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What is the extent to which Malcolm X's activism was influenced by his Muslim beliefs?

What is the extent to which Malcolm X's activism was influenced by his Muslim beliefs?



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Have been researching the role of religion on the Civil Rights movement and while I am aware that Malcolm X identified as a Muslim it is unclear as to how this belief influenced his (and his supporters') work as an activist. Was simply wondering whether there are any interpretations or recommended texts on the subject.


Malcolm X's understanding of race was dramatically changed by his completion of the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Here's a copy of the letter he wrote. He wrote that,

"I have never before witnessed such sincere hospitality and the practice of true brotherhood as I have seen it here in Arabia. In fact all I have seen and experienced on this pilgrimage as forced me to 're-arrange' much of thoughts pattern and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions… I have eaten. From the same plate… with fellow Muslims whose skin was the whitest of white, whose eyes was the bluest of blue, and whose hair was the blondest of blond - I could look into their blue eyes and see that they regarded me as the same (Brothers), because their faith in One God (Allah) had actually removed “white” from their mind,… If white Americans could accept the religion of Islam, if they could accept the Oneness of God (Allah) they too could then sincerely accept the Oneness of Men, and cease to measure others always in terms of their 'difference in color'."

At this point, his attitude changed from a perspective of an innate conflict between black people and white people to a viewpoint in which black people and white people could get along.


Malcolm X

Malcolm X is considered one of the most influential activists in the history of the United States, giving a voice to the disenfranchised.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. He was a one of seven children born to Louise Norton Little and Earl Little, a Baptist minister and an avid civil rights activist. Earl was a supporter of Marcus Garvey and his Black Nationalist movement and recruited new members to the movement while Louise served as a writer for the movement’s newspaper. Earl was very outspoken, gaining the attention of several racist organizations including the Ku Klux Klan and the white paramilitary group, the Black Legion. The Black Legion issued so many death threats to Earl that he was forced to move the family to Lansing, Michigan around 1929.

Though the family moved, they could not escape the racism from which they had fled. A few months after they reached Lansing, some of their neighbors took legal action to get them removed from their land. A local county judge said that the property was restricted to whites and ordered them off of the property. Earl refused, and their home in Lansing was burned down in 1929. The local police accused Earl of starting the fire and arrested him, although the charges were later dropped. A mere two years later, Earl was found dead on the local trolley tracks, presumed to have been murdered by the Klan or the Legion. His body had almost been cut in half by the wheels of a streetcar. Police officially ruled the death an accident. The repercussions of his death were severe as Louise subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to the Kalamazoo State Hospital, a mental institution, seven years later. The family was split up and the children were sent to live with in foster homes.

Despite the racism that his family was subjected to, Malcolm’s early life was remarkably integrated. He was popular among the white children in his neighborhood, often leading them in adventures in the woods near his home. He attended a school where he was the only Black student and received straight-A scores. Nevertheless, when it came time for his junior high school English teacher to discuss what each student wanted to be when they grew up, he told him Malcolm that his goal of becoming a lawyer was unrealistic and that he should think about becoming a carpenter instead. Dismayed, Malcolm dropped out of school a year later at the age of fifteen.

Early Criminal Career

Malcolm moved to Harlem, New York in 1943 where he began a life of crime. He worked as pimp and drug dealer and engaged in gambling, racketeering , and robbery. He was known as a hustler, able to acquire things that others needed. Malcolm was light skinned, allegedly because his maternal grandmother had been raped by a white man. He also sported red hair. While working a part-time job at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, he befriended one of the dishwashers who also sported a head of red hair. His name was John Elroy Sanford and to minimize confusion, Sanford was known as Chicago Red and Malcolm was called Detroit Red. Sanford would later gain fame as the famous comedian and television star Redd Foxx.

In order to get out of military service during World War II, Malcolm told officials at the draft board that he wanted to be sent down south to “organize them nigger soldiers … steal us some guns, and kill us [some] crackers “. He was declared “mentally disqualified for military service.” He was arrested several times and decided to move to Boston, Massachusetts in 1945.

Soon after arriving in Boston, he organized a gang of burglars to prey upon the homes of wealthy families. The members of the gang included his friend Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, Malcolm’s white girlfriend Bea, and two other white women. Bea knew that many of the families vacationed in Florida and the gang would rob their households and Malcolm would pawn the stolen items. Just a few weeks later, Malcolm was arrested when he went back to one of the pawn shops to retrieve one of the stolen watches. Shorty and the three women were arrested and the women testified that Malcolm had forced them to participate. The racial overtones certainly influenced the court and Malcolm and Shorty were convicted of breaking and entering and larceny and were sentenced to the maximum sentence of eight to 10 years in state prison. Malcolm was now prisoner number 22843 at the Charlestown State Prison in Massachusetts.

Malcolm was miserable in prison and gained a reputation among the other prisoners and was nicknamed Satan because of his distaste for religion. He was contacted by several family members whom had covered to the religion of Islam, describing it as the true religion of the Black man. They encouraged him to believe in Allah, telling him that doing so would get him out of prison. Malcolm was not keen to follow a religion but he was already of a mindset of Black pride and empowerment, as it had been a part of his families teachings and part of the Black Nationalist movement. His one objection to the beliefs that his siblings were passing along was the concept of white people being “devils.” He wrote a letter to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the National of Islam branch of the religion. Muhammad wrote him back in prison, explaining to him that he was already living a hell on Earth and that the white man was the one whom had condemned him.

Thereafter Malcolm became a prodigious reader, studying philosophy, history, and religion and discerned from it that throughout history whites had systematically and continuously held down Blacks and other minorities. Malcolm decided to turn his life over to Allah, as Minister Muhammad had advised him to do, but Malcolm struggled with submitting to anything or anybody. Eventually he did and began living a life that was very different from his recent past. He joined the prison debate team and challenged visiting students from Harvard and MIT Universities. His success in these debates caused him to become a celebrity within the prison, as many prisoners sought to hear him speak. Malcolm sought an early parole but was now considered a troublemaker and a dangerous inmate and was denied. Later, after serving more than six and a half years of his sentenced, Malcolm was granted parole and released.

Life in the Nation of Islam

Almost immediately upon his release he became a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI). He took on the name Malcolm X, the “X” symbolizing the last name of his forefathers which had been replaced by his slave name of “Little.” Muhammad, the leader of the NOI, taught that white society actively worked to keep African-Americans from empowering themselves and achieving political, economic, and social success. Among other goals, the NOI fought for a state of their own, separate from one inhabited by white people. Malcolm was seen as intelligent and engaging and Minister Muhammad sent him out on the road to gather converts and establish mosques in Boston, Hartford and Philadelphia. In 1953 he was named assistant minister of the Nation’s Temple Number One in Detroit, established Boston’s Temple Number 11 and expanded Temple Number 12 in Philadelphia the next year. Malcolm was eventually chosen to lead Temple Number Seven in Harlem, the most important NOI temple in the United States. In 1955, he established Temple Number 13 in Springfield , Massachusetts, Number 15 in Hartford , Connecticut and Number 15 in Atlanta , Georgia .

Eventually, Malcolm was named the national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. He started “Muhammad Speaks,” the NOI newspaper, as a means of passing Muhammad’s messages along to members across the country, as well as to news outlets around the world. Malcolm was tireless in his efforts and his devotion to the Nation of Islam and was largely credited with increasing membership in the NOI from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963. His success was due, in part, to a natural charisma and eloquence that prompted even the most steadfast opponents to listen to his talks. He was also physically impressive, standing 6’ 3” and weighing 180 lbs. Scholar Manning Marable described him as “mesmerizingly handsome … and always spotlessly well-groomed.” But perhaps the most compelling aspect of Malcolm was his street credibility. From the early racial violence his family had endured, to his fall from grace and into a life of crime, Malcolm was seen as being a perfect example of a man whom white society had worked to destroy and whom Elijah Muhammad had fished from the sewers of the prison-state quagmire and recreated as sincere, dedicated and disciplined spokesman for the organization. Such a man appealed to the crowds as a leader, and also appealed to the female members of the National of Islam.

In 1955, Malcolm was introduced to Betty Sanders, a college graduate and a nurse. She became a member of the Nation of Islam a year later and the couple married in January 1958. They would have six daughters over the next seven years: Attallah (born in 1958, named after Attila the Hun ) Qubilah (born in 1960, named after Kublai Khan ) Ilyasah (born in 1962, named after Elijah Muhammad) Gamilah Lumumba (born in 1964, named after Patrice Lumumba ) and twins Malikah and Malaak (born in 1965, after Malcolm’s death, and named in his honor).

Emergence as a National Leader

Malcolm had gained great local attention in various major cities, but he became known nationally after an incident in New York City on April 26, 1957. Hinton Johnson was a member of the Nation of Islam and was one of a number of passersby who witnessed police officers beating a young Black man with nightsticks. Johnson objected to the treatment and the police turned the nightsticks on him, beating him so severely that he suffered brain contusions, a fractured skull and subdural hemorrhaging. A witness to Johnson’s beating got word to Malcolm X and he and a group of NOI members rushed to the police station where Johnson had been taken. Although the police initially claimed that neither Johnson nor any other Muslims had been taken into custody, they allowed Malcolm to talk to Johnson after around 500 hundred people had amassed outside of the station. Malcolm arranged for Johnson to be taken to Harlem Hospital by ambulance, and when he was brought back, had an attorney seek to bail him out. The police refused to release him until after he had been arraigned the following day and by this point more than 4,000 people had gathered outside of the police station. The situation seemed like a powder keg waiting to explode. Malcolm walked outside and silently signaled the crowd with a hand gesture and the Nation of Islam members silently left, with the rest of the crowd dispersing soon thereafter. The scene, which was later depicted by Denzel Washington in the feature motion picture “Malcolm X,” was breathtaking to watch and frightening to members of the police department. The New York Amsterdam News reported that one of the police officers worried that “no one man should have that much power.” Malcolm’s prominence in the community grew immensely, but his notoriety also made him a target, as the New York City Police Department put him under surveillance and opened a file on him.

Stories were written about him in newspapers and magazines and he was invited to appear on television talk shows to discuss the plight of the Black man and civil rights activities. He was featured in a 1959 New York City program hosted by Mike Wallace called “The Hate That Hate Produced.” The program was focused on Black Nationalism and the growing prominence of the Nation of Islam and the potential threat that the organization posed. While the leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States were looking to achieve racial integration of the country and voting rights for Blacks, Malcolm preached for the complete separation of Blacks from white society, often ridiculing civil rights leaders as “stooges” of the white establishment. He famously rejected the concept of the civil rights non-violent movement and instead declared that Blacks should defend themselves “by any means necessary.” Many participants at his rallies believed that he better expressed their despair, anger and frustration than did the leaders of the civil rights movement. Malcolm was seen more and more as a spokesman for Blacks and called upon to speak out on the behalf of Blacks and their civil rights, and the Nation of Islam doubled in memberships soon after the “The Hate That Hate Produced” show aired.

He was featured on more talk shows and invited to speak on college campuses. In September 1960, Malcolm was invited to attend official functions for several African nations at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. He met Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea, and Kenneth Kaunda of the Zambian African National Congress . He also met publicly with Fidel Castro, the President of Cuba, as part of a welcoming committee of Harlem community leaders. Castro and X spoke for two hours, after which Castro invited Malcolm to Cuba.

With Malcolm’s prominence on the world stage growing and his stardom as a social advocate ascending, many felt that he had eclipsed Elijah Muhammad in prominence. He inspired Cassius Clay to join the Nation and helped with Clay changing his name to Muhammad Ali. The two became close friends for a number of years and Malcolm attended Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Boxing crown. He mentored and guided Louis Farrakhan (then known as Louis X, and who would later become the leader of the Nation of Islam), as well as Elijah Muhammad’s son, Wallace D. Muhammad . Many within the Nation of Islam began to resent Malcolm’s growing prominence, and behind the scenes looked for ways to rein in his popularity and power.

