The autobiography begins with Malcolm describing his mother Louise, pregnant with him, as she confronts an angry mob of Klansmen. After Malcolm is born, the family moves to Michigan; but racist hatred continues to surround them. Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, has an outspoken style of preaching, and this along with his connection to Marcus Garvey attracts the anger of the local Black Legion (a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan)—and one morning he is found dead. As Earl was the family’s main bread winner, and the Great Depression is in full swing, the family quickly falls into poverty. Meanwhile, state officials hound Louise incessantly about not being a good mother to her kids and being “crazy,” before finally she does indeed have a mental breakdown.
The kids are scattered among local families and mostly settle in. Malcolm, however, has been acting out, and is soon expelled from school and sent to a youth detention center in nearby Mason. There, he is the only “Negro” in his class, making him more of a star than a target for discrimination. He is a successful athlete, a good student, and popular; he’s even elected class president. And yet, the adulation is only ever superficial, hiding a deeper racist mentality. Nothing further illustrates this than Mr. Ostrowski, Malcolm’s 8th grade teacher, who advises him to not aim for being a lawyer. Rather, “as a Negro,” he should set his sights more reasonably, perhaps to becoming a carpenter. For the first time, Malcolm can see and feel the racial double standard. And after having spent one summer in Boston with his half-sister Ella and soaking in its vibrant black culture (at least, compared to Mason, Michigan), he moves in with her as soon as he finishes the 8th grade.
Upon arriving in Boston, Malcolm becomes immediately aware of the class hierarchy among African Americans living in Roxbury. Those living on the “hill” are those working in the white businesses downtown as janitors and couriers, while those living in “town” are poor and involved in criminal economic activities, such as gambling and prostitution. Malcolm is enamored with the “hustlers” in the town area, and he begins working a small hustle as a shoe shine boy, thanks to his new friend Shorty. From there, he quickly falls into the hustler culture, embracing a life of drugs and alcohol and the popular style of zoot suits and conks.
Ella attempts to extract Malcolm from this life by getting him a job at a respectable soda fountain clerk, but this leads to his greatest symbolic fall. After establishing a rapport with Laura, a well-educated black girl, Malcolm invites her to a Duke Ellington concert for a night of lindy-hopping (a type of swing dance). While they have an amazing time, Malcolm abandons Laura at the sight of an attractive white woman, Sophia, who comes to symbolize his idolatry of white people as being better than black people.
After moving in with Shorty, Malcolm begins working as a dishwasher on the railroads before quickly being promoted to selling sandwiches. Train journeys to New York and Washington D.C. allow him to see the experience of black people in America’s major cities, a condition which is fraught with poverty and crime. Nonetheless, Malcolm falls in love with Harlem’s night life, and after being fired from the railroad, he gets a job at Small’s Place, a high-end bar and ballroom in Harlem. He starts to go by “Red” or “Detroit Red.” This seals his move to New York, where he begins to learn more about the hustles happening in Harlem, especially those involving the accommodation of white visitors from downtown Manhattan. After being barred from Small’s for a small criminal offense, Malcolm begins to sell marijuana, despite increasing attention from law enforcement. At the same time, he is called up for the draft, but his well-developed slang and overall criminal appearance keep him out of the war.
After increasing police pressure, Malcom moves to various other hustles, from burglary with Sammy the Pimp to gambling rings, underground mixed-race prostitution rings, and bootlegging liquor for a Jewish businessman named Hymie. However, the pressure from the police and various criminal elements in Harlem continues to build. Finally Shorty is forced to come from Boston to pick Malcolm up and extract him from a potentially fatal situation. Back in Boston, Malcolm begins to organize burglaries in upper class white neighborhoods with Shorty, their new contact Rudy, Sophia, and her sister. Once again, enemies begin to encircle Malcolm. Sophia’s husband becomes aware of their affair, and the police begin hunting for the burglars’ ring. Finally, Malcolm is caught as he tries to repair a stolen watch, and the whole crew is sent to jail (except Rudy, who escapes). Malcolm and Shorty, as black men, are sentenced disproportionately to ten years in prison.
The year is 1946, and Malcolm is now in jail. His tirades against God and legendary anger have gained him the nickname “Satan.” However, after repeated letters and visits from several of his siblings, Malcolm becomes extremely interested in the new religious movement known as the Nation of Islam (a fusion of Black Nationalism and an adapted form of Islam), whose leader, Elijah Muhammad, preaches about the dignity of black people and the evils enacted upon them by white men. Malcolm rediscovers his fervor for learning and reading, which complements his newfound faith. After seven years of close study and debate among his fellow prisoners, he exits prison as a Muslim, completely committed to the cause of the Nation.
