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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable & The Last Speeches by Malcolm X

July 25, 2011

Malcolm X was one of the most controversial American public figures of the past century. During the 1960s civil rights movement, his militant rhetoric stood in stark contrast to Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of peaceful resistance. He was angrier, more impassioned, his solutions more radical. Because of this, he was extremely polarizing: demonized by whites already uncomfortable with the civil rights movement and idolized by younger, more radical blacks who felt that King’s approach was too timid for the kind of revolution required. Malcolm X is also one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented American icons.

In the preface of this new biography, Manning Marable states that the tendency, in the years since Malcolm X’s assassination, has been to simplify and overstate his legacy. Marable made a concerted effort to do neither:

“The great temptation for a biographer of an iconic figure is to portray him or her as a virtual saint, without the normal contradictions and blemishes all human beings have. I have devoted so many years in the effort to understand the interior personality and mind of Malcolm that this temptation disappeared long ago.”

Malcolm was a conflicted man, but also incredibly intelligent. He was constantly searching, open to new ideas, and his views seemed ever-evolving.  That is the focus of Marable’s biography—although it is a story of political upheaval, betrayal, and a tumultuous time in our nation’s history, the true story is one of personal transformation.

In the 1990s, Malcolm X enjoyed a bit of a resurrection in hip-hop and rap. But beyond the occasional lyric, the black baseball caps with the embroidered X and the occasional street or building in his name, I knew little of him.  As a white kid from the suburbs, his story had little in common with my own. My impression was that Malcolm X was a black militant associated with the black power movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I would have been partially right. But after Marable’s introduction, I tried to clear my mind of any preconceived notion. What I found was a story of a man whose quest for personal identity was inseparable from his public quest for black equality. I was interested enough to also pick up The Last Speeches, a collection of six speeches and interviews from 1963-1965. It turned out to be the perfect companion. While Marable charts Malcolm’s evolution, The Last Speeches captures his thinking in his own words at very specific points in time.


THE EARLY YEARS

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, Malcolm grew up under the constant threat of racial violence. His father was an outspoken supporter of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and local leader of the Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Because of this association, the Little family drew frequent harassment from the Klu Klux Klan. According to Malcolm, three of his uncles were killed by white men. When the Littles moved to Michigan, racial violence followed them. In 1929, their home was burnt by a white supremacist group. Then Malcolm’s father died in what was officially called a suicide by police, although witnesses claimed he had been hit from behind and shoved in front of a streetcar.

Under the weight of her husband’s death and mounting financial woes, Malcolm’s mother had a nervous breakdown when he was thirteen. She was institutionalized for the next 24 years. Malcolm had been an excellent student in school, but he had little guidance after his father’s death and little support from his teachers. In fact, in what would prove to be a pivotal moment in Malcolm’s life, one teacher told him that his aspirations of becoming a lawyer were “no realistic goal for a nigger.” After that comment, he dropped out of school, lived with a series of foster parents, then eventually made his way to Manhattan where he turned to drug dealing, robbery and pimping. The light Marable shines on this portion of Malcolm’s life illuminates some of the darkest corners of his character. We see him as a racist, violent towards women, and a robber of both whites and blacks. In the most tabloid-ready revelation, Marable concludes that Malcolm prostituted himself to an older white man, a story that had been conveyed in Malcolm’s famous autobiography but under a pseudonym. It was a troubled existence, and one that eventually earned him an eight-year prison sentence for larceny and breaking and entering.


THE NATION OF ISLAM

While in prison, two relationships caused his life to pivot once again. The first was with a fellow inmate named John Bembry, a man Malcolm instantly respected for his intelligence and command of language. Bembry impressed upon Malcolm the need to educate himself, and for the next four years, Malcolm became the definition of an autodidact. He read everything he could get his hands on, often reading late into the night by the dim light that came through the window of his prison cell.

