Growth Resulting from Imprisonment - The Story of Malcolm X

Enter subhead content here

Home | Short Stories | Essays | Literary Reviews | Term Papers | Poetry | Contact Me

Growth Resulting from Imprisonment - the Story of Malcolm X


When forms become fixed, the spirit either weakly accepts its imprisonment or rebels. All revolutions consists of the "within" fighting against invasion from "without"... All great human movements are related to some great idea. 

-- Rabindranath Tagore

            I selected the above quote as it epitomizes the life, the struggle and the ultimate victory that Malcolm X, later known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, achieved.  Being put into a prison is only one form of imprisonment.  Imprisonment can also occur within one’s own mind.  “There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind bars, and the man is outside” (Sinclair 1906: 337).  When isolated from mainstream society, taught from birth that you have no reason to dream - that your future is as bleak as a prison cell, one can either give up hope allowing for a self-fulfilling prophecy, or fight back using whatever tools are available.  Malcolm X chose to fight back.  His struggle, and subsequent growth, is evident through the four major phases of evolution that he underwent.  Each phase ended with a form of self-enlightenment, and each phase found Malcolm X wearing a different name.  For purposes of coherence and brevity, I will use only the name Malcolm.  (At the pinnacle of his growth and enlightenment he cast off the X he adopted as a Black Muslim.)  Malcolm summed up the path he took when saying, "There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time"(BrainyQuote 2001).  Malcolm did not reject his societal isolation, rather, he embraced that solitude to evolve and become the leader, and inspiration, he is even today.

            Malcolm Little was born May 19, 1925 in Omaha Nebraska.  His father, Earl Little, was a devout follower of the teachings of Marcus Garvey, thus, he was a continual source of harassment at the hands of the Klu Klux Klan.  Malcolm’s first brush with the violence perpetrated by the KKK occurred while his mother was still pregnant with him.  While his father, a minister, was out of town preaching the KKK came to his house.  Upon finding that Earl Little was not there, they harassed Malcolm’s mother and broke the windows to their home. 

            Violence, however, in Malcolm’s life was not limited to the violence of the Klan.  Earl Little was a harsh man who was prone to fits of violence.  Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, although a more calming influence, was filled with self loathing, which at times she would transfer to the lighter complexioned Malcolm.  The family had moved several times, leaving homes when the threats of local racists became too much for them.  In 1931 Malcolm’s father was murdered, having been beat and left on the road to die.  His death was ruled as suicide despite obvious signs that it was murder.  Malcolm’s mother was left with seven children and no money to feed them.  Often the family was left hungry surviving on dandelion weeds cooked in hot water.  Although his mother struggled to keep her family together, the continual harassment of the social service workers who would frequent their home became too much of a strain on her, leaving her emotionally collapsed.  Louise Little was committed to a mental institution and the children were taken for placement.  Malcolm was placed with the Gohannas family; however, because he was an awkwardly tall youngster with fair skin, reddish hair and freckles he was frequently teased by the other children.  Having experienced his father’s death, his mother’s breakdown and separation from his siblings, he began striking out.  This violent venting caught up with him and he found himself headed for reform school.  On the way to reform school he was temporarily placed at the home of the Swerlins, who took a liking to Malcolm and kept him rather than sending him on his way.  Although he was treated with kindness, it was not as a young man but rather a mascot.  He was studious in school and felt a moderate degree of acceptance.  He had, through this time, used the self defense mechanism of accepting one’s place in society; however, that would soon change. 

            The catalyst to Malcolm’s first phase of evolution occurred in the schoolroom.  Malcolm, who as the president of his class and an academic achiever, expressed to his teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, his desire to become a lawyer.  Mistakenly believing he was doing young Malcolm a service, he explained, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger.  A lawyer--that’s no realistic goal for a nigger.  You need to think of something you can be”(Haley 1973:, X 1973: 38).  Since Malcolm was accepted around town, intelligent and good with his hands, it was suggested he become a carpenter.  “People like you as a person--you’d get all kinds of work.”(Haley 1973: 1973: 38).  This was a blow which even as an adult Malcolm would relate as a tremendous moment in his life.  The indifference to his treatment in town was now gone and he became brutally aware that he was, and would always be, limited in potential.  This moment sucked from Malcolm the desire to play along.  “It was then that I began to change--inside.  I drew away from white people. . . . Where ‘nigger’ had slipped off my back before, wherever I heard it now, I stopped and looked at whoever said it.  And they looked surprised that I did”(Haley 1973: 38).  Shortly thereafter, following a series of letters, custody of Malcolm was given to his half sister Ella.  The week Malcolm graduated eighth grade he got on a bus and headed to Boston to live with Ella.  In his autobiography he states, “I’ve thought about that time a lot since then.  No physical move in my life has been more pivotal or profound in its repercussion”(Haley 1973: 39). 

