The many lives of Malcolm X

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Manning Marable, an academic and activist, died in April this year, just three days before the release of his biography of Malcolm X, the great icon of the Black Power Movement.Brian Richardson looks at this landmark book and the extraordinary life of Malcolm X

Malcolm X is unquestionably the great icon of the Black Power Movement. His emergence in the mid-1960s sparked one of the most exciting and dramatic episodes in the history of black struggle in the United States. There had been a rising tide of anti-racist struggle from the mid-1950s onwards. The Civil Rights Movement led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr succeeded both in desegregating many municipal and private facilities across the Southern states and forcing the US federal government into passing civil and voting rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. By the end of the decade, however, that movement appeared to have run out of steam as black communities continued to suffer disproportionate levels of poverty, ghettoisation and criminalisation.

Confrontational

In these circumstances, though admiration for King personally remained high, his non-violent, integrationist strategy was losing its appeal. Instead the more confrontational and militant message that Malcolm proposed seemed increasingly attractive. Rather than preaching the Christian message of turning the other cheek to one's oppressors, Malcolm advised his supporters that if any white racist laid a hand on them they should "send them to the cemetery".

Malcolm predicted the series of uprisings that were to rock the US, first in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1965, then across US cities in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Malcolm did not live to see and influence these events. He was killed in a hail of bullets in February 1965.

Humanity

Manning Marable's fascination with Malcolm began as a student in 1969 and culminated in a brilliant new biography which re-examines its subject's short but extraordinary life. It is clear that his admiration that first developed in those heady times has endured and in the final words of the book's epilogue he suggests that: "A deep respect for, and belief in black humanity was at the heart of this revolutionary visionary's faith. And as his social vision expanded to include people of divergent nationalities and racial identities, his gentle humanism and anti-racism could have become a platform for a new kind of radical, global, ethnic politics."

This is a very bold claim at odds with conventional opinions. The 16 chapters that precede it, however, are by no means a simple hagiography. Marable's book is subtitled "A life of reinvention" and at its heart is the claim that Malcolm was a much more complex and ever changing individual than the one commonly presented by both his supporters and opponents.

Marable regards The Autobiography of Malcolm X as the primary source of the myth. That book is certainly a gripping read; it had sold over 6 million copies by 1977 and has become a standard text in schools and colleges in the USA.

In his autobiography Malcolm recounted his early criminal lifestyle in considerable detail and it featured prominently in Spike Lee's 1993 film "X". The impression created is of a slick and wily hustler, and the contrast between this outlaw and the soberly dressed, abstemious and disciplined preacher and activist that he became is particularly, and intentionally, stark.

Marable identifies a number of shortcomings in the book, however. It was actually written shortly after Malcolm's assassination by Alex Haley based upon numerous interviews with Malcolm. Marable suggests that Haley, a "20 year veteran of the US coastguard", was contemptuous of the Nation of Islam, the organisation with which Malcolm is primarily associated, but understandably fascinated by Malcolm's personal journey. Inevitably therefore the account is influenced, Marable argues, by Haley's "liberal Republican" views.

The basic facts of Malcolm's life are not in dispute. He was born into a profoundly racist society in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925. Malcolm was the seventh son of Louise and Earl Little, active supporters of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican born activist who promoted black pride, and social, economic and political organisation.

One of Malcolm's earliest memories was of the family home being torched by racists. Despite this intimidation his father carried on preaching and organising. Earl Little almost certainly paid for this defiance with his life, dying in violent and mysterious circumstances in September 1931. Subsequently, Malcolm's mother struggled to cope with the pain, poverty and harassment from the authorities and eventually suffered a breakdown which culminated in her incarceration in a psychiatric asylum.

At school Malcolm was a bright pupil. When he told a class teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer, however, he was advised that he had to be "realistic about being a nigger" and should "plan on carpentry" instead. Little wonder that he became disillusioned and drifted out into the streets and eventually found himself attracted by the bright lights of the big cities.

