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In 1957, after visiting the Black-run Herald Dispatch in Los Angeles, Malcolm founds Muhammad Speaks, the Nation of Islam’s own newspaper. A surge of publicity comes in 1959, when a man named C. Eric Lincoln publishes a book called The Black Muslims in America and a program on the Nation called The Hate that Hate Produced airs on television. Both titles enrage Malcolm, who realizes that the media will spin everything for shock value. Soon, mainstream publications, including Life and Time, feature articles about the Nation of Islam. Malcolm now spends hours a day on the telephone defending the Nation and attacking his interviewers with countercharges, clarifications, and assertions of bias. Increasingly, organizations invite Malcolm to represent Elijah Muhammad on panels and lecture circuits.
In the fall of 1959, Malcolm travels as an emissary to places where leaders are becoming interested in the Nation of Islam project: Egypt, Arabia, Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana. Exposed to more radical ideas, he becomes increasingly critical of Black civil rights leaders, calling them “integration-mad Negroes” and “Uncle Toms.” At first, Elijah Muhammad discourages any disparagement of other Black leaders, but when attacks on the Nation become too frequent, he lets Malcolm vent his feelings publicly. By 1960, the Nation of Islam starts holding mass rallies with Elijah Muhammad as the main attraction. At first the Nation admits no white people to these rallies, but eventually they admit the white press and then anyone with curiosity.
The size and militance of the Nation attracts the attention of the FBI and the police, who begin infiltrating rallies and tapping the telephones of higher-ups, including Malcolm X. Part of this government interest comes from the high proportion of Nation of Islam members who are or were in prison. Convicts embrace the Nation because their prison experiences have conditioned them both to take an especially grim view of white society and to excel at the discipline and austerity that the codes of the Nation demand. The Nation also succeeds in reforming drug addicts.
On the recommendation of the aging Elijah Muhammad’s doctors, the Nation buys Elijah Muhammad a home in Arizona, where he begins to spend most of the year. Elijah Muhammad’s geographical distance and diminished health, as well as the growing administrative demands of the Nation, lead Malcolm to make a greater number of decisions without notifying Muhammad. By 1963 both the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X are inundated with publicity. Now the second most sought-after university lecturer in America, Malcolm X savors the excitement of the intellectual confrontations that follow his speeches at top universities. Elijah Muhammad disapproves of the university lecture circuit, while other Muslims frequently accuse Malcolm of trying to take over the Nation of Islam. Malcolm notices that his name is appearing less and less in Muhammad Speaks, the newspaper he himself founded. He begins turning down publicity opportunities in Life and Newsweek, hoping to reduce Elijah Muhammad’s jealousy.
Malcolm’s relationship to the Nation of Islam becomes more complex when Elijah Muhammad faces paternity suits from two temple secretaries. At first, Malcolm pretends that he does not know about the allegations and changes his temple teachings to skirt the issue of the moral code. Eventually, however, he approaches Elijah Muhammad for advice. Elijah Muhammad compares himself to the great men of scripture whose accomplishments outweigh their occasional transgressions. Malcolm accepts this explanation and assumes that Elijah Muhammad will confess and explain himself to the Nation. Elijah Muhammad does not publicly confess, however.
Relations worsen between Malcolm and the Nation of Islam after President John F. Kennedy is assassinated. Malcolm breaks an order by Elijah Muhammad that no minister comment on the assassination. He calls the murder in Dallas a case of “the chickens coming home to roost,” a statement that implies that the murder was somehow justifiable. To distance the Nation from such a controversial stance, Elijah Muhammad silences Malcolm for a ninety-day period. Malcolm soon realizes, however, that Elijah Muhammad’s outrage over the Kennedy quote is merely an excuse for the Nation to cast him off, as it has been plotting to do for some time. Malcolm is deeply shocked at Elijah Muhammad’s betrayal of him, describing it as a sudden divorce after twelve years of beautiful marriage.
