After realizing that Elijah Muhammad needs more help in spreading the faith, Malcolm quits his job at Ford and goes to Chicago, where he moves in with Elijah and becomes his disciple for several months. He studies harder than ever before to learn the proper rituals, procedures, and interpretations of the Quran and the Bible. Malcolm envisions Elijah as the Lamb from the Bible with a two-edged sword in its mouth; Elijah’s sword is his liberating teachings. Malcolm adores him as if he had “the power of the sun.”
Malcolm’s commitment to the Nation reaches a new fervor as he enters under Elijah’s tutelage to become his closest disciple. The closer Malcolm gets to Elijah, the harder it becomes for him to see Elijah as just a man. Instead, he takes on a divine nature in Malcolm’s imagination—and thus becomes immune to criticism.
Once Elijah feels that Malcolm is ready, he sends him to Boston to work with Brother Lloyd X. Small gatherings of prospective Muslims would come to hear Malcolm preach in living rooms. He often speaks of the history and horrors of slavery, and he marvels at how many black people have no knowledge of this history. Once they are enraged by history, Malcolm switches tack to show them how white men continue to keep them oppressed in their own lives.
Malcolm uses a very sophisticated rhetorical technique. By connecting past atrocities to the present, he creates a tangible storyline that moves the audience to see why they should be upset at the injustices that continue to be perpetrated against black people in America.
After three months of preaching and receiving larger and larger crowds, Malcolm finally has a following large enough to justify renting a small space and folding chairs to establish a new temple. He joyously reports the news to Elijah Muhammad.
This is Malcolm’s first success with establishing a new Temple. Despite its humble beginnings, he takes great pride in having served Elijah well.
Malcolm’s sister Ella starts to come around and hear him preach, listening in the back but never saying anything or moving. Malcolm respects her space and independence by never attempting to talk to her about converting. Rather, he says, only Allah Himself could convert Ella.
Malcolm and Ella have always respected each other’s independence and lifestyle. To push her would be to violate that history of mutual respect.
Malcolm hasn’t been back in Roxbury for seven years, and decides to have a reunion with Shorty. He quickly makes it clear that he is very serious about Islam, but also puts Shorty at ease by talking to him in their old slang. They have a great reunion, talking about Shorty’s new band and his time spent studying composition in prison. But Malcolm can tell that Shorty doesn’t really want to hear about Islam, so he lets it lie.
Malcolm once treated Shorty like a brother, even going into a new criminal enterprise to support Shorty’s music career. While he still cares about Shorty and wishes him well, their lives have taken separate paths, and Malcolm cannot share his new faith with him, even if he would like to.
By March 1954, the Temple is a healthy size and Malcolm heads for Philadelphia. There, the locals take to Islam very quickly and by May, Temple Twelve is up and running. Elijah then sends Malcolm to lead Temple Seven in New York City, which fills Malcolm with excitement and duty before this great responsibility.
When Malcolm was a younger man, he saw New York City as the center of the world and of black culture. He is repeating that first journey from the Midwest to the very center of things, but now with a spiritual mission in mind.
Malcolm heads to Harlem in search of Sammy the Pimp and West Indian Archie. He quickly learns that Sammy had been doing well for himself in the numbers business and even got married, but was then found dead one morning in bed.
The news about Sammy’s death comes as a shock to Malcolm. He realizes that if he were still hustling, he could very well be the one found dead.
Malcolm talks with a lot of the old hustlers, looking for West Indian Archie, but nobody has heard from him. Many of the hustlers have died of various causes, and the rest have been reduced in their old age to either menial labor downtown or very small time hustles to survive. Cadillac Drake, for example, is now living on the street, addicted to heroin. Malcolm is very glad to have escaped that life.
For these old hustlers, there is no exit strategy, no retirement plan. At a certain point they have no options left, and their big personas and glamorous facades come crumbling down.
Malcolm finally receives word that West Indian Archie is sick, and living up in the Bronx. He takes a taxi to go see him, and is welcomed inside, where they talk about the old times. They both agree to forget their old dispute, neither sure who had made the mistake with the numbers. They also both know that Archie’s end is near, and Malcolm is overcome by how far he’s fallen from his once mythical stature. Malcolm insists on giving him a little money and then leaves.
At the time, Archie and Malcolm’s dispute seemed too large to ever be overcome – the only options were death or escape. Now, with death and poverty looming over Archie’s head, their dispute seems trivial, and Malcolm is moved with pity.
When Malcolm arrives at the New York Temple, it is just a small storefront room—and they can’t even fill it with members. Frustrated with his inefficacy at recruiting new members, he decides to take a new strategy. Malcolm and his preachers go to the edges of the street corner crowds drawn by the Black Nationalists, handing out pamphlets and asking people to come to their meetings. Then they find their most fertile “fishing” spots, right in front of small evangelical churches after Sunday service; many of these churchgoers are open-minded to hearing someone else preach.
While Malcolm’s history is most concerned with the growth of the Nation, this point in his autobiography presents the reader with an interesting view of Harlem in the late 1950s. Already the city is teeming with many different religious and political groups, many of them working to gather support for black civil rights and liberationist movements.
