FROM THE BACK OF THE BOOK MARCH 29, 2012
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
By Manning Marable
(Viking Press, 594 pp., $30)
When Malcolm X died in a hail of assassin’s gunfire at the Audubon Ballroom in February 1965, the mainstream media in the United States was quick to suggest that he reaped the harvest of bloodshed he had brazenly sown. Calling him an “extremist,” “a demagogue,” a “racist,” and a “spiritual desperado,” commentators often insisted that Malcolm advocated the use of violence, regarded whites as “devils,” and was an embodiment—as a television series on the Nation of Islam had put it in 1959—of the “hate that hate produced.” At best, the press acknowledged Malcolm’s oratorical skills and razor-sharp intelligence, and found him to be personally impressive but politically misguided; at worst, they regarded him as an opportunist and religious zealot intent on stirring the cauldron of racial conflict, the polar opposite of the increasingly admired Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Several months later, with the posthumous publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (produced in collaboration with Alex Haley), a more complex portrait began to emerge. It depicted a life of major and unexpected transformations, from a young street-hustling, drug-peddling burglar to a born-again member of the Nation of Islam and finally to an activist whose simultaneous spiritual and political reawakenings tragically presaged his death. The vehicle of this veritable transubstantiation was the penitentiary to which he was confined for seven years and where, owing to the initiatives of a fellow inmate and family members, Malcolm embarked on a journey of re-education, which included his embrace of the spiritual guidance of Elijah Muhammad.
Manning Marable’s stunning and fascinating biography of Malcolm X helps us to navigate these different representations, and pays special attention to how the Autobiography was constructed and how its narrative may be viewed. But more than anything else, Marable gives us a Malcolm we have never really seen before, and makes sense of him and the world in which he lived: a figure whose deep political genealogy gave powerful shape to how he developed and what he did at various points in his life. This is an impressive study not so much of “reinvention” as of political education, and it offers profound insight into the ideas and the aspirations that would constitute African America in the modern age.
READERS MAY WELL regard the last half of Malcolm X with special interest, because there Marable reconstructs Malcolm’s estrangement from the Nation of Islam and the conspiracy that ended in his assassination. It is a gripping story. Marable avails himself of FBI reports, police case-files, and oral histories—among many other sources—and does the sort of detective work that authorities at the time refused to do. But in many respects the freshest and most consequential material is to be found in the earliest sections of Marable’s book, especially in his treatment of Malcolm’s birth family and his youth. For there Marable confounds the notion, advanced by the Autobiography, that Malcolm’s politicization was chiefly a product of his incarceration, and enables us to grasp the political influences that swirled around him and left indelible imprints—and none were more important, we discover, than Marcus Garvey and the movement that he catalyzed in the United States and across the world.
A Jamaican who had been a labor organizer in Central America and a Pan-Africanist acolyte in London, Garvey arrived in New York City in 1916 and immediately established a base for his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). It was a propitious time. The ferocious tide of Jim Crow had been sweeping across the southern states with such power that it had fully infected the national government (Plessy v. Ferguson, Williams v. Mississippi, the segregation of the federal bureaucracy) and contributed to a swelling flood of African Americans into the cities of the North that has come to be known as the “Great Migration.” There, and in the small-town and rural South, Garvey would find a receptive audience for his arguments about the current predicament and the future destiny of people of African descent: that white racism was deep and intractable; that the prospects for racial assimilation were remote; that the American government was dominated by, and worked in the interests of, white people; that blacks, together with other people of color around the globe, constituted a formidable political and cultural force; and that a meaningful future of freedom and progress would require the defeat of European colonialism on the African continent and the establishment of a black nation there with the muscle to defend itself and command the world’s respect. So compelling were these arguments that within a few short years Garvey was publishing his own newspaper, called the Negro World, and the UNIA was able to claim over two hundred divisions in southern and western Africa, South America, Canada, and the Caribbean basin, and over nine hundred in the United States.
