After 20 years in the Coast Guard, Alex Haley hears about a new religion called the Nation of Islam, which is only for black people and is led by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. While visiting the Muslim restaurant in Harlem, Alex proposes to Malcolm the idea of doing a piece on the Nation for Reader’s Digest, but Malcolm reacts with skepticism for mainstream news outlets. He agrees to think about it, though, while Alex gets to know some of the very religious members of the group.
Before even beginning the project Malcolm had agreed that Haley could write an epilogue to the book, but the fact that this epilogue was written after Malcolm’s death makes it all the more poignant, as well as crucial to a full understanding of the book. In Malcolm’s view, if the American government and society are generally oppressive to black people, then a black man should not join the military, which protects that government and society. By serving in the Coast Guard for so long, then, Alex is a suspicious figure, or even a potential traitor to his race.
Finally, Malcolm suggests Alex go to Chicago to ask permission from Elijah. Elijah talks primarily of being under government surveillance while “sizing up” Alex. When Alex returns to Harlem, Malcolm is much more cooperative, but answers all of Alex’s questions guardedly. He then sends him to visit other Temples throughout the country.
Early on Haley alludes to the strict hierarchical structure of the Nation. When unsure how to respond or move forward, Malcolm always defers to Elijah’s judgment and then follows it wholeheartedly.
Alex publishes his piece, entitled, “Mr. Muhammad Speaks”, and he is praised by Elijah and Malcolm for writing an objective piece, as promised. Malcolm then agrees to give Alex an interview for Playboy magazine. Much to his surprise, Playboy publishes his words just as he said them.
Malcolm clearly had bad experiences with the mainstream press which have made him very suspicious, but Alex continues to gain his trust by keeping his word.
Malcolm has now begun to trust Alex as a viable outlet to mainstream news. Then, in 1963, Alex’s agent proposes that he ghost write Malcolm’s autobiography, but Alex realizes that he knows almost nothing personal about Malcolm, other than that he apparently has a crime-ridden past and is now a very strict Muslim.
In public, Malcolm only presents himself as a servant of the Nation and Elijah Muhammad. These early impressions support Malcolm’s self-image as a humble servant, rather than a power-hungry usurper.
Malcolm is caught off guard by Alex’s proposal for an autobiography. After considering the proposal, he agrees, on the condition that the book focuses on the Nation of Islam, all the proceeds go to supporting the Nation, and that he gets permission from Elijah. After flying out to Phoenix, Alex receives permission from Elijah. He then goes back to Malcolm, who demands that the book be published with only his own words and that nothing be left out which he wants included. In exchange, Alex asks for Malcolm to commit his time and to allow Alex to write an epilogue.
The negotiations between the ghost writer and his subject are not simply practical and financial. Rather, they are negotiating the very nature of the work itself. Whereas Malcolm would like to make this a tool for the Nation, Alex would like more creative control to focus on Malcolm’s life and to offer his own commentary at the end.
The project begins very poorly. Malcolm often arrives visibly exhausted, and he is still unsure of Alex’s allegiances. He believes that Alex may be a spy for the FBI, and treats him as such, always addressing him as “Sir.”
Malcolm’s curtness here may seem somewhat surprising, after we’ve just read such a warm and personal account of his life. But Haley is giving the background of how that account first came to be.
Just as Alex starts to lose hope, he realizes that Malcolm often scribbles random notes on scrap paper while speaking. Alex begins to bring Malcolm extra napkins with his coffee, and then to collect these notes after the sessions. From these notes, Alex decides to ask Malcolm about his opinions on women, and Malcolm declares all women to be untrustworthy (except his wife Betty, whom he says he trusts seventy-five percent). This is their first productive session, which also leads to more coffee napkin notes.
Alex’s attention to Malcolm’s scribbles is a stroke of insight that also reminds the reader of Malcolm’s own ingenuity and seemingly endless creative energy. Alex has been studying his subject, and he finally has a way in. Malcolm’s precise and quantitative measures of trust reflect other ideas he has expressed throughout the book, and again show his logical and practical way of thinking.
The next time Malcolm comes, Alex asks him, on a hunch, about his mother, Louise. Malcolm is so exhausted and emotionally vulnerable at the time that he responds honestly to Alex’s question and doesn’t stop talking about his childhood until dawn. After that, he never hesitates to share anything with Alex.
Alex figuratively takes on the persona of a psychiatrist, asking his patient about their parents. Malcolm then becomes the hypnotized patient, sharing his most intimate memories almost against his will.