Malcolm sees these Christians as his best targets for conversion, as they are often the poorest in the community, and he can preach about the hypocrisy of Christianity’s message and white Christians’ treatment of black people. He also preaches how Christianity, with its white Savior, is utilized to brainwash black people. And since these crowds also tended to be heavily female, he further elaborates on the need for black men to respect and protect black women rather than chasing white women—a point that always draws praise.
Malcolm has an ongoing feud with the Christian Church. Not only did he reject it as a child, but he now sees it as an integral component and source of European colonialism and white supremacy. Malcolm then mobilizes his frustration to convince black Christians that their faith is being used against them.
Unfortunately for Malcolm, while many respond to his preaching, only a few will commit to following Elijah Muhammad and becoming Muslims, due to the strict moral code involved: no fornication, pork, tobacco, alcohol, or narcotics, and no dancing, gambling, dating, or vacationing. Further, there were to be no domestic quarrels or being disrespectful to others or the law, except for religious reasons. These rules are enforced by the Fruit of Islam.
In many Christian denominations, sin is wiped away by simply asking for God’s forgiveness, which allows for its members to have a looser moral standard in their daily activities. The Nation, on the other hand, is extremely rigid in its standards and doesn’t allow slip-ups.
The temple continues to grow, but too slowly for Malcolm. He stays busy by traveling to other cities to preach. He goes to Philadelphia on Wednesdays, Springfield, Massachusetts on Saturdays, and Hartford on Thursdays. In Hartford, he finds a particularly receptive audience amongst the domestic servants working in white homes.
Malcolm’s adult life has many striking parallels to his young life as a hustler. For example, he spends his weeks on the road along the East Coast, just as he once spent his time catching trains from town to town with musicians.
Malcolm’s enthusiasm brings him frequent chastisement from Elijah Muhammad on his visits to Chicago. Malcolm often feels that the other ministers are not working hard enough to bring in new Muslims, but Elijah appreciates their steadfastness.
These chastisements for “enthusiasm” may be a for-shadowing of Malcolm’s eventual split with the Nation for apparently becoming too self-centered.
In 1955, Elijah sends Malcolm on his first long-distance trip to Atlanta, Georgia, where he helps Brother James X to found a Temple there. As the Temple has no money, their first meeting is held in a funeral parlor after the funeral of a Christian man.
In this passage, the reader gets a glimpse at how Malcolm conceives of America; to go to the South is to take a long trip, as if it were an entirely separate nation.
Malcolm uses this as an opportunity to explain Muslim attitudes towards funerals and death, reading passages from the Bible denying the existence of an afterlife. And since the deceased is now gone, he says, no tears are to be shed for them. Instead, money is to be given to their family. These short ceremonies always attract more members to the Nation; however, Malcolm will later learn that these teachings are in stark contrast to those taught by Islam at large.
The Nation of Islam’s funeral services, like any religious ceremony, are largely a spectacle or a performance that display publicly the key tenets of their faith. For example, they don’t believe in an afterlife (another diversion from traditional Islam), which means that their followers must work hard to make this life a just one.
By 1956, the Temples in the major cities have grown significantly and have begun to attract more middle-class African Americans as well. The congregations are certainly larger than most of America was aware of at the time. Malcolm, meanwhile, is working very hard and sleeping very little to continuously try and meet the demands of his job. Around this time, Elijah authorizes Temple Seven to buy a car for Malcolm to use for his traveling preaching, a gesture he greatly appreciates.
Class dynamics within the African American community are quite important throughout the book. The arrival of middle-class African Americans into the Nation’s congregation means that it is now gaining respectability and cultural capital within the community at large, rather than being simply a fringe group.
Malcolm tries to avoid any personal relationships with the Muslim sisters, much to the annoyance of those sisters, as he feels himself too busy with his work to get married. Furthermore, he distrusts the idea of a wife; after spending so much time with prostitutes and hearing how they were the ones to really listen to the husbands who slept with them (instead of the husbands’ presumably nagging wives), Malcolm doesn’t want to run the risk of also being emotionally and spiritually torn down by a marriage.
Malcolm clearly has a deep-rooted suspicion of marriage and of wives. Though many of his claims here seem essentializing and sexist, the reader may also be justified in connecting these ideas to Malcolm’s childhood—perhaps Malcolm partly blames his mother’s nature for his family’s disintegration.
In 1956, a new sister joins Temple Seven. It’s Sister Betty, a native of Detroit. Malcolm has no intentions towards her, and they never speak; in his words, he just “notices her.” A nursing school student, she teaches classes on hygiene and health to the Thursday Night women’s group. One day, thinking it may help with her classes, Malcolm offers to take her to the Museum of Natural History. There they discuss evolution, among other things, and Malcolm is “halfway impressed” with Betty’s intelligence and education.
As he is very suspicious of women in general, Malcolm approaches his relationship with Sister Betty in a very hesitant way. In fact, it does not appear that he is very honest with himself about his attraction to Sister Betty and instead hides his feelings behind a professional (and hyper-masculine) attitude.