Among the most eager recruits and followers was Earl Little. Like many Garveyites of the period, Little was born and raised in the southern countryside—in Reynolds, in southwest Georgia, the child of farming folk—before heading north. Already married with three young children, he departed Georgia suddenly, on his own, in 1917, and after brief stops in Philadelphia and New York City, settled in a community of Caribbean migrants in Montreal. There he met and married a Grenadian named Louisa Langdon Norton (he never bothered to divorce his first wife), and both of them, fired by ideals of social justice and racial advancement, were drawn into a fledgling chapter of the UNIA.
It would prove to be a great turning point for the Little family. Before long Earl and Louisa moved to Philadelphia, where a large and active Garvey movement had taken shape. Earl’s commitment to the cause apparently so impressed local UNIA leaders that he was soon sent to Omaha, Nebraska, with its small black population and revitalized Ku Klux Klan, to continue the work of organization. The challenges were many and the life was hard. With three children now to care for, Earl struggled to scratch out a living while carrying the UNIA message around a radius of more than a hundred miles. Among whites he earned a reputation as a troublemaker, and on at least one occasion the local Klan warned him and his family to leave town, breaking every window in their house to drive the message home. In this context of danger and tension, Louisa gave birth to the couple’s fourth child (and Earl’s seventh), a son they named Malcolm.
EARL LITTLE WAS NOT a model father; he physically abused his wife and children. But Malcolm appears to have escaped much of this cruelty, and was instead introduced to his father’s political passions. Although Earl drilled all of his children in Garveyite principles and spoke to them regularly about “what was going on in the Caribbean area and parts of Africa,” he often brought Malcolm with him to UNIA meetings, where his enthusiasm and leadership were amply on display. “The meetings always closed up,” Malcolm later wrote, “with my father saying several times and the people chanting after him, ‘Up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will!’”
The political life continued to be a peripatetic one for the Littles. They moved from Omaha to Milwaukee, from Milwaukee to East Chicago, in Indiana, and then from East Chicago to Lansing, Michigan. There Earl bought a small farmhouse for the family, and not only mobilized support for the UNIA in the area but also helped to transport the UNIA faithful from many of Michigan’s small towns to larger assemblies in nearby Detroit, by then a hub of Garveyism and black working-class activism more generally. But Earl’s political troubles also worsened. White neighbors tried to have the Littles evicted and, failing, firebombed their house. Earl thought to put his carpentry skills to use in building a new house in another part of town, though not before being legally outmaneuvered. Not surprisingly, Louisa sensed the peril they were in and begged Earl to exercise vigilance. It was to no avail. In September 1931, off to run an errand across town, Earl met a violent death under suspicious circumstances that the local police ruled accidental. Malcolm was all of six years old.
Earl Little’s death threw his family into desperate circumstances. Louisa would end up institutionalized (Marable speculates this may have encouraged Malcolm to believe that women were by nature weak and unreliable), and Malcolm was placed in a juvenile home near Lansing, by which time he had earned the nickname “Red” owing to his hair color. Into this maelstrom, sometime in late 1939 or 1940, stepped Malcolm’s half-sister Ella, who had been born and abandoned by Earl in Georgia, and later moved to Boston. Having heard of the family’s troubles, she took it upon herself to see how the children were faring. By early 1941, she brought Malcolm (the youngest at age fifteen) back east with her, beginning what Marable calls the “first major reinvention” in Malcolm’s life.
Ella was tough, though something less than a rock of stability. She had been married to a Jamaican-born physician (himself a Garveyite) and divorced, then remarried and divorced again, this time shortly after Malcolm arrived in Boston. Money problems led her to shoplift, and an explosive temperament resulted in arrests for assault and battery. Years later, after many more arrests (though only one conviction), she would be admitted to the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. Although she did try to put Malcolm on a steady path, enrolling him in a private all-boys academy, her personal example did not help keep him there. Discovering that the school had no girls in it, Malcolm walked out on the first day and never returned to the school, or attended any other one.