The second relationship came via his brother, who introduced him to the Nation of Islam (NOI), a black pride group much like his father’s UNIA. To that point, Malcolm had been decidedly anti-religion, so much so that he’d earned the nickname “Satan” from fellow prisoners. But the teachings of the Nation struck a chord with him. Its rhetoric of oppressive “white devils” and black Africans as the “chosen people” offered an alternative creation myth to the Christian narrative, one more relevant to Malcolm’s social standing and one that played off his anger. The Nation also preached a pan-Africanist message that was in line with what his father had preached. Through letters, Malcolm developed a close relationship with head of the Nation, Elijah Muhammad. He began to follow the religious observances of the Black Muslims, including the strict dietary restrictions which banned, among other things, smoking and drinking.

Although NOI preaches adherence to the “Five Pillars of the Islamic Faith,” it shares little in common with mainstream Islam.  Indeed (this is my assessment, not Marable’s), the NOI seems more akin to a cult than a legitimate religious movement. Founded in 1930 in Detroit, the NOI has a unique mythology based on a belief that blacks are the chosen people, descendants of original man. Furthermore, whites were the creation of a black scientist known as Yakub, devised as a diametrically opposed race that would rule the black man for a period of 6,000 years.  The “X” that Malcolm adopted as his surname stems from the belief that the given names of most blacks are not black names but the white slavemaster’s name for them. The X is a rejection of this given name and serves as a placeholder until each member receives his or her true Muslim name from their prophet. Mainstream Islam renounces any relationship between itself and the NOI. Nonetheless, these two elements, his intense self-education and his introduction to the Nation of Islam, shaped Malcolm Little into the man who would become world famous as Malcolm X.

After his release from prison, Malcolm quickly moved up the ranks in the Nation, helping to establish several new mosques and grow the NOI membership with his captivating sermons and speeches. In 1954, he was selected to lead temple Number 7 in Harlem.

By this time, he had earned the attention of the FBI for his firebrand politics. He was a fervent separatist, believing that blacks and whites could not live together in harmony. He was a professed communist and a critic of the Korean War. But what first introduced Malcolm to the general public was an incident in which two police officers beat and arrested three members of the NOI. Malcolm went to the police station to demand that the members be given medical treatment. As he argued with officers, NOI members and then people from the general public gathered outside until there was an estimated crowd of 4,000 anxious onlookers. The police feared a riot. To diffuse the situation, Malcolm walked outside and gave a hand signal. The NOI members turned and silently marched off, the crowd following them. It was a display that put the fear of Malcolm into members of the New York Police Department. One officer commented, “No one man should have that much power.” It was the start of Malcolm’s contentious relationship with the NYPD, who would keep him under various types of surveillance for the rest of his life.

Although Malcolm did not advocate violence, he understood the power of the threat of violence. And in contrast to King, he was vocal about the right of blacks to defend themselves with violence if it was required. In a 1963 speech, Malcolm said, speaking of his type of activist, “He doesn’t turn the cheek to anybody. He doesn’t believe in any kind of peaceful suffering. He believes in obeying the law. He believes in respecting people. He believes in doing unto others as he would have done to himself. But at the same time, if anybody attacks him, he believes in retaliating if it costs him his life. And it is good for white people to know this.”

While Malcolm would eventually abandon his separatist philosophy, he maintained this belief that violence was justifiable as a means for defense. Just five days before his assassination, he delivered a speech in Rochester, New York in which he explained the motto of his new Organization of Afro-American Unity: “By Any Means Necessary” (an example of how educated Malcolm was, this motto is a translation of a phrase from a play by French intellectual Jean Paul Sartre). While this motto has sometimes been used as a call to violence, Malcolm specifically stated: “This does not mean that we’re for violence. But we have seen that he federal government has shown its inability…to protect the lives and property of black people.”

This photo of Malcolm and Cassius Clay (before he took the Muslim name "Muhammad Ali") appeared in a 1964 issue of LIFE magazine after Clay defeated Sonny Liston. Clay was one of Malcolm's many recruits to the NOI. Like Malcolm, Clay would later convert to Sunni Islam.

Malcolm, in his NOI years, considered King and the leaders of the mainstream civil rights movement to be part of what he called the “black bourgeois,” “Uncle Toms” who had been put in place by whites and were willing to accept token integration. “They’re not speaking for black people. They’re saying what they know the white man who put them in that position wants to hear them say.”

