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Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture > Malcolm X: A Search for Truth

Becoming Malcolm X: Incarceration and Conversion, 1946–52

“…the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.… My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America.”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The “Detroit Red” who entered prison in February 1946 gained a place for himself there as the angry, irreligious “Satan,” as Malcolm X describes him in the Autobiography. But an older prisoner, John Elton Bembry, recognized Malcolm’s intelligence and encouraged him to read. Then his older siblings Hilda, Wilfred, and Philbert, and the younger Reginald, brought him word of a way of looking at the world that was new—and yet not so. They coaxed him back to his beginnings.

They had all converted to a small religious group called the Nation of Islam (NOI), and eventually Malcolm started to pay serious attention to its practices. The Nation had a familiar philosophy: self-determination, pride, and cultural and economic independence from white society. This approach to life had been built into their formative years through the Marcus Garvey/UNIA philosophy of their parents. The Nation offered Malcolm the Honorable Elijah Muhammad—a father figure, protector, mentor, and guide through the trials and tribulations of life as a black man in the United States. At the same time, Malcolm began a dedicated quest for knowledge that he pursued to the end of his life. He turned prison into a university. Reading broadly and constantly, always writing and thinking, he also began to hone his natural intellect and verbal skills through the debate club. Prison became the training ground for his coming ministry in the Nation of Islam. Brought back to his roots by his new life, spurred by his utter faith in and devotion to the Islam he had embraced, Malcolm, at his parole in August 1952, was being pushed forward into a world he couldn’t have imagined.



February - Begins serving ten-year sentence at Charlestown (Massachusetts) Prison.

June 3 - U.S. Supreme Court bans segregation in interstate motor travel.


Moved to Concord Reformatory. Begins process of self-education that lasts throughout his term. Converts to Nation of Islam under influence of his siblings.


July 26 - President Harry S. Truman issues executive order prohibiting discrimination in armed forces.


Moved to Norfolk Prison Colony. He and Malcolm Jarvis (“Shorty”) join debate club.


Returned to Charlestown.


August - Paroled. Moves to Michigan with brother Wilfred.

September - Earns “X” surname from Nation of Islam.

Next Section: Being Minister Malcolm X: Growing the Nation, 1953-63