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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Malcolm X
(1925 - 1965)

In Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little, the son of Earl and Louise Little. Earl Little followed Marcus Garvey, who instilled racial pride among masses of African Americans. Little died at a relatively young age, leaving his wife and eight children in extreme poverty. “We would be so hungry,” Malcolm X later reported, “we were dizzy.” Malcolm Little quit school at age fifteen and moved to Harlem where, he recalled, he became a thief and a drug dealer.

At age twenty, Little entered prison and began to educate himself. When he learned about the Nation of Islam (or Black Muslims), led by Elijah Muhammad, he became an eager convert. He accepted Elijah Muhammad’s doctrine that white people were devils and rejoiced in a newfound racial identity. Leaving prison, he met Elijah Muhammad and replaced his own last name with “X,” which stands for the African name his ancestors lost when brought to the United States in slave ships.

Malcolm X became an extremely popular evangelist for the Nation of Islam, recruiting new members and emphasizing African American pride. With brilliant fables, analogies, and turns of speech, he elevated the spirits of urban blacks trapped by segregation. He condemned hypocritical whites for preaching love and democracy while treating blacks as subhuman. In “Message to the Grass Roots,” he criticized African Americans for their submission to whites:

As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people, but when it comes to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls murdered, you haven’t got any blood. You bleed when the white man says bleed; you bite when the white man says bite; and you bark when the white man says bark. I hate to say this about us, but it’s true.

Malcolm X also castigated Martin Luther King, Jr., but his fiery, uncompromising militance helped prepare whites to accept King’s message, which, by contrast, seemed moderate and palatable.

“The Ballot or the Bullet” is an address delivered in 1964, shortly after Malcolm X announced his break with the Nation of Islam. He had learned of Elijah Muhammad’s flaws and became bitterly disenchanted with the man who “had virtually raised me from the dead.” Recovering from disillusionment, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca, met white followers of Islam, and became more accepting of some whites. After returning to the United States, he formed the Organization of Afro-American Unity. In 1965, however, black assailants murdered him in a hail of gunfire.

Mourned by Harlemites and praised by portions of the Third World press, Malcolm X had been damned by the established American media. The New York Times, for example, had branded him an “irresponsible demagogue.” The eloquent Malcolm X, however, had the last word. He had dictated his life story to Alex Haley. The posthumous Autobiography of Malcolm X portrays a person capable of the most startling self-transformation: from a starving child, to a parasitic criminal, to an angry but uplifting orator, to a notably more tolerant leader worthy of a world stage. Though challenged over some of its details, the best-selling Autobiography of Malcolm X brilliantly portrays American race relations.

Keith D. Miller
Arizona State University

In the Heath Anthology
The Ballot or the Bullet (1964)

Other Works
Autobiography of Malcolm X (with Alex Haley) (1964)
Malcolm X Speaks (1965)
By Any Means Necessary (1970)
The Last Speeches (1989)

Cultural Objects
Sound fileMalcolm X Speaks

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Malcolm X
A detailed biography peppered with photographs.

Malcolm X Page
A selection of Malcolm X images.

Malcolm X: A Research Site
Ideal source providing a biography, webliography, chronology, and written and spoken works online.

Malcolm X's Life and Death
An annotated bibliography.

Secondary Sources