            It is at this point that Malcolm exits the first phase, that of denial, and enters the second phase in his development.  Phase 2, the Detroit Red phase, begins when Malcolm arrives in Boston.  “What I thought I was seeing there in Roxbury were high-class, educated, important Negroes, living well, working in big jobs and positions”(Haley 1973: 42).  Malcolm; however, could not assimilate to the people on the Hill, and found himself seeking “Negroes who were being their natural selves and not putting on airs”(Haley 1973: 45).  While on a trip to town he met with his first real friend, a hustler called Shorty.  Shorty, older and more experienced, introduced Malcolm to a whole new world.  During this phase of self discovery Shorty was a powerful influence on Malcolm’s desire to create a new, hip, black identity.  His first conk, his first zoot suit, his first job, his first taste of marijuana, all occurred under Shorty’s tutelage.  Malcolm’s job at the Roseland Ballroom opened new doors of understanding for him.  It was also at this time when Malcolm began his relationship with one of the customers of Roseland, a white woman named Sophie.  His heavy identification with the music and dance, the status of his appearance as well as the blonde on his arm, the observance of various “side jobs” where money was exchanged for drugs, alcohol and other services, all excited Malcolm and he quickly adopted to these roles as a standard practice.  Malcolm left Roseland and took a job as a sandwich man on the “Yankee Clipper” which traveled from Boston to New York.  Once in New York Malcolm gravitated to Harlem where, “In one night, New York--Harlem--had just about narcotized me” (Haley 1973: 78).  In 1942 Malcolm, having been fired from the railroad, began working as a waiter at his favorite bar in Harlem.  Working at a Harlem hot spot had its advantages and Malcolm “listened raptly to customers who . . . would tell me inside things about the particular form of hustling that he pursued as a way of life. . . . numbers, pimping, con games of many kinds, peddling dope, and thievery of all sorts, including armed robbery”(Haley 1973: 86).  As Malcolm became more integrated in this seedier lifestyle, his financial needs began to change.  Soon he began his own hustling.  He began running numbers for a notorious Harlem figure, West Indian Archie, escorting prostitutes, selling drugs, committing armed robberies and running hustles on anyone who he could victimize.  His face was becoming well known to the local police and he had to be more cautious.  After a falling out with Archie he found himself on the run.  He headed back to Boston where he, Shorty, Sophie and Sophie’s sister began planning.  By this time Malcolm had begun using cocaine heavily and needed to find quick ways to make money to support his habits.  The group began casing out homes and burglarizing.  They would sell the items to a fence, and, for a time, were doing financially well.  That was until the police kicked in the door. 

            In February of 1946 Malcolm and Shorty were tried on fifteen counts of burglary; however, it appeared to them as though they were actually being tried for the crime of sleeping with white women.  “Nobody wanted to know anything about the robberies.  All they could see was that we had taken the white man’s woman”(Haley 1973: 153).  Malcolm states, “I reflected many times that the average burglary sentence for a first offender, as we all were, was bout two years.  But we weren’t going to get the average--not for our crime”(Haley 1973: 153).  The sentence was eight to ten years on each count, to run concurrently.  The women were sentenced to one to five years in a Women’s Reformatory.

            Malcolm’s imprisonment had now taken on a more tangible form.  Previously he was suffering the isolation of society and imprisonment into a lifestyle “allowed” by white society.  Now; however, he was completely caged.  Where before his mind was not free to pursue alternatives, he now was restricted in any type of freedom at all.  The bars which held Malcolm left a lifelong impression upon him, “Any person who claims to have deep feelings for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars--caged.  I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars.  Behind bars, a man never reforms.  He will never forget.  He never will get completely over the memory of the bars”(Haley 1973: 155).  During his time in prison he sought to escape using, at first, nutmeg bought from fellow inmates, but later harder drugs supplied by corrupt guards.  These narcotics did not, however, provide the escape that Malcolm sought.  In 1947 Malcolm caught his first glimpse of freedom, in the form of a self-educated fellow black convict named Bimbi.  Bimbi gained Malcolm’s respect through his intellect and ability to speak.  This respect resulted in Malcolm’s pursuing of correspondence courses and reading materials from the library.  It was at this time that Malcolm exits Phase 2, the angry, self destructive, self-fulfilling prophecy phase and entered into Phase 3 of his evolution, Malcolm X. 