[the_ad >Exit From the Nation of Islam

At the same time, Malcolm was beginning to reassess some of his beliefs about the teachings and the culture of the Nation of Islam and particularly its leader Elijah Muhammad. In 1961, the Los Angeles Police Department led a raid on Temple Number 27, beating several members and shooting seven (paralyzing one and killing another). Malcolm sought to take action against the police but Muhammad refused him. Malcolm also sought to work with civil rights organizations, local Black politicians, and other religious groups in the fight against the police and for the rights of Blacks in general, but Muhammad also refused to allow this. Even more concerning for Malcolm was his disillusionment with Muhammad when he found out that the leader of the NOI had engaged in numerous adulterous affairs, some of which had produced children. His shock at Muhammad’s betrayal of the tenets upon which the Nation of Islam was built shook him to his core as he had considered Muhammad a living prophet. He also felt that he had inadvertently led many followers to the Nation of Islam, which he now began to view as a fraudulent organization built on lies. The tension between Malcolm and Muhammad came to a head when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Muhammad had ordered that none of the NOI ministers make any statements about the murder, but Malcolm offered that it was a case of “ chickens coming home to roost “. He added that “chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad they’ve always made me glad.” Elijah took swift action against Malcolm, prohibiting him from speaking publicly for 90 days. The schism between X and Muhammad became too large to heal and Malcolm announced on March 8, 1964 his departure from the Nation of Islam and his desire to organize a new Black nationalist organization to “heighten the political consciousness” of Black Americans. He also wanted to break away from the rigid teachings of the Nation of Islam and expressed a desire to work with other civil rights leaders.

For years Malcolm had been using the names Malcolm Shabazz or Malik el-Shabazz, but he was still referred to as Malcolm X by the press. He founded two organizations, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI), a religious organization and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism . On March 26, 1964, he attended a U.S. Senate hearing on the Civil Rights Bill and met very briefly, and for the only time, with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In April he gave a speech called “the Ballot or the Bullet,’ in which he advised Blacks to utilize their right to vote, but urged that if full equality did not follow soon thereafter, it might be necessary for the citizens to take up arms against the government.

Soon after leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm met with several Sunni Muslims and after learning about their faith, he was moved to convert to the Sunni faith. In April 1964, he travelled to Jeddah , Saudi Arabia, as the start of his Hajj ( the pilgrimage to Mecca obligatory for every Muslim who is able to do so). He encountered some delays in Jeddah when his inability to speak Arabic caused officials to question whether he was a true Muslim, as well as issues with his U.S. citizenship. Eventually, Saudi Prince Faisal designated Malcolm as a state guest and he was allowed to proceed to Mecca. His visit to Mecca was life changing for him as he encountered Muslims of “all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans,” interacting as equals. This caused him to rethink his beliefs on white people and he decided that the religion of Islam could help bridge the gap between the racial divide.

He visited Africa in April and July 1964, meeting with government officials and the press in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanganyika , Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Sudan, Senegal, Liberia, Algeria, and Morocco. On his way back to the United States, he stopped in France and spoke in the Salle de la Mutualité . He then went to Oxford, England and took part in a debate on December 3, 1964 at the Oxford Union Society. He returned to the United Kingdom again in February and then returned to the United States where he was one of the most sought-after speakers on college campuses.

After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was repeatedly under threats of violence. In February 1964, a leader of Temple Number Seven in Harlem ordered the bombing of Malcolm’s car, and in March, Elijah Muhammad told minister Louis X that “hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off” (the April 10 edition of “ Muhammad Speaks” featured a cartoon depicting Malcolm X’s bouncing, severed head). The FBI would later say that Betty Shabazz had received threats against Malcolm’s life and that an FBI informant had been told about a threat against him. On February 14, 1965, Malcolm and Betty’s home in East Elmhurst, Queens, New York was firebombed and destroyed by the fire. John Ali, an aide to Muhammad suggested in reference to Malcolm that, “anyone who opposes the Honorable Elijah Muhammad puts their life in jeopardy.” In the December 4, 1965 issue of Muhammad Speaks, Louis X wrote that “such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death”.

Malcolm surely believed that his life was in danger, telling photographer Gordon Parks that the Nation of Islam was actively trying to kill him. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm was preparing to address the OAAU in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when someone in the 400-person audience yelled, “Nigger! Get your hand outta my pocket!” When Malcolm X and his bodyguards tried to quell the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men charged the stage, firing semi-automatic handguns, striking him repeatedly. He was struck by 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds. He was taken to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm.

Two of the gunmen were identified by witnesses as as Nation of Islam members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. The third gunman, Talmadge Hayer, was captured at the scene by members of the audience and beaten and held for the police. Hayer later plead guilty, claiming that Butler and Johnson were not the other gunmen, but he refused to provide the identity of the real murderers. Nevertheless, all three were found guilty of the murder and given life sentences in prison. Hayer later provided to authorities the identities of four men that he said were involved with the murder, but no subsequent charges were ever brought. All three men were eventually paroled and Butler and Johnson both continued to declare their innocence.

There was a public viewing from February 23–26, 1965 at Unity Funeral Home in Harlem, which was attended by some 14,000 to 30,000 mourners. His funeral was held on February 27, 1965 at the Faith Temple of the Church of God in Christ . Loudspeakers were set up for the overflowing crowd outside of the church and a local television station did a live broadcast of the service. A number of prominent civil rights leaders attended the funeral, including John Lewis , Bayard Rustin , James Forman , James Farmer , Jesse Gray , and Andrew Young . Actor and social activist Ossie Davis delivered the eulogy, calling Malcolm “our shining black prince … who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.” He was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale , New York.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his dismay at Malcolm’s death in a telegram to betty Shabazz. “While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.” Elijah Muhammad denied any complicity in the murder but said, in part, that “Malcolm X got just what he preached… We didn’t want to kill Malcolm and didn’t try to kill him. We know such ignorant, foolish teachings would bring him to his own end.”

After his death there were debates within the Black community as to whom was responsible for his murder. It was argued that that local drug dealers, the Nation of Islam, the NYPD , the FBI, or the CIA could have been behind the assassination. Malcolm’s family believed, at one point, that Minister Louis Farrakhan had a hand in Malcolm’s death. Years later Farrakhan would admit that “I may have been complicit in words that I spoke…. I acknowledge that and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being.”

Malcolm X is now considered as one of the greatest and most influential African Americans in history. Over the course of years, the view of him as a violent, race-hater have dissipated as society has recognized the validity of many of his views as well as the hypocrisy of many of his detractors. He became a hero to young Blacks who identify with his reluctance to patiently wait for whites and the government to provide equality to minorities and the poor. Bruce Perry, one of Malcolm’s biographers said that “by giving expression to their frustration, Malcolm X made clear the price that white America would have to pay if it did not accede to Black America’s legitimate demands.” The fact that Malcolm changed his views on white people and the civil rights movement also brought him more into the mainstream.

Malcolm had begun collaborating with author Alex Haley in 1963 about telling his life story and a few months after his death, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” was released by Grove Press. Doubleday had the publishing rights to the book, but cancelled its publication after Malcolm’s death out of concern for the safety of Doubleday employees. By 1977, the book had sold more than six million copies and has been published in more than 45 editions and in various languages. It is considered that Doubleday’s cancellation of the book is biggest publishing blunder in history. The book has become a standard on the reading lists for high school and college students and historian John William Ward proclaimed that the book “will surely become one of the classics in American autobiography.” In 1998 Time magazine named “The Autobiography of Malcolm X “ one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.

In 1992, director SpikeLee brought Malcolm’s story to the big screen in the major motion picture film “Malcolm X.” The movie earned more than $48 million at the box office in the United States and Denzel Washington, who portrayed Malcolm, was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal. In 2010, “Malcolm X” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The book and the movies have cemented Malcolm X’s legacy within the Black community and helped him to transcend racial boundaries far beyond what was possible when he died. He brought a much needed voice to express the frustrations of Blacks in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He helped to develop a mindset within Blacks that they were intelligent, attractive and valuable, within their own communities and to the world in general, a precursor to the Black power movement. He also helped to bring the religion of Islam to the masses in the United States. Through his leadership to the Black community and the evolution of his thinking, Malcolm X became a hero to the masses, Black and white.


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Malcolm X: Rights of African Americans

African Americans have come a long way for freedom and civil rights. Because of this, movements have taken place peacefully throughout history to obtain these opportunities. Prominent figures in society have fought for minorities to be free, represented, and understood.

Although these privileges are now apparent in the world, for most, they are still presented with trials and tribulations that ultimately prohibit them from prospering in the same way as their counterparts. Malcolm X, an African American activist, and minister helped shaped the Civil Rights era by continuing his education to become an advocate for black rights, introducing his philosophies to allow others to understand their significance in society, and by influencing others to continue championing for civil rights.

Malcolm X furthered his education and in doing so was motivated to push for African Americans rights. He graduated from junior high school at the top of his class, only to lose interest after a favorite teacher told him that his dream of becoming a lawyer was, no realistic goal for a negro (Malcolm X: The Ballot or the Bullet par 1). Malcolm X was a stellar student that was shattered after his teacher’s harsh words. X willingly listened to this negativity and gave up. As a result, he summoned up vengeance and got into trouble. In 1946, while imprisoned for robbery, Malcolm X converted to the Black Muslim faith and, within years of his release, rose up the ranks as a minister in the Nation of Islam (Malcolm X: The Ballot or the Bullet par 2). After realizing his mistake, X turned his life around and became a minister and to preach the values of freedoms to his people for representation. This allowed him to prosper and teach Black Americans their standing in life along with their purpose.

Malcolm X’s philosophies allowed African Americans to understand their importance in the world. Malcolm X’s charisma and intelligence allowed people to take interest in him as he advocated for black rights. Because of this, X uncovered the true accounts of what African Americans faced in a racially conscious world. Malcolm X wanted African Americans to prevail and often urged those to seek courage like himself and voice their opinions. “He espoused the primacy of racial dignity and encouraged the black man to elevate his own society instead of trying to force himself into the unwanted presence of the white society” (Malcolm X 1925-1965 par 12). X preached for the black man to venture outside of the white man’s world and way of thinking to achieve growth and gain independence to create a world symbolic and worthy of their own culture. Because of this, Black Americans were given the motivation to overcome their daily struggles by furthering their education, building their own businesses to become independent from their counterparts.

Malcolm X’s legacy influenced others to continue their favoring for black rights even after his assassination. Malcolm’s immediate legacy was in the burgeoning black power movement in which he directly influenced the political development of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale”” (Cuthbert-Kerr par 5). With an inspiration from X, both Newton. By influencing various organizations to movies and music, the legacy Malcolm X left behind was embraced fully. Individuals continue to bring awareness to black lives and their matters by standing firmly to help overcome living in a society full of pressures to build a foundation of positivity.

Today, Malcolm X continues his prominent legacy as a courageous figure in history that fought peacefully for black rights throughout the fifties and sixties. With these challenges being hard to fathom during the civil rights movement, X stood by his people and promoted peaceful protests to boycott the harsh treatments experienced by those around them. Although Malcolm X was known to be controversial by speaking out for African Americans, there is no denying that he impacted black culture through his teachings, his enamored ways of identifying equality and by standing up for what was right even though many did not agree. Without Malcolm X’s contributions in the world, the beauty of being black would not be as significant and symbolic as it is today.


Steve Biko vs. Malcolm X

Malcolm X and Steve Biko were one of the two most preeminent leaders in world history. These men changed lives and stood up for millions of Africans and African Americans during their short lives. These two men lived by a saying “black is beautiful”. They also believed that black people in the United States as well as Africans mainly in South Africa deserved the same rights and equality as any other man in the world. They lived through the rough era of the discrimination in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa. Malcolm X and Steve Biko’s lives were ended shortly due to assassinations by people who hated them. Who was Steve Biko? Steve Biko was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960’s and 70’s. Steve Biko was born in Kingwilliamstown, South Africa in 1946. Biko was a very educated man, even though he had issues in the schools growing up. He later studied to become a doctor at the University of Natal Medical School in South Africa. Steve Biko was the creator of the famous phrase “black is beautiful”. This amazing phrase he created was meant to generate pride in oneself and pride within the race. Specifically being the African race. In 1968 Biko formed an organization called SASO, which stands for South African Students’ Organization. He formed this group because he felt that black, Indian and colored students needed an organization of their own. He was then elected first president in July of 1969. Later in 1970 he was selected as the Publicity Secretary. This group SASO was later involved into the Black Consciousness Movement. Black Consciousness to Steve Biko is defined as “the realization by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their operation” (Biko, 49”), he also said “It seeks to infuse the black community with a new found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life” (Biko, 49). In an interview Steve Biko did he said “I basically think Black Consciousness refers itself to the black man and to his situation, and I think the black man is subjected to two forces in this country.” (Biko, 100). The Black Consciousness movement that Biko and other like-minded activists created the growth of Black Power in the United States. The Black Consciousness movement's system was founded in black Christianity. This was a way to support non-violence action from his great influence from Mahatma Gandhi. In another interview when Steve Biko was asked about Black Liberation he replied, “Liberation therefore is of paramount importance in the concept of Black Consciousness, for we cannot be conscious of ourselves and yet remain in bondage. We want to attain the envisioned self which is a free self”. Steve Biko basically means that if you understand the Black Consciousness movement, you would realize that Black Liberation would not come from only imagining and fighting for political changes as the ANC (also known as the African National Congress) did. But, it would also come from a psychological transformation in the minds of black people themselves.

