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As a poor, African-American man, Malachai Henry isn't respected much by the dominant social order of 1950s, small-town Florida. But after The Day? He's a model citizen.
Despite the prejudices of his neighbors, Malachai is one of the smartest people in Fort Repose. He reminds Randy of Sam Perkins, an African-American soldier Randy served with during the Korean War and whose friendship opened his eyes to the equality of the races. While Sam is upper-cruster of sorts, however, Malachai is a dirt-poor repairman. He stays abreast with the news by reading scraps of newspapers snagged from the houses of his employers, like Randy.
In fact, Malachai and his family are some of the few people Randy warns ahead of the nuclear attack—and Malachai is the only one who isn't surprised by the news. Warning them turns out to be the smartest move Randy makes. The Henrys, perhaps because they've been living in poverty their whole lives, are immediately able to grow crops, raise chickens, and live off the land with ease.
All of this is to say is that it's a huge bummer when Malachai is killed during the climactic battle with the highwaymen, having volunteered to drive the truck at great risk to himself.
As Dan says:
"So many people died for nothing. Malachai was dying for something." (11.126)
While we would've much preferred Malachai make it through this thing in one piece, it's very much in his character to make a noble sacrifice for the people around him.