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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
demanded political empowerment and spiritual rebirth. Marcus Garvey
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Autobiography of Malcolm X!