Who was Malcolm X? Malcolm X was born by the name of Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother, Louise Norton Little was a homemaker that had to raise her eight children. His father, Earl Little, was a Baptist minister and passionate supporter of the Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Malcolm’s fathers’ civil rights involvement stimulated death threats from the white supremacist organization Black Legion, forcing the family to relocate twice before Malcolm's fourth birthday. Growing up, Malcolm had much to deal with. He had to get over the death of his father, his mother being sent to a mental home, being separated from his family and siblings, and most of all he had to brush off the racism that was being thrown at him from early ages. Malcolm was also a very smart student. He.


Civil rights movement

An articulate public speaker, Malcolm X expressed the frustration and bitterness of African Americans during the major phase of the civil rights movement from 1955 to 1965.

Malcolm advocated the separation of black and white Americans and rejected the civil rights movement for its emphasis on integration.

Malcolm urged his followers to defend themselves “by any means necessary”.

He was one of the early voices to speak out against the US’ growing engagement in Vietnam. And he infuriated many when, in reaction to the assassination of President John F Kennedy, he said it was “chickens coming home to roost”.

I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man's problem

Malcolm X


Africa’s Influence on the Civil Rights Movement

One of the lesser discussed aspects of the civil rights movement of the 1960s is how some of the leaders of the African American struggle of that era were influenced by the independence struggles that were being fought in Africa. Although there has been relatively little attention given to this connection, the connection was very significant and demonstrated the extent to which the struggles of African Americans in the 1960s was part of a larger global Pan-African struggle for liberation.

When Ghana became in d ependent in 1957, Martin Luther King was among those who were invited to attend the independence day celebration. During this occasion, King was also invited to have lunch with Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president. Attending the independence celebration had a profound effect on King, who was very eager to share his experiences in Ghana. In one of his sermons King recounted Ghana’s struggle for independence. King explained that he was moved to tears by the experience.

And I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.

King was paying attention to the liberation struggles that were being fought in Africa and he saw a connection between the two struggles. In his very last speech, King explained:

The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa Nairobi, Kenya Accra, Ghana New York City Atlanta, Georgia Jackson, Mississippi or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”

King expressed this connection in a more direct way during the 1962 American Negro Leadership Conference, in which King stated: “Colonialism and segregation are nearly synonymous … because their common end is economic exploitation, political domination, and the debasing of human personality.” King also found that African leaders shared the same view as well. After visiting Nigeria in 1960 to attend the inauguration of Nnamdi Azikiwe, King stated:

I just returned from Africa a little more than a month ago and I had the opportunity to talk to most of the major leaders of the new independent countries of Africa and also leaders of countries that are moving toward independence. They are familiar with it and they are saying in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go for they see the two are as based on the same principle, a sort of contempt for life, and a contempt for human personality.

King particularly saw similarities between the African American struggle and the struggle in South Africa. During a 1964 speech in London, King stated:

I understand there are here tonight South Africans, some of whom have been involved in the long struggle for freedom there. In our struggle for freedom and justice in the United States, which has also been so long and difficult, we feel a powerful sense of identification with those in the far more deadly struggle for freedom in South Africa. We know how Africans there, and their friends of other races, strove for half a century to win their freedom by nonviolent methods. We have honored Chief Lutuli for his leadership, and we know how this nonviolence was only met by increasing violence from the state, increasing repression, culminating in the shootings at Sharpeville and all that has happened since.

Clearly there is much in Mississippi and Alabama to remind the South Africans of their own country, yet even in Mississippi we can organize to register Negro voters. We can speak to the press. We can, in short, organize the people in nonviolent action. But in South Africa, even the mildest form of nonviolent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned. We can understand how in that situation people felt so desperate that they turned to other methods, such as sabotage.

Today, great leaders, like Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, are among the many hundreds wasting away in Robben Island prison. Against a massive, armed and ruthless state, which uses torture and sadistic forms of interrogation to crush human beings, even driving some to suicide, the militant opposition inside South Africa seems for the moment to be silenced. The mass of the people seems to be contained, seems for the moment unable to break from the oppression. I emphasize the word “seems” because we can imagine what emotions and plans must be seething below the calm surface of that prosperous police state. We know what emotions are seething in the rest of Africa, and indeed all over the world. The dangers of a race war, of these dangers we have had repeated and profound warning.

Malcolm X was much more connected to the struggles that were being fought on the African continent. In fact, Malcolm explained that Africa’s independence was one of the reasons why the Nation of Islam’s membership expanded so rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s. In a speech which was given after Malcolm left the Nation of Islam, he explained: “One of the things that made the ‘Black Muslim’ movement grow was its emphasis upon things African. This was the secret to the growth of the ‘Black Muslim’ movement. African blood, African origin, African culture, African ties. And you’d be surprised, we discovered that deep within the subconscious of the Black man in this country, he’s still more African than he is American.”

Malcolm was particularly influenced by the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya. Malcolm felt that the Nation of Islam should adopt some of the tactics that the Mau Mau used in their fight to liberate Kenya from British colonialism. Malcolm also believed that an African American version of the Mau Mau could wipe out the KKK.

The Mau Mau was just one of the many nationalists struggles in Africa that Malcolm was influenced by. Malcolm, who was also a Black Nationalist, argued that African Americans should adopt nationalism because nationalism was what brought about independence for numerous countries across Africa.

Malcolm was also very vocal about the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and America’s role in destabilizing the Congo. This is a topic that Malcolm spoke about very often, including at his debate at Oxford. Malcolm explained that there was a direct connection between the African American struggle and the Congolese struggle: “As long as we think — as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago — that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out. Not until you start realizing your connection with the Congo.”

Malcolm met with several African leaders and discussed the plight of African Americans with them. Malcolm was very encouraged by the support that those African leaders offered. Malcolm found particular support from President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Nyerere urged other African leaders to pass a resolution in support of the African American struggle. The passage of this resolution alarmed the American government. Malcolm would also befriend Abdulrahman Babu, who was a political revolutionary from Tanzania. Azaria Mbughuni explained their friendship as follows:

The growing friendship between Babu and Malcolm was not just a connection between two people, it was a linkage between Africa and the diaspora it was reassertion of a long connection between African people in Africa and people of African descent in the struggle for freedom and human dignity outside Africa. It was the connections between Africa and the diaspora in the struggle against racial discrimination and imperialism that made Malcolm’s new mission much more dangerous to the U.S. government.

Apart from the influence that African independence had on King and Malcolm, African independence impacted the civil rights movement in other ways as well. Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) explained that it became a great political embarrassment for the United States when the diplomats from independent African nations were being denied service at segregated restaurants, so the State Department stepped in and told these segregated restaurants to make exceptions for the African diplomats. Kwame Ture, who was a college student at the time, took advantage of this by dressing up in African clothing and ordering food from these segregated restaurants.

Africa’s independence had helped to weaken segregation in America. This is an observation which King made as well. Ghana’s Minister of Finance Komla Gbedemah was denied service at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant. President Dwight Eisenhower personally apologized to Gbedemah, whom Eisenhower also invited to the White House. King wrote to Gbedemah, explaining:

I am also sorry that you faced such a humiliating experience in our country. But in spite of the odious effects of that experience, I think it helped in the sense that it served to dramatize the absurdity of the whole system of segregation. The fact that the President hastily invited you to the White House reveals that America is now more sensitive to the rolling tide of world opinion than ever before.

Kwame Ture, who was born in Trinidad, became a very prominent leader in the civil rights movement. This included serving as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and marching alongside King in the March Against Fear. Ture later relocated to Guinea, which was led by President Sekou Toure at the time. Nkrumah was also living in Guinea at the time, after having been overthrown in Ghana as the result of an American supported coup. Ture changed his name from Stokely Carmichael to Kwame Ture in honor of Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure. Ture recalled that he could not speak very much French when he first moved to Guinea, but he never felt excluded by the people there.

Ture was not the only African from the diaspora to move to Africa following African independence. For some, Africa offered refuge that was denied in the United States. Robert F. Williams lived in exile in Tanzania for some time while attempting to escape kidnapping charges. Pete O’Neal also moved to Tanzania to escape facing charges in the United States and Tanzania is where Geronimo Pratt spent the rest of his life after being released from prison after serving 27 years for a crime he did not commit.

The connection between the African independence and the civil rights movement is much too lengthy to fully address in this short article, but the point to be made is that it was no mere coincidence that the civil rights movement and the decolonization of Africa coincided with each other. The civil rights movement was influenced by the African liberation struggle. Of course, the African liberation struggle was itself influenced by movements and individuals from the diaspora, which is a topic for another time.

Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.


The role of Black Muslims in the American civil rights movement

With the United States consumed by riots after the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who was suffocated by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Black rights activism is once again in focus.

Young men and women have taken to the streets across the US in lively protests, clashing with police, bracing pepper spray, rubber bullets and baton-beatings.

There is also a rich history of Black Muslim Americans who have been at the forefront of the fight against the injustice meted out to non-white citizens in the world&rsquos largest economy.

&ldquoWe have a long history dealing with violence by extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan,&rdquo says Imam Mahdi Bray, the National Director of the American Muslim Alliance and a lifelong civil rights activists.

&ldquoWhen a lot of people think of terrorism, they think of 9/11. But for me terrorism was on that day in 1956 when my grandfather&rsquos home was firebombed by the Klan.&rdquo

Imam Mahdi Bray says terrorism for him was when his home was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s. (AP Archive)

Bray&rsquos family lived in northern Virginia where his grandfather, Wright Gray Junior, campaigned to register Black voters and worked closely with the celebrated activist and icon, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Many years have passed since then, and, in that time, America has seen a Black president come to power, as well as senators, lawyers and mayors.

It is apparent, however, that discrimination of people of colour has not changed, says Bray, a key anti-war organiser after the US-led invasion of Iraq.

&ldquoWhat&rsquos happening in the US is what has happened for many years. We are suffering from systemic racism and violence. What happened to George Floyd has happened to many African American Black men who have basically experienced death and lethal violence by law enforcement,&rdquo he told TRT World in an interview.

Over the years, many prominent Black Muslims have emerged in the civil rights movement. People like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are household names.

Mentioning everyone in one article is an impossible task. Some of them have controversial histories or it remains hard to confirm whether they embraced Islam - but their lives have proved a source of inspiration for Muslims.

In the current circumstances Black Muslims have a particularly difficult task.

Keith Ellison

Ellison, 56, is the top public prosecutor in Minnesota, the state where Floyd was killed. As the Attorney General, he will be leading the investigation against the police officers and has vowed to &ldquohold everyone accountable.&rdquo

A criminal defence lawyer by profession, he converted to Islam as a 19-year-old college student when he was actively involved in highlighting police brutality against Black people.

Keith Ellison knows all too well how police interact with minorities in the US. (AP Archive)

Ellison has had firsthand experience of police brutality, something which propelled him to take an active role in the civil rights movement.

&ldquoWhen he was 4, he hid under his bed when National Guard troop carriers drove through his neighborhood in 1968, amid the riots that following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and came of age during the era of Coleman Young, the city&rsquos first Black mayor,&rdquo Mother Jones reported.

In 1989, he formed a group called the Coalition for Police Accountability, which published a newsletter that detailed police brutality.

He was the first Muslim ever to be elected to congress in 2006, taking his oath on the Quran - a move that angered several white politicians.

Marcus Garvey

Bray, a former Baptist Christian, converted to Islam in the mid-1960s.

&ldquoSome would say reverted back to Islam, but, yeah, I&rsquom basically a convert,&rdquo he says laughing.

That was a time when Black Americans had started to take interest in the political transitions taking place in the Middle East and Africa such as in countries like Algeria, which gained independence from French colonial rule in 1962.

&ldquoCulturally, young Black men like myself were going through what we called the Black identity movement and so we looked towards Africa and we saw Islam is the religion coming from there,&rdquo he explains.

Pan-Africanism was in the wind, and the uprising against Apartheid in South Africa became a rallying cry for African-Americans.

&ldquoThe struggle for dignity in places like South Africa were deeply connected to the experience of African-Americans who were experiencing their own aparthied system.&rdquo

But decades before newly-converted Muslims took to being inspired by Africa, there was Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), who started the &ldquoback to Africa campaign.&rdquo

Born in Jamaica, he moved to the US at the age of 28 in 1917. This coincided with race riots in East St Louis, events which created an environment of racial fear among Black people.