On one memorable night, Malcolm shows up and starts talking about his life as a young man. Suddenly, he jumps up, scat-singing and dancing with a pole for a partner. Finally catching himself, he plops down, “and for the rest of that session, he was decidedly grumpy.” In general, however, he expresses no regrets about his former life, as his criminal life was the result of social repression.
Malcolm has a joyous nature inside that wants to burst out, though he generally represses it and grows grumpy at failing to do so. This may then be a sign that his psychological state while in the Nation is not healthy, or at least not natural and happy.
Malcolm cheers up talking about his time in prison, as he would torment the guards by threatening to spread rumors that they were actually light-skinned black men. He talks about the books he read and about how prison changes a man, sets him apart from others.
Malcolm claims to not want to glorify the hustler’s life, but he simultaneously wants to assert that ex-cons know things other people never will, for better or worse.
Throughout their interviews, Malcolm continues to show skepticism that his autobiography will be printed faithfully, and he insists that he doesn’t want to glorify his own life. At the same time, touching emotional events from the day may trigger him to recall very personal memories from his childhood, or an interesting book he recently read could get him going about education and learning.
Haley has constructed a very logical and linear account of Malcolm’s life, but we now learn that their sessions were quite sporadic. Stories came out one at a time and often in relation to events happening in Malcolm’s day-to-day life, rather than always emerging chronologically.
After a short trip out of town, Malcolm returns, proudly telling Alex that his questions about his mother Louise had pushed Malcolm to go and visit her. Not only that, but his siblings have arranged to have her released from her mental institution. Malcolm acknowledges that he has blocked her from his mind, as he never felt there was anything he could do to help her. This psychic blocking is one of his weaknesses, he says.
Once again, the two men’s relationship is presented as similar to the relationship between a psychiatrist and his therapist. After talking through his past, Malcolm has felt compelled to confront one of his “psychic blocks,” and then he comes back to report his progress proudly.
Malcolm’s daily conflicts often bleed into his sessions with Alex. If something bad happens to the Nation, he’s fuming with anger. If someone (like Martin Luther King) accuses him of being a radical, he declares them insane for not being radical. Yet he is also careful to avoid making any statements that might make him appear self-important.
While Malcolm could be affected by touching events during the day, he could also become enraged at what he saw as unfair criticism and persecution.
Malcolm’s temper often leads to inflammatory statements in public. Once, he stirs a whole crowd against a white reporter before redirecting their anger away with laughter. These moments are what gain him a reputation as the only black man capable of either starting a riot or stopping one. Malcolm doesn’t exactly deny that possibility.
Haley describes Malcolm as a bit mischievous or devilish. He is not a perfectly responsible orator; rather, he enjoys playing with words and with the crowd’s emotions, even if that leaves his motives ambiguous. In general, though, he is clearly a magnetic and mesmerizing public figure.
In this time, both Alex and Malcolm get very little sleep, as they stay up late talking and then spend their days going to various events for the Nation. Malcolm’s relentless schedule worries Sister Betty, who nonetheless supports her husband. Wherever he goes, Malcolm is recognized in public, and his presence often makes white people around him very uncomfortable. On the other hand, he has a way of commanding the room wherever he makes an appearance.
Malcolm, in a certain sense, is larger than life. His reputation has grown so much that people feel disproportionately either drawn to or repulsed by him. While that has its benefits, it also metaphorically makes him a larger target. (It’s also worth noting that he was physically imposing—six foot four, thin, and austerely handsome—and this further made him stand out and command the attention of those around him, whether they loved or hated him.)
Once while riding the train together from Philadelphia, Malcolm is approached by a porter who recognizes him from his train days. Malcolm acknowledges him and then goes on to shake the hands of a few other white customers who want to meet him. The rest of the passengers, meanwhile, simply gawk at Malcolm from behind their newspapers.
This is an example of Malcolm’s polarizing effect on society. While working class black men identify with him and some white people respect him, many others view him with suspicion or fear.
Alex’s position in the press allows him to see other people’s opinions of Malcolm, and then report these back to him. The White House Press Secretary obviously disdains him, the Nazi Party Leader respects him and offers to do a speaking tour with him, and Martin Luther King expresses an interest in Malcolm as a person and in meeting him (Alex asserts that Malcolm also had a “reluctant admiration for Dr. King”).
In these times, Malcolm’s hardline positions on race attract strange people to him, such as the leader of the Nazi Party in America—who perhaps respected some of Malcolm’s earlier essentializing views on race, or at least his bluntness and courage—while they repel or give pause to other more centrist figures (such as the Press Secretary in a Democratic White House).
