This week for class, we read the works of two men known for their writings about racism and the African American experience: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Malcolm X’s autobiography. In their works they describe the transformational periods in their lives that led them to strive for truth, understanding, and change in American race relations. For Malcolm X, this period was his time in jail, and for James Baldwin, it was his encounter with Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam.
In 1946, Malcolm X was convicted of burglary and sentenced to ten years in prison, some of which he served at the Norfolk Prison Colony, in Norfolk, Massacusetts . It was during that time that his brother Reginald visited him and introduced him to the Nation of Islam and the teachings of its leader, Elijah Muhammed. The NOI and Muhammed taught black pride and the principles of Islam, which they believed would help African Americans to regain their place among other men . Muhammed particularly believed that by studying how white men had “whitened” history to exclude the black man, the truth about the black man’s role in society would come out . Once introduced to these ideas, Malcolm began reading and studying in the library at the prison, which was experimental in its use of an extensive library collection for rehabilitation and education of prisoners.
Changing his last name to the letter X, Malcolm transformed into a scholar, speaker, and eventually a leader in the NOI. The letter X indicated the last name that he would never really know, as his legal name (Little) was merely the name of the white men that owned him in the past . He came to the conclusion that “The white man is the devil” , and that “The American black man is the world’s most shameful case of minority oppression .
After he was paroled from prison, Malcolm X was appointed a minister and national spokesman for the NOI. His passionate speeches and writings brought in thousands of new members for the Nation, and galvanized him as one of the faces of the black pride movement.
In the two letters of his book, James Baldwin describes his early attempt at being a preacher and his later meeting with Elijah Muhammed. He wrote that this first experience convinced him that neither Christianity, nor preaching would allow him to fully explore the truth of his experience as a black man in America. “Those three years in the pulpit — I didn’t realize it then — that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.” 
Baldwin left preaching and began writing biographical and semi-biographical stories about his life and identity. The Fire Next Time, became a primary text in the civil rights movement, as it explored the the struggles that black men face in a world created by and for the white man. At the end of the second essay, Baldwin recounted his meeting with Elijah Muhammed, who had become aware of Baldwin and his influence on the civil rights movement. Although they agreed about many aspects of racism, Baldwin did not believe that all white men were evil. When prompted for his opinion on this subject Baldwin said to Muhammed “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?” . Muhammed appeared to think that Baldwin would come to the same conclusions as Malcolm X. That in order for blacks to fully realize their potential, they must be separate from whites.
James Baldwin never joined the Nation of Islam, but he continued to write and remain an important voice of the civil rights struggle. Malcolm X eventually left the NOI in 1968 after beginning to move away from the rigid religious teachings and hearing rumors of Elijah Muhammed’s extramarital affairs with various young women in the organization . On February 21, 1965, three members of the Nation of Islam gunned down Malcolm X during a speech at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom.
Malcolm X and James Baldwin used their experiences as black men to write about racism and to make aware the need for change in American society. They searched for truth through different avenues, but both drew on their accounts of personal struggles to became some of the loudest voices among those working towards equality in the civil rights movement.
 X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine, 1992, 177.
 X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine, 1992,187.
 Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage International, 1993, 71.