Even though there's a lack of clarity over his religious beliefs, Marcus Garvey left a lasting impact on Black Muslims in the US and elsewhere. (AP Archive)

&ldquoWith the help of such disciples as my father, Garvey, from his headquarters in New York City&rsquos Harlem, was raising the banner of Black-race purity and exhorting the Negro masses to return to their ancestral African homeland - a cause which had made Garvey the most controversial man on earth,&rdquo writes Malcolm X on the first page of the first chapter of his autobiography.

A strong proponent of Black nationalism and the self-reliance of Black people, Garvey faced persecution at the hands of the FBI in an alleged mail-fraud case related to the promotion of the Black Steamship Line (BSL).

Garvey&rsquos &ldquoBlack religion&rdquo teachings resonated with many Muslims and influenced the leaders of the Nation of Islam.

Although he was officially a Catholic, his reluctance to publicly disclose his faith remains a mystery, writes Professor Samory Rashid of the Indiana State University, in his book, &lsquoBlack Muslims in the US'.

&ldquoNevertheless, the UNIA motto of 'One God, one aim, one destiny' would have a special appeal to Muslims who may have populated its ranks in the thousands,&rdquo writes Rashid.

He was expelled from the US in 1927 and he died in the UK in 1940. His remains were moved to Jamaica where he became the nation&rsquos first national hero.

Garvey&rsquos philosophy, which was centered on the return of the Blacks to their original homeland, helped lead to the creation of the Rastafari religion.

Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian emperor who ruled between the years 1930 and 1974, is a God and that he will facilitate the return of the Black community to Africa.

Among Garvey&rsquos followers was a man named Elijah Muhammad.

The Nation of Islam (NOI)

No brief history of Black Muslims in the US would be complete without the mention of the NOI.

It was founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930, but its lightning rod was Elijah Muhammad - the controversial Muslim leader whose teachings deviated from mainstream Islam.

Born in 1897 in Georgia as Elijah Poole, he witnessed as a young boy the lynching of Albert Hamilton, an African-American - this had a profound impact on him.

The charismatic leader of the Nation of Islam Elijah Muhammad inspired countless African-Americans including Malcolm X. (AP Archive)

Elijah Muhammad took over the NOI&rsquos leadership from the group&rsquos founder Fard.

&ldquoNation of Islam didn&rsquot adopt orthodox Islam or as some people would say Sunni Islam,&rdquo says Mahdi Bray. &ldquoPeople like Muhammad Ali helped build that bridge, later rejecting some of the religious tenets provided by Elijah Muhammad.&rdquo

But the group supported Black nationalism and had a wide appeal.

&ldquoAs one sheikh from Saudi Arabia used to say that maybe they are not praying correctly, but they are praying in the right direction,&rdquo says Bray.

The NOI&rsquos most famous spokesperson was Malcolm X.

Malcolm Little was born in 1925 with a skin colour deemed lighter than that of his siblings. This was something that made his father prefer him over his other children because &ldquohe was subconsciously so afflicted with the white man&rsquos brainwashing of Negroes that he inclined to favour the light ones.&rdquo

The discrimination that he faced as a child shaped his views in later life when, unlike King, he was determindely against effecting any reconciliation with the white people - at least for a large part of his life.

In school, he excelled but was told by a teacher that he should consider a &ldquorealistic&rdquo career as a carpenter rather than dreaming of becoming a lawyer.

Malcolm replaced Little in his name with the variable X in defiance of white dominance. As a young man, he spent a few years in prison, a time during which he converted to Islam and upon his release became an active member of the NOI.

He&rsquos known to have provided much of the intellectual firepower to the Black Power movement.

After developing differences with Elijah Muhammad, he left the NOI in 1964 and travelled to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj. He changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.


What Did Malcolm X Do in the Civil Rights Movement?

Malcolm X, the African-American activist and minister of the Black Muslim faith, challenged Martin Luther King's plan for nonviolent integration during the civil rights movement. Malcolm X rejected integration with white Americans and also opposed nonviolence, encouraging his followers to defend themselves against racial aggression with any means necessary.

Born in 1925, Malcolm X was the son of a Baptist preacher who was murdered by white supremacists when Malcolm was 6 years old. After his father's death, he was placed in a foster home. He dropped out of school after eighth grade to pursue a life a crime. At age 21, Malcolm X was sentenced to prison for burglary, and during his sentence he became a member of the Islamic Nation, popularly known as the Black Muslims. After his release, Malcolm became one of the Islamic Nation's most influential leaders, strongly advocating black supremacy and separation of white and black Americans.

After a series of disagreements with the leaders of the Islamic Nation, Malcolm X condemned the religion and endorsed the teachings of Sunni Islam. After traveling throughout the Middle East and completing a pilgrimage to Mecca, he returned to the United States to establish his own mosque. He continued to emphasize black power and black self-defense, but he denounced racism. Shortly after his return to the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Islamic Nation.


From Black Revolution to “Radical Humanism”: Malcolm X between Biography and International History

Ever since his violent death at age thirty-nine, on February 21, 1965, the African American activist Malcolm X has become more of a cultural icon than a properly understood historical figure, a sort of blank screen onto which a seemingly endless variety of people and groups have projected their fantasies, ideas, and visions. This, in a way, is a strange fate for someone so profoundly political. 1 In popular culture, in varying national arenas, he has become a totemic posthumous presence. Around the world he is nearly as likely as Che Guevara to be found on t-shirts worn by idealistic young people who actually know little if anything about him. In the United States, the identification of individual African Americans with him transcends political orientation: he has been claimed as a model, for example, by Clarence Thomas, the right-wing Supreme Court justice, as well as by Chuck D, leader of the militant hip-hop group Public Enemy. 2 He has even been adopted by parts of the American mainstream: there are streets named after him, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is widely assigned in schools and colleges, and the U.S. Postal Service formalized his national status by putting his image on a stamp in 1999.

But it is really at the international level that Malcolm’s life after death has had particular resonance recent anecdotal (and sometimes disturbing) evidence abounds. After the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency in November 2008, al-Qaeda released a video featuring its then-deputy (now leader), the Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, who described president-elect Obama as a “race traitor” and “hypocrite” when compared to Malcolm X. This was not new rhetoric from al-Zawahiri, who had frequently held up Malcolm X (to whom he always referred by Malcolm’s Arabic name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) as a paragon of “honorable black Americans” while attacking Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, during the years of the George W. Bush administration, as “house negroes” (harking back to Malcolm X’s favorite pejorative description of moderate black American leaders who enjoyed the support of white liberals).

Toward the end of his biography of Malcolm X, Manning Marable is quick to distance his subject from al-Qaeda’s views of the world, arguing that Malcolm would have certainly found the attacks of September 11, 2001, abhorrent—”the negation of Islam’s core tenets,” as Marable puts it (487). This is a highly debatable point to which I will return. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda’s embrace of Malcolm X (genuine or not) and al-Zawahiri’s use of one of Malcolm’s most famous speeches are revealing of a fascinating but thus far misunderstood historical development: the transformation of a uniquely American public figure, seemingly the product of specifically black American socio-historical circumstances, into a worldwide cultural, political, and religious symbol. In a way, al-Zawahiri’s comments were already forecast more than twenty years earlier, when the postrevolutionary Iranian government released a postage stamp featuring an image of Malcolm X to promote the Universal Day of Struggle against Race Discrimination. These sorts of linkages between Malcolm X’s politics and radical Islam were perhaps most notoriously put into action by John Walker Lindh, the young white Californian from upper-class Marin County who was inspired, after reading theAutobiography, to leave comfortable suburban America behind him and join the Taliban forces in the mountains of Afghanistan, where in 2002 he was captured by American troops.

These few examples are suggestive of the ways in which a full examination of Malcolm X’s political and spiritual legacies can serve as a gateway for scholars seeking to understand the dynamics of international history in the last several decades, and particularly the place of the United States (and most specifically, black Americans) in a global context. Although extant scholarship on Malcolm X has focused primarily on his place within African American history, specifically his role vis-à-vis the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, a number of scholars have begun an effort to link Malcolm X to a broader set of issues in the history of international politics. While his life story and public career reveal much about the United States and its racial-political conditions in the middle part of the twentieth century, Malcolm X’s trajectory can also be studied to great profit by scholars interested in the past and present of human rights, the politics of citizenship, the impact of decolonization, anti-imperialism, the global and black left, and the tension between geopolitics and individual or collective political action. Marable’s book, which was clearly written for the general public rather than for specialists, touches on some but not all of these issues, with mixed results. This essay will focus on both components of Malcolm X’s late public career, the American and the international, while stressing the connections between them: neither Malcolm X’s American nor global activism in the last year of his life, I argue, can be understood without the other.

Given that Malcolm X is one of the most famous names in twentieth-century history, it is easy to forget that at the end of his life he was—at least in the United States—a marginalized, isolated figure, marked for death by his enemies and seen by much of the public as a rabble-rousing demagogue. His reputation was largely transformed, and his fame cemented, by the publication of the Autobiography in 1965, shortly after his death. 3 The words were supposedly Malcolm X’s but the author was Alex Haley, a struggling black writer and former Coast Guardsman whose agenda, Marable notes, was that of a “liberal Republican” and integrationist (9). Malcolm X and Haley had collaborated on the work beginning in the early 1960s Malcolm agreed to the project with the primary goal of lauding his spiritual leader at the time, Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a group known in the media as the Black Muslims. Haley’s aim was different: to depict Malcolm’s harsh life and militant message as a warning to white America of what a rejection of racial integration would lead to. In the end, Haley enjoyed control over the material and determined theAutobiography‘s tone and framing. He was responsible for the way Malcolm came to be seen by many: as a man who, through personal growth and spiritual epiphany, ended up rejecting black separatism, yearning for rapprochement with the civil rights movement, and espousing a more inclusive vision of his struggle, and whose life was cut short as he was beginning to present these newfound views to the world. At least two generations of readers have been swept away by the Autobiography‘s dramatic power, uplifted especially by Malcolm’s account of his April 1964 trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and the subsequent drastic change in the way he saw white people—previously “blond-haired, blue-eyed devils,” now potential allies in his fight for black liberation.

Marable’s book, which takes issue with this highly misleading view of Malcolm X’s career, can be seen, first and foremost, as a lengthy reply to Haley’s bestseller. Its first main goal is to situate Malcolm’s life within the broader arc of African American history. Thanks in part to Spike Lee’s eponymous 1992 film, Malcolm X became “a hero for black Americans,” as was overwhelmingly shown by a poll taken that year. Directly based on the Autobiography, given the full Hollywood treatment, starring the crowd-pleasing Denzel Washington, Malcolm Xthe film brought Malcolm X the figure a magnitude of attention, and acceptance, that he could never have experienced while alive. 4 The problem, then, for Marable, became one of a different sort. Malcolm X was now seen by a new generation of African Americans as a saint, hero, and martyr: “the historical Malcolm,” Marable writes, “the man with all his strengths and flaws, was being strangled by the iconic legend that had been constructed around him” (490). What was needed was a full understanding of Malcolm X the person. And so Marable’s second and most important goal was to “humanize” Malcolm X, to transform the icon into flesh and blood, to “go beyond the legend to recount what actually occurred in Malcolm’s life” (12).

The book’s publication had a dramatic, and tragic, quality. Marable, along with a staff of dozens, had been working on it, on and off, for almost twenty years. As the founder and longtime director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, Marable and his team put together the Malcolm X Project (MXP), an important pedagogical resource on the man and his times. Few books in recent years were as highly anticipated. For one thing, there was the sense (echoed by Marable himself) that Malcolm X had never gotten the historian or biographer he deserved, despite the shelves of books that had been devoted to him. Until the 1990s, Marable argues, Malcolm X was consigned to “the periphery of black history” as for the literature on Malcolm X produced in the 1990s, Marable was “struck by its shallow character and lack of original sources” (8, 490). Marable’s position at Columbia, and his standing as a prominent figure in the field of African American studies, gave him the sort of gravitas that previous Malcolm X scholars had seemingly lacked. He also did not play down the hype and pomp of the publication, giving interviews about the book for several years before it actually came out and describing his findings in personal, definitive, and bombastic terms. At the same time, Marable suffered from sarcoidosis, a serious pulmonary disease. In 2010, he received a double lung transplant, and it was in these circumstances, including months of hospitalization, that he was able to finish work on the book. He died, aged sixty, on April 1, 2011 three days later the book finally appeared.

The initial public response was somewhat expected, given the matching of sexy subject and visible (and just-deceased) author. The book shot its way immediately up to near the top of bestseller lists. It received mostly glowing reviews (doubling as obituaries for Marable) in theNew York Times, the New Yorker, and other venues it was debated, sometimes virulently, among black intellectuals and activists who either loved the book or deeply disliked it (for reasons to be discussed below) and it even got some play on commercial television, thanks to its claims about Malcolm’s murder. In 2012, it won the ultimate mark of mainstream approval—the Pulitzer Prize for History.