Malcolm hears rumors of a warrant out for his death, and one of his assistants at the New York temple confesses that the Nation has ordered him to kill Malcolm. To distance himself from the Nation of Islam and absorb the shock of the symbolic divorce, Malcolm accepts the invitation of boxer Cassius Clay for Malcolm and his family to stay in Florida while Clay prepares for his fight against Sonny Liston. The sight of Clay, who has Islamic leanings, defeating a fighter who is physically stronger through a combination of will, cleverness, and training strengthens Malcolm’s faith in Allah. Clay announces his Muslim affiliation after the fight, taking the name “Muhammad Ali.”
Once Malcolm accepts his estrangement from the Nation of Islam, he thinks about how he can continue to serve the political and economic interests of Black people. He decides to use his celebrity status to found an organization called “Muslim Mosque, Inc.” in Harlem. Malcolm envisions the organization as more inclusive and more active than the Nation of Islam in its pursuit of Black political and economic independence. Before things really get going, however, Malcolm decides that it is time for him to make his pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca. Cut off from his sole source of income, the Nation, Malcolm asks Ella for money for the trip, and she obliges.
Malcolm makes use of what he learns early in life as a hustler to gain and maintain prominence in the Nation of Islam. While he does not condone the hustler’s life, his comments imply a respect for the hustler’s code of ethics. The street rules—“be suspicious,” “know your enemy,” and “image is everything”—are as well suited to Malcolm’s outspoken public life as to his petty hustling life. By never trusting anyone outside his close circle of friends, Malcolm keeps the growing network of mosques across America under his direct control as he expands the reach of the Nation of Islam. His occasional failure to follow these rules illustrates how important they are. Malcolm puts his faith in Elijah Muhammad after the scandal breaks that Elijah Muhammad slept with his secretaries, and Elijah Muhammad repays Malcolm by silencing him, exiling him, and repeatedly trying to have him killed. When Malcolm trusts Elijah Muhammad too much and thereby breaks one of the hustler’s rules, he experiences grave consequences.
Like a hustler, Malcolm tries to understand his enemy’s psychology in order to guard against danger and tries to develop a strong public image to inspire fear. As Malcolm deals with the resistance of the police and the white press to his political activities, he never loses sight of the necessity of knowing how they work in order to be able to challenge them effectively. For instance, after visiting a Los Angeles newspaper for a week, Malcolm becomes ready to launch an informed counterattack, in the form of his own Muslim newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. Furthermore, as an activist Malcolm carefully shapes his public image, just as he does earlier as a hustler. While his obsession with defending his image leads Malcolm to near-death in a duel with West Indian Archie, it allows him to deal effectively with the white press. Not afraid to ignore questions or answer questions that are different from the ones the press poses him, Malcolm uses his smooth-talking skill to fine-tune his public image to his advantage. His understanding of the similarity between hustling individuals and hustling the public enables him to stay out of the way, temporarily, of the dangerous intentions that his ideas provoke.
The skills Malcolm acquires as a hustler in Harlem also help him turn his ambitions for the expansion of the Nation of Islam into a reality. As Malcolm rapidly rises through the Nation’s ranks, a religious fervor for recruitment drives him, and he eventually crosses the country to found temples in Boston, Harlem, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. His experience as a quick judge of character helps him run the new temples smoothly, and his knowledge of street psychology and slang makes him more persuasive than his Christian competitors to many young Black city-dwellers. Still, with all his credibility, he finds the majority unreachable, plagued by social, spiritual, economic, and political problems. The most important part of Malcolm’s Harlem experience is the knowledge that Black people must be aggressive about helping themselves if they want to improve their situation.
Although Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad both fight for Black rights, they differ in their estimation of how the struggle for these rights should be carried out. While Elijah Muhammad wants American Blacks to adopt an Asian identity and speak Arabic, Malcolm continues to believe in a version of his father’s pan-Africanism, inspired by Marcus Garvey. While Elijah Muhammad wants American Black people to be their own kind of middle-class Americans in conservative suits, Malcolm remains more interested in the plight of the poor. Both men agree that the correct response to segregation is not integration but cultural and economic separation. However, they could not disagree more on how to achieve these goals: while Elijah Muhammad wants to keep his organization wholly apart from politics, Malcolm often wants to be engaged in action for racial justice. That there are such differences of opinion between two leaders within the same group illustrates the complexity of the race issue in America.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Autobiography of Malcolm X!