Malcolm then moves to Detroit with his brother, Wilfred. There, he begins to learn more about the Nation, its worship routines and its revered leader. He participates in a mass rally in Chicago, where Elijah specifically calls out to him and then invites him to his home. Quickly, their relationship grows into an extremely close bond in which Malcolm sees Elijah as his father, and Elijah sees Malcolm as a son. After working several menial jobs, Malcolm is made a full-time minister of the Nation and sent to establish temples in Boston, Philadelphia, and finally, New York.
In New York, Malcolm finds fervent competition amongst the many voices calling for racial justice. Nevertheless, the Nation’s message attracts many poor blacks, particularly evangelical Christians who are intimately aware of the prejudice stacked against them. Despite hesitancy over Islam’s strict moral code, one event above all serves to galvanize Harlem’s support behind the Nation. Two Brothers of the Nation are attacked and arrested by white police officers in Harlem, which leads to a mobilization of the Nation’s “Fruit of Islam” (the Nation’s militant force). These men take formation outside the police department until their brothers receive proper medical attention, which increases their local and national image as a force of resistance and black power.
As the Nation begins to attract more negative attention, Malcolm begins to itch for the opportunity to defend his community. Finally, Mr. Muhammad grants him permission, and Malcolm embarks on a rhetorical rampage, lambasting more conservative black leaders as “Uncle Toms” and the media as prejudiced against the growing Muslim community. This national coverage evolves into a significant growth period for the Nation, which begins to hold massive rallies of Muslims around the country. The more the movement grows, the more leeway Malcolm is given to speak to the media and at universities and rallies; however, this also increases the envy of other leaders within the Nation. While Malcolm sees a growing struggle against the white power structure controlling the country’s politics, his opponents see a narcissistic leader aiming only for personal glory.
Around 1963, Malcolm becomes aware that Elijah Muhammad, his idol, is not a godly figure, but just a man with a sinful history. This severely rocks his faith, as Mr. Muhammad’s holiness formed a central pillar to Malcolm’s Muslim faith. Nonetheless, he takes steps to protect the Nation’s reputation. Unfortunately his efforts, combined with some of his inflammatory remarks, are used as an excuse to expel Malcolm from the Nation. Now, Malcolm is viewed as an enemy of the Nation. Thankfully, his friend Cassius Clay takes him in and gives him the space to plan his next move. As a faithful Muslim, Malcolm decides that it is time for him to embark on the Hajj (traditional pilgrimage for Muslims) to Mecca.
Now on his journey to Mecca, Malcolm encounters many people, such as Abd-Al-Rahman Azzam, who take him in and show him great hospitality. While these Arab men may appear to be white, they show Malcolm a hospitality which transcends his notions of race. This happens time and again upon the Hajj, which is a journey that emphasizes the brotherhood of all Muslims under Allah. These experiences begin to fundamentally transform Malcolm’s views on race and racism from being a biologically determined fact to a socially determined condition. After the Hajj, he journeys through Africa, where he meets young student activists and politicians who are committed to ideas of Pan-Africanism (solidarity among all peoples of African descent) and Black Nationalism. No longer are African Americans a lost people; now, for Malcolm, they are brothers of those Africans looking to move beyond colonialism. This experience of worldwide black unity is epitomized by his meeting with Osagyeo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of Ghana, who discusses many of these ideas with Malcolm.
Upon returning to America, Malcolm looks to spread his newfound faith and ideology. After his experiences in the Middle East and Africa, he wants to emphasize both the possibility of brotherhood across racial divisions and the necessity of unity among the African diaspora as a means of resistance to white supremacy globally. Unfortunately, his more refined message leaves him in no-man’s land. Neither a militant nor a moderate, he is excluded from most African American civil rights movements. He attempts to found his own mosque, Muslim Mosque Inc., but he struggles to find support among both the Muslim and the non-Muslim communities in Harlem. After months of death threats and assassination attempts, Malcolm is quite prepared to die by violence. He informs the reader of the impending threat upon his life, with the hope that he has somehow advanced the cause of Black Americans. Looming beyond the final page is, of course, his assassination by three members of the Nation of Islam and his subsequent funeral, an event attended by thousands.