He moved to Boston in 1941 and it was there that he reinvented for the first time, metamorphosing from a gangly and awkward country geek into an apparently streetwise hustler. He soon found himself "trapped" in the life of drink, drugs and crime that is so vividly recalled in the autobiography. Eventually his luck ran out and he ended up in jail. It was here that Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam (NOI). This proved to be the second reinvention and was to have a profound effect upon the rest of his life. It was now that he adopted the surname "X" - viewing "Little" as a slave name.

The NOI's central claim was that African Americans were the earth's original inhabitants and that white "devils" had seized control of the earth while the "original people" had "fallen asleep" both mentally and spiritually. The role of the NOI was, therefore, to re-awaken that consciousness.

The attraction of the NOI can only be grasped by recalling how deeply racist American society was in this period. The United States is a society whose initial prosperity was built on the backs of slaves justified by the crudest racism. The abolition of slavery with the North's victory in the Civil War in 1865 did not bring an end to racism. In the defeated Southern states a series of laws and practices were established by the end of the 1870s, known as the "Jim Crow system", which enshrined the subordination of blacks in society. This legal segregation and inferiority was reinforced by racist mobs such as the Klu Klux Klan, often with the active support of the local state machine. It was precisely this discrimination that had been the prime target of the Civil Rights Movement. In the Northern states meanwhile, although Jim Crow did not operate, black people nevertheless found themselves disproportionately criminalised, unemployed or trapped in the lowest paid, least prestigious jobs and living in the most inhospitable ghettoes.

Rallying call

In such circumstances, the NOI's rallying call for blacks to "wake up, clean up and stand up" was understandably "seductive to unemployed and disillusioned African Americans", as Marable puts it. The "white devils" story appeared to offer an explanation for the cruel and oppressive predicament blacks found themselves in and encouraged a sense of pride and purpose and a promise of a better future.

But the NOI was profoundly sectarian. It is hardly surprising that it rejected the idea that the interests of black and white people could be reconciled, but it was also completely dismissive of the Civil Rights Movement. The NOI argued that "white" society was inevitably doomed, so it was pointless seeking to integrate into it. Instead its core sentiment was black nationalist. The NOI believed that all African Americans had a common interest and that they should separate themselves completely from whites, and a central demand was for separate territory for the black nation.

Following his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm dedicated 11 years to building the NOI and rose to become its highest profile minister.

But Malcolm eventually became frustrated with the NOI's inertia. At heart he was not simply a religious disciple preparing for the day of awakening. Rather he was an activist impatient for change in the here and now. Despite his disagreements with the Christian ministers he was clearly impressed by the way they combined their religion with organised political activity. He could see how they were able to mobilise thousands of courageous and dedicated followers. Indeed, Marable suggests that Malcolm quietly attended the famous 1963 March on Washington in defiance of the instructions that NOI members should not participate. Malcolm realised that the federal US government was not about to simply accede to the black nationalist demand for a separate homeland and he began to appreciate the benefits of struggling for reforms, however limited.

The catalyst for Malcolm's expulsion from the NOI was his observation that the assassination of President John F Kennedy in November 1963 was akin to "the chickens coming home to roost". The speed with which the NOI's leader, Elijah Muhammad, rushed to condemn Malcolm and proclaim Kennedy as "our president too" exposed the NOI's underlying conservatism and the emptiness of its militant separatist rhetoric.

Final reinvention

It was in the last one and a half years of his life following his expulsion from the NOI that Malcolm underwent his last major reinvention. He embarked upon a series of journeys both geographically and spiritually. He went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, converted to orthodox Islam - accompanied by a further name change, to El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. This is a measure of his lasting commitment to religion and one of the fledgling organisations he set up as a rival to the NOI was called Muslim Mosque Inc. He also travelled to Africa and developed a deeper understanding of his roots, and set another organisation, the Organisation of Afro-American Unity, to "unify the Americans of African descent in their fight for human rights and dignity". It illustrates Malcolm's continued adherence to black nationalist ideas.

