Malcolm X describes his self-education in his autobiography (Haley, 1992). After a misspent youth which included drugs and hustling on the street, Malcolm X found himself in jail. He struggled with his literacy problems, and then he came upon a novel approach. He copied pages from the dictionary, and along the way improved his writing, his grammar and his vocabulary. In being able to write and articulate his thoughts better, Malcolm X also found that he was able to make his thoughts more clear even to himself. He also become more interested in learning, and the motivation came from within. He began to read voraciously on every topic. It was a self-transformation, one which resulted in the troubled youth become a great speaker, writer and champion for justice. In comparing Malcolm X’s experience to that of C.P. Ellis, the clear common thread is relationships, and in Malcolm X’s case he built a new relationship to the written word through his self-taught exercises.
C.P. Ellis could not have been more different from Malcolm X, as he was a supporter of segregation and a member of an all-white society opposed to African Americans, the Klu Klux Klan. After meeting a black female community organizer Ann Atwater, Ellis had an experience which he described as a rebirth. He completely reconsidered his position on the black community on the basis of getting to know the black community organizer, and chose instead to quit the Klu Klux Klan and to work towards an inclusive movement to end poverty and support labor (Davidson, 1996). Ellis described how growing up he was exposed to many people in his poor, white community who had racist attitudes, and they reinforced an idea in him that segregation was needed to ensure their standard of living did not deteriorate. His father introduced him to the Klu Klux Klan, and it was from this early part of his life that his attitudes towards black Americans were formed. The attitudes were strongly reinforced by the beliefs and behaviors in Ellis’s community.
What is similar in both instances is that long held beliefs, were rooted in important relationships. These were opinions that had not been carefully considered but rather passed down from generation to generation and neighbor to neighbor. These attitudes where abandoned after careful review and reflection of matters on their own merits. One could say that it was this discovery of one’s own opinion which led the transformation from one of blindly believing that which others to repeat to being driven by personal principles. It was such personal principles which drove both men to become activists working for the rights of those who had few.
The effects of their transformation on their characters was that of the development of deeply held ethical and personal convictions which they were able to use to role model and to persuade others to join in their cause and to consider their views.
The experiences of both Malcolm X and C.P. Ellis make clear the importance of personal relationships in forming attitudes. Neither was able to sustain discriminatory attitudes in the wake of such personal relationships, in Malcolm X’s case to reading and the written word and in Ellis’s case to an African American activist with goals and problems similar to his own.
Davidson, O. G. (1996). The best of enemies: race and redemption in the New South. UNC Press Books.
Malcolm, X., Haley, A., & Handler, M. S. (1992). The autobiography of Malcolm X (p. 310). New York: Ballantine Books.