Eventually, Alex and Malcolm develop a truly friendly relationship. Malcolm opens up to Alex, and Alex finds him fascinating. When Alex goes out of town, Malcolm even makes time to personally pick him up from the airport. Or when it’s Malcolm who’s out of town, he calls Alex late at night to talk about the book. Once, Malcolm calls him to simply say, “I trust you seventy percent” (he had previously said he only trusted him twenty percent).
Throughout his life, Malcolm has built many affectionate, fraternal relationships with men that he respects and cares for. Now, Haley presents their own relationship as part of this elite group of fraternal bonds.
Alex observes that Malcolm has a growing respect for individual white people which gives testament to the fact that Malcolm is not a prejudiced person at heart. For example, he expresses great admiration for M. S. Handler, another reporter, and he often gets very excited by the discussions at universities with white and black students.
Haley seems to believe that there is a “true Malcolm” that has been hidden or repressed by the Nation of Islam’s strict ideology, and it’s just waiting for the opportunity to break free and manifest itself.
Meanwhile, Malcolm has a list of black men who also greatly impress him. This list includes the photographer Gordon Parks, the actor Ossie Davis, the newspapermen James Hicks, James Booker, Louis Lomax, Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, and the author James Baldwin. The list goes on to include a limited number of black preachers, like Eugene L. Callender and the lawyer Percy Sutton.
Most or perhaps all of these figures are not Muslims, which again points to the idea that a “true Malcolm” who wants to unite all black people regardless of religion is just waiting to free himself from the burden of a repressive ideology.
Alex observes that Malcolm is most at ease when he’s taking his daily walks through the side streets of Harlem, associating with the regular people. He talks with everyone he passes, trying to gently and light-heartedly get them to pick themselves up and not fall for the “white man’s tricks” by getting drunk or getting conks. The people love Malcolm, and he loves them back. All the while, no matter what setting he’s in, he always makes sure to give all the credit for his success to Elijah Muhammad.
The reader is reminded that Malcolm was not only a leader for racial equality, but that he was specifically attuned to the class dimensions of inequality. Unlike many other famous civil rights leaders, Malcolm feels at ease and can relate to the working poor and all those most abused by capitalist society.
One day, Malcolm asks Alex if he has “heard anything” being said lately. Alex responds that he has no idea what Malcolm is referring to. Nonetheless, he has been aware that something is amiss within the Nation, probably related to how much press coverage Malcolm gets. Then one day when Alex calls Malcolm at nine a.m., Malcolm tells him to check the newspaper, where Alex sees that Malcolm has been silenced for ninety days. When Alex sees Malcolm later in the day, he is taking phone calls from the press, expressing his obedience to Elijah and his regret for having let him down, but Alex knows him well enough to see that Malcolm is silently fuming.
When Malcolm recounts these events in his life, he also emphasizes his obedience and total acceptance of his punishment. Alex then complicates that narrative by presenting a private Malcolm who is actually furious, and whose pride has been injured by his public humiliation. This doesn’t necessarily undermine Malcolm’s claims in the autobiography itself, but it complicates his character.
Shortly thereafter, Malcolm and Sister Betty fly to Florida to be with Cassius as he trains. This helps to take his mind off his present worries. Malcolm calls Alex, insisting that Cassius will win his fight. When Cassius does win the fight, he goes on to announce he is a Muslim and then meets with various diplomats in meetings arranged by Malcolm.
Malcolm’s insistence to Alex that Cassius will win demonstrates how much faith he has placed in Cassius’ skill and Allah’s plan for the larger implications of the fight.
Alex moves to upstate New York to work on his book. In his phone calls with Malcolm, he hears him critique Elijah Muhammad and speculate that he might not be reinstated to the Nation. At the same time, he also asks Alex to arrange for his contract to be changed so that all the proceeds from the book go to Sister Betty. When Alex hears of the death threats made against Malcolm and expresses his concern, Malcolm simply says that he can take care of himself.
Haley implicitly references the time when Reginald was about to be kicked out of the Nation. Reginald had also begun to speak poorly of Elijah and to speculate about a possible break with the Nation, perhaps to even form his own religion (as he had begun to have hallucinations of himself as a prophet or messiah).
Alex soon conducts an interview with Cassius for Playboy magazine, and Cassius says that he doesn’t want to discuss Malcolm, who has betrayed the Nation. Elijah Muhammad also apparently becomes very emotional and upset if anyone mentions Malcolm in his presence, calling him a hypocrite and a traitor.
