Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the product of a three-year collaboration, had sold over six million copies worldwide by 1977. The ex-convict, reviled as a messenger of hate and shot down in a hail of 21 bullets, had been brought back to life not as a saint but surely as a martyr—and as one of the great voices of a revolutionary era.
To the Columbia University historian Manning Marable, who concluded this new biography, a 10-year project, just before his own death, Malcolm X is a more complex person than the pilgrim of the autobiography. But he is a “yardstick by which all Americans who aspire to leadership should be measured.”
Born Malcolm Little in Omaha in 1925, the son of a Marcus Garveyite activist run over by a streetcar and killed and a mother institutionalized with depression, the young Malcolm was a petty criminal and dope dealer with no education.
Reading widely in prison over six years, he became a convert to a cult version of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad, who presented himself as God’s messenger and taught that white people are devils and that his followers must withdraw from civic life into the Nation of Islam. Influenced by Antonio Gramsci, who survived prison by giving himself a purpose, Malcolm read Negro history, Herodotus, Gandhi and Nat Turner and taught himself to debate and challenge authority.
After his release in 1952, Malcolm joined Elijah Muhammad in Chicago, then moved to Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston and New York training for ministry in the sect, whose membership then numbered fewer than 1,000 nationwide.
Moved by Malcolm’s oratory, wit and rigid discipline—he rose at 5 to pray, did not curse, smoke, drink, eat between meals or pursue women—new recruits drawn from prisons, unemployment lines, ghettos and the working class quadrupled the membership, which numbered 75,000 by 1961. Malcolm also caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and police, who found his mockery of white society inflammatory and planted informers in his audiences and bugged his phones.
Malcolm gained and lost in encounters with Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Louis Lomax, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali and Louis Farrakhan. Martin Luther King Jr., whom Malcolm alternately mocked and respected, met with him just once, for only a minute.
Malcolm stood apart from most of the others in the degree to which each saw him- or herself as an American. He did not identify with the American Dream; and until almost the very end considered Negro leaders who organized voters to support civil rights legislation and opposed violence to be wimpy “Uncle Toms.”
Marable structures his work around a chronology that tracks his subject’s every move, fleshed out with archives and interviews, plus a critical deconstruction of Haley’s Autobiography. The theme of character reinvention knits the narrative together as Malcolm Little morphs into Detroit Red, then into Malcolm X and then drops the X.
The conversions are three: the first resulted from his prison reading; the second, the realization that “whites” are brothers, came as he circled the Kaaba on his pilgrimage to Mecca; the third occurred during a 24-week journey through the Middle East and Africa, in which he came to see himself as a black citizen of the world.
The sub-theme is his rupture with the Nation of Islam and his struggle to rediscover himself one more time as the leader of two smaller movements—Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity—before his enemies would kill him.
Marable admires his subject but does not flinch from his weaknesses. Perhaps the turmoil of Malcolm’s first 26 years thwarted a better self fighting to emerge. I listened again to passages in my recordings of his speeches in which he turns on his audience like a stand-up comic with his routine on the “House Negro and the Field Negro.” When the master is sick the House Negro identifies with the master. He asks, “What’s the matter, Massa? We sick?” The Field Negro prays that the master will die. Malcolm ridicules the white American troops in World War II, outsmarted by the dark-skinned Japanese, who can hide at night.
The worst moment in the story, for me, is in Los Angeles in April 1962, when an attempted arrest of Nation of Islam suspects outside a mosque grew into a melee between mosque members and over 70 police officers. Seven Muslims were shot; one, who tried to surrender, was shot dead from behind. For Malcolm it was time for an eye for an eye. He recruited an assassination team to target L.A.P.D. officers. Fortunately Elijah Muhammad reined him in. But he was ready to murder.
Malcolm turned against Elijah because, in violation of the rules against fornication, the leader had impregnated a series of women. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s marriage to Betty Shabazz produced six daughters, including twins born after his death. But Betty complained he did not satisfy her sexually, and every time a daughter was born, he fled town on business. In his last years he began an affair with an 18-year-old secretary.
Marable brings the volume to a violent and sickening climax, leaving both the stench of police or F.B.I. collusion in the assassination and a portrait of the Nation of Islam, the most likely culprits, as thugs straight from “The Sopranos.” On Feb. 21, 1965, as Malcolm began a lecture at the packed Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, someone tossed a smoke bomb; and three men, one with a shotgun, stood up, shot him down and escaped. Marable identifies the three. Only one of them was convicted and sent to prison, along with two men who were in fact not involved. At the trial Betty walked past the defense table and shouted hysterically, “Those two men killed my husband”—the wrong men.
Eventually, the family fell apart. One daughter tried to hire a hit man to kill Louis Farrakhan, who she thought had conspired to kill her father. That daughter’s son set fire to Betty’s apartment in 1997. She died of the burns. In 2011 one of the twins was arrested for stealing from the widow of one of her father’s bodyguards.
This book is Marable’s greatest achievement.
I stand by what I wrote in “Malcolm X Lives” (America 4/22/67):
…in a quick, tragic existence he achieved in heroic manner what society usually credits to sages and saints: he had changed. He had come to know, without flinching, the evil in himself and in the world.
But sadness now outweighs my admiration for Malcolm. If only someone could have gotten to him when he was young, kept him in high school and shepherded him into a university, he might still be alive. But who would he have become?