Malcolm X is born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska. The Midwest, during this period, is full of discrimination and racial violence. Malcolm’s family moves to Michigan where they continue to experience persecution and violence. White people murder Malcolm’s father and force his mother into a mental hospital. After living in a Michigan detention home and completing the eighth grade, Malcolm moves to Boston, Massachusetts, to live with his half-sister, Ella. In Boston Malcolm quickly becomes involved in urban nightlife. He passes for being much older than he is, wearing flashy clothes, gambling, drinking, doing drugs, and dating an older white woman, Sophia. Malcolm eventually takes a job as a railway porter. He then moves to New York, where he begins working as a hustler in Harlem. Malcolm’s various jobs there include running numbers, selling drugs, and steering white people to black brothels. He also commits armed robberies.
When life in Harlem becomes too dangerous, Malcolm returns to Boston, where he becomes a house burglar and is eventually arrested. In prison, Malcolm transforms himself, converting to the branch of Islam promoted by the Nation of Islam, which has already converted a number of Malcolm’s siblings. Inspired by the faith, Malcolm stops using drugs; he reads voraciously, prays, studies English and Latin, and joins the prison debate team.
The prison releases Malcolm on parole. Malcolm moves in with his brother Wilfred and becomes very active in the Detroit temple of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm receives permission to drop his last name, which a white slave owner gave to one of his ancestors. He adopts the placeholder “X” as his last name, using the letter to represent the lost name of his African ancestors. Malcolm X soon meets the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, and rises quickly from the rank of temple assistant in Detroit to the Nation’s first national minister. Malcolm X becomes known throughout the United States, even outside of Muslim circles, as a fiery advocate for black unity and militancy. The Nation of Islam’s leaders resent and fear Malcolm despite his allegiance to their cause, and they suspend him from the organization.
The Nation of Islam’s frustration with Malcolm intensifies, and Malcolm begins receiving death threats. After a divisive argument with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm leaves the Nation of Islam. He uses his fame to found his own organization, Muslim Mosque, Inc. He sees his organization as more politically active than the Nation of Islam. On a trip to the Middle East and Africa, Malcolm discovers what he sees as true Islam. This version of Islam contrasts with the version of Islam he has been teaching. By the end of his life, Malcolm X is an international figure, welcomed by foreign leaders and committed to Islam as a religion that can alleviate the racial problems of the United States. He is assassinated in 1965.