For the next few years Malcolm attempted to make his way in Boston and then in New York City, and his various exploits involving street life, crime, drugs, prostitution, and imprisonment have become the stuff of legend, thanks to the Autobiography. But as Marable demonstrates, the true “reinvention” would come not so much with his activities in the 1940s as with the Malcolm-Haley collaboration of the 1960s. To be sure, Malcolm was no choirboy. He used and sold marijuana, and took part in petty theft. Yet he was not the increasingly hardened and violent criminal he later made himself out to be. He labored briefly as a cook for a railroad line, and then bounced between Boston, New York, and Lansing— including a stint as a “butler and occasional house worker” for a wealthy Boston man, with whom he also shared sexual intimacies (there is no evidence for subsequent homosexuality)—effectively struggling to survive. Along the way he hung out with jazz musicians, performed as a bar entertainer, became romantically involved with a white woman, and moved in the vibrant cultural and political environment that was Harlem. Although the Autobiography portrays a “young black man almost completely uninterested in, even alienated from, politics,” Malcolm in fact carried his childhood political lessons with him, speaking about Garvey’s ideas and looking admiringly at the flamboyant politician and Baptist minister Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
But if Malcolm was not quite a full-fledged criminal, theft did prove to be an important way of getting by. When, especially down on his luck, he returned to Boston in late 1945, he formed a gang that included his white girlfriend and her younger sister to rob homes in affluent neighborhoods. Careless in fencing some of the stolen goods, Malcolm was caught and convicted after the girlfriend turned state’s evidence (which further stimulated his misogynist tendencies). The court, amused neither by Malcolm’s exploits nor by his involvement with “white girls,” threw the book at him, imposing four concurrent eight-to-ten year sentences and three concurrent six-to-eight year sentences on burglary and weapons charges. By the spring of 1946, he was doing time in the wretched Charlestown State Prison, among the oldest penitentiaries in the world.
TWO SIGNIFICANT THINGS happened to Malcolm Little while he served out his prison terms. The first was that he met a fellow inmate, twenty years his senior, named John Elton Bembry, who introduced him to a new world of ideas and self-discipline. Convicted of burglary like Malcolm, Bembry’s knowledge ranged so widely that Malcolm—obviously intellectually inclined—was nothing short of awestruck and envious; even some of the prison guards eagerly sought to hear Bembry speak. Recognizing the connection, Bembry encouraged Malcolm to enroll in correspondence courses and make use of the small prison library. Malcolm responded with avidity, completing the requirements for university extension courses, studying Latin and German, reading in linguistics and etymology, and memorizing word definitions in the dictionary. In the process he gained in self-confidence, and determined to change his life.
A letter from Malcolm’s brother Philbert in early 1948 set the direction of change. Philbert explained that he and the other members of the Little family had become members of the Nation of Islam, and hoped that Malcolm would join them. Initially Malcolm scoffed, later joking that Philbert “was forever joining something,” but the family refused to relent. His brother Reginald and his sister Hilda soon visited Malcolm in prison, told him more about the Nation and their attraction to it, and urged him to contact the supreme leader known as Elijah Muhammad. Long a non-believer, Malcolm was increasingly impressed by his siblings’ devotion, and by the Nation’s project of enabling African Americans—especially the men—to find dignity and self-respect. When he finally decided to embrace the Nation, his commitment to it was already very deep.
The Littles’ gravitation to the Nation of Islam was less surprising than it may seem. Scholars have demonstrated that Islam established a broader base among African Americans, from early on, than has previously been imagined, and by the second decade of the twentieth century a North Carolinian calling himself Noble Drew Ali founded the Moorish Science Temple of America, with an initial base in Newark, New Jersey. The organization then established temples in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Petersburg, Cleveland, Youngstown, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Lansing—all cities where the UNIA had popular followings—and seems to have attracted Garveyites as the UNIA began to unravel in the late 1920s.
When Ali died suddenly in 1929, the Moorish Science Temple fragmented and went into gradual decline, but before long an obscure figure named Wallace D. Fard appeared in Detroit, another Garveyite stronghold. He began preaching in “the emotional style of a Pentecostal minister,” and laid the groundwork for the Lost-Found Nation of Islam. Attracting hundreds of poor black folk to his lectures, Fard mixed “exotic tales of the Orient” with anti-white diatribes and what Marable calls “the bombastic blend of orthodox Islam, Moorish science, and numerology.” On one occasion in the summer of 1931, Fard’s audience included a thirty-three-year-old named Elijah Poole.