Shortly thereafter, Malcolm hears from another sister that Sister Betty’s parents have threatened to stop funding her nursing school if she doesn’t leave the Muslims. Now Malcolm begins to wonder if a marriage might help her in this situation. He also notices that, according to Elijah’s teaching, she is the right height and age for him.
Malcolm does not approach the idea of marriage as something to be done out of spontaneous feelings of love, but rather as a duty and a responsibility.
After then being shocked at his own desires, Malcolm decides to confront the possibility directly. He tells Elijah he is thinking of marriage—and Elijah smiles and asks to meet the woman. On the pretext of attending a course for instructors, Sister Betty is sent to Chicago, where she meets Elijah in person. He warmly approves of her.
Just as a son would traditionally bring his prospective bride home to meet the family, Malcolm first has Sister Betty sent to meet his spiritual father, Elijah.
On his way to see his brother Wilfred in Detroit, Malcolm suddenly pulls off to the side of the road, calls Sister Betty from a payphone, and asks her to marry him. After acting surprised at his proposal, she agrees and flies out to Detroit. There, Malcolm meets her foster parents, who appear happy for them, and Sister Betty meets Wilfred and his family. After attempting to get married in Indiana but failing due to long waits, they drive to Lansing to stay with Philbert. There they get married the next day, in a simple ceremony with a white Justice of the Peace and all-white witnesses.
Malcolm insists on telling his story in the most practical tone, as if he suddenly checked off an action item from his to-do list. However, he is clearly pleased that Betty not only accepted, but pretended to have been surprised. In short, Malcolm may present his marriage in a very sober and unemotional way, but the reader can infer that he does indeed have romantic feelings for Betty.
Betty has to fly back to New York for nursing school, but she quickly returns. In Detroit, Elijah makes the marriage announcement before the whole Temple, shocking many sisters who had shown interest in Malcolm. Then, back in New York, they really shock everyone. Even some of the brothers, who had followed Malcolm in his wariness of women, feel mildly betrayed. Meanwhile, everyone congratulates Betty, saying she “got” him.
Malcolm’s suspicions of women and marriage do not die out once he himself is married. In a (mostly) light-hearted way, he wonders if Betty was simply the most clever of all the Muslim women and found a way to “trap” Malcolm into this marriage.
Malcolm and Betty then move in to Queens, where they share a home with another brother his family. After their first daughter Attallah (named for Atilla the Hun) is born in 1958, they move into their own home. There, they will raise three more daughters, Qubilah (for Qubilai Khan) in 1960, Ilyasah (“Ilyas” is the Arabic name for Elijah), in 1962 and Amilah in 1964.
Malcolm names his first two daughters after two famous emperors. Atilla was a conqueror and enemy of the Roman Empire, while Qubilai ruled the Mongol Empire. Note that three of Malcolm’s daughters are named for men, which may show a secret wish to have sons instead.
Malcolm, with hesitation, says that he now loves Betty. Even more importantly, she is one of only four women he has ever trusted. He and Betty share true love, he says, because they do not simply look to the exterior, which is simply lust. Rather, she understands him and she understands how demanding his work is; therefore, she supports him in all his travels that keep him away.
Malcolm reflects that Betty has always been supportive of him throughout his work life. Though she rarely appears in the book even after their marriage, this statement of gratitude shows that Malcolm is indeed aware of the strain his public ministry has had on his family’s life.
One day, while guest preaching in Boston, Malcolm is astonished to see his half-sister Ella among those standing, signaling her readiness to follow Elijah Muhammad. It may have taken five years to convince her, but he’s all the more pleased for it.
Ella’s commitment to the Nation of Islam came on her own terms, which makes that commitment more heartfelt and sincere than if she had been bullied or tricked into joining.
A series of events in Harlem one night suddenly brings the Nation of Islam to national attention. Two white cops, breaking up a fight, tell the crowd to disperse. When two Muslim brothers don’t move fast enough, the cops attack one with their clubs and then arrest him. Within half an hour about fifty Fruit of Islam members gather outside the police precinct, standing in rank formation, causing great anxiety inside the station and great curiosity in the black community at large.
The white police wouldn’t have expected a formation of black men to stand quietly yet menacingly outside the police station in response to an incident of police violence. This symbolic gesture of solidarity and strength was a powerful response to physical abuses enacted against individuals in the community.
Malcolm enters the station, informing the police that the Muslims will not leave until they have seen their brother and are sure he is receiving medical treatment. After finally being allowed to see the injured brother, Malcolm demands he be sent to the hospital. The Muslims then lead a crowd following the ambulance to the hospital. When the doctors assure Malcolm that his brother is being treated, the Muslims slip away, leaving the police at the scene to deal with the angry crowd. The incident propels the Nation of Islam to the front of media coverage and puts them under police scrutiny.
Malcolm must argue for every single one of his demands, from the simple request to see his “brother” to demanding that he receive medical attention at the hospital. And based on many other incidents of racist abuse and neglect by police, they probably wouldn’t have accommodated any of Malcolm’s demands if he did not have the strength and the threat of the Fruit of Islam members standing outside the police station the entire time.