Malcolm X's diary: Can it be published without his family's permission?

Third World Press plans to release Malcolm X's diary later this week despite the fact that the civil rights leader's family has filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against the publisher.

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    'The Diary of Malcolm X' is currently set to be released on Nov. 15.
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Most diaries might be considered private – but what about Malcolm X’s diary? What is private and what is considered “on the public record?”

That question is at the heart of a legal dispute pitting Malcolm X’s family against a book publisher planning to publish parts of the late civil rights leader’s diary.

Later this week Third World Press, a Chicago-based publisher, plans to publish “The Diary of Malcolm X,” a reproduction of a private diary the leader kept during the final year of his life as he traveled to the Middle East and Africa, just before he was assassinated.

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But Malcolm X’s family has filed a trademark infringement lawsuit in a Manhattan federal court alleging Third World Press does not have the right to publish the diary, according to the Associated Press.

“X Legacy [Malcom X’s estate] was created by the heirs of Malcolm X to protect and enhance the value of the property held by his estate,” the suit says, adding that only X Legacy has rights to publish, reproduce, and distribute his diaries.

Third World Press likely got hold of the copies from the Schomburg Center, where they have been on loan since 2003, and it recently started a crowd-funding campaign through the website Indiegogo to publish and promote its collection, the suit says, adding, “TWP continues to act as if it’s entitled to exploit intellectual property it does not own.”

Third World Press vice president, Bennet Johnson, has said it has the right to publish the diaries, “no doubt about it.”

Complicating the situation are two facts: The journals are part of a collection of memorabilia loaned to the New York Public Library by Malcolm X’s daughters in 2003. And, one of Malcolm X’s daughters, Ilyassa Shabazz, is a co-editor of the book, along with journalist Herb Boyd. In a video on the publisher’s website, she says, “It’s really beautiful that we get to see Malcolm in his own voice – without scholars, historians, or observers saying what he was thinking or what he was doing or what he meant.”

The publisher’s website says the book “describes the deep emotional connections [Malcolm X] developed during a period that was constantly colored by his prophetic sense of impending tragedy.” The website also says that in his diary, Malcolm X set out a “unique action plan for African Americans.”

As Media Bistro put it, “What’s private and what is privileged to the public? ... nothing is ever off the record. Does that include personal life experience of a historical figure – and one of such prestige and cloaked anonymity – as Minister Malcolm?”

The courts and Malcolm X’s estate may do well to settle the matter now or prepare for more legal battles to come. The year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination – a year likely to be chock full of new releases on the civil rights leader. 

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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