There are two things that I find peculiar in Malcolm’s speeches. The first is that, although the Nation is a religious group, his speeches are without mention of the beliefs of the Nation. In fact, the only mention of God I found was in reference to the Bible story of Moses leading his people out of Egypt. The second peculiarity is that Malcolm’s speeches and interviews are full of the phrase “the honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches…” Whether to promote his mentor or for his own political expediency, the sense it gives is that Malcolm may not personally believe some of what he is saying. In fact, when later questioned about some of his statements, Malcolm would often use this phrase as cover, claiming that he was not stating his own beliefs but only passing along the teachings of the NOI leader.

There were many views Malcolm promoted during this time with the NOI that he would later regret. His vehement separatism was perhaps the greatest. So fervently did he believe that whites and blacks should be separate that he contacted others who felt the same—radical white supremacists in the KKK and a neo-Nazi group. To him, the end justified the means. In addition, he promoted the racist, misogynistic and an anti-Semitic teachings of the NOI.


LEAVING THE NATION

Two occurrences caused another transformation in Malcolm and eventually lead to his break from the Nation. The first was the revelation that Elijah Muhammad had fathered several illegitimate children with various secretaries at the NOI. The second was his trip to the Middle East and Africa where he experienced Sunni Islam and realized how different its teachings were from those of the Nation.

On Malcolm’s trips to the Middle East, he came into contact with what he would later characterize as true Islam. He saw firsthand that Muslims of all color gathered to worship under the same banner. Islam was an inclusive religion. He also began to see a potential for African unity that would shape his later global strategy.

By 1963, there were grumblings within the ranks of the NOI that Malcolm’s popularity had gotten too big and that he posed a threat to its leadership. This came to a head when he confronted Muhammad about his infidelities. Although Malcolm would not go public at the time with his discovery, it caused friction between the two men.  Although Muhammad had warned Malcolm not to address the assassination of President Kennedy, in December of that year, Malcolm gave a speech in which he characterized the assassination as “chickens coming home to roost,”—a  result of the violence of American foreign policy. More shocking, in an off-handed response to a journalist afterward, Malcolm said that if you grew up on a farm, the chickens coming home to roost was a good thing.  The ensuing public outrage over the comment gave Muhammad the cover to censure Malcolm. (On a side note, I was struck by the fact that the now famous “coming home to roost” comment from Jeremiah Wright after 9/11 wasn’t linked by the mainstream media to this statement by Malcolm. The similarities are undeniable.)

A few months after his silencing at the hands of Muhammad, Malcolm announced his break from the NOI and formed Muslim Mosque, Inc. From that date through his own assassination, Malcolm would focus his effort on broadening the context of his movement from American civil rights to global human rights. His belief was that he could enlist the aid of the United Nations if the civil rights struggle was placed in a broader context and linked to the plight of oppressed peoples worldwide.


THE FINAL YEARS

As he expanded his vision for equality, Malcolm also worked to undo the damage he had done in many of his previous speeches. He forged an alliance with other civil rights activists (though still did not believe in non-violent resistance), preached equal rights over separation and renounced his previous hate-filled teachings. Although he kept most of his talks focused on forward progress, he would eventually be provoked into directly criticizing the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad when, in 1965, someone threw Molotov cocktails through the windows of his home, including into the room where his three daughters slept. Two days later, he went after Muhammad’s character:

“While I was in Mecca among the Muslims, I had a chance to meditate and think and see things with a great deal of clarity…and I had made up my mind, yes, that I was going to tell the Black people of the Western Hemisphere, who I had played a great role in misleading into Elijah Muhammad, exactly what kind of man he was an what he was doing.”

He discussed Muhammad’s infidelities. He revealed his meetings with Klan members. He accused the NOI of murder. He claimed that Muhammad has gone insane. And he admitted to his role in “developing a criminal organization.”

