CliffsNotes on Malcolm X's The Autobiography of Malcolm X

CliffsNotes on Malcolm X's The Autobiography of Malcolm X

CliffsNotes on Malcolm X's The Autobiography of Malcolm X

CliffsNotes on Malcolm X's The Autobiography of Malcolm X


This is the story of a man who lived several distinct chapters of a great American life. From petty criminal to defiant race rights fighter to leader of the Black Muslim movement, his life story is provocative and engrossing.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925; he dropped the "slave name" Little and adopted the initial X (representing an unknown) when he became a member of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm was the seventh of his father's nine children — three by a previous marriage — and his mother's fourth child. His father, Reverend Earl Little, was a Baptist minister and an organizer for Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, a black separatist "back-to-Africa" group of the 1920s. Most of Malcolm's early life was spent in and about Lansing, Michigan, where the family lived on a farm. Although the Little family was poor, they were self-sufficient until Reverend Little's death in 1931. After this, family unity began to dissolve: first Malcolm, who had become a discipline problem, was sent to live with another family in 1937; and later that year, Mrs. Little suffered a severe nervous breakdown and was sent to the state mental hospital. The other children became wards of the state. Malcolm's defiant behavior toward authority remained a problem, and at thirteen, he was sent to the Michigan State Detention Home, bound for reform school. At the detention home, he received favored treatment (as a "mascot" of the white couple who operated the home), and rather than being sent on to reform school, he remained in the home through the eighth grade.


Chapter One of The Autobiography of Malcolm X describes Malcolm’s first twelve years of life, a time he remembers as a “nightmare.” Indeed, the main events of the chapter are all scenes from a nightmare: the Ku Klux Klan attack in Omaha; the burning of the family’s home in Lansing; the many fights of his parents and their harsh treatment of the children; the violent death of Malcolm’s father; the harassment of the family by welfare officials; the transfer of Malcolm to the custody of another family; and Mrs. Little’s breakdown and committal to the mental hospital.

Many of Malcolm’s later ideas and attitudes are foreshadowed in this chapter, as are most of the major themes of the book. His father’s involvement with Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association anticipates Malcolm’s later militancy; and his father’s attitudes toward Africa prepare the way for Malcolm’s “internationalism” and “Pan-Africanism” in the last year of his life. Mrs. Little’s taboos about food anticipate the dietary restrictions of the Black Muslims and of orthodox Islam. The hypocritical snooping of the welfare officials illustrates Malcolm’s charges of the “institutional racism” of American society; the encounters with these officials anticipate Malcolm’s later confrontation with white authority, first as a criminal, then as a political figure. In fact, Malcolm’s career in crime has its earliest beginnings when he steals food which the family is too poor to buy.

Even before Malcolm was born, it seemed destined that he would become involved with racial causes. The Little home in Omaha, Nebraska, was attacked by Ku Klux Klan nightriders one night in early 1925, when Malcolm’s mother was pregnant with him. The attack was probably due to Malcolm’s father’s activities as an organizer for the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The UNIA had, at times, been tolerated by the Klan because it taught separation of the races. But its rejection of black humility and submissiveness was another matter, and such vocal organizers as Reverend Little were often attacked as troublemakers. This incident probably figured heavily in the family’s decision to move after Malcolm’s birth first to Milwaukee, then to Lansing, Michigan. Yet Malcolm never fully understood the reasons for the move, for his father was not a “frightened Negro.”

Among Malcolm’s most vivid childhood memories is an incident which occurred when he was about four years old. The Little home in Lansing was burned to the ground by a white racist group called the “Black Legionnaires,” who had been threatening Reverend Little because he wanted to own a store and live outside the black district. Malcolm charges that the white police and firemen who arrived at the scene simply stood by and watched the house burn.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.