The first thing to say is that Marable has succeeded in his principal goal of “humanizing” Malcolm X. Many fixed ideas about the man’s life will be overturned, or at least rethought. Then there is the question of whether Marable has accomplished the mission to fullyhistoricize Malcolm X. Here the answer might well be a qualified, respectful, no. The book works well as biography, but it is less convincing as history. (The Pulitzer committee’s decision to judge the book in the category of history rather than biography is all the more surprising.) Marable’s work is a significant achievement in many respects and probably the most important book about Malcolm X since Peter Goldman’s The Death and Life of Malcolm X, published in 1974. 5 Its Pulitzer means that for years to come it will be the go-to book for anyone interested in Malcolm X and his times. But it should not be the final word on its subject. Nor, one imagines, would Marable, always a lively intellectual interlocutor, want it to be. 6

There is an odd tension at the heart of this book between Marable’s framing of Malcolm X’s life and his actual telling of it. Prior to the book’s publication, Marable had stated in interviews that Malcolm X was “the most remarkable historical figure produced by Black America in the twentieth century.” 7 But it is never entirely clear how (and if) the book actually conveys this. Although the biography begins and ends with laudatory statements about Malcolm X, its tone is, overall, fairly negative. One way to understand “remarkable” is that, in Marable’s view, “more than any of his contemporaries, [Malcolm X] embodied the spirit, vitality, and political mood of an entire population—black, urban mid-twentieth-century America” (13). But given that Marable himself repeatedly points out how out of step Malcolm turned out to be with the dominant political and religious currents among American blacks, this too is a debatable claim. How did Malcolm arrive at such a different place from the great majority of blacks that grew up in the same settings he did, given that his experiences and “mood” were supposedly so representative? This is a question that the book should have answered, but I am not sure it does. The answer, I would argue, has to do with Malcolm’s discovery of international politics.

The early stages of Malcolm X’s life certainly reflected the harshness and brutality typically suffered by many black communities in the United States. Born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, he spent his childhood wandering with his family through the Midwest, finally settling in Lansing, Michigan. Yet even this regional, parochial start to Malcolm’s life contained the seeds of his future internationalism: both of his parents were poor but devoted followers of the West Indian 1920s black nationalist Marcus Garvey, leader of the “Back to Africa” movement, who would become a major influence on Malcolm’s thinking. Malcolm’s father died when the boy was thirteen, the victim of either a drunken accident at a railroad track or of the Black Knights, a white supremacist group. The family then slipped from poverty to destitution, and shortly thereafter, his mother was institutionalized. Malcolm would not see her again until he was an adult. He spent the rest of his adolescence in foster homes, and despite showing early promise at school, he did not get past the eighth grade and grew up to be a zoot-suited petty criminal. A powerful component of the Autobiography was to highlight the depths of crime and depravity to which Malcolm sunk in his youth and early adulthood, leading to his arrest in Boston (for burglary), conviction, and imprisonment, in 1946, when he was twenty years old. One of Marable’s most trumpeted revisionist arguments (somewhat overplayed) is that Malcolm’s criminal activities were relatively minor and that in the Autobiography he exaggerated his criminal past in order to underline the power of his eventual redemption. In the Autobiography Malcolm had also described his younger self as intellectually and politically clueless, and Marable shows that this too was a self-constructed myth: his parents’ reverence for Garvey’s ideas stayed with him throughout his youth.

Regardless, it was in prison that the criminal once nicknamed “Big Red” (and, according to the Autobiography, “Satan,” by fellow prisoners) came under the influence of Elijah Muhammad, leader of an obscure “sect” (Marable’s term), the Nation of Islam. Muhammad, formerly Poole, self-proclaimed Messenger of God (and a former convict himself), preached worship of Allah, abstention from vice, self-improvement and discipline, segregation of the sexes outside marriage, and a bizarre cosmic theology that had at its center the superiority of the black man to the white man. 8 After his release from prison, in 1952, a converted, well-read, bespectacled, and cleaned-up Little, now calling himself Malcolm X, threw himself into proselytizing activism and, while remaining subservient to Muhammad, steadily rose through the ranks of the NOI. As he became a nationally prominent figure in the late 1950s and especially the early 1960s, he almost single-handedly catapulted the NOI to hitherto unknown levels of public visibility. His intelligence, magnetism, and wit, distinctive traits that neither Muhammad nor anyone else in the “sect” could hope to match, earned him a following among younger blacks in the northern cities, attention from the mainstream media, and the envy and resentment of many Black Muslims, including and especially Muhammad himself.

Then, at the peak of his fame, in early 1964, after a long period of intense internal discord, Malcolm publicly broke with Muhammad and set off on an independent path. The last year of his life was the most politically and religiously significant. It was in the ten or eleven months before his murder that Malcolm became a global- as well as national-level actor, an internationally recognized human rights campaigner, a Sunni Muslim, and the leader of two separate organizations, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) and the Muslim Mosque Incorporated (MMI). 9 It was also then that he lost the structure within which he had operated for over a decade, and he was targeted for harassment and violence by both the leaders and the rank and file of the NOI, ending with his murder. Although theAutobiography presented this last act of Malcolm’s life as a sort of catharsis, Marable focuses on the fact that Haley included very little material on Malcolm’s political activity after his leaving the NOI and his trip to Mecca, and almost nothing on the OAAU and MMI. (Haley left the chapters dealing with these organizations out of the finished product.) Manning seeks to rectify these omissions, and to a large degree he succeeds.

In spite of Muhammad’s crucial role in Malcolm’s personal evolution, and the NOI’s function of, at least, providing structure, meaning, and a sense of purpose to some disaffected urban blacks, Marable harbors no affection, to put it mildly, for the group. The book pulls no punches in its depiction of the bleak inner world of the NOI: the absolute fidelity to a petty and tyrannical leader, the violence and bullying, the obscurantism and parochialism, the misogyny and cruelty, the jealousies and hypocrisies. Marable and his team uncovered new and interesting information about Malcolm’s time in the NOI, including his own casual imperiousness toward subordinates, and especially the complex, ultimately poisonous relationship with the father-figure Malcolm had long termed “the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.”

According to the Autobiography, Malcolm wound up breaking with Muhammad primarily as a result of discovering that his former spiritual savior and the preacher of sexual rectitude had fathered numerous children with a succession of teenaged secretaries. (The book’s rather pedestrian photo gallery includes one ironically stunning image of Muhammad greeting a comely young convert. 10 ) One of the best parts of the book is the section dealing with the background and dynamics of Malcolm’s departure from the Nation. Marable shows that it was in fact the NOI that ultimately pushed out Malcolm, who had increasingly chafed under Muhammad’s perennial restrictions on political activity, and had also discovered, according to Marable, that the mother of one of Muhammad’s out-of-wedlock progeny was a former girlfriend of Malcolm’s for whom he still pined. Also, Malcolm was increasingly bothered by the fact that the NOI’s esoteric brand of “Islam” had little or nothing to do with “Islam” the world religion. After Malcolm made his infamous statement following President Kennedy’s assassination, implying that it was a sort of karmic payback for America’s sins at home and abroad (“Kennedy never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon . . . Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad they always made me glad”), Muhammad opportunistically muzzled his disciple for ninety days. A key point in the process of Malcolm’s disillusionment was Muhammad’s muted response to the shooting and killing of an NOI member by Los Angeles police in 1962 while Malcolm and some other members of the Nation wanted to respond in kind, Muhammad (probably wisely) ordered his disciples to do nothing. Marable shows the extent to which Malcolm was caught up in the racial-political whirlwind of his times, and his desire to be part of the action clashed with the NOI’s rigid abstinence from contentious issues. There can be no doubt, after reading Marable’s book, that Malcolm’s interest in global affairs—in contrast with the NOI’s relentless incuriousness—played a large part in the falling-out between guru and disciple (who would now be seen as a sort of guru himself, on a much larger stage). Still, Malcolm tried to find ways to stay in the NOI until the bitter end, and even after the break he made occasional conciliatory gestures to Muhammad, a sign that a part of him still belonged to the group. 11

Along the way, Marable makes a number of claims, most of them speculative, about Malcolm X’s personal life, and these, for better or worse, have played a major role in the attention given to the book several of Malcolm’s admirers have reacted sourly to Marable’s rummaging in their hero’s closet. It is admittedly interesting to learn that Malcolm might have (in his youthful delinquent days) been involved in a brief sexual relationship with a white Boston businessman had a strained and mutually unfaithful marriage with his wife Betty Shabazz, which was not helped by his tendency to leave on long trips immediately after the birth of each one of his children (all of whom were, somewhat to his chagrin, daughters) consumed the occasional alcoholic drink. 12 These bits of gossip may indeed help “humanize” someone who has been generally depicted, post-prison, as a teetotalling paragon of morally upright manhood. But it is probably more important to know the extent to which Malcolm X, in his NOI days, tried to build alliances with both the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party (whose leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, was even invited to speak at an NOI event). The rationale for this cooperation was that the NOI and the white supremacists shared a belief in complete racial separation. Marable reserves some of his sternest lectures for these harebrained initiatives, as well as for the occasions when Malcolm said things that could be construed (with a bit of stretching) as anti-Semitic.

Perhaps the biography’s most compelling chapter is on the murder itself. Marable should be applauded for confronting the matter directly: many others (myself included) have seen it as a morass from which serious scholars should steer clear. After providing a reconstruction of the entire ugly event, Marable elides some of the more elaborate conspiracy theories floated over the years and concurs with the generally accepted view that the murder at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom was committed by members of the NOI’s Newark mosque. While Muhammad and his heavily FBI-infiltrated inner circle may not have given a direct order to kill Malcolm, they had to have known that this would be the result of their constant incitement, and in any case the killers were convinced that they were doing their leader’s bidding. The FBI and New York City police, Marable argues, may have known of the murder in advance (thanks to the presence of numerous undercover agents in both the NOI and in Malcolm’s organizations) and enabled it. Most startlingly, there are strong indications that Malcolm accepted and even helped orchestrate his own death, and by insisting that his wife and children attend the talk (they rarely if ever did), he envisioned his murder as a “symbolic . . . passion play” to be witnessed by family and friends (433). Lastly, Marable bolsters the accusations made over the years that the authorities purposely botched the investigation, covering up for their informants and framing two innocent men while letting one of the real killers (the man—still alive, and identified by name—who fired the fatal shot) go scot-free, while presenting the murder to the public as a hate crime committed by one group of black militants on the leader of another. As in all such historical detective work conducted years after the fact, Marable cannot offer a definitive solution to the mystery. But he probably comes as close as anyone else has so far.

A more problematic tension in the book has to do with the meanings of Malcolm’s politics at the time of his death. Here it is important to note that while the debate tends to revolve around Malcolm X’s place in domestic civil rights history, the wider world is equally important, indeed crucial, in understanding Malcolm X’s American activity. Marable—more about this later—does not do enough to emphasize that connection. He does justly take Haley and others to task for their depiction of Malcolm X’s last year as “an effort to gain respectability as an integrationist and liberal reformer,” which Marable considers “not an accurate or complete reading,” as well as one of the main reasons for the Autobiography‘s mainstream popularity over the years (466). Marable is right to reject the common portrayal of Malcolm X as simply another part of the civil rights movement writ large—Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. in this typical view, represent two complementary poles of the movement, the former militant and the latter moderate (with the two moving steadily closer to each other). 13 Marable’s epilogue, which should be read as a self-standing essay rather than as a conclusion, contains a comparison between King and Malcolm X that should put to rest once and for all the facile linkages made between the two men.

But Marable’s forceful statements notwithstanding, ultimately his portrayal does not stray far from Haley’s ironically, this may be part of why the book has enjoyed so much mainstream success, among the same sorts of readers who five decades ago loved the Autobiography. Much, perhaps too much, of the second half of the biography revolves around what Marable depicts as Malcolm X’s conflicted relationship with the civil rights movement. Marable is perhaps at his most critical of his subject when juxtaposing the pragmatic, action-driven approach of the civil rights camp with the NOI’s refusal to engage with politics and with Malcolm X’s scornful attitude toward the civil rights mainstream. At the same time, Marable’s Malcolm X is constantly moving, even before leaving the NOI, back and forth between wanting to work with civil rights leaders at some points and ridiculing them as “Uncle Toms” at others, and between seeing ways to work within the American political system (for example, in his famous speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”) and without it. But Marable, almost in spite of himself, winds up contextualizing Malcolm X’s career too firmly within the civil rights framework. Too often the movement is the star around which Malcolm X orbits as little more than a defensive, sometimes petulant, satellite. It is clear where Marable stands: the friendlier Malcolm is to the movement, the friendlier Marable is to Malcolm the more dismissive Malcolm is, so goes Marable. Although Malcolm X is ostensibly the subject of the book, the real heroes of this part of the narrative are such civil rights leaders as Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, and, most predictably, King, all of whom were among Malcolm’s harshest critics, and with all of whom Marable identifies more closely.