            Freedom for Malcolm had become the fix he now sought.  He would read whatever he could get his hands on from the prison library.  At this time his brother Philbert began writing to Malcolm praising his new religion, the Nation of Islam.  Malcolm, although expanding his mind, was not ready to embrace religion.  He was still aching at his imprisonment and rejected the idea of spiritual growth focusing on his intellectual growth.  Following his brother Philbert’s attempt at conversion, Malcolm’s brother Reginald wrote to him.  In his letter he said the words Malcolm so desperately sought, “I’ll show you how to get out of prison”(Haley 1973: 158).  He followed Reginald’s instructions believing that there was a hustle brewing that would allow him to leave prison.  He was told not to eat any more pork nor smoke any more cigarettes.  After being transferred to Norfolk Massachusetts’s Prison Colony Malcolm’s brother Reginald arrived for a visit.  Malcolm was excited expecting to hear details about the con that Reginald had come up with but instead was asked, “if a man knew every imaginable thing that there is to know, who would he be?” which had Malcolm answer “he would have to be some kind of a god--”(Haley 1973: 161).  Reginald continues to explain, “There’s a man who knows everything. . . . God is a man, . . . His real name is Allah” (Haley 1973: 161).  This was Malcolm’s introduction to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.  Reginald ministered to the caged Malcolm and through his understandings of the religion of the black man, the oppressive, manipulations of the white man, and the personal self in which he was to be responsible for, Malcolm became enthused.  He read diligently of the teachings of the Nation of Islam and soon converted fully to Muslim.  His devotion to the “messenger of God,” Elijah Muhammad, was all consuming and he wrote daily to his minister.  Elijah Muhammad wrote back, and “it had an all but electrical” effect on Malcolm to see “the signature of the ‘Messenger of Allah’” Haley 1973: 172).  Malcolm states that “a new world had opened up to me through my efforts to document his teachings in books”(Haley 1973: 182).  For Malcolm, this was freedom.  Later in his life, during a speech, Malcolm explains: “"When a person places the proper value on freedom, there is nothing under the sun that he will not do to acquire that freedom. Whenever you hear a man saying he wants freedom, but in the next breath he is going to tell you what he won't do to get it, or what he doesn't believe in doing in order to get it, he doesn't believe in freedom. A man who believes in freedom will do anything under the sun to acquire . . . or preserve his freedom" (BrainyQuote 2001).

            When Malcolm was released from prison in 1952 he went to Detroit to become a member of temple.  Malcolm was at last to meet his mentor, Elijah Muhammad.  The two would have discussions on how to recruit members for the temple.  Malcolm, having lived for a time on the streets, knew the language and was able to recruit from some of the rougher areas.  It was during this time that he adopted the X to his name to replace the “slave name” he had been given. 

            Malcolm’s appeal to the members of the temple had him exalted to a position of Minister for the Nation of Islam.  Devout in his belief in Elijah Muhammad, he would speak to throngs of people, in his name, relating the peace that could be found from the “white devil” within the Muslim faith.  Malcolm went on to minister at Temple Seven in Harlem.  He would actively speak and participate across the country; however, and became known along side of Elijah Muhammad as a spokesman for the Nation.  Malcolm married in 1958; however, that did not slow down his extensive traveling to speaking engagements.  It was late in 1958 when Malcolm brought the Nation of Islam a new notoriety when during a scuffle in Harlem a Muslim named Brother Johnson Hinton was assaulted by New York police.  When news reached Malcolm he decided to call upon his Muslim brothers to march to the police precinct house where Brother Johnson was held.  When confronted, the police were, “nervous and scared of the gathering crowd outside” (Haley 1973: 238).  The allowed Malcolm to see Brother Johnson, which resulted in the brother being brought to the hospital.  Afterward, the crowd dispersed; however, the event gave a voice that was until then unheard, the voice of the Nation of Islam.  Newspapers wrote and reporters sought interviews, but not of Elijah Muhammad, but of Malcolm X.  Envy began to rise within the Nation and Elijah Muhammad, apparently intimidated by the outspokenness of Malcolm, took notice.  Phase 3 unraveled when Malcolm became a target of this jealousy and was forced to see beyond the utopia that he thought he had found within the Nation.  The first event leading to this end was Malcolm’s awakening from the euphoria he had felt at becoming a leader, a mentor and a disciple of his “living god” Elijah Muhammad.  In 1963 Malcolm’s teachings strayed away from morality issues and began covering social issues.  He states, “the reason for this was that my faith had been shaken in a way that I can never fully describe.  For I had discovered Muslims had been betrayed by Elijah Muhammad himself” (Haley 1973: 301).  It was at that time that news had broke that Elijah Muhammad was being faced with paternity suits from two of his former secretaries.  Adultery was a serious breech in the Muslim doctrines which would normally result in the guilty party being “ousted in disgrace” therefore, Malcolm entered into a period of turmoil and confusion.  It was as though he had been told that God was dead.  In an effort to understand what was happening Malcolm visited the two secretaries.  He was told by the publicly disgraced women that Elijah Muhammad had told them he “was the best, the greatest minister he ever had, but that someday I would leave him, turn against him--so I was ‘dangerous.’  I learned . .  .that while he was praising me to my face, he was tearing me apart behind my back” (Haley 1973: 303).  The second event leading to Malcolm’s evolution occurred when President Kennedy was assassinated.  Although Muslim’s were instructed not to speak nor give interviews on the subject, Malcolm was quoted as saying, “the chickens coming home to roost” (Haley 1973: 307).  This resulted in headlines which embarrassed the Nation and caused Elijah Muhammad to “silence” Malcolm.  Although upset by this news, he understood that discipline was important to the Muslin way and he had disobeyed a direct order.  When he returned to New York; however, he was shocked to find that the position was that he had not submitted to his punishment, although he knew that he had.  The final blow came when he received a call from one of the Brothers in his mosque.  He was told that it was being said, “If you knew what the Minister did, you’d go out and kill him yourself” (Haley 1973: 309).  Malcolm knew, “any death-talk for me could have been approved of--if not actually initiated--by only one man” (Haley 1973: 309).  Phase 3, the building of esteem through empowerment, a sense of belonging and recognition of one’s peers was not over.  It was up to Malcolm now to find himself.  This has been a recurring theme throughout Malcolm’s life and through each of the previous phases he would have mentors, now he was alone.  In his own words, “Number one, we want to know what are we? How did we get to be what we are? Where did we come from? How did we come from there? Who did we leave behind, and what are they doing over there where we used to be? This is something that we have not been told. We have been brought over here and isolated” (Okantah 2001). 

