On February 21, 1965, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, formerly known as Malcolm X, rose to address a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which he had founded less than a year before. The weekly meetings were held in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. As two men staged a disturbance in the audience, a third man strode toward the stage, pulled a sawed-off shotgun from under his coat, and fired into Malcolm’s chest. Two more assassins shot handguns at him, but the job was done.
Three weeks later, Doubleday canceled its contact with Alex Haley for the publication of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” on which Haley and Malcolm X had been collaborating since 1963. Manning Marable, the author of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, an excellent new biography, called it the “most disastrous decision in corporate publishing history.” The book was published later that year by Grove Press, and by 1977 more than six million copies had been sold.
The life story Marable presents is essentially the same as the one that Malcolm and Haley told. It is the dramatic tale of a man who was born in Nebraska and became a hustler, a criminal, a convict, a highly effective organizer for the Nation of Islam, a convert to orthodox Islam, a spokesman for pan-Africanism, and finally a martyr to the organization he helped to build. It is a tale of transformation, self-sacrifice, and betrayal, punctuated by memorable, almost Shakespearean turns of phrase: “By any means necessary.” “Such a man is worthy of death.” “Our own black shining prince.”
What, then, does this biography offer that is unavailable from the “Autobiography?”
Quite a lot, as it turns out. It draws on interviews with friends, colleagues, and family members to offer a variety of viewpoints on the man and his work. It details the social and political context in which Malcolm lived, shedding light on the extraordinary power of the Ku Klux Klan during Malcolm’s childhood, describing the quasi-Islamic organizations that preceded the Nation of Islam, and explaining the beliefs and inner workings of the Nation and of the two organizations that Malcolm founded toward the end of his short life: the Islamic group Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the pan-African Organization for Afro-American Unity. (Malcolm’s political views and plans for the future were to have appeared in three chapters at the end of the Autobiography, which Haley cut before publication.)
Marable emphasizes the importance of Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement in the development of Malcolm’s thought. His father, killed in a suspicious streetcar accident when Malcolm was six years old, had been a staunch Garveyite, and Garvey’s followers proved to be fertile ground for conversion to the Nation of Islam. Garvey was an essential source for Malcolm’s doctrine of black pride and self-sufficiency, and for his later belief in the solidarity of people of color worldwide.
The biography includes considerable detail on Malcolm’s 19-week visit to Africa in 1964, during which he met with several heads of state and prepared to bring the case of America’s blacks to the United Nations as a matter of human rights. Marable recounts Haley’s efforts to convince Malcolm to put his story on paper and to make it personal rather than polemic. He describes the years of surveillance by FBI and police, noting that one NYPD wiretapper was so impressed by Malcolm’s views on jobs and education that he tried to get his superiors to change their policy toward him.
Finally, Marable tells the story of Malcolm’s assassination and its aftermath in a way that Malcolm himself obviously could not. The threat of imminent death hangs over nearly half of the narrative, beginning with an order given to a Fruit of Islam officer to plant a bomb in Malcolm’s 1963 Oldsmobile. That plot may have been part of an elaborate ruse to determine whether Malcolm planned to leave the Nation of Islam, but the threats and plots that followed were utterly serious.
What is the significance of Malcolm X? As Marable suggests in the epilogue to his biography, Malcolm was as important a figure in the struggle against racism as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike King, Malcolm could speak to poor and working-class blacks in a language that resonated with them. As a Muslim, he forged links with international Islam, and as a black man he forged links with Africa.
Malcolm X was a galvanizing speaker and tenacious debater, though his education came mostly from the books he read in prison. Disciplined, hard-working, and self-sacrificing, he struck one observer as a combination of priest and soldier. And perhaps most impressive, he continued to grow and change until the end. As Marable writes, “Malcolm’s strength was his ability to reinvent himself.”
Geoff Wisner is the author of “A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa.”