One of Malcolm X’s principal faults in Marable’s eyes was his failure, at times, to appreciate what these civil rights activists were doing for the lives of the ordinary blacks on whose behalf Malcolm X claimed to speak, and his disdain for gradual change. Marable mentions with some enthusiasm Farmer’s taunting of Malcolm at a debate between them—”We know the disease, physician, what is your cure?” (203). And he reminds us that while Malcolm X spoke caustic words, the civil rights leaders that he disparaged as stooges of the white man were busy doing, sometimes at daunting personal sacrifice, while he was mostly talking (this was a common complaint made about him at the time). “Malcolm’s political beliefs,” Marable writes, “may have led him to misunderstand the fundamental importance of the mainstream civil rights struggle to the large majority of black Americans. Whereas [Malcolm] . . . criticized the flaws in the nonviolent approach, [he] did not acknowledge how rewarding even incremental progress was . . . it apparently did not occur to him that great social change usually occurs through small transformations in individual behavior” (406).

One could agree with Marable’s implication that Malcolm missed the point of the civil rights struggle. But Marable might be missing a crucial point about Malcolm: what mattered about him, in this regard, was not his policy prescriptions (or lack thereof), or his precise positions on specific issues, such as whether blacks should vote in the 1964 presidential election for Lyndon Johnson or Barry Goldwater (whose statement “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” Malcolm X adopted, for reasons different from Goldwater’s). Rather, what mattered was his general political temperament, which was revolutionary, not reformist, and toward the end of his life, focused on the globaland the national rather than just or even primarily the national, as was the case for the civil rights mainstream. Malcolm’s ostensible support for Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964—really a tepid, tongue-in-cheek “endorsement” that Marable makes too much of, since Malcolm neither voted for Goldwater himself nor encouraged anyone else to—stemmed from his conviction that it was better for blacks to confront the “wolf” (Republican Goldwater) than the “fox” (Democrat Johnson). “In a wolf’s den,” he says in the Autobiography, “I’d always known exactly where I stood I’d watch the dangerous wolf closer than I would the smooth, sly fox. The wolf’s very growling would keep me alert and fighting to survive, whereas I might be lulled and fooled by the tricky fox.” 14

Malcolm X knew full well how important the civil rights movement was to many American blacks, but this, to him, was a source of concern (and envy): he saw these blacks as hoodwinked and wanted to bring them around to his view. Unlike the leaders of the civil rights mainstream, Malcolm X rejected American society in principle (or as he put it, speaking contemptuously of “middle class so-called Negroes,” “what to them is an American dream to us is an American nightmare”) and although he was eager to be part of the conversation about it, this should not be confused with wanting to be of it (202–3). For the record: Malcolm X was not part of the “civil rights movement,” unless one uses the term, incorrectly, to include every black American political activist of the period. To Malcolm X, the civil rights movement was engaged in a self-defeating project of trying to save a fundamentally corrupt system.

An important part of this issue is that Malcolm X, during the course of his last year, substituted “civil rights” with “human rights,” and the distinction was more than tactical or semantic. It signified a critical difference in how one viewed American blacks: whereas King and the rest of the civil rights mainstream saw American blacks first and foremost as U.S. citizens, deserving of full rights and equality as such, Malcolm X spoke of “Afro-Americans,” by which he meant all people of African origin in the Western Hemisphere. It was the difference between conceiving the problem at hand as domestic or international. As Malcolm saw it, the oppression of American blacks was but one part of a Western phenomenon—colonialism/imperialism they happened to be living in the United States because of the historical crime of slavery, and their affinity was not to other U.S. citizens but rather to a global community. To be in favor of civil rights meant appealing to the Constitution and the egalitarian vision of the founders (i.e., the Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal, not the Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves), and believing that there was a gap—one that could be closed, though it would not be easy—between American ideals and realities. To be for human rights, in this regard, meant that one considered American realities a reflection of America’s true nature and thus its political and legal institutions as illegitimate (and hopeless) when it came to promoting the rights of blacks. Only a supranational authority, both moral and political, could bring about the outside pressure needed to change conditions within some day. The civil rights struggle, as Malcolm saw it, kept blacks under the control of America’s domestic jurisdiction he wanted to transform the black issue in the United States into a geopolitical concern.

We should, however, be wary of reading all this anachronistically. The notion that the black struggle in the United States constituted a human rights matter was not a new one in the 1960s, nor did Malcolm X invent it rather, he helped promote its connection to anticolonialism, a trend begun by other African American intellectuals in earlier years. Human rights, for Malcolm, were not utopian but rather a strategy, a means to an end, a precondition for civil rights. 15 His rationale was simple: on the world stage, he reasoned, nonwhites were in the majority, and presenting the plight of blacks in the United States as a human rights issue would be an embarrassment to the American government. As he put it in a speech in November 1964, “America . . . is not qualified to handle the solving of her race problem . . . It has to be made into a world problem—or a problem for humanity—not a negro problem or an American problem or one only she has the say-so over.” His plan (which he was unable to realize before his death) was to bring his case before the UN General Assembly and charge the United States with violating the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Charter itself, “for its refusal to bring a halt to the continued mistreatment of the 22 million black people in [the United States].” 16

Marable discusses Malcolm X’s human rights activism at some length, but there is yet another tension in the book—one that also constitutes perhaps its major flaw—between its continual emphasis on Malcolm X’s “global vision” on the one hand, and its almost relentless America-centeredness on the other. As strong as the book may be at analyzing Malcolm’s early life from the perspective of African American studies, it is far weaker at dealing with Malcolm X’s later career in the context of international history, specifically the field that has vaguely become known as “the United States in the world.” This is partly a problem of format: the biographer’s obligation to cover a person’s life from birth to death differs from the historian’s prerogative of weighing the relative importance of distinct periods. Thus the book’s later sections on Malcolm’s extensive and intensive worldwide travel and activity in his last year are both extremely detailed and deeply frustrating. One of the sources Marable uncovered is Malcolm’s travel diary, and on the basis of this invaluable document, along with many of Malcolm’s other papers, Marable and his team were able to reconstitute almost everything Malcolm did abroad in that last year. The trip to Mecca is covered in lavish detail every meeting in Africa and the Middle East is duly noted that which may have transpired in Malcolm’s private quarters is brought to light. But the book does not convey the full extent and meaning of Malcolm’s international activism.

Malcolm X’s engagement with the politics of the wider world had begun already in his NOI years. He first visited Africa in 1959, briefly, as the NOI spokesman in the summer of 1964, after his return from Mecca, he traveled to Africa for five months (interrupted by one return trip to the United States), visiting fourteen countries, this time representing his new organizations—in a word, himself. He met with a number of heads of state, including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel-Nasser of Egypt, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea, and Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria—charismatic postcolonial leaders who saw themselves as defying the Western powers and whose varying fusions of African-style socialism and Pan-Africanism (or Pan-Arabism) appealed to Malcolm X’s evolving conception of power politics. What made American officials most nervous about Malcolm X’s comings and goings was that they considered all these leaders either potential or active allies of the Soviet Union. (Equally of note were the countries Malcolm X did not visit: Senegal and the Ivory Coast, for example, both of whose governments remained very much under French influence and sought out Western involvement after independence.)

Part of the reason for Malcolm’s long stay abroad was the growing threat to his life at home. But his agenda was ambitious. In Ghana, he spent five weeks in the company of self-exiled African American intellectuals, including the family of W. E. B. Du Bois, who had become a Ghanaian citizen in 1962 and died there in 1963. 17 Malcolm attended a meeting in Cairo of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the OAAU’s namesake, where despite his failure to convince fearful delegates to support a resolution condemning the United States for human rights violations, he was able to get through a more moderate resolution against “racial oppression.” In Kenya, he was invited to speak before the parliament, which endorsed, at least symbolically, his human rights initiative. He was then instantly subjected to aggressive interrogation by local American diplomats. American officials were so wary of his activism that the attorney general wrote to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover—who had long had Malcolm, and all other oppositional black leaders, under surveillance—to verify whether Malcolm was in violation of the Logan Act, the federal law that forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. 18

It was also in 1964 that Malcolm X and his friends abroad became increasingly obsessed with the fate of the Republic of Congo, which to them was ground zero in the worldwide struggle between good (black liberation) and evil (Western imperialism), and to which Marable probably does not devote enough attention. One of Malcolm’s role models—and a man to whom he was frequently compared by his international supporters, both before and especially after his death—was Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the independent Congo, murdered in 1961 by internal enemies, reputedly with the involvement of the United States and Belgium and the complicity of the United Nations. 19 (Malcolm, when he was still the NOI spokesman, could be found among those who angrily protested outside the UN in the aftermath of the murder.) In 1964 the Congo was mired in a brutal civil war between so-called Lumumbist forces and the pro-Western, Katanga-based regime of Moise Tshombe, one of those originally responsible for Lumumba’s murder, to whom Malcolm X referred to as “the worst person on earth.” 20 Few issues were as important to Malcolm X toward the end of his life as the Congo crisis, which he saw as the result of the American involvement in Lumumba’s murder and support for the Western mercenaries recruited to fight for Tshombe. In the debate over the Congo held in December 1964 in the UN General Assembly, Malcolm X was able to claim one symbolic victory over American foreign officials when African UN representatives accused the United States of “being indifferent to the fate of blacks” and cited as evidence “the attitude of the United States government toward the civil rights struggle in Mississippi.” 21 Connecting the situation in the Congo to the one in the American south was precisely both the sort of global politics that Malcolm X wanted to advance and that the U.S. foreign policy establishment wanted to avoid. Given all this, both Lumumba and Tshombe, and their polar-opposite significance to Malcolm, are given short shrift in Marable’s book. 22

Marable does his best to describe goings-on in Africa and the Middle East during Malcolm’s trip. But the overall effect is that of missing the forest for the trees. One problem lies in the writing: these sections of the book transcribe Malcolm’s memorabilia so faithfully that the reader is overwhelmed with minutiae (names of hotels, what Malcolm had for breakfast, where he purchased tickets) and underwhelmed with perspective or analysis. A more glaring problem is that Marable does not engage with the now extensive scholarship on the global Cold War and the relationship between the civil rights movement and American Cold War interests, which adds substantially to our understanding of Malcolm X’s place in international politics.

Several scholars have shown that it is impossible to understand the relative successes of the civil rights movement, and in particular the groundbreaking decisions made at the top—including President Eisenhower’s sending of federal troops to enforce the desegregation of a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, or President Johnson’s pushing for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—without an understanding of the worldwide propaganda campaigns that the United States and the Communist bloc were waging on one another, and the ways in which the civil rights struggle in the United States became a focal point of both those campaigns (the Soviets highlighted brutality and discrimination against blacks, the Americans emphasized racial progress). These geopolitical considerations explain the degree to which American officials and authorities hounded Malcolm X and his friends both inside and outside the United States, as well as the level of tension between Malcolm X and some of his more moderate rivals, who often traveled to some of the same places he did, sometimes with American support, specifically to contradict his arguments and speak as representatives of the civil rights mainstream. One reason that Malcolm spent so much energy denigrating the civil rights movement (the 1963 March on Washington was, in his version, “the farce on Washington”) while he was in Africa or Europe was because he wanted to convince his foreign audiences that the civil rights movement’s primary role was propagandistic. This also helps to contextualize his call for human rights as opposed to civil rights. 23

In this regard, some of Marable’s critics have pointed out that Malcolm X was a less significant figure in the United States in the early 1960s than Marable makes him out to be, and they have a point. 24 For all of Marable’s insistence that Malcolm X represented some essential “mood” among urban blacks, neither the NOI nor Malcolm X enjoyed anywhere near the support in the early 1960s that the mainstream civil rights groups did, even among urban poor blacks, Malcolm X’s most natural American constituency. 25 Malcolm X surely fascinated and terrified people in equal measure, but arguing for his political importance in the United States at the time he was killed is a retroactive assessment, a function of the iconic status that he later attained thanks to the Autobiography and, more recently, Lee’s film.

