When Malcolm X went to prison for larceny at the age of 20, he quickly became frustrated at not being able to express what he wanted to in letters, particularly those to Elijah Muhammad. So he began frequenting the Norfolk Prison Colony library, where he started copying the entire dictionary out word for word, down to the punctuation marks. Likening the dictionary to a miniature encyclopedia, he “learned of people and places and events from history” with each page, finding the first references to the philosophies and teachings he would later devour.

He credits this self-education with the scholarly presence he would present later in life, writing in his autobiography, “Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies.” In the book, he describes reading by the glow of a corridor light at night, feigning sleep every hour when the guards made rounds. He read anything and everything on African history he could find, as well as Oriental philosophy and Asian history, particularly in regards to the rise and fall of white power.

On the influential power of the written word, he said, “I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, 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.” And when later asked by an English writer, “What’s your alma mater?” he simply replied, “Books.”

Read on for a list of the life-changing books Malcolm X picked up in prison, and complement with The Books That Inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


The Abolitionist: or Record of the New-England Anti-slavery Society by Anonymous

Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant

Collected Works by Mahatma Gandhi (also rec’d by Martin Luther King Jr., Marina AbramovicGloria Steinem)

Basic Writings by Kant

Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by Fanny Kemble

Findings in Genetics by Gregor Mendel (out of print)

“Mr. [Elijah] Muhammad’s teaching about how the white man had been created led me to Findings In Genetics by Gregor Mendel. (The dictionary’s G section was where I had learned what “genetics” meant.) I really studied this book by the Austrian monk. Reading it over and over, especially certain sections, helped me to understand that if you started with a black man, a white man could be produced; but starting with a white man, you never could produce a black man — because the white chromosome is recessive. And since no one disputes that there was but one Original Man, the conclusion is clear.” -MX

Message to the Blackman in America by Elijah Muhammad

Basic Writings by Nietzsche

Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom by Frederick Olmsted

Sex and Race by J.A. Rogers

Essays by Schopenhauer 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Outline of History by H.G. Wells

Negro History by Carter G. Woodson

(via The Autobiography of Malcolm XThe Atlanta Black Star)


Books by Malcolm X

The Diary of Malcolm X (1964)

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)

Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (1965)

Categories: Activists

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