The narrator and central character of the Autobiography, Malcolm came to be one of the most important political figures of his time, and because of this book, his importance has probably increased, rather than diminished, since his death.
His three different names describe the three phases of Malcolm’s career. First, he was Malcolm Little, the product of a Midwestern black home, a home torn apart by the death of the father and by the interference of welfare agents. He was a child who fit the sociologists’ stereotype — that is, he matured in a life of crime and depravity. As Malcolm X, he became a symbol of the black man’s hatred of the white man. A fiery, outspoken Black Muslim minister, Malcolm was a fierce racial separatist and an enemy of “the white devil.” During the last year of his life, he became Malcolm the Pilgrim, still retaining the fiery oratory of the preceding period but desperately searching now for a means of reconciling the racial problems in America.
The narrator of the novel is a combination of the last two personalities. He is a man of uncompromising honesty to himself and to his reader, determined to tell the last degrading bit of truth about his life of crime so that his elevation above it might seem the more miraculous. He makes no excuses for the first phase of his life. He feels that, as a black criminal, he was a creation of white-dominated American society; yet he takes personal responsibility for his actions because he allowed himself to be manipulated by whites.
Malcolm’s change from a promising junior high student to a ghetto hustler was largely in reaction to whites who treated him as though he were a “mascot.” Yet even in his career as a dope peddler, bootlegger, and robber in Harlem, he was not free of the white man. He was merely acting according to white society’s expectation of him; he had descended to the lowest depths of white America, but he had not escaped it.
In prison, Malcolm became a Black Muslim, and after his release, he quickly rose through the ranks to become a powerful man in the Nation of Islam, second only to Elijah Muhammad himself. Still, however, Malcolm was not free. His anti-white rhetoric was founded basically upon the role of the white man as devil, and whatever he did or said during this period, he was acting “according to the will of Elijah Muhammad.” Yet he did not revolt against Elijah Muhammad’s authority until it became evident that he had no choice. Despite his faults, Muhammad had literally saved Malcolm’s life. Moreover, it was difficult for Malcolm to consider acting on his own convictions, especially after so many years of blindly following Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm’s last year of life should perhaps be viewed as primarily a period of transition. A few days before his death, he told a reporter he was finally “man enough to tell you that I can’t put my finger on exactly what my philosophy is now.”
During his pilgrimage to Mecca, the example of Islam helped Malcolm to realize the possibility of reconciliation of the races, and his travels in Africa emphasized to him the importance of the other black peoples of the world. The two independent organizations he tried to form, Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, were both to be secular, activist-oriented political organizations; the latter was to be specifically Pan-Africanist in its orientation. Yet neither organization was sufficiently developed to be able to determine what they might have accomplished had they gone into action.
In a sense, Malcolm was a failure. Before he could consolidate his ideas and move into action on his own, he was murdered. And during the last days, Alex Haley tells us that there was widespread criticism of his inactivity. He himself seemed frustrated and tired on the day of his death. Perhaps he would have failed if he had lived longer. But there are tantalizing hints as to future directions, especially in his last actions and associations. In the last few weeks of his life, he addressed civil rights protestors, for whom he had openly expressed his scorn, in Selma, Alabama. He was scheduled to address the Mississippi Freedom Democrats in Jackson, Mississippi, and he had publicly committed himself to bringing the so-called southern movement of Dr. King and others to the North in order to win equality for black people throughout the country. Perhaps his methods would have become less controversial and he would have formed an alliance with the moderates, who were, at this time, more sympathetic to his philosophy. But, somehow, his death seems, almost, inevitable. Throughout his life, Malcolm lived on borrowed time; he himself says that he never expected to die otherwise than violently. And his comments to Gordon Parks on being a martyr for brotherhood indicate a willingness to die, to further the cause of reconciliation.
He was, as M. S. Handler points out, a terrifying public speaker, but a thoroughly committed and sincere man. He was incorruptible; his principles could not be compromised by anyone — black or white. He lived a very puritanical, spartan life in his later days and expected the same from all those who followed him. Perhaps his ultimate significance lies in Ossie Davis’ description of him: he represented a form of black manhood almost impossible to attain in white America. He was a man — in defiance of society — and society killed him because of it.