It also ignores the increasingly global nature of his activism. In 1964 and 1965 Malcolm X was growing ever more alienated from his American, and especially African American, surroundings. Despite his occasional overtures to the leaders of the civil rights movement, such people as King, Whitney Young (executive director of the National Urban League), and Roy Wilkins (executive director of the NAACP)—along with Farmer, these were the so-called Big Four of the movement—generally wanted little to do with him, and in any case would not publicly debate or share a stage with him. (Since Malcolm X had been sporadically labeling them “Uncle Toms” and “house negroes” for years, one can understand their coolness. 26 ) The parts of the book that lead up to Malcolm’s murder vividly capture the isolation and anxiety of his final days in the United States: traveling mostly alone, dependent on bodyguards, abandoned by many of his followers, bombed out of his home, forced to borrow money, speaking in front of shrinking audiences about such global issues as the Congo crisis and Third World revolution, which, truth be told, interested relatively few African Americans.

It is only when one looks at Malcolm X’s activity from a global perspective, then, that his political significance in that last year (or half-year), even in the United States, comes into sharp relief. But “global perspective” does not just mean chronicling the man’s activity abroad, or letting us know that he possessed such perspective a transnational subject demands transnational research. In this regard the book is a major letdown. A look at its sources is revealing. No archive was consulted that is not located in the United States. No one outside the United States was interviewed. Aside from a few English-language sources like theGhanaian Times and the Egyptian Gazette, no foreign newspaper was perused or translated. Nor were any foreign-language scholarly materials used. We know that Malcolm X was deeply impressed and transformed by his travels abroad, but what sort of impression did heleave? How did he impact the many people and places he visited? What did non-Americans—not only state leaders—make of him? Was his “global vision” reciprocated? These questions cannot be answered only by Malcolm’s own diary, detailed as it is. In this book, however, they are not systematically posed.

Malcolm X’s trips to Europe are a case in point: they were arguably the high point of his global activism but are fairly neglected in this book—as they are, it should be noted, in virtually all the scholarship on Malcolm X. They are also not particularly well served by Marable’s mixture of the private and the public, or his frequent failure to separate the trivial from the substantive. One example: in November 1964, on his way back to the United States after the five months in Africa, Malcolm made a stop in Geneva, en route to Paris. Marable tells us that Malcolm’s objective was to “make contact with the city’s Islamic Center and to deepen his links to the Muslim Brother-dhood” (385). Marable then describes a “surprise encounter with a young woman named Fifi,” to which the subsequent few sentences, based on Malcolm’s diary, are slyly devoted. Even though we are also told that Malcolm met with Said Ramadan, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood (and father of the Swiss Islamist intellectual Tariq Ramadan), and several others, Marable does not say what was discussed or who was there. Even though earlier in the narrative Marable recounts a correspondence between Malcolm X and Ramadan over the place of race in Islam, we are not told what the two men had to say to each other in Geneva, or hoped to accomplish by meeting, or how this may have fit into Malcolm’s (or for that matter, Ramadan’s) “global vision.” Malcolm’s personal papers say nothing about this, so we are left in the dark. The issue is especially intriguing because of Malcolm’s earlier meeting with Nasser, who had previously expelled Ramadan and the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt. Establishing contact with both Nasser and Ramadan, enemies within the Arab world, nicely captures the dual quality of Malcolm’s activity—as had the simultaneous creation of the OAAU (radical, secular) and MMI (conservative, religious), whose respective members had little in common besides an allegiance to Malcolm.

Elsewhere Marable does go into more detail about Malcolm’s “attraction to the [Muslim] Brotherhood,” which Marable believes “was probably due to its . . . grounding real-world politics in a spiritual basis.” This, however, is not entirely convincing as Marable points out in his next sentence, this was “exactly the opposite position [Malcolm] had reached in the [United States], having concluded that he would need to keep separate his religious and political groups,” the OAAU and MMI (312). There is no reason, really, to think that Malcolm would have a different view about Islam and politics abroad, or believed that outside the United States they should be fused rather than kept separate. Rather, it makes more sense to see his politics regarding the United States and the rest of the world as one and the same—at least in those last months. The one drew on the other.

For that matter, Marable has nothing to say about the rift that had taken place within the Muslim Brotherhood between Ramadan’s circle and followers of the more radical Sayyid Qutb, nor does he give any indication that Malcolm was either aware of it or interested in the Brotherhood’s internal politics. We can probably thus conclude that Malcolm kept his rapport to religion mostly separate from his rapport to politics he expected different things from each domain, even if he did not necessarily see the two as competing or contradictory. As a relative newcomer to orthodox Sunni Islam, his religious involvement revealed a certain innocence, in which one Muslim was, so to speak, as good as the other (this, in a way, was the lesson he had taught himself in Mecca). A good example of his attitude toward the Muslim world can be seen in his courting of two rival, even hostile, organizations, the Muslim World League in Mecca and Nasser’s Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Cairo. In discussing this balancing act, Marable observes that Malcolm had “become a pluralist in the Muslim world” (390). But this pluralism is never explained, and when it comes to Geneva, Fifi gets more space than Ramadan. While this might help “humanize” Malcolm, it does not help to historicize him. After all, he went there to meet Ramadan, not Fifi.

Malcolm’s next stop was Paris Marable devotes one paragraph to this trip. We are told that Malcolm checked into the Hôtel Delavine and stayed for a week, and we are then given a summary of Malcolm’s talk at the Maison de la Mutualité. (Nothing else Malcolm did during the week—a relatively long stretch of time, given his work rate in those last few months—is mentioned.) Marable focuses on Malcolm’s statements on American politics and the civil rights movement, and, quoting from the diary, claims that “[Malcolm] seemed to lack mental focus in the formulation of new political ideas, especially in the aftermath of Johnson’s presidential victory” (386). But a look at the transcript of Malcolm’s talk, and a deeper delving into the context and background of his Paris visit, reveal that there was much more to it than that. The talk was more interesting and wide-ranging than Marable supposes: Malcolm explained his human rights initiative, drew connections between the black struggle in the United States and African postcolonial politics, and suggested—provocatively, if unrealistically—that France might support his case against the United States at the United Nations. Though this was perhaps not the most electrifying talk that Malcolm ever gave, it was a fine example nonetheless of his “global vision” as it was developing in late 1964. 27

Marable’s focus, however, is elsewhere. In his summary of Malcolm’s Paris talk, Marable carelessly charges that “[Malcolm’s] trip to Africa and the Middle East . . . seemed to have revived his inflammatory anti-Semitic views” (386). Why a trip to Africa and the Middle East would necessarily inspire anti-Semitism is not clear, but in any case this interpretation stems from a basic, yet telling, misreading of Malcolm’s words: “`Negroes . . . have been maneuvered into doing more crying for the Jews than they cry for themselves,'” Marable quotes Malcolm, and adds that Malcolm went on to “present a fictive history of progressive Jews and claiming, incorrectly, that they had not participated as Freedom Riders. `If they were barred from hotels they bought the hotel. But when they join us, they don’t show us how to solve our problem that way'” (386).

It is a tad harsh to term these statements anti-Semitic, even if they are sloppy and unpleasant, and the label should not be used as easily as Marable does here, even if his intentions are noble. The transcript reveals, first, that Malcolm was responding to an audience member who asked for his “opinion of the Jewish problem and the solidarity of Jews and Negroes against racism,” and second, that he saw American Jews as a model for blacks:

In America Jews used to be segregated. They never were “Freedom Riders.” They didn’t use this tactic to solve their problem—begging in, walking in, wading in. Whenever they were barred from a neighborhood, they pooled their economic power and bought that neighborhood. If they were barred from hotels, they bought the hotel. But when they join us, they don’t show us how to solve the problem that way. They show us how to wade in, and crawl in, and beg in. So I’m for the Jew when he shows me how to solve my problem like he has solved his problem. 28

Crass history and political incorrectness aside, it is clear that Malcolm was not saying that Jews had not participated in the civil rights Freedom Rides (nor, for that matter, was he presenting a “history of progressive Jews,” fictive or otherwise), but rather that they did, and his view of these Jews was not much different from his view of progressive whites who, say, marched in Washington in 1963. As he saw it, they were encouraging blacks to pursue a defeatist path. He remarked that “most white people who profess to be for the Negro struggle are usually with it as long as he’s non-violent and they’re the ones who encourage them to be non-violent, to love his enemies, and turn the other cheek. But those who are genuinely for the freedom of the Black Man—as far as we’re concerned, they’re all right.” 29 The point was not the Jews it was about his differences with the civil rights strategy. The statement was consistent with his conception of how politics worked—through group strength, with which one fought power with power. (He liked Mao’s China, for example, not because it was communist but because it had obtained nuclear weapons and thus was using “the only language the imperialists understand.” 30 ) One can also dislike, as some did, Malcolm’s view that American blacks and Jews were not in the same boat, at least no longer. But Marable’s pursuit of unsavory elements in Malcolm’s rhetoric has, in this case, blinded him to the more significant aspects of this specific event and its place in Malcolm’s political journey. After all, Malcolm did not go to Paris to talk about the Jews.

Although Marable quotes one reporter’s recollection that “there wasn’t a square inch of unoccupied space in the meeting room,” he does not ask why Malcolm X would draw such a large audience in Paris, or who these people might have been (386). Surely they had other things on their minds besides Lyndon Johnson’s electoral victory in the United States or Malcolm X’s thoughts on Jews. It could very well be, as Marable states, that the large crowd turned out because “Malcolm’s international reputation preceded him” (ibid.). But why and how would his appeal translate to an audience in Paris? Was it just a matter of a famous person coming through town? For that matter, why would the French government deny Malcolm X entry into the country when he traveled there for a second time, in February 1965, less than two weeks before his murder—a mystifying incident to which Marable devotes even less space than did previous biographers? Was it simply the case, as Malcolm suspected, that this was done at the bidding of the United States government—a suspicion that Marable neither challenges nor supports? Or did other issues—perhaps having to do with the political situation in early 1960s France, which was dealing with, among other things, immigration from Africa and other effects of decolonization—come into play?

The French, contrary to what Malcolm may have come to think, did not take their orders from Washington and had geopolitical interests and domestic motives of their own. Marable tells us elsewhere that Malcolm had planned to go to Paris to set up a local branch of the OAAU—a sign that not only were his interests international, so were his commitments. What sort of response might this have provoked among French, and European, observers? Who would have joined a Paris branch of the OAAU, and what sort of relationship did these potential members have with the French state? In not tackling these questions, Marable misses an opportunity to examine the tangible, and local, applications of Malcolm X’s “global vision”—and of his importance beyond the United States.

In his preface, Marable makes a brief but apt comparison between Malcolm X and three other black American intellectuals: Du Bois, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin. Like them, Marable observes, Malcolm X “denounced the psychological costs that racism had imposed on his people” (17). Marable does not notice the most striking common denominator between these three men, and the one that is arguably the most pertinent in thinking about Malcolm X’s legacy: they all chose to live out their lives in self-exile. In his epilogue, Marable does not resist the temptation to imagine what Malcolm might have done had he lived, what he would have said about this or that, and what he would have made of our present condition, forty-six years after his death. But Marable implicitly assumes that a post-1965 Malcolm would have led a primarily American existence. If we are to play this sort of guessing game, we need to take into account the possibility that Malcolm would also have eventually repudiated life in the United States that would have been a logical result of his growing internationalism. (It is worth juxtaposing the dismalness of his final days in New York with the enthusiasm accorded him in Accra, or London, or Paris.)

Engaging in such speculation puts Marable on shaky ground, because in doing so he is not much different from the many others who have projected their own sensibilities onto Malcolm X’s heritage, and he is really writing about the legend, not the man—precisely what he set out not to do. The difficult truth is that it remains purely a thought experiment to link Malcolm X to the present—like anyone else, he was a product of his times, and his thinking in February 1965 cannot be wholly transposed to 2011. Marable, to be fair, makes an attempt at moderation. He believes that Malcolm’s trajectory at the time of his death was moving in two directions: within Islam, and toward what Marable calls “the politics of radical humanism” (487). His Malcolm—and all writers on Malcolm have their Malcolm—is ultimately pretty tame, more or less in line with current-day soft-left proclivities, and seemingly incompatible with the Malcolm X whom Marable consistently criticizes for not having been moderate enough when he was alive. Marable’s Malcolm would have been pleased with the United Nations World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, which “was in many ways a fulfillment of Malcolm’s international vision” “would certainly have condemned,” as mentioned at the outset of this essay, the attacks of September 11, 2001 and maybe even been tickled pink at the 2008 election of Barack Obama, which Marable views as a fulfillment of Malcolm’s prediction “that the black electorate could potentially be the balance of power in a divided white republic,” and for whom it “raises the question of whether blacks have a separate political destiny from their white fellow citizens.” Malcolm’s vision, Marable adds, “would have to radically redefine self-determination and the meaning of black power in a political environment that appeared to many to be `post-racial'” (484–87).