Poole had been born in Sandersville, Georgia, in 1897, not very far from the birthplace of Earl Little. His father was a preacher and a sharecropper, and moving to the small town of Cordele and later to the larger one of Macon, Poole learned the skills of brick-making and sawmilling. Then, in the early 1920s, he followed in the footsteps of Earl Little and thousands of other black southerners, moving to the urban north, in his case to the city of Detroit, with his wife, two children, and several other family members. And again like Earl, he quickly became involved with the UNIA.
At the time Poole encountered Fard, he was searching for a movement and a community still dedicated to the ideal of racial pride and destiny. Garvey, after all, had been deported in 1927, and the UNIA was very much at the crossroads. Some of the faithful remained committed to the UNIA and either maintained the organization (it survives to this day) or entered into alliances, on the ground, with early civil rights and labor activists; others were drawn to men like Fard who combined, as Garvey had, spirituality and popular black nationalism. To Poole, Fard was electrifying and transcendent. “I know who you are,” he whispered to Fard on the occasion, “you’re God himself.”
Fard took an interest in Poole, found him a position of responsibility, and gave him the name Elijah Muhammad. But the Nation was soon scandal-ridden—Fard was arrested in connection with a murder and then vanished—and beset by internecine struggle, and Muhammad ended up in Chicago with a small cohort of supporters trying desperately to keep the movement afloat. By the time Malcolm learned of him, the Nation had only a few hundred members and tiny beachheads in Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, and Detroit, as well as Chicago.
MALCOLM corresponded with Muhammad, came to accept the divinity of W.D. Fard, and appears to have joined his new faith to the intellectual journey that he had begun under the tutelage of Bembry. He became something of an evangelist-in-training while in prison, developing his indictments of white supremacy, sharpening his critiques of Western institutions and values, and honing a distinctive speaking style marked by some of the cadences of jazz. He also began to convert a few of his fellow inmates to the Nation, and by the time of his release on parole in the summer of 1952 he was signing his name “Malcolm X.”
Although he initially found work at a Ford assembly plant (and became a member of the United Auto Workers), within a year Malcolm became assistant minister at the Nation’s Detroit Temple No. 1. He then moved on to Boston, Philadelphia, and Harlem, where, in 1954, he was named minister of Temple No. 7. His travels and his sense of commitment seemed reminiscent of his father’s, but his skills and his stature as an organizer clearly set him apart.
When Malcolm left prison and took the ministerial path, the Nation of Islam was struggling with a tiny membership and a problematic message—not so much in its spiritual orientation, its Manichean theology, or its ideas of community as in its rejection of worldly engagement. Elijah Muhammad strongly discouraged civic and political involvement, whether public protests against Jim Crow or even voter registration, and counseled a full withdrawal from the life of civil society. In part this reflected Muhammad’s opposition to integrationism, and in part his fears about losing power over the membership; but the timing of his secessionist doctrine was not very good, given the upsurge in civil rights activism that was spreading among African Americans, north and south.
Malcolm contributed a new energy and dedication, a clear-minded outlook, and a deep charisma to the cause, and they proved increasingly irresistible. He brought his prison learning to bear in constructing a historical narrative of white sin and black resistance, his Garveyite perspectives in representing racial destiny and empowerment, and his street wisdom in communicating with his audiences. Tall, lean, handsome, strait-laced, and savvy, Malcolm became the Nation’s most magnetic figure. He helped boost membership from around 1,200 in 1953 to around 6,000 in 1955, and then to as many as 75,000 in 1961. It was nothing short of astonishing, and it put the Nation on the political map of the United States.
Malcolm’s organizational gifts were related to an evolving worldview that took notice of the changing political pulse in black America and the intensifying struggles against Western colonialism across the globe. This is where Marable allows us to see the intellectual growth and dexterity that make Malcolm such a significant figure of the mid-twentieth century. Malcolm was extremely demanding of Nation members while holding himself to the strictest standards of comportment. As Louis Farrakhan (at the time known as Louis X) recalled, “I never saw Malcolm smoke. I never heard Malcolm curse. I never saw Malcolm wink at a woman. I never saw Malcolm eat in between meals. He ate one meal a day. He got up at 5 o’clock in the morning to say his prayers. I never saw Malcolm late for an appointment. Malcolm was like a clock.” And Malcolm’s sermons usually had political resonance: rather than simply confining himself to the doctrines of Elijah Muhammad or to the Garveyite principles of his father, he wrestled with the implications of an explosive world around him.
