“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” is one of the most engrossing, thought-provoking books I have ever read. Part of its power is that when you turn its pages, you are transported not so much into the past as into the present-day decades of the forties, fifties, and sixties. When the flight returning Malcolm X from the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca lands at JFK airport, he smiles and waves through the glass partition at all the cheering followers who have arrived to greet him outside Customs. In that scene, the world of 1964 feels so alive and present that it is as if all the succeeding years don’t exist. It’s still the same airport that we travel through today; any objections that the arrivals display was not then computerized are irrelevant to the story of this man who renamed himself “X.” By calling himself “X,” he protested that his given surname, Little, was forced upon his ancestors by their slaveowners. The “X” denotes the impossibility of ever learning the actual name of his original African family. Moreover, since all African Americans found themselves in the same predicament, “X” symbolizes Malcolm’s solidarity with his people.
When Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965, at the age of thirty-nine, he had only recently launched an entirely new chapter in his lifelong struggle against America’s ugly racism. Unlike Martin Luther King, whose unwavering crusade for integration led directly to the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 before his own assassination in 1968, also at age thirty-nine, Malcolm X left this world with his life’s mission unfulfilled. The fact that he accomplished nothing as concrete as Dr. King’s towering achievements leads to two intertwining questions: what did he achieve and what is his enduring appeal?
His wide appeal, I believe, is rooted as much in his human fallibility as in his leadership qualities. While his devotion to the cause of African Americans never wavered, he changed his mind often about how best to secure their freedom and dignity in an unjust society. His views evolved as his experiences multiplied, and he was not afraid to admit when he was wrong.
Malcolm X was a man who transformed himself not once, not twice, but three times – a remarkable achievement for any human being. From an undernourished child whose father was brutally murdered by the white man, he metamorphosed into a Harlem hustler. Selling drugs to the most famous jazz musicians of his day, he believed in nothing more than the first law of the urban jungle – survival. Then, busted and imprisoned, he discovered Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, and he awakened to its clear moral purpose. Since he had always viewed Christianity as a tool of white racists to keep “the black man” in his place, Muhammad’s version of Islam hit him like a revelation. It effectively saved him. To put it in Christian terms that he would have frowned upon, Malcolm was born again.
Out of prison as a newly minted Black Muslim, Malcolm X devoted himself passionately and successfully to opening new mosques and growing the ranks of Black Muslims. Even though he was always careful to say, with complete sincerity, that everything he did was at the service of spreading Elijah Muhammad’s word, Muhammad turned on him out of what can only be interpreted as jealousy, formally silencing him. The immediate cause of Malcolm’s censure was his public comment on the assassination of President Kennedy. Malcolm said the assassination proved that “the chickens have come home to roost,” by which he meant that America’s long-simmering racial hatreds had finally erupted into violence. Kennedy was unfortunate enough to be the first victim, but presumably he would not be the last.
Having ordered his followers to express grief at Kennedy’s death, Muhammad seized upon those words as an excuse to silence Malcolm, but his real reason was that Malcolm had become a more popular and charismatic leader than he was. He could not and would not be outshone by an acolyte. By covertly ordering Malcolm’s assassination, he clearly revealed that the Nation of Islam was more of a cult than a legitimate form of Islam. After all, what defines a cult more than vesting the power of prophesy and of life and death in a single, living figure?
Nobody was more stunned at Muhammad’s about-face than Malcolm X. As he testified to his ghost-writer, Alex Haley, this betrayal by the religious leader he revered and loved with unwavering devotion was so shocking and painful that it made him feel like he was going crazy. One could say that he was going through cult-withdrawal, a phenomenon not unlike withdrawal from drug addiction.
In the end, Muhammad did Malcolm a favor. That’s because the rupture led to his third and most remarkable transformation. Where a lesser man might have grown disillusioned and returned to the laws of the urban jungle, Malcolm X took his exile as an opportunity to travel to Mecca and turn toward “the real Islam.” It was there that he received his second revelation: proof of the true brotherhood of all the races. Where he had long believed, along with Elijah Muhammad, that ‘the white man’ was the devil, he was astonished to discover the “color-blindness” of all the races marching together in their joint Hajj pilgrimage. No matter their skin color, even if some were blond and blue-eyed, all the pilgrims were equal brothers joined together by their submission to Allah.
The way he describes this phenomenon in “The Autobiography” reveals the honesty and psychic resilience that propelled him into this last, most important transformation:
“…on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to re-arrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”
“…We were truly all the same (brothers) – because their belief in one God had removed the ‘white’ from their minds, the ‘white from their behavior, and the ’white’ from their attitude.”
Witnessing all the races walking together, however, led Malcolm to an unexpected and telling conclusion. Rather than moving him to join Martin Luther King’s movement for racial integration, which he had always opposed, it had nearly the opposite effect:
“There was a color pattern in the huge crowds. Once I happened to notice this, I closely observed it thereafter. Being from America made me intensely sensitive to matters of color. I saw that people who looked alike drew together and most of the time stayed together. This was entirely voluntary; there being no other reason for it. But Africans were with Africans. Pakistanis were with Pakistanis. And so on. I tucked it into my mind that when I returned home I would tell Americans this observation; that where true brotherhood existed among all colors, where no one felt segregated, where there was no “superiority” complex, no “inferiority” complex — then voluntarily, naturally, people of the same kind felt drawn together by that which they had in common.”
How can we interpret this observation? Malcolm X often mentions that he endorses separation, not segregation. The ideal world he envisioned was one where the brotherhood of true equality is so well-established that there is no need visibly to remove oneself from the company of those whose skin color you share. Of course, within the American context, this sounds dangerously if unintentionally close the Jim Crow doctrine of “separate but equal” that was overturned by ‘Brown vs. Board of Education.’
In any case, at the time of his death, Malcolm X was working to foment a new Islamic movement, separate from Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, which would seek to establish on American soil that ideal of a true brotherhood among all races and skin colors.
Through all the transformations in Malcolm’s thought, from his opening assumption that “the devilish white man” was the black man’s eternal enemy, toward his new understanding that a utopian brotherhood of equals could be achieved among all the races, one thing remained constant. That was the conviction near universally held among his African American followers that Malcolm had their back, that he would never sell them out. In the end, his devotion to his people and his sincere quest to search out whichever trajectory would be most salutary to their well-being mattered more than the particulars of any policy he endorsed at any given time. Knowing that Malcolm had their best interests at heart no matter how many times he changed his views, Malcolm’s personal example meant more to his followers than his message. It was his steadfast example that made him the great leader he was – any concrete achievements were purely secondary.
But if his achievements were not concrete, they are nevertheless undeniable, because he was arguably the first man in recent American history to say that ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Malcolm would have been more amazed than anyone that America elected a Black president in 2008. He would never have believed that so many African Americans could ascend to the top rungs in sports, television, movies, and journalism, not to mention the sciences. Even more amazing to him would be that those figures are paid commensurately with their leading roles. Perhaps we can’t prove that Malcolm’s example led to these breakthroughs, but neither can we say that he did not pave the way.