While in prison for robbery from 1946 to 1952, he converted to Islam which led him to join the Nation of Islam. His decision to join the NOI was also influenced by discussions with his brother Reginald, who was incarcerated with Malcolm in 1948. Malcolm quit smoking and gambling and refused to eat pork in keeping with the NOI’s dietary restrictions. In order to educate himself, he spent long hours reading books in the prison library, even memorizing a dictionary. He also sharpened his forensic skills by participating in debate classes. Following NOI traditions, he replaced his surname, “Little,” with an “X,” a custom among NOI followers who considered their family names to have originated with white slaveholders.
After his release from prison, Malcolm helped to lead the NOI during the period of its greatest growth and influence. He met Elijah Muhammad in Chicago in 1952 and then began organizing temples for the NOI in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston and in some southern cities. He founded the NOI’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, which he printed in the basement of his home, and initiated the practice of every male member of the NOI to sell a certain number of newspapers on the street as a recruiting and fundraising technique. He also articulated the NOI’s racial doctrines on the inherent evil of whites and the natural superiority of blacks.
Malcolm quickly rose to become the minister of Boston Temple No. 11 that he founded; he was later rewarded with the post of minister of Temple No. 7 in Harlem, the second largest and most prestigious temple in the NOI. Recognizing his talent and ability, Elijah Muhammad named him the National Representative of the NOI, which is second in rank to Muhammad himself. Under Malcolm’s lieutenancy, the NOI claimed a membership of 500,000. The influence of the organization reflected through the public persona of Malcolm X, always greatly exceeded its size.
Malcolm X was commonly known for his articulate public speaking skills, charismatic personality, and indefatigable organization. Malcolm X expressed the pent-up anger, frustration, and bitterness of African Americans during the major phase of the civil rights movement from 1955 to 1965. He preached on the streets of Harlem and spoke at major universities such as Harvard University and the University of Oxford. His keen intellect, incisive wit, and ardent radicalism made him a formidable critic of American society. He also criticized the mainstream civil rights movement, challenging Martin Luther King, Jr.’s central notions of integration and nonviolence. Malcolm argued that more was at stake than the civil right to sit in a restaurant or even to vote. He proclaimed the most important issues were black identity, integrity, and independence.