Elijah has been a father figure to Malcolm for over a decade, and Cassius had become a very close friend. Their harsh words then reflect their own pain at what they see as his betrayal.
Malcolm returns to New York, clearly upset and believing his life to be in danger. He tells Alex that he was kicked out of the Nation because of jealousy and because of his objections to Elijah’s affairs, not his JFK comments. He alludes to the fact that he’s built up the Nation from 400 followers to 40,000. When Alex tells him about Cassius’s comments about wanting to stay away from Malcolm, Malcolm becomes visibly hurt and emotional.
Throughout his life, Malcolm has had many painful breaks with close friends and family members, especially in his “divorce” from the Nation—but Malcolm’s earlier affectionate descriptions of his relationship with Cassius make this one particularly moving. (And as stated earlier, Cassius would later come to greatly regret his rejection of Malcolm.)
Malcolm receives lots of secretive phone calls while he sits with Alex, and he tells him one day that he’s “a marked man.” Alex worries this may make Malcolm bitter and push him to want to change the previous chapters related to the Nation of Islam. Malcolm says that the thought has crossed his mind, but he thinks they should stay as they are.
The book is not a sterile reflection of Malcolm’s life. Rather, it is a vibrant dialogue in which his opinions and viewpoints changed throughout the creative process itself.
Late in March, Malcolm sends Alex a note, letting him know about his imminent visit to Africa and to Mecca. He continues to send him postcards, and then in mid-May, Sister Betty calls to say that Malcolm will be home the next day. After flying in, Malcolm drives with Betty to go and pick Alex up on the way to a press conference. When they arrive at the Hotel Theresa, the room is packed with reporters and well-wishers, and Malcolm proceeds to field their questions about his new beliefs masterfully.
While this book may be a kind of artifact detailing Malcolm’s changing views, Haley also mentions a different collection of written artifacts – Malcolm’s notes, postcards, and letters home. These documents attest to the profound changes Malcolm’s thinking underwent in a relatively short period of time.
One day, Alex sends Malcolm several chapters to review, and he is horrified at the amount of edits Malcolm has made to his original remarks, especially regarding Elijah Muhammad. Alex reminds Malcolm of their previous decision to leave those things as they are, and after thinking it over, Malcolm agrees it is the best thing to do. After that, he never asks to change his own words.
At that time, the whole country seemed to know that Malcolm and Elijah had split. Alex thus wants to keep those chapters that illustrate their once close bond as a way to explain how their relationship has developed over time.
Only once does Malcolm show regret for a portion of his life, and that’s regarding his brief relationship with Laura. Another time, he mentions to Alex that the day he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger three times, he’d actually palmed the bullet.
Even within Malcolm’s autobiography, which is apparently the “whole story” of his life, there are still some parts that may be hidden or which Malcolm kept to himself.
Malcolm soon calls another press conference to announce his new organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which is a non-religious, militant black nationalist group focused on attaining human rights for African Americans. This group will be open to collaborations with other organizations, but it will also advocate for self-defense practices, rather than non-violent protests.
This project represents Malcolm’s most mature political thought. Not only does he want the organization to be open to all black people, but he wants it to focus on political practice, rather than solely on religious or social critique.
A poll comes out that says most African Americans see Martin Luther King as the most important leader for civil rights, which irks Malcolm. However, another article in the New York Times acknowledges that the urban poor regard Malcolm as “one of their own,” and in order for King to reach out to these people, he is going to have to cooperate more with Malcolm.
Despite his self-portrayals as simply a humble servant, Malcolm is quite proud of what he has accomplished and of his national reputation. He thus naturally resents not being regarded as the most important black leader.
While Malcolm travels abroad for an additional six weeks (which irks his OAAU staff), Alex sends him news clippings about him, some good and some bad. When Malcolm returns, he is met by a huge crowd of fans and reporters in the airport, giving him obvious pleasure. He then talks over some of the details of his trip with Alex so that they can go into the book; he emphasizes that the trip had been focused on building ties with Africans so that they will support African Americans’ struggle for rights.
Malcolm may have upset his OAAU staff by staying away from the fledgling organization for too long, but he believes that building international ties is an essential part of the path forward for African American human rights.
Malcolm’s OAAU is struggling to get off the ground, especially as Malcolm begins to receive more criticism throughout the community. Many say that he is all talk and no action, and others say that his ideology has become too confused for him to be a leader.
