Malcolm X and James Baldwin: Two Journeys to Truth

Malcolm X, 1964, Wikimedia Common
James Baldwin (center), 1963, Wikimedia Commons












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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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 [3].  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 [4]. He came to the conclusion that “The white man is the devil” [5], and that “The American black man is the world’s most shameful case of minority oppression [6].

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.” [6]

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?” [7]. 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 [8]. 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.




[3] X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine, 1992, 177.


[5] X, Malcolm, and Alex Haley. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine, 1992,187.


[7] Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage International, 1993, 71.


12 thoughts on “Malcolm X and James Baldwin: Two Journeys to Truth

  1. The writings of Malcolm X and James Baldwin became symbols for the African American struggle in American society. As Kelly explained, they used their experiences as black men to account for the racism that plagued them throughout their lives. I wonder what scholars, writers, and artists have emerged today to take that torch. Does anyone know of any popular visionaries that have challenged continued racism and other related topics like immigration reform in our country?

    1. Forgot to mention – I really enjoy the writings of Tim Wise, but I wouldn’t be able to put him on the same level as Malcolm X or Baldwin. How does one rise to that place of importance in the national struggle against racism? If you’re interested:

      1. I also really enjoy Tim Wise, I read him during a class on the ethics and origins of race in undergrad.

    2. There are LOTS 🙂 of contemporary writers that discuss implications of race, racism, sexism, and etc. I love the works of Edwidge Danticat, Buchi Emecheta, Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison…and the list continues. However, the works of Malcolm X and Baldwin are timeless. When reading their works, I find it difficult to make distinctions between the issues that were prevalent during their lifetimes and the challenges people face today.

      1. I have read some Toni Morrison as well… thanks for the suggestions acbowden!

  2. I found the different approaches of Malcolm X and James Baldwin in the struggle for civil liberties to be very interesting. While Malcolm X absorbs the entire philosophy of the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad, James Baldwin holds himself back from joining the organization depite similar beliefs. However, the point on which they differed, that all “white men are the devil,” led to a gap between the approaches that Malcolm X and James Baldwin took. What are some of the reasons that led Malcolm X and James Baldwin to differ on this point? Was it because James Baldwin had friends who were white, and therefore could not believe that all “white men are the devil.” Or, was it Malcolm X’s experiences before, during, and after prison that led him to believe the opposite was true?

    1. I think it’s important to consider how the NOI gave meaning to the lives of many black men and women. Considering the times, the NOI delivered messages of hope, empowerment, and self-determination. The institution created a history, although a faulty one, that valorized the importance and contributions of people of African descent. (Prior to the 60s, blacks were denied a history. Many contended that people of African descent didn’t make any significant contributions to the world.) In addition, the NOI provided the space and opportunity for reform–especially for substance abusers, drunkards, ex-cons, etc. Perhaps Baldwin’s prior experience with church turned him off to religious institutions, in general.

      Whatever the case, I think Baldwin struggled with ideas of “whiteness”–not necessarily white people. Malcolm X too embraced this struggle towards the end of his life.

  3. It’s always interesting to see how opinions and approaches differ within, not just civil rights, but any type of movement. Is it ever easy for a cause to move forward if there are dissenting opinions within the group or does such polarization hold the entire group back? The same thing happened in second-wave feminism. I guess the beauty in these movements is that differing opinions are accepted and encouraged. It was really a place to be who you were and stand up for what you believed in.

    1. Is it always a positive thing though? I know that in the suffrage movement in the 19th century, the divisions between the thoughts of women leaders hindered rather than helped the movement. I agree that it is good to get a variety of opinions, but it can be problematic when it holds your movement back.

  4. I agree that I find the two different approaches very interesting to look at and that this variety in opion and nuance in thought is what makes these topics so intersting to study. In terms of affective social change, I believe that Baldwin has an approach from which one can work off of by saying that it is not the person that is evil, it is the idea that surrounds “whiteness” that is evil. If we were to buy into the other arguement that all white men are the devill than what does that mean? What can be done with that? One can not reform the devil and so society is therefore just destined to be the same without hope of change… Isn’t it better than to agree with Baldwin that the person is not evil it is the concept and behavior surrounding the idea of whiteness that is problematic.

  5. Malcolm X is one of my favorite figures of the Civil Rights Movement, not just because of his passion and presence, but also because of his ability to alter long held beliefs in the face of new information. His Hajj to Mecca greatly affected his views on racism and led him to make statements in the last months of his life that were contrary to his previous support of Black Nationalism. I think the greatest tragedy of Malcolm X’s life is that his legacy in popular culture is still one of a hard line Black Nationalist and less so of a reasoned individual.

  6. Reblogged this on nomasons and commented:
    April 25, 1962? Although the recorded date seems to differ, it might generally be accepted that on this day, Laverne McCummings, James Baldwin and Minister Malcolm sat round a table to discuss the student protests. (It was through Obasha that we were made aware of this exchange.) In honour of their exchange, Making Malone was released on April 25th, 2012.
    This year, 2013, April 25th marks another anniversary which, itself, might similarly have enchanted Mr Baldwin. We are referring to the anti-sexual March on Washington. We are not apologising for this behaviour/identity, as it does not seem to serve our purposes of being constructive in these combined efforts for, and towards, dignity and expression.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s