            Malcolm entered his fourth and final phase without the support of an advisor or mentor and isolated from the very thing that had brought him his sense of self worth.  But although he was going through turmoil he had enough inner strength and faith to remain a devout Muslim.  He started Muslim Mosque, Inc. of Harlem in order to continue teaching the Muslim faith.  He was still; however, left feeling isolated and confused.  This is when he decided to make the pilgrimage, which is every Muslin’s obligation, to Mecca - the Hajj pilgrimage.  With the help of his half sister Ella, who Malcolm himself had converted to Muslim, he was able to finance the trip.  The pilgrimage was a true spiritual awakening for Malcolm.  For the first time he sees people of all races together, in unity, showing each other respect and kindness.  He was shown great acts of kindness and consideration from people of all races and stations in life.  This experience opened Malcolm’s eyes to what the true meaning of Muslim brotherhood meant.  He wrote a letter to his Muslim Mosque, Inc. offices and asked that the letter be copied to the press.  Knowing that his anti-white stance and defiant stance against integration was widely known, he sought to announce his new enlightenment.  I have quoted this letter, in part, below:

Never have I witness such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad, and all the other prophets of the Holy Scriptures.  For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors.

*          *          *

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world.  They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans.  But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white (Haley 1973: 347).

            He signed this letter with his Phase 4 name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.  After the pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm traveled to Africa and the Middle East where he would sit with the leaders of nations discussing the American racial problems and the ways which those nations could assist and easing the racial tension and alleviating the black people of the oppression they lived under.  When he returned to the United States he started the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular political group.  Although a changed man, he was met with mistrust and doubt.  This doubt was easily seen when in February of 1965 Malcolm’s house was firebombed.  Although he had repeatedly warned public officials, the threat to his life was not taken seriously enough.  Malcolm, in an omniscient moment, stated to his co-author, Alex Haley, the following, “Yes, I have cherished my ‘demagogue’ role.  I know that societies often have killed the people who have helped to change those societies.  And if I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help to destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America--then, all the credit is due to Allah.  Only the mistakes have been mine” (Haley 1973: 389).  The end of Malcolm’s 4th and final phase of evolution occurred on February 21, 1965 while giving a speech in the Audubon Ballroom in the Harlem he had so loved as bullets ripped through his chest in front of an audience of over two hundred people, as well as his wife and four children. 

            Malcolm’s fourth phase of development, his knowledge not only of “self”, but self in relation to the world around it.  He developed the belief that there is good to be found in all mankind regardless of race; the beauty that can be found by looking unbiased at your fellow human being.  He found that he was part of an interdependent world, he did not have to function as only Malcolm a man, but as part of something bigger than himself.  He accepted responsibility for his mistakes and sought to atone for them.  The only thing that could stop Malcolm from growth was death, but even in death, he still speaks of the will of the human being in overcoming oppression, isolation, imprisonment and hate.  In the story of Malcolm’s life we see the worst in man transcend all obstacles to become the best in man.  He faced insurmountable odds and overcame them to become a testament to the strength within us that waits only to be called upon. 


BrainyQuote. 2001. Retrieved April 5, 2005 <>.

Haley, Alex, and Malcolm X. 1973. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballentine Books.

Okantah, Mwatabu. 2001. “Finding Malcolm X” TimBookTu.. Retrieved April 4, 2005 <>.

Sinclair, Upton. 1906. The Jungle. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Enter supporting content here