We often hear of Malcolm X and his militancy, but The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley helps the reader understand where Malcolm X came from, why he believed as he did, and how he came to change his views shortly before his death.
Malcolm (Little) grew up in Lansing, MI. His father was apparently killed by members of a racist organization similar to the Ku Klux Klan. His insurance company called it suicide and refused to pay out. His family—this was during the Great Depression—descended into utter poverty. His mother became mentally unstable, and her children were removed from the home, split up among other family members.
Malcolm (with justification) blames his mother’s illness and the family break-up on whites. He comes, in fact, to blame whites for everything bad that ever happens to him. Any positive thing—such as being elected class president in an otherwise all-white school—is lightly passed over. However, Malcolm does show he has good reason for what he feels. Although he is bright, even teachers and counselors that he thought were his mentors insist that a black man can never attain a professional job.
In his teen years, Malcolm becomes a dope peddler and later a drug addict. When he goes to prison, he finds that he has the opportunity to educate himself and becomes well read. It is while in prison that Malcolm learns from his brother of Black Muslims. Reginald teaches him that God has revealed himself to a black man., Elijah Muhammad, and that the white man is the devil. Malcolm thinks through all his interaction with whites and finds this to be true. His sister Hilda gives him a lesson on how the white man came to earth—though black men were the original race, an ancient scientist, “embittered toward Allah now, decided, as revenge, to create upon the earth a devil race—a bleached-out, white race of people.” (Later, Malcolm, on a pilgrimage to Mecca, learns that this story infuriates the Muslims in the east.)
When Malcolm is released from prison, he meets Elijah Muhammad and becomes one of his most devoted followers. He later marries and has children, but continues to open temples and speak in public. It is only when he senses that Elijah Muhammad mistrusts him, and that he is being ostracized by the Black Muslims, that he takes his pilgrimage to Mecca. There he learns that there are Muslims of all races who get along with love and respect. His views on the white man begin to change, and he sees the structure of American society as the culprit. He also continues to see Christianity as a religion of double standards, as evidenced in the segregated churches of the South.