The public has not failed to notice Malcolm’s evolved political positions. But it has not fully embraced them, or it finds the change quite jarring and hard to understand.
Meanwhile, Malcolm is besieged by a number of problems. His family is being evicted from the house loaned to them by the Nation of Islam, he is struggling to keep up with his financial obligations, and every minute of his time is taken up with giving interviews and speeches. The psychological strain causes him to occasionally lash out at his swamped aides.
Malcolm’s failure to create a contingency plan in the event of a split with the Nation of Islam is now catching up with him. He must deal with his past obligations as he also struggles to build a future for himself and his family.
As the court battle over the house drags on, Malcolm begins to speak out against Elijah Muhammad publicly, something he had largely avoided since leaving the Nation. Death threats continue to pour in, and on a few occasions, OAAU members get into (sometimes armed) confrontations with Nation of Islam members. Malcolm is convinced that the threats can only be coming from the Black Muslims.
By speaking out against Elijah, Malcolm may actually be giving support to those Nation of Islam members who see him as a traitor and as a blasphemer.
In December, Malcolm and Alex again meet up in New York City to go over the latest version of the manuscript. On an impulse, Alex buys two large dolls as Christmas gifts for Malcolm’s oldest daughters. Malcolm, who is very touched by the gesture, then confesses that he has never bought a present for any of his children; he’s always been too busy.
The reader has been mostly given a view of Malcolm’s public life. Only now does one realize that hardly any of the autobiography dealt with his personal family life – perhaps because Malcolm himself was largely removed from home.
One day in January when Alex is between flights, Malcolm drives out to Kennedy airport to talk with him in his car. He tells Alex how he’s struggling to make alliances with anyone; moderate organizations see him as too militant, and vice versa. But they also discuss Malcolm’s coming child, who he hopes will be a boy, after four girls. They then say their goodbyes and well wishes, and Malcolm drives off. It will be the last time they see one another.
The criticisms earlier voiced among black New Yorkers that Malcolm’s ideology is confused have now solidified. He can no longer find a place for his voice and organization within the divisions of black liberation politics.
One day while giving a television interview, Malcolm supports the idea of interracial marriage as simply a personal decision between one human being and another. However, he does think that most of the pressure against intermarriage and integration has come from white groups, not black people.
Alex includes this anecdote to support his claim that Malcolm’s thoughts on race have evolved beyond his more narrow-minded, confrontational views from when he was with the Nation.
On January 28th, Malcolm flies to Los Angeles to meet with two of the former secretaries suing Elijah. Throughout his entire stay, he is followed by Black Muslims, and they even stake out his hotel lobby. Malcolm stays mostly in his hotel room until it’s time to head to the airport. On the way there, he is followed by two more cars.
Even though Malcolm is still doing his best to travel the country and continue to be an agent of change, the threats against his life make him ineffectual, as he must often hide inside his hotel just to stay alive.
In Chicago, Malcolm testifies in the Attorney General’s office regarding the investigation of the Nation of Islam. While the police keep Malcolm under close guard, he sees Black Muslims following him everywhere, and he suspects they want to silence him before he divulges too much information about the Nation.
Neither Alex nor Malcolm says what exactly Malcolm testifies about to the Attorney General, but it is plausible that, as a former leader, he could have done legal damage to the Nation of Islam through his testimony.
Malcolm returns to New York, calls Alex, and confesses to being completely exhausted. Nonetheless, he must hit the road again, this time headed for Selma, Alabama to speak in front of crowds in support of Martin Luther King. He says that he is offering an alternative to King’s non-violence movement, but he privately tells Mrs. King that he wants to help, not inflame passions.
Malcolm’s comments to Mrs. King are difficult to understand, but it appears that he wants black people to either support him or MLK, but no matter what, he would like to work with King and his followers.
After Alabama, Malcolm flies on to France, but he is officially barred from ever entering the country. Irate, he goes on to London, where he visits a town in which many people of color live, causing some to accuse him of fanning racial tensions. He also speaks at the London School of Economics.
In Africa, Malcolm’s reputation as a leader fighting against white and colonial oppression gained him fame and hospitality. In Western Europe, the response is (rather predictably) not so warm.
On February 13, Malcolm returns home to New York. Then in the middle of the night, someone throws Molotov cocktails through his front windows, setting the entire house on fire. The family escapes, and Sister Betty takes the children to go stay with friends. Malcolm, meanwhile, must continue to give speeches in New York and Detroit. However, his nerves are clearly getting the best of him. He threatens to release the names of the Black Muslims who have been commissioned to kill him and to apply for a pistol license with the police department.
