The narrator and subject of the autobiography. As a young boy Malcolm is bright and popular but feels excluded by white people. He becomes a ruthless hustler on the streets of Boston and New York but undergoes a change of heart during his time in prison. After his release, he develops into an aggressive and persuasive spokesman for the Nation of Islam. As an independent and international political leader, he is tolerant, meditative, and ambitious.
The spiritual leader of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm treats Elijah with immense respect even before he knows him, writing him letters daily while still in prison. Though he seems like a benevolent father figure, Elijah Muhammad becomes a jealous and defensive leader as his health fails and as Malcolm becomes more powerful.
Malcolm’s wife, a quiet and strong woman. The autobiography does not emphasize Betty’s role, though she acts as Malcolm’s secretary, housekeeper, and confidante. Betty endures his busy traveling and work schedule, gives birth to five of his children, and witnesses his assassination.
Malcolm’s best friend during his Boston years. Shorty is a musician who at first leads and then follows Malcolm into a life of crime. Shorty is a foil for Malcolm: while Malcolm converts to an aggressive hustler lifestyle, Shorty leads a comparatively normal life. The differences between the two men is clear in Shorty’s surprise at Malcolm’s foul language and violent tendencies, which he witnesses when Malcolm returns to Boston from New York.
Malcolm’s half-sister on his father’s side. When Malcolm is an adolescent, Ella provides him with a model of female strength and black pride. She represents family unity within the autobiography. She welcomes Malcolm into her home in Boston and always supports him, later lending him money for his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Malcolm’s father. A preacher and political organizer from Georgia, Earl is a tall and outspoken authority figure in Malcolm’s early years. Earl’s assassination by whites for preaching the Black Nationalist ideas of Marcus Garvey makes him a martyr for black nationalism.
Malcolm’s fair-skinned, black mother, who endures the worst of the Great Depression. For Malcolm, Louise represents the harm that the white government does even when it claims to be acting charitably. Welfare agents separate Louise from her children and put her in a mental hospital, and Malcolm’s insistence on visiting her regularly shows his strong commitment to her.
Malcolm’s white girlfriend. Malcolm and Sophia do not love each other but rather use each other as status symbols. Sophia represents the tempting allure of white women for black men, and the emptiness of her relationship with Malcolm shapes Malcolm’s skepticism about interracial romance.
Malcolm’s first date, a quiet, middle-class black girl from Roxbury Hill. When Malcolm dumps Laura for Sophia, Laura becomes involved with drugs and prostitution. Laura is an innocent victim of the ruthless and self-hating behavior that Malcolm observes in urban black communities.
A Harlem pimp and drug dealer. As close friends, Malcolm and Sammy work together until tension develops between them over Malcolm’s assault on one of Sammy’s girlfriends. This episode shows that even the closest friendships easily crumble when gambling, drugs, and violence are involved.
An older Harlem hustler. Archie pays Malcolm for helping him run an informal gambling system in Harlem until they break violently over a misunderstanding. Archie’s photographic memory and aptitude in math exemplify the wasted potential of the black ghetto.
A prison inmate. Bimbi, the most vocal of Malcolm’s fellow inmates, makes speeches that gain him the respect of guards and prisoners alike. He demonstrates to Malcolm the power of independent thought and persuasive argument, and thus serves as an inspiration to Malcolm when Malcolm converts to Islam.
The world heavyweight boxing champion. Generous and understanding, Clay provides a place for Malcolm to stay during the first days of Malcolm’s split from the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm’s younger brother. Malcolm takes Reginald under his wing from an early age and continues to protect him in Harlem. Malcolm’s later justification of Reginald’s eventual insanity as retribution for sinning shows Malcolm’s commitment to the principles of Islam.