Malcolm X is perhaps best known as the most uncompromising opponent of racism in the US in the 1960s. Posters show him standing at a window bearing a gun, with the slogan, “By Any Means Necessary”.
It’s a convenient image—both for radicals who want to simplify Malcolm’s message to a call for oppressed people to defend themselves, and for those that want to demonise him as a violence-obsessed thug.
Marable takes issue with these characterisations in his last book—and with those in Malcolm’s own autobiography. That book, which was re-edited after Malcolm’s assassination in 1965, is a redemption tale that has sold in the millions.
It, says Marable, was an attempt to make Malcolm respectable to the very people in the Civil Rights Movement that he opposed while alive. Malcolm believed the leaders to be too timid and their methods too defensive.
Before his own untimely death, Marable ensured that we now have the definitive account of a revolutionary who inspired millions. His research is exhaustive and packed with interesting episodes. He recounts one confrontation between Malcolm and Arab students who chastised him for referring to white people as evil.
It was one of many confrontations that caused Malcolm to question and ultimately rethink his beliefs.
The chapters that deal with Malcolm’s last year of life, after he had split with the Nation of Islam, fascinated me most.
He was at the height of his popularity, touring the countries that had recently emerged from the shadow of colonialism.
But Malcolm was in a state of ideological turmoil, abandoning long-held beliefs about the need for black Americans to separate from “white society” while embracing calls for revolutionary unity of the world’s oppressed people.
Marable’s description of Malcolm’s move toward a form of socialism is particularly well handled.
The pages that deal with his final days are painful reading. After several attempts on his life, Malcolm knew that his days were numbered and privately began to fall apart. But in public he maintained his composure.
For Malcolm the struggle was everything. Marable proves that on 21 February 1965 it was bullets from three assassins that put an end to his life—but they could not put an end to the growing radicalism that he had inspired.
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention