice is undeniable and Haley deserves credit for preserving it in this form.

Marable, a historian of global black political movements and the author of many books, was a keen student of the Autobiography, and his biography of Malcolm X can be read as a vigorous concordance to that work. Marable sees Malcolm X in the folk tradition as trickster, preacher, and traveling performer, roles that “resonated deeply with African-American culture.” He could save souls, because he, too, had once been lost.

But Marable believes that Malcolm X exaggerated his criminal life in order to seem more of the outlaw: “A close examination of the Autobiography illustrates that many of the elements of Detroit Red’s narrative are fictive,” he writes. Marable also speculates that a story one of Malcolm X’s burglary pals tells him about a white john who was aroused sexually just from having talcum powder sprinkled on his backside may be Malcolm X’s own experience with a client who paid him for sex. In his biography, Marable names the white gentleman whose relationship with Malcolm X was real enough for him to try to visit him in prison. Frank about Malcolm X’s misogyny, Marable also identifies Sophia, an Armenian blonde whom Malcolm X abused. She showed no loyalty when they were arrested.

Marable emphasizes the violence that was a constant in Malcolm X’s life. His punitive father wouldn’t beat him, because he was the lightest-skinned of his siblings, but his mother did. Then came the streets. Marable also examines his activities inside the Nation of Islam, including how violence was routinely used to maintain obedience. You could get thrown down a flight of steps for smoking a cigarette. As a punishment for adultery, the “pipe squad,” made up from the ranks of the Fruit of Islam, guards from the mosque, would give you a thorough beating. As minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem, Malcolm X would have known that such things happened, but his lieutenants were to keep him in the dark about specifics. Given the culture of intimidation and violence inside the sect, to kill him was not an extraordinary task for members loyal to the Messenger.

Marable is anxious to place Malcolm X in the political context of socialist revolution and pan-Africanism. He is probably right to assert that although Malcolm X in his autobiography changed his mind about black separatism after seeing the brotherhood of races united in pilgrimage to Mecca, that did not mean that he regarded integration in the US as a sufficient goal. It was only part of the larger political reform that was needed. Yet as Marable says, he was weighed down by the cumbersome language of black nationalism.

In 1964 he founded the Muslim Mosque Inc., a religious body for those who had followed him out of the Black Muslims, and the Organization of African American Unity, which was to be his political arm. Members of the two groups competed for his attention and did not agree on the direction they should take. Members of the religious group were disgruntled by Malcolm X’s ruling that women were to have equal positions within the OAAU. Meanwhile, his prolonged absences abroad in 1964 left both groups without leadership. Marable notes that they had been heavily infiltrated by informers.

Marable points out that Malcolm X said that the Nation of Islam could not have been acting against him unaided. The assassination took place on February 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, in front of his pregnant and unhappy wife and his four small daughters. Some men in the audience created a disturbance and as the guards moved to intervene, gunmen in the first row opened fire. In the panic, all but one escaped, allegedly back to the Newark mosque where the plot was thought to have been worked out. Louis Farrakhan addressed the Newark mosque the evening of Malcolm X’s death. Elijah Muhammad appointed him Malcolm X’s successor. Marable interviewed him at length. Farrakhan protested his innocence in the conspiracy, but Marable does not sound convinced.

Marable’s biography of Malcolm X is also a murder mystery with a sad denouement. He writes:

Although in 1966 three NOI members were convicted of the murder, extensive evidence suggests that two of those men were completely innocent of the crime, that both the FBI and the NYPD had advance knowledge of it, and that the New York County District Attorney’s office may have cared more about protecting the identities of undercover police officers and informants than arresting the real killers.

Bruce Perry disclosed in Malcolm: The Man Who Changed Black America (1991) that Malcolm X’s hustling life included male prostitution. For The Death and Life of Malcolm X (1979) Peter Goldman did not have access to the material Marable did, but he reached conclusions similar to Marable’s. In 1978, William Kunstler made an unsuccessful appeal on behalf of two of the three men convicted of Malcolm X’s murder, and the literature on the case since has been extensive. Maybe Marable hasn’t come up with as much that is really as new as he claimed, but his biography gives the satisfactory feeling that he has consulted most everything out there about Malcolm X. A fever runs throughout the Autobiography and Marable captures it in his portrayal of Malcolm X in his last days, unable to free himself of the demagogue’s image, unable to get protection from law enforcement authorities for the violence threatened against him.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention gains additional poignancy from the fact that Manning Marable did not live to see the publication of the work to which he had given so many years. “For a quarter century I have had sarcoidosis, an illness that gradually destroyed my pulmonary functions,” he reveals in his acknowledgments at the end. “In the last year in researching this book, I could not travel and I carried oxygen tanks in order to breathe.” He understood perhaps Malcolm X’s isolating awareness of his own mortality.

  1. *

    See Arthur Huff Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944); C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Beacon, 1961); and James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Dell, 1963).