Malcolm Little had a tragic childhood. His father, Earl, died in 1931 in a streetcar mishap that was quite possibly racially motivated. In 1939, when young Malcolm was 14, his mother, Louise, was taken away and confined to a mental hospital. The boy soon found himself in a foster home. By the time he had relocated to Massachusetts in 1941, his jagged spiral had begun. For several years he roamed, wolf-like, between Detroit, Washington, D.C., Harlem and Boston. His activities varied: selling dope, pimping, breaking into homes, hawking snacks on trains. In 1946, the doors of the Charlestown (Mass.) State Prison clanged behind Malcolm Little, putting an end to the foolishness. He would remain there for six years.
The reinvention of Malcolm Little — soon to become Malcolm X — began behind bars. “I don’t think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did,” he confided. Shortly after being freed, he became a rising star in the Nation of Islam, sent by its leader, Elijah Muhammad, up and down the East Coast to open mosques. Malcolm imbued blacks with pride and offered an ultimatum to white America: Either “the ballot or the bullet” would transform American injustice. After hearing him, many blacks, fed up with living under the American system of apartheid, joined the Nation.
But Malcolm X uncovered proof that Elijah Muhammad had impregnated at least half-a-dozen young Muslim women. Malcolm’s decision to confront Muhammad set in motion their inevitable and dangerous split. Nation of Islam members believed Malcolm had been usurping Muhammad’s popularity and plotting his own rise; Muhammad himself believed Malcolm was cozying up to mainstream civil rights leaders. Malcolm’s celebrated visit to Mecca, which forced him to rethink his separatist leanings, further antagonized many Nation members. He had embarked on the path that led to his murder by Nation of Islam members on Feb. 21, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
Malcolm X’s life has inspired filmmakers, writers, painters, rappers and dramatists, yet much about his murder has remained a mystery. Now we have Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X,”a groundbreaking piece of work. Marable, a historian who died on the eve of this book’s publication, convinced people who had been silent for decades to sit for interviews. He also drew upon oral histories, dusty police reports and FBI and CIA documents. The result is not just a biography, but also a history of Muslims in America and a sweeping account of one man’s transformation — and of the conspiracy, abetted by police inattention, that took his tumultuous life. The tension toward book’s end — when Malcolm was trying to figure out who might murder him — is so gripping it nearly soaks through the pages.
At first, Elijah Muhammad saw Malcolm X as a gifted disciple with great potential and self-discipline. But Muhammad prided himself on getting the Nation to look inward; its followers would find love and attention inside the mosque. In contrast, political currents intrigued Malcolm, who particularly admired Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. “Elijah Muhammad,” writes Marable, “could maintain his personal authority only by forcing followers away from the outside world; Malcolm knew that the Nation’s future growth depended on its being immersed in the black community’s struggles of daily existence.” Bypassing traditional civil rights leaders — Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins — and often deriding them as “Uncle Toms,” Malcolm appealed to urban blacks in the ghetto. He warned in a 1957 speech that if the “Negro intelligentsia” didn’t do something about blacks being murdered in the South by white supremacists and discriminated against in the North by business owners, “the little man in the street will henceforth begin to take matters into his own hands.” Soon the FBI and the New York police department were tracking Malcolm’s movements and placing undercover agents inside the Nation.