This is the second time Malcolm’s home has been firebombed. As a child, white supremacists burned down his childhood home, and shortly thereafter killed his father, a Black Nationalist. Tragically, Malcolm (now a black nationalist himself) is about to follow in his father’s footsteps.
On Thursday, February 18th, Malcolm has a good conversation with the photographer Gordon Parks. He talks about being glad to have moved beyond the Nation of Islam; he says he was just a zombie following orders. Then he recalls the white college student who he once turned away as an example of something he regrets saying. When asked if he was serious about there being threats on his life, he assures Gordon that he is very serious.
By referring to himself as a “zombie” under the Nation, Malcolm offers his strongest criticism yet. According to Malcolm, the Nation does not inspire critical thinking or independent ideas; rather, its members are simply pawns in the service of Elijah’s agenda.
On Saturday, Malcolm goes house hunting with Betty, and they find one they like, but they need $4,000 for a down payment. Malcolm then calls Alex to ask if the publisher may advance him the money; Alex promises to find out on Monday. Malcolm goes on to talk about the threats on his life, and how he is now unsure if it is indeed the Black Muslims. Then, abruptly, he says that he’s proud to have established connections between African and African American human rights movements.
The OAAU’s future is very uncertain at this moment, with Malcolm’s life in danger and the public expressing hesitancy about joining Malcolm so far. Nonetheless, Malcolm feels proud of his more relational and structural achievements in making the struggle an international one.
That night, Malcolm goes to stay at the New York Hilton Hotel. After several men ask the bellboys what room he is staying in, extra security is put onto his room. The next morning, a strange caller awakens him, only saying, “Wake up, brother.” Malcolm then calls Betty and asks her to bring the children to see him speak at 2 pm at the Audubon Ballroom.
Earlier, Malcolm mentioned that he has always had premonitions or intuitions before bad things happen to him. The reader is certainly invited to wonder if that phone call was then a sign of things to come.
The Audubon Ballroom is a large space frequently used for community events. At 1:30, hundreds of wooden chairs have been set up in front of the stage, and some people are already seated towards the front. The press has been barred from this event, but two black reporters are allowed to enter “as citizens.” At 2:00, Malcolm arrives, and says to his assistants that he plans to talk about the need for unity among black people, rather than violence against one another. He wants to downplay his own personal issues.
Haley meticulously describes the setting, which rhetorically turns the public ballroom into a crime scene even before the crime has occurred. Malcolm may be planning to talk about things other than the threats on his life, but the stage has already been set for violence.
Several notable guests, including the Reverend Galamison, were supposed to come, but none of them show up, disheartening Malcolm. When an assistant suggests that brother Benjamin X speak in their stead, Malcolm snaps at her, but then agrees to the idea. When it’s his turn to go up on stage, he turns to the assistant, asking for her forgiveness, and then walks out to begin his speech.
While Haley doesn’t say it, he clearly implies that at the end of his life, Malcolm had very limited support from other black leaders. In essence, they have all abandoned him to let him die alone.
About eight rows from the front, a man stands up shouting, “Take your hand out of my pocket!” As the crowd turns to look, gunmen approach the stage (conflicting reports say they came up the side aisles or stood up from the front row). Then they proceed to fire on Malcolm; in total, he is hit by sixteen bullets or shotgun pellets. As the firing stops, several people rush to the stage to try and save him, including Sister Betty, who is crying.
It appears that the man in the back intentionally caused a disturbance to distract Malcolm and the crowd as the real gunmen approached him. This implies that the gunmen had a coordinated plan centered around chaos and confusion.
A patrolman stationed outside apprehends a suspect who is being chased by a crowd. Two more officers who happen to be driving by grab another man who is being assaulted by the crowd. They push him into the cruiser and take him to the station. He is later identified as 22-year-old Talmadge Hayer (a member of the Nation of Islam), and the police take him to the hospital for a gunshot wound to the thigh.
The crowd viciously attacks the men they believe to be the assassins, demonstrating their loyalty to Malcolm. However, their blind anger also highlights the level of confusion after the shooting, making it harder for investigators to get the facts.
Malcolm is brought on a stretcher to the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. He arrives at 3:15, and at 3:30 pm he is pronounced dead. As news spreads throughout Harlem, a crowd gathers in front of the Theresa Hotel (the headquarters of the OAAU), while the Muslim Mosque and its restaurant have closed as a precaution. Meanwhile, hundreds of extra police officers are brought in to Harlem to maintain order.