Maybe. There is a lively debate to be had over whether, or to what extent, Obama’s presidency represents a radical break with the past, racial and otherwise, but this is less relevant here. 31 Malcolm X the fiery revolutionary might have aged into Malcolm the wizened pragmatist—who knows. But one finds it somehow easy to imagine that were Malcolm X circa 1965 transported to our own day, he would have condemned the current U.S. president as the ultimate “house negro,” and perhaps, for good measure, even added a putdown about Obama’s residing in the White House. Malcolm’s distinctions between African leaders he liked and those he didn’t makes it clear that he was not one to be impressed solely with the color of a leader’s skin—the leader’s politics were just as, if not more, important. Some of Obama’s foes on the right have espoused a version of the notion that the U.S. president is in some way the heir to 1960s black radicalism: see Newt Gingrich’s claim that Obama exhibits “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.” But despite some stylistic similarities, and a common emphasis on rousing speechmaking, I see little connection between Malcolm X’s “global vision” and Obama’s policies or political worldview. More to the point, Malcolm’s political duality toward the end of his life makes it impossible to guess where he would have “ended up,” geographically or politically. Reportedly, all he could tell an acquaintance in London shortly before his murder, when pressed for his philosophical outlook, was that he was “a revolutionary and a Muslim.” 32 Malcolm did not see these two things, revolution and Islam, as necessarily bound together, and he was not sure where he thought he was headed. Marable’s assessments about Malcolm X’s connections to the present thus rely on a set of arguable assumptions. In an American context—the only one that seems to matter in the book’s conclusion—an almost straight line runs, in Marable’s thinking, from Malcolm X’s message of black liberation to the black power movement of the late 1960s to the advent of such Democratic politicians as Jesse Jackson and Harold Washington to the election of Obama. 33 This rests largely on Marable’s conviction that “at the end of his life [Malcolm] realized that blacks indeed could achieve representation and even power under America’s constitutional system” (482).

Of course, any claim that Malcolm X was part of the political and intellectual lineage of a post-1965 agenda is based less on what Malcolm said while he was alive and more on what others have said about him since his death. This is as true for the black power crowd as for others. The founders of the Black Panther Party, for example, proclaimed Malcolm X as their patron saint, and scholars have taken the connection for granted but if Malcolm X in his last months was indeed moving toward “radical humanism” and “resisted identification as a `black nationalist,'” as Marable says (485), one wonders what he would have made of the Panthers’ fusion of Maoism and black nationalism, or their fondness for guns and obscenity (in any case, Malcolm considered Marxism a “white man’s ideology”). 34 By the 1980s, Eldridge Cleaver, the Panthers’ former minister of information, had become a right-wing evangelical. Would a Malcolm X who hadn’t been killed have seen Cleaver as a traitor, or as another victim of the power structure? Or would he have joined with him? For that matter, what would a world in which Malcolm X had not been murdered look like? How can we know? So much for counterfactuals.

In a similar manner, much of the epilogue is taken up with Islam, which Marable sees as “the spiritual platform from which [Malcolm] constructed a politics of Third World revolution,” and also “the political bridge that brought Malcolm into contact with the Islamic Brotherhood in Lebanon, as well as in Egypt and Gaza, with the Palestine Liberation Organization” (12). For Marable, Malcolm today “represents the most important bridge between the American people and more than one billion Muslims around the world” (486). But where Marable sees cohesiveness and continuity through Islam, it is no less plausible to see the same sort of internal conflict that helped to do Malcolm in. In my view, it is an error to simply conflate Malcolm X’s religious beliefs with his revolutionary politics. To wit, most of his supporters in the OAAU (and abroad) were secular and on the left, whereas the MMI members grew disillusioned with Malcolm’s increasing cosmopolitanism, progressive views on women, and closeness to intellectuals. It is wrong, for that matter, to conflate the Islamic Brotherhood with the secular, leftist PLO—Marable, who taught at the same university as Edward Said, surely knew that the Muslim and Arab worlds are not the same, and also that there is no such thing as one Muslim world.

All this highlights, in a way, a troubling aspect of Marable’s book that makes it all the more difficult to make sense of the “historical” Malcolm X—that is, the Malcolm that actually existed. In its relentless, almost breathless chronological pace, the book never stops to systematically discuss, and thus take seriously, the development of Malcolm’s political thought. That process, especially toward the end of his life, took place at breakneck speed—to the consternation, and eventually exasperation, of Malcolm’s followers—and deserves a chronology (and analysis) of its own, separate from what was happening in his day-to-day life. There is something to be said for someone writing a dispassionate intellectual biography of Malcolm X. In the book’s section on Malcolm’s prison years, Marable wonderfully captures the start of Malcolm’s development into the “organic intellectual” that Gramsci, in his own prison years, had described. But when the book actually deals with Malcolm’s ideas, its method is usually to offer snippets of Malcolm’s statements and Marable’s opinions on these, or else to entirely substitute Malcolm’s words with Marable’s evaluations of them. The result is too often a Malcolm X that produces provocative sound bites, or has his words shortened and condensed just enough that we get some sense of their power but not necessarily of their substance. The full force of Malcolm X’s speeches only comes to light when they are read (or better yet, heard) in their entirety, or at least at some length which is why, for those interested in the historical Malcolm X, the best place to start—before Marable’s book and even the Autobiography—is to pick up one of the collections of his speeches, or to seek them out on the Internet. 35

For Marable, the main theme of Malcolm’s life—as the book’s subtitle makes clear—is reinvention. This is different from development, or evolution, and it somehow implies that in all phases of his life Malcolm essentially remained the same Malcolm, remaking himself, in protean fashion, as circumstances around him changed. But one quality—or perhaps two—always stood out. “What made [Malcolm] truly original,” Marable writes, explaining Malcolm’s appeal to African Americans, “was that he presented himself as the embodiment of two central figures of African-American folk culture, simultaneously the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister. Janus-faced, the trickster is unpredictable, capable of outrageous transgressions the minister saves souls, redeems shattered lives, and promises a new world” (11). Frozen in time, it is easy to see Malcolm as the larger-than-life figure Marable describes, and it is nice to imagine that he would have maintained that status had he lived. But it is also a restrictively American view—Malcolm could have settled, as Du Bois, Baldwin, and Wright had, elsewhere. Of all of Malcolm’s possible future “reinventions,” somehow the one that seems most likely is that the organic intellectual with the eighth-grade education would have wound up somewhere in academia—still traveling the world, but out of sight of the mainstream mass media that was once so taken with him, and increasingly marginalized in a political world that has long left the revolutionary imaginary of the 1960s behind and since settled, uncomfortably, at the center.

1. Malcolm X has been viewed through the lenses (among others) of black separatism, continental Marxism, Afro-Caribbean nationalism, psychoanalysis, African American conservatism, Trotskyism, and anticommunism. See, e.g., Ferrucio Gambino, “The Transgression of a Laborer: Malcolm X in the Wilderness of America,” Radical History Review 55 (winter 1993): 7–31 Steven Hahn, “Marcus Garvey, the UNIA, and the Hidden Political History of African Americans,” in The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), 115–62 Eugene Victor Wolfenstein, The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) Angela D. Dillard, “Malcolm X and African American Conservatism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Malcolm X, ed. Robert E. Terrill (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 90–100 George Breitman, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary (New York: Schoken, 1967) Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership (New York: Morrow Books, 1967), passim.

2. See Robin D. G. Kelley, “Malcolm X,” in A Companion to American Thought, ed. Richard Wightman Fox and James T. Kloppenberg (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998), 424–27.

3. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as Told to Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine, 1965).

4. Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee (1993 Burbank: Warner Home Video, 2000), DVD. For critical historical assessments of this film, see Gerald Horne, “`Myth’ and the Making of Malcolm X,”American Historical Review 98, no. 2 (1993): 440–50 and Nell Irvin Painter, “Malcolm X across the Genres,” American Historical Review 98, no. 2 (1993): 432–39.

5. Peter Goldman, The Death and Life of Malcolm X (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1974).

6. For radically-minded critiques of the biography, see the essays in Jared Ball and Todd Steven Burroughs, eds., A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X(Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2012). One of the contributors to this volume, Amiri Baraka, has been a harsh critic of Marable’s book. See his on-air clash with Michael Eric Dyson in “Manning Marable’s Controversial New Biography Refuels Debate on Life and Legacy of Malcolm X,” http://www

.democracynow.org/2011/5/19/manning–marables–controversial–new –biography–refuels, May 11, 2011 (accessed August 7, 2011)

7. See http://www.democracynow.org/2011/5/19/malcolm–x–a–life–of–reinvention (accessed August 31, 2011).

8. There is an extensive literature on Muhammad and the NOI, much of it by members of the movement the first important scholarly studies were C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), which has been through numerous editions, and E. U. Essien-Udom, Black Nationalism: The Search for an Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). For a broader and more up-to-date analysis, see Michael A. Gomez,Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), esp. chap. 7. See also Herbert Berg, Elijah Muhammad and Islam (New York: New York University Press, 2009) and Claude Clegg, An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997).

9. See William W. Sales Jr., From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (Boston: South End Press, 1994).

10. Some of the images in the book appeared previously in the outstanding collection by Howard Chapnick and Thulani Davis, Malcolm X: The Great Photographs (New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1993).

11. For another vivid account of these internecine struggles, and Malcolm’s break with the NOI, see Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–1965 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), passim.

12. Many of these personal issues had been featured in Bruce Perry, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Books, 1991).

13. See, e.g., James H. Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare?(Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991) and David Howard-Pitney, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1950s and 1960s: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford, 2004).

14. Malcolm X, Autobiography, 381.

15. Carol Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Penny M. Von Eschen, Race and Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957(Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997). For the attempts to bring back the human rights framework after his death, see Thomas F. Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). For Malcolm’s activism and its place in the recent history of human rights, see Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History(Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010), 104–6, and Talal Asad, “What Do Human Rights Do? An Anthropological Enquiry,” Theory and Event 4, no. 4 (2000): 1–28.

16. See Malcolm X, “The Black Struggle in the United States,” Présence Africaine 54, no. 2 (1965): 8–24.

17. See Kevin Gaines, American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

18. See Clayborne Carson, Malcolm X: The FBI File (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1991). The FBI opened its Malcolm X surveillance file in 1953, one year after his release from prison. On one occasion Malcolm recorded a conversation with two FBI agents who tried to recruit him as an informant: see “A Visit from the FBI, May 29, 1964,” in Malcolm X: The Man and His Times, ed. John Henrik Clarke (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 182–204.

19. See Ludo De Witte, The Assassination of Lumumba, trans. Ann Wright and Renée Fenby (London: Verso, 2001), or the outstanding film Lumumba, dir. Raoul Peck (2000 New York: Zeitgeist Films, 2001), DVD.

20. “Malcolm X Turned Back,” Associated Press report, February 10, 1965.

21. Quoted in Ernest R. May and Richard F. Neustadt, “Malcolm X,” Harvard Kennedy School of Government Case Study, Series C15–81–366, unpublished, 27.

22. For U.S. involvement, see Stephen Weissman, American Foreign Policy in the Congo, 1960–1964 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974).

23. Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000) Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003) Brenda Gayle Plummer, Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) Azza Salama Layton, International Politics and Civil Rights Policies in the United States, 1941–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

24. Randall Kennedy, “Imagining Malcolm X,” American Prospect, July 1, 2011.

25. See Thomas Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008), which is oddly missing from Marable’s bibliography.

26. Goldman, Death and Life of Malcolm X, 17.

27. Malcolm X, “Black Struggle.”

30. Quoted in Malcolm X: The Struggle for Freedom, dir. Lebert Bethune (New York: Grove Press Film Division, 1967).

31. One starting point for the discussion is Thomas Sugrue, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010). See also Randall Kennedy, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency (New York: Pantheon, 2011).

32. Jan Carew, Ghosts in Our Blood: With Malcolm X in Africa, England, and the Caribbean (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1994), 36.

33. Almost all of Marable’s previous work is framed explicitly to the present: see, e.g., Black American Politics: From the Washington Marches to Jesse Jackson (London: Verso, 1985)Living Black History: How Reimagining the African-American Past Can Remake America’s Racial Future (New York: Basic Civitas, 2006) Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945–2006 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007). In a similar vein, see Peniel E. Joseph, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama (New York: Basic Civitas, 2010).

34. On this point, see Painter, “Malcolm X across the Genres,” 439. For the ways in which black power groups claimed Malcolm after his death, see Eddie S. Glaude Jr., “Introduction: Black Power Revisited,” in Is It Nation Time: Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism, ed. Glaude (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 4 and passim. See also Peniel Joseph, Waiting’ Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Holt, 2007) and Stephen Tuck, We Ain’t What We Ought to Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap, 2010).


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