On October 29, 1965, nine months after its subject’s assassination, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is first published. The non-traditional autobiography of a singular figure in Black history, the book tells the story and establishes some of the core elements of the legacy of the slain civil rights leader.
The idea for the Autobiography came not from Malcom X himself but from the publishing company Doubleday, who asked journalist Alex Haley to pursue the project. Malcolm X was skeptical of the idea, and Haley later recounted that even after he had begun interviews for the book, it was difficult to keep him focused on himself rather than the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Muhammad. Eventually, however, the two developed a sometimes contentious but fruitful working relationship, with Haley conducting hours of interviews and advising Malcolm X on storytelling and style. Originally, Haley was referred to as the book’s ghostwriter, but the Autobiography is now viewed as a collaboration between Haley, the future author of Roots, and Malcolm X, who publicly broke with the Nation of Islam, gave his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, converted to Sunni Islam, and made a pilgrimage to Mecca during the course of its writing. On February 21, 1965, two days after telling a reporter that the Nation of Islam was actively trying to kill him, Malcolm X was gunned down during an event in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.
The book itself tells Malcolm X’s life story in its entirety, from his childhood memories of his mother, who was eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital, to his involvement in organized crime and subsequent imprisonment, during which he joined the Nation of Islam and corresponded with Muhammad. Critics have compared the Autobiography to St. Augustine’s Confessions, insofar as both tell the story of a wayward young man who undergoes a religious conversion. Through his work with the Nation of Islam and advocacy for Black power, Malcolm X became one of the most prominent figures in the civil rights movement. Already an icon, in death he became a martyr.
As such, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was an immediate best-seller. Doubleday’s decision to pass on the book in the wake of the assassination, out of fears that it might be targeted for publishing it, has been described by biographer Manning Marabel as “the most disastrous decision in corporate publishing history.” The book has long been considered required reading for civil rights activists and continues to form the basis of Malcolm X’s enduring legacy.