During the civil rights movement’s heroic period, Malcolm X gained recognition as the political counterpart of the seemingly more palatable Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm’s passionate truth-telling about racial slavery, Jim Crow segregation and police brutality helped turn words of fire into a brutally elegant stump speech. His posthumously released autobiography became a bestseller that rescued him from political obscurity at the expense of mythologizing large aspects of his legacy.
In death, Malcolm became exalted as the avatar of a Black Power movement that argued, paradoxically to its critics, that the key to forging an anti-racist world rested on a radical embrace of racial identity. Malcolm, lacking credit for the type of signature policy victories associated with King, became revered for teaching “Negroes” to love their black selves. The Reagan-era hip-hop generation embraced the martial aspect of this legacy, burnished by rap groups such as Public Enemy and auteur Spike Lee, whose 1992 film “Malcolm X” starred Denzel Washington and successfully imprinted an image of Malcolm as a fearsome political warrior, the sharp-edged sword to King’s peaceful shield.
Twenty-first-century interpretations of Malcolm have found this powerful image to be incomplete. The late Columbia University scholar Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography paid special attention to the man behind the myth, highlighting Malcolm’s personal vulnerabilities to better understand his political and historical legacy.
“Who Killed Malcolm X?,” a six-part Netflix series that premiered earlier this year, reintroduced Malcolm to millions unfamiliar with his story by attempting to solve the mystery behind his Feb. 21, 1965, assassination in New York. The freshest parts of the series highlighted Malcolm’s keen intelligence, sharp sense of humor and personal vulnerability as he navigated political adversaries ranging from former mentors and proteges to the New York Police Department and the FBI.
Vulnerability is perhaps the most fascinating and least discussed aspect of Malcolm X’s life. Racial traumas scarred his childhood. The death of his father, Earl Little, when Malcolm was 6 — authorities claimed it was a streetcar accident, but Malcolm’s family insisted it was a lynching — the placement of his mother Louise in a psychiatric facility and his own incarceration for more than six years haunted him.
These wounds offered Malcolm intimate knowledge of the frailty of black life in America. But Malcolm turned the private wounds that marred his childhood and led to his incarceration into badges of honor that he held up for all the world to see. His endless recounting of his time in the “grave” of America’s searing racial wilderness exemplifies the naked candor, truth-telling and vulnerability that allowed him to innovate a kind political example not seen before or since.
Malcolm channeled black anger, rage and frustration into a revolutionary call for racial justice that resounded around the world, opening up new anti-racist political alliances in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the developing world. As his political activism matured, Malcolm went from relishing his role as black America’s prosecuting attorney, charging whites with crimes against African Americans, to becoming a statesman. His efforts on this score included fashioning a political rapprochement with King and major civil rights leaders.
Popularly viewed as the political sword to King’s nonviolent shield, Malcolm came to understand that a global struggle for black dignity required the successful pursuit of citizenship advocated by King. Malcolm’s famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech expressed hard-earned optimism in the ability of ordinary blacks to organize grass-roots social movements with the power to change the world.
The depth of Malcolm’s broadening experiences likewise expanded the breadth of his ambition. During his final year, Malcolm recognized that “nonviolence with King is only a method” toward a larger goal of securing human rights for black people in America and around the world. Thus, he pronounced to one stunned interviewer, “Well, my objective is the same as King’s.” Recognizing this creative tension within Malcolm X’s politics is necessary now more than ever. It offers up new avenues of comprehending his complex relationship with King and the movements they both represented.
More importantly, mining the subtle twists and turns in Malcolm’s political evolution allows for contemporary social justice advocates of all colors to deploy the combined anger, vulnerability and hope that remains his legacy.
Hope in the ultimate strength, power and resiliency of the black quotidian fueled Malcolm’s quest for black dignity from his time in prison up until his death. This same hard-earned optimism inspired Malcolm to craft daring alliances with international leaders and dignitaries. His global exploits, which began with a visit to the Middle East in 1959, created lasting networks that helped him forge important relationships with a network of political leaders and revolutionaries who would welcome him to official embassies, the United Nations, European universities and African kingdoms.
Malcolm X’s sole meeting with King, on March 26, 1964, found them both lobbying on behalf of the civil rights bill passed that year. Less well-known is the fact that Malcolm listened intently to King deliver a speech that December in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, an event followed less than two months later by a trip to Selma, Ala., which was the last time the two men would be in the same city together.
Malcolm X remains the civil rights era’s boldest critic of white supremacy. His evolving radicalism critiqued racial capitalism, characterized Vietnam as an imperial conflict and urged mainstream black leaders to recognize struggles for black dignity and citizenship as part of a global human rights movement that spanned the world. Malcolm’s personal sincerity, political integrity and unapologetic love for black people combined righteous indignation against racial oppression with the radically defiant hope that remains crucial to a comprehensive understanding of his time and our own.