There are two fascinating things about these late speeches. First is the degree to which he is willing to drive nails into his own coffin. He has full knowledge that the NOI will come after him. Despite the iconic photo that ran after his house was firebombed showing him with an M1 Carbine rifle, Malcolm didn’t carry a weapon. He didn’t have bodyguards. Yet he was spitting into the face of what he knew to be a dangerous organization. Some of the texts also contain question-and-answer sessions afterward, in which the topic increasingly turns to the threat against him. Just reading the text of these speeches, you can feel the tension building at that moment in history.

“Now I am well aware of what I’m setting in motion by what I’m saying up here tonight. I’m well aware. But I have never said or done anything in my life that I wasn’t prepared to suffer the consequences for.”

The second thing about his late speeches is that they clearly illuminate the changes that Marable’s biography narrates. Malcolm readily admits that while under the NOI banner, he was “just as nuts as they were.” In his post-NOI life, he refers to Martin Luther King Jr. as “my good friend” and speaks of the need for integration. Reading these speeches—and why these are so important is that these are public speeches as he delivered them, not someone’s interpretation of what Malcolm might have been feeling inside—I can’t help but agree witt Barack Obama’s conclusion in Dreams From My Father: “All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life.”

The great tragedy of Malcolm X is that while his story is one of multiple redemptions, for most people he is a static, often stereotypical caricature. In 1959, a five-part television documentary The Hate That Hate Produced, about the Nation of Islam, brought Malcolm to national attention. For many people, this was the image of that would stick in their heads—the angry, racist black radical.

There is no denying that this portrait is accurate—and Malcolm would probably acknowledge that—but only for a portion of his life. But that image of Malcolm, whether from a lack of information, or because of prejudice, or because that’s how he is often portrayed in popular culture or how his message has been perverted by various interests, is inaccurate. If Malcolm X were alive today (he wouldn’t have the X, for one), he may still be branded a radical and would certainly be controversial. According to Marable, he held more in common with Che Guevara than Martin Luther King—with a socialist leaning and a growing tendency toward global revolution by a united front of oppressed peoples. But he was not a man blinded by his professed ideology.

And that is what I find most admirable about Malcolm X. There are certainly things in his worldview that I disagree with. But he was never close-minded. One might call him indecisive or hypocritical, but I see his shifting attitudes as a result of him constantly searching for a better path, a more enlightened viewpoint, or a more righteous truth. He is as complicated an American character as there is, yet in a way encapsulates the American spirit. His story could have been “Troubled black child turns to life of crime.” Instead, he demonstrated the power of knowledge to make something of himself, and then later demonstrated the power of experience to free himself from the prison of the NOI. He put his neck on the line to challenge the wrongs he saw, even those in himself.

Two final anecdotes poignantly illustrate his transformation. In 1964, a young white police officer who knew little of Malcolm was assigned to monitor the surveillance on him. The officer later recounted how he had been told what a bad guy Malcolm was, but when he started listening in on Malcolm’s conversations couldn’t believe it. He was struck by Malcolm’s intelligence, but even more so that everything Malcolm said seemed to confirm him as one of the “good guys.” “He’s on our side. We should be helping this guy,” the officer said.

The second is a conversation between Malcolm and journalist Gordon Parks two days before Malcolm’s assassination. He remembers years earlier, when a white student was moved by one of his talks and wanted to help his cause:

“I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying. Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all [Black] Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.”

On February 21, 1965, just a moment into his speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, someone in the back of the room stood and accused the man behind him of trying to pick his pocket. As attention was diverted, three other men rushed the stage and opened fire on Malcolm, putting sixteen bullets in him. The fatal shot came from a sawed-off shotgun. The police, no fans of Malcolm, were slow to respond. The ambulance never did arrive. To use his own phrase, the “chickens had come home to roost.” For many people, this was a case of one black radical group hitting another. But for those who had a better understanding of who Malcolm was then and where he might be headed, it was yet another great tragedy in a decade full of them.

As far as book reviews go, I realize I’ve strayed far off track and into the world of short biography. But I think it’s high praise for a work of non-fiction to ignite an interest for a subject such as Marable’s biography did in me. So I give it as many thumbs up or stars as possible. And if you’re going to read that, I highly recommend The Last Speeches as a companion piece.

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