Malcolm took special notice when, in 1955, representatives from twenty-nine African and Asian countries, many of them newly independent, met in Bandung, Indonesia, to discuss political cooperation at a time when the Cold War was intensifying, hatching a non-aligned movement. Here, he imagined, were possibilities for unifying African Americans with followers of Islam elsewhere in the world. He quickly called for “a Bandung Conference in Harlem.” “More than any other NOI leader,” Marable writes, Malcolm “recognized the religious and political significance of Bandung.”
Before long, Malcolm became even more engaged in the tumultuous political atmosphere of Harlem. Reacting to the beating of several black men, including two Nation members, by New York police in the spring of 1957, Malcolm succeeded in mobilizing several thousand local blacks, conducting a march down Lenox Avenue, and pressing the police to provide medical treatment for one of the victims. So formidable was Malcolm’s demeanor and so orderly was the demonstration that one of the police officers gasped, “No one man should have that much power.” Eventually bail was posted, the arrested men were acquitted in court, and the NYPD was forced to pay more than $70,000 in damages, the largest police brutality settlement ever awarded in the city. Malcolm now saw that the Nation would only grow by becoming immersed in the daily struggles of the black community. Unfortunately, this epiphany put him on a collision course with Elijah Muhammad and many of the Nation’s members.
HOWEVER MUCH contemporary observers liked to stuff Malcolm X into a fixed political category, Marable demonstrates very powerfully that Malcolm increasingly defied those categories and set out on his own odyssey of intellectual discovery and transformation. The initial leg was facilitated by Elijah Muhammad, who had received an invitation from Gamal Abdel Nasser to visit Egypt and make the haj to Mecca in the summer of 1958, but decided to send Malcolm in his place. This would be the first of three trips to Africa and the Middle East that Malcolm would make, and as Marable shows, it would begin to unsettle and to re-configure his political sensibilities.
Malcolm learned, by his lights, a number of crucial lessons overseas: that people of African descent had been enslaved for centuries on the Arabian peninsula; that racial identities could be fluid; that there was “no color prejudice among Moslems,” and that Pan-Africanism was a vital force. “Africa is the land of the future,” Malcolm wrote in a letter back home. “Only yesterday, America was the New World ... but now we suddenly realize Africa is the New World ... a future in which the so-called American Negroes are destined to play a key role.” Malcolm came to think that black Americans could empower themselves by developing alliances with Third World countries.
When he returned to the United States Malcolm set out to broaden his appeal, looking beyond the Nation of Islam to a wider black public. His fame steadily grew. In 1960, he gave a speech to a crowd of over four thousand people at a Harlem rally, where he tied the language of “freedom,” “equality,” and “justice” to the goal of black unity. He met briefly with Fidel Castro when Castro attended a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. And he began to receive invitations to debate other black leaders, to lecture at universities, and to appear before the media. Malcolm relished the “proletarian appeal” of the Nation, compared the police to an occupying army in America’s urban ghettoes, and likened the conflicts between black leaders in the United States to those in post-colonial Africa.
To be sure, Malcolm remained steadfast in his critique of integrationism and committed (as he understood it) to his role as a Nation of Islam minister. He made a recruiting trip into the South, where the Nation had a very limited base, stopping in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, and, in apparent service of purchasing tracts of farmland for the Nation, met privately with two leaders of the Ku Klux Klan (as Marcus Garvey once had done)—which Marable properly calls “despicable” and the most controversial incident of Malcolm’s entire career. But Malcolm also began to attract a following among civil rights militants, especially in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and A. Philip Randolph, who saw him in the tradition of Martin Delany and Garvey, had Malcolm appointed to a unity committee.