After the riots during the summer of 1964, the police are on edge to avoid a similar situation. However, Harlem residents generally gather peacefully, deep in mourning rather than ready for violence.
At the time of publication, many questions still remain about the assassination. Police claim that they repeatedly offered Malcolm protection, a claim that contradicts statements made by his associates. Allegedly, special agents were in attendance, but they were never seen responding to the assassination. One of the suspects still has not been named publicly. Elijah Muhammad refuses to make a statement, as does Wilfred, initially.
In theory, the police and Malcolm’s family should be those those most directly responsible for keeping Malcolm safe and for testifying on his behalf after his death. Instead, the reader sees that Malcolm has been largely abandoned by these support structures.
Malcolm is taken to the morgue, where a shotgun pellet to the heart is established as the cause of death. Sister Betty buys Malcolm a casket and then announces that his body will be made available for public viewing for the week before his funeral (though this causes some negative reactions within the orthodox Islam community).
It is normal for public leaders to be placed on display for the public to pay their respects. However, Malcolm’s wake may also bring to mind the public viewing of Emmett Till, the young black boy murdered in 1955, catalyzing the civil rights movement.
Elijah puts out a statement on Monday, saying that Malcolm’s death was the result of his violence-centered preaching. Elijah’s house in Chicago is heavily patrolled by police and Fruit of Islam security. However, the Mosque Number 7 in Harlem is firebombed at night; the other mosques then go under increased police security.
Elijah’s statement denouncing Malcolm is extremely disrespectful, especially given that Malcolm can no longer defend himself. Haley’s book, therefore, serves as Malcolm’s last defense.
Malcolm’s body is supposed to go on view at the funeral home at 2:30 on Tuesday, but bomb threats force the police to search the building twice. Finally, at 6:30, with police and sharpshooters surrounding the building, Sister Betty and her children go in to see Malcolm. At 7:20, the first members of the public start to trickle in to see his body. He is dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, with a plaque stating his name and dates of birth and death.
Sadly, Malcolm’s burial also evokes images of his childhood. After his father’s death, the family came under the careful watch and “care” of the state; now, Malcolm’s widow and orphaned children can come to see him only under the gaze of state sharpshooters.
Malcolm’s followers struggle to find a church to hold the funeral. Many churches refuse either because they disagreed with Malcolm or because of safety concerns. Finally the Faith Temple, Church of God in Christ (directed by Bishop Alvin A. Childs) accepts the request. He immediately begins to receive bomb threats.
Even in death, Malcolm cannot rally other religious leaders in New York to his cause. He has been completely blackballed.
After Malcolm’s death, many major African American figures speak out about the loss his death means for the community. Among these is James Baldwin, who blames the long history of racism in the West as the root cause of his murder. Others, such as Dr. C Eric Lincoln, blame the volatile competition among civil rights groups and call for unity.
The testimony of these writers, thinkers, and intellectuals is a counterargument against those black leaders who would distance themselves from Malcolm. Instead, they embrace him as a brother.
A new organization in Harlem, the Federation of Independent Political Action, calls for all businesses to close for two days in honor of Malcolm. However, the Uptown Chamber of Commerce meets and resists their calls and threats of picket lines. In the end, the businesses stay open and only twenty picketers arrive in front of one store; Haley notes that the leaders at the picket are two white men.
At first, the reader may find this anecdote to be pointless. But it is actually a tongue-in-cheek vindication of Malcolm’s belief that mixed-race civil rights organizations almost always end up with the white men being in charge.
The downtown newspapers continue to run stories about how Harlem is about to burst into violence at any minute, but these accounts and stories are disputed by the Harlem Ministers’ Interfaith Association, which states that such stories are simply trying to sell papers on stereotypical images of black people as violent.
Throughout the book, Harlem has served as a primary source of imagination for downtown Manhattan. Sometimes jazzy and creative, sometimes “exotic,” it is now imagined as a violent hotbed of extremists.
Meanwhile, the foreign press, especially in Africa and Asia, covers the murder extensively and sometimes erroneously (or with a lot of bias in favor of Malcolm), much to the chagrin of the United States Information Agency Director, Carl Rowan. In other countries, such as those throughout Europe, the story receives only brief coverage. In London, however, the newspapers follow the criminal investigation in quite a lot of detail.
The multiplicity of narratives about Malcolm’s life demonstrates how he is already being mobilized for particular political agendas. He might be a figure of racial justice, or he may simply be a celebrity at the center of a murder.
