Malcolm x was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925, and spent much of his life fighting for equal rights for African Americans. Freedom for African Americans was supposed to have come with the end of the Civil War in 1865, but their struggle to attain equality persisted well into the next century, and continues today. Despite freed slaves’ legal and political gains during the period just after the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, they and their children suffered blows to their rights in the last decades of the nineteenth century. For example, in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation, in the form of “separate but equal” public facilities, was constitutional. Legalized racism across America, especially in the South, continued through the first half of the twentieth century.
Suffering from discrimination, economic oppression, and violence at the hands of whites, African-American communities rallied around several different political leaders. Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) encouraged blacks to gain political power by earning the respect of white people through hard work and humble conduct. W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963) demanded political empowerment and spiritual rebirth. Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) urged a return to Africa, contending that black people should rely upon their own unity and create their own means of empowerment. Garvey’s fiercely nationalist ideas influenced many African Americans, among them Earl Little, Malcolm X’s father, a preacher who spread Garvey’s ideas in his small Michigan community.
During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Malcolm X gained national and international prominence. Often distancing himself from the movement’s leaders, he was perhaps the most controversial leader of the period. Malcolm X’s separatism and militancy contrasted with the desegregation efforts and nonviolent tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. Historians credit Malcolm X as the spiritual father of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. At the time of Malcolm X’s murder in 1965, his views and commitments were undergoing a great change. He was demanding unity and self-determination for black people, whose struggle he viewed in the context of oppressed peoples all over the world. He was also abandoning the hard-line anti–white prejudice of his early years.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the result of a collaboration between Malcolm X and journalist Alex Haley. Over a period of several years, Malcolm X told Haley his life story in a series of lengthy interviews. Haley wrote down and arranged the material in the first person, and Malcolm X edited and approved every chapter. Thus, though Haley actually did the writing, it is reasonable to consider the work an autobiography. The work is one of the most important nonfiction books of the twentieth century, as it offers valuable insight into the mind of a key figure on a core issue of twentieth-century America. In 1965, a New York reviewer wrote of Malcolm X, “No man has better expressed his people’s trapped anguish.” The autobiography continues to be relevant to efforts to combat racism. Equal rights activists fighting against oppression of African Americans revived Malcolm X’s philosophy in the 1980s, and Spike Lee released the movie Malcolm X in 1992, shortly after the infamous beating of black motorist Rodney King by white police officers.