But although Malcolm's dedication to black self-organisation and struggle remained undiminished, his understanding of how liberation could be achieved changed dramatically. He abandoned the belief that all whites were "devils" and declared that those who were "sincere" could make a positive, if subordinate, contribution to anti-racist struggles. He also now acknowledged the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement.

Malcolm also began to develop links with the Trotskyist US Socialist Workers Party (no relation to the British Socialist Workers Party). He spoke at various SWP events and the organisation published a number of his speeches and other articles by and about him. It would be ludicrous to conclude from this that Malcolm had become a socialist. He was far from it and we cannot say where his political journey would ultimately have taken him. But at the time of his death he was moving sharply to the left.

Marable identifies the 1990s and the emergence of what he characterises as the "hip hop generation" as the point at which there was a major revival of interest in Malcolm. He had previously explored the underlying reasons for this in his book Beyond Black and White. Marable argued that this was a generation abandoned by the layer of blacks who rose to positions of power and influence in the 1970s and 1980s. By the mid-1990s there were over 8,000 African-American elected officials across the United States, and black figures were running numerous major cities, police departments and sitting in the Cabinet and the benches of the Supreme Court. In addition, there were a sizeable percentage of black people running successful and lucrative businesses.

The opportunity for these people to progress was the great legacy of the civil rights and black power struggles. Yet these beneficiaries have done little to assist their less fortunate brethren who continue to suffer disproportionate levels of criminalisation, and social and economic marginalisation. More alarmingly, many of them have proved to be charlatans who have played a direct role in reinforcing oppression and inequality. Such betrayal exposes the limitations of a belief that getting "black faces into high places" is the key to racial emancipation. It was in those circumstances, Marable argues, that the hip hop generation began looking for more radical alternatives.

Treachery

The treachery of the black bourgeoisie does not simply illustrate the limits of the liberal integrationist strategy, however. It also exposes the shortcomings of black nationalist ideas. Black people who have become rich and powerful have, invariably, prioritised the retention of their class privileges over racial solidarity. In this respect, they are no different from their white counterparts.

The reality is that under capitalism the fundamental division is between those who own and control society's resources and those who have no such power. The existence of racism means that black people are disproportionately poor and marginalised but not exclusively so. Rather that predicament and the daily reality of exploitation at the hands of the ruling class are shared with the overwhelming majority of white people. Therefore, working class blacks have a common interest in uniting with their white counterparts and struggling together to overcome their collective exploitation.

Twenty years on the debate about the way forward remains a live issue as racism continues to blight our communities not just in the United States but across the globe. For example, here in Britain on the very day that I began reading Marable's book, an angry march to the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in London took place to protest against the death in custody of yet another black man. On this occasion the victim was David Emmanuel, known as Smiley Culture, a popular musician who had a number of hits in the 1980s. Since then, in the United States itself, a beleaguered president has sought to reinvent himself in macho style, claiming the credit for personally authorising the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Barack Obama is, of course, the ultimate beneficiary of the struggles to which pioneers such as Malcolm and Martin Luther King contributed so much. Sadly the energy, excitement and enthusiasm that surrounded his election in 2008 are now but a distant memory.

Manning Marable

Finally, a word about Manning Marable himself. He died three days before Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention was published. His passing at the age of just 60 is a tragic loss. He was not simply an ivory tower academic content to analyse affairs from his lofty perch. He was also an activist who strove to argue a way forward, encourage struggle and promote political organisation. The phrase "beyond black and white" reflected his commitment to a strategy that recognised racism but nevertheless looked outside the prism of race for the solution. Moreover, he was adamant that any organisation had to be built from the "bottom up".

Real and meaningful working class unity should not mean that issues of racism get ignored. On the contrary, all forms of oppression weaken the working class by allowing the bosses to divide and rule. The socialist movement can ill afford to lose such a giant in these turbulent times. Marable was clearly desperately ill while finalising a book that he first conceived as a "modest political biography" 20 years ago. We should be thankful that he ultimately embarked upon something far more ambitious and that he lived long enough to complete it.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, is available from Bookmarks bookshop, £30.