On Friday, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, both members of the Nation, are arrested in connection with the assassination. This causes tensions to rise considerably among all groups connected to Malcolm’s killing, particularly at the Black Muslim National Convention in Chicago. About three thousand Muslims gather to celebrate “Saviour’s Day,” and all are subject to an intense security check. Fruit of Islam guards make constant rounds, and the sparse crowd reflects the widespread fears of a bombing.
The Nation now has three members that have been connected to the assassination, and many fear that his supporters may lash out violently during this public event. The Fruit of Islam’s intense security contrasts strongly to Malcolm’s insistence that his crowds not be asked to undergo security checks.
Meanwhile, Malcolm’s presence is heavily felt at the Convention. Wallace Muhammad, who had sided with Malcolm, is made to publicly repent and ask for forgiveness. Then, Wilfred and Philbert, ministers in Detroit and Lansing, respectively, both advocate unity and moving beyond Malcolm’s violent preaching and death. Finally, Elijah Muhammad gets up and rails against Malcolm as a hypocrite and a traitor who was destroyed by his own teachings. After an hour and a half of speaking, he finally returns to his seat.
In a deeply disturbing way, this series of testimonials is a kind of perverted funeral. Rather than testifying on the deceased’s behalf and speaking from a place of mourning, his brothers (both biological and religious) publicly denounce him and advocate forgetting him.
Also on Friday, a man wearing a dark robe and white turban arrives at the Unity Funeral Home. He is Sheik Ahmed Hassoun, a Sunni Muslim from Sudan who had come to New York to be Malcolm’s spiritual advisor and teach at the Muslim Mosque, Inc. The Sheik prepares Malcolm’s body according to Muslim tradition, wrapping him in white linens, anointing him with holy oil, and reading from the Koran.
Malcolm spent much of his life as either nonreligious or as part of the Nation of Islam. It is fitting, therefore, that the Sheik only comes to change Malcolm’s funeral clothes to those of an orthodox Muslim the day before his funeral—but this act of international respect and care also reflects Malcolm’s global stature late in his life.
Late that afternoon, Alex joins the public viewing line, waiting to see Malcolm. Policemen stand by keeping watch while members of the press chitchat over to the side. When he arrives at Malcolm’s coffin, Alex can only think that “it was he, alright – Malcolm X.” Then, with a final goodbye, he walks on. That night, the public viewing will end, and 22,000 people in total will have come to see Malcolm’s body.
Deep in mourning and shock, Alex cannot manage to bring about an emotional response yet. Instead, he can only acknowledge what is true on the surface: Malcolm X, that hated and beloved larger-than life figure, is dead.
The day of the funeral, thousands arrive on the nearby city blocks. Around 9:20 AM, some of the OAAU members are let in, who then proceed to seat the other six hundred guests As the services begin, the actor Ossie Davis stands to read telegraphs of condolences sent in from around the world, including from Martin Luther King and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Then another man stands up to give his remarks; he focuses on how Malcolm was a hero who died on the battlefield for Islam. Ossie Davis then stood back up to give a very moving eulogy, calling Malcolm Harlem's "own black shining Prince.”
In a moment of poetic justice, Malcolm’s funeral represents a fulfillment of his dream of uniting African Americans across class and religious lines. Leaders of the community, celebrities, and ordinary people all gather together either in body or spirit to pay respects to their friend and leader, Malcolm. And though he was often abandoned or rejected by his contemporaries in life, his continued fame and legacy attest to his status as a true “black shining Prince.”
After the services, which last about an hour, Sister Betty goes to see Malcolm one last time and suddenly bursts into tears, prompting many in the crowd to sob as well. Then a long entourage of cars heads out behind the hearse, headed for a cemetery in Ardsley, New York. Final prayers are said over the coffin, and then several of the Muslims from OAAU began to fill in Malcolm’s grave themselves, rather than leave it to the white gravediggers. Finally the sun sets, and Malcolm is at rest.
As has been previously noted, Malcolm’s autobiography does not contain many references to his personal or family life. However, Haley makes sure to note Betty’s grief and the loyalty of his OAAU members as a way of testifying that Malcolm was a very loved person by those who knew him personally.
Alex tells the reader that Malcolm asked him to be a writer, “not an interpreter,” and that he has tried hard to recount his life dispassionately. But given Malcolm’s electric character, that has been extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible.
Alex asks forgiveness for any mistakes he may have made along this journey. In this rhetorical move he imitates Malcolm’s closing words, which also asked for forgiveness and for the reader to look for an overarching message rather than lingering on the writer’s personal flaws.