I kept hearing references about Malcolm X whenever I watched movies and documentaries about American civil rights history, but I never read or watched anything comprehensive about the famed African American Muslim minister and human rights activist.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley, as told by X, details X's transformation from small-town hick to Boston street hustler, then from convict to a preacher of Islam, and finally to a human rights activist.
The final two transformations impressed me the most. While serving time in prison for burglary, X discovered Islam and books, where he began communication with the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, and taught himself to read and write—X read and copied an entire dictionary by hand and soon after voraciously read hundreds of books. X's new found education and participation in intellectual debates while in prison would set the foundation for a career as a Muslim minister and civil rights activist.
Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, "What's your alma mater?" I told him, "Books." You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I'm not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man. —Malcolm X when asked about his education.
The problem with X, even during a period of positive transformation, was his inherent hate and distrust of white people, especially those with power. X grew up in the segregated United States, where X believed his father was murdered by a white racist group, where he excelled in school but a teacher told him being a lawyer "was no realistic goal for a nigger," and where he later received a harsh prison sentence for being caught as a burglar—and involving a white man's wife, who X had an affair with, in the burglary racket. These personal events and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad—where white men were called evil and devils—fueled X's hatred after he left prison and represented the Church of Islam in sermons and in public events throughout the United States.
The final transformation detailed in the book happened when X made his pilgrimage to Mecca. He was met with kindness by people of different colors and races, and X had the inner realization that he incorrectly judged white people as evil. Unfortunately, X was soon murdered by the Nation of Islam after being exiled by the jealous Elijah Muhammad.
What I admired about Malcolm X—and other historical figures I've written about— was his discipline and ability to change his mind late in life. Discipline to learn and work while avoiding vices, a principled life, are qualities I deeply admire—but still struggle with. The ability to change wrong or ineffective principles are the key to growth as a person. The discipline X learned from the principles of Islam—for example, no drinking, drugs or adultery—helped X start a family, clean up his life, and helped save other addicts from the abyss of drug addiction he once lived in.
Malcolm X's transformations showed a heart full of hate and ignorance can still change himself and others.