Thus, by the spring of 1964, Malcolm had moved in a number of new political directions. He accepted the possibility that ballots might offer a viable alternative to bullets in the quest for change, so long as the federal government guaranteed black political rights. He called upon African Americans to move beyond the demand for “civil rights” and focus on “human rights,” thereby connecting them with the struggles of other oppressed peoples around the world. And he began to draw more explicit parallels between the legacies of European colonialism in Africa and the web of institutional racism in the United States, and compared the struggles of African Americans with those of Chinese and Cuban revolutionaries. “The people of China grew tired of their oppressors ... and rose up,” he told an audience. “When Castro was up in the mountains in Cuba, they told him the odds were against him. Today he’s sitting in Havana and all the power this country has can’t remove him.” The black freedom movement, he was suggesting, needed to understand the relationship between capitalism and racism, and take the full measure of the dominant economic system. “All of the countries that are emerging today from under colonialism,” he observed, “are turning toward socialism. I don’t think it’s an accident.”
YET IN MANY WAYS Malcolm’s second trip to the Middle East that same spring most fully complicated his race-based view of the world, deepened his attachment to orthodox Islam (he traveled to Mecca), and convinced him that white and black people might become spiritually interdependent. There he saw Muslims who would be considered “white” in the United States behave “more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been.” “I began to perceive,” he reflected, “that ‘white man,’ as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it describes attitudes and actions.” Moving on to Lebanon (where he made contact with the Muslim Brotherhood), Nigeria (where he was honored), and Ghana (where he met Kwame Nkrumah and spent time in the expatriate community that included Shirley Du Bois and Maya Angelou), Malcolm strengthened his embrace of Pan-Africanism, arguing that “unity between the Africans of the West and the Africans of the fatherland [could] well change the course of history” and that the United States was a “colonial power.” When he returned home in late May, Malcolm spoke of creating a new “organization ... open for the participation of all Negroes” and “the support of people of other races.” After all, he had just been witness to “thousands of people of different races and colors who treated me as a human being.”
But for all his intellectual growth, political charisma, and public celebrity, Malcolm made a fatal miscalculation. Somehow he thought that he could continue expanding his political reach while remaining loyal to the Nation of Islam and in the good graces of its leader Elijah Muhammad. Indeed, Malcolm imagined that he could promote the development of a united black front with the Nation in a vanguard role. But this was not what Muhammad had in mind.
The Nation had been pushed in unanticipated directions by civil rights agitation, but Muhammad continue to discountenance political engagement by its members and was increasingly uneasy about Malcolm’s activities. Although praising Malcolm in person, Muhammad spoke harshly of him behind his back and sought to rein him in. For his part, Malcolm was irked by Muhammad’s passivity, even in the face of police assaults on the Nation’s mosques, and he was deeply troubled by news of Muhammad’s sexual indiscretions and extravagant lifestyle in Chicago and Arizona, where he had established a residence. For a time he chose to bite his tongue, though the embers of conflict smoldered.
Most dangerous, perhaps, were the growing suspicions and resentments to be found in Muhammad’s inner circle, as well as in some of the mosques—in Newark in particular. Insiders, including members of Muhammad’s family, were convinced that Malcolm had his sights set on the leader’s position and was determined to take the Nation in an explicitly political direction. Tensions grew, and, as Marable points out, some of the brothers were difficult to control. Loyal to the Nation, their propensity for violence and thuggish behavior was encouraged and institutionalized by Nation “captains” in a number of eastern cities. “Carelessness in what you say to somebody,” Louis X explained, “could lead to harm and hurt to people who disliked Elijah Muhammad, whatever their reason.”
Like many of the other ministers, Malcolm was kept in the dark about what the “enforcers” were up to, and he continued to follow his independent path. He began to work with Alex Haley on what would become the Autobiography. He met the young boxer Cassius Clay Jr. (whose father, like Malcolm’s, was a Garveyite) and played an important role in recruiting Clay (soon Muhammad Ali) to the Nation, which only sowed more jealousy at the top. And he remained outspoken in his political judgments. Malcolm’s harsh criticisms of the Kennedy administration and his biting response to the Kennedy assassination (“the chickens coming home to roost”) provided Elijah Muhammad with the occasion for the harshest disciplinary action yet: stripping Malcolm of all authority and prohibiting any Nation of Islam member in good standing from speaking or interacting with him. For all intents and purposes, Malcolm was now isolated, banned, cast out on his own resources. “For a faithful Muslim,” according to one observer, “this order was tantamount to being forced to the edge of that grave the rest of us call the world ... [and] somebody in the Nation had another, less metaphorical grave in mind.”
After being refused reinstatement, Malcolm had little choice but to leave the Nation of Islam, which he made official in March 1964. He quickly organized the Muslim Mosque Incorporated as an alternative to the Nation. After returning from the Middle East and Africa, he established the secular Organization for Afro-American Unity, which aimed at “unify[ing] the Americans of African descent in their fight for Human Rights and Dignity” and “building ... a political, economic, and social system of justice and peace.” Although white allies would be encouraged to contribute financially and to work for racial justice within their own communities, Marable calls the OAAU “the first major attempt to consolidate black revolutionary nationalism since the age of Garvey.”
But time was running out. Talk was already rife within the Nation that Malcolm was “worthy of death,” and by May 1964 members of the Newark Mosque were plotting his murder, certainly on the direct orders of their minister and likely at the authorization of Elijah Muhammad (which Marable believes the release of additional phone transcripts will confirm). That the FBI and the New York Police Department were both hoping to “do something about Malcolm X” only made the task easier. Malcolm himself sensed impending doom, though, save for a third trip to Africa, he “made the conscious decision not to avoid or escape death.” It came on Sunday, February 21, 1965, before four hundred supporters at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom.
A YEAR EARLIER, in March 1964, Malcolm X inadvertently bumped into Martin Luther King Jr. at the U.S. Capitol. Awkwardly, they shook hands. It was the first and only time the two would ever meet; no words were exchanged. But months later, following a speech in Selma, Alabama (and only days before his assassination), Malcolm sat down with Coretta Scott King and told her that in the future he hoped to work with her husband. These encounters, together with further evidence of Malcolm’s embrace of tolerance and pluralism, have encouraged historians to see him moving toward King and becoming something of an integrationist and reformer in his own right.
Marable wisely rejects this view and implicitly reminds us of the deep sense of alienation and frustration in black America that Malcolm continued to express. To the end, Malcolm—unlike King—regarded himself as something of an outsider to the country in which he lived, as “a person of African descent who happened to be a United States citizen.” What he offered was not, like King, a narrative of political realization and redemption, but a withering critique of an American racism that was structurally embedded. It remained a disconcerting and pessimistic perspective. And critics could sensibly argue that, in resisting integrationism, Malcolm never identified a realistic way forward for African Americans in a society in which they were a distinct minority.
But Marable also shows us that the simple opposition of integrationism and separatism is misconceived, that Malcolm was at the same time devising a politics that wove many of the threads of African-American experience and aspiration into a distinctive tapestry. It was a tapestry that radiated racial pride, self-respect, and awareness; that vibrated with the language of the poor, working-class majority; that rejected victimhood for transformative agency; that demanded a reorganization of wealth and power and accountability among the black managerial and professional classes; that imagined a global anti-racism based on support of electoral means when possible and armed struggle when necessary; and that fashioned a bridge between Americans and more than a billion Muslims around the world.
These politics were influenced by Garveyism, by the experience of incarceration, by the Nation of Islam, by international travel, and by the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. After Malcolm’s death, they would be the wellsprings of Black Power. At his best and most creative, Malcolm was developing what Marable calls “a new kind of radical, global ethnic politics,” a “radical humanism,” that would exert a profound magnetism of their own.
And so, after 1965, as he took his movement into the streets of northern cities, into the vortex of labor conflict, and into opposition to the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr. found himself moving (quite the opposite of what we tend to think) in a direction that Malcolm X had already been charting: more concerned about economic inequality and the systemic nature of poverty and oppression, ever mindful of the bonds between African Americans and people of color elsewhere, and increasingly critical of American interventions abroad. Here was a vision for a multicultural world, deeply rooted in the soils of American experience, derailed or possibly extinguished by the bullets of assassins just three years apart.
Steve Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author, most recently, of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Harvard University Press). This article appeared in the April 19, 2012 issue of the magazine.