Reviewed Brandon M. Terry
At the end of his remarkable, improbable life, Malcolm X was on the cusp of a reinvention that might have been even more significant than his conversion in prison from criminal predation to religious piety. Although he rose to prominence preaching the bleak, racialist metaphysics of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI), which depicted whites as “devils by nature,” in March 1964 Malcolm defected from the Nation and converted to Sunni Islam. Charging Muhammad with the sexual exploitation of his teenage secretaries, and the NOI with corruption, criminality, and idolatry, Malcolm pushed a dangerous feud toward its deadly conclusion.
As assassins from the NOI closed in, the NYPD and FBI infiltrated both Muhammad’s group and Malcolm’s nascent Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) with undercover police and paid informants, seeking to exacerbate sectarian hostilities. Meanwhile, Malcolm traveled frenetically around the globe, making the hajj to Mecca as part of his conversion and conducting subversive diplomacy on behalf of oppressed African-Americans, pleading for newly decolonized nations to bring charges in the United Nations for the United States’ systemic abuse of their human rights. While navigating the ire and surveillance of CIA operatives, Malcolm tried, speech by speech, to cobble together a political philosophy for Black militants out of revolutionary Black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, anti-imperialism, and a populist critique of Black elites. Manning Marable, whose Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011) won the Pulitzer Prize for history, lamented that Malcolm’s murder in February 1965 prevented his full evolution toward a “gentle humanism and antiracism” that “could have become a platform for a new kind of radical, global ethnic politics.”
This sense of the assassination as a collective tragedy, of an entire culture haunted by a road not taken, was a vital spur to the Black Arts and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. For poets like Margaret Walker, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and E. Ethelbert Miller, writing elegies to Malcolm bordered on liturgical practice, granting the martyred hero a blinding countercultural sheen that obscured his suffocatingly conservative views on sex, gender roles, and personal comportment.
For the proto-rap group the Last Poets, Malcolm’s death lamentably exposed that his notoriety was due far more to the catharsis his rhetoric occasioned, rather than any devotional fervor worthy of his revolutionary example: “Niggers loved to hear Malcolm rap,” they chanted in “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” (1970), “but they did not love Malcolm.”
Despite the reproach of the Last Poets, many of the most popular male Black Power figures did indeed self-consciously fashion themselves in reverential accord with Malcolm’s example, as they understood it. For Stokely Carmichael, the controversial popularizer of the “Black Power” slogan, “Malcolm was the only figure of that generation…who had the natural authority, the style, language, and charisma, to lead and discipline rank-and-file urban youth.” Huey P. Newton, the cofounder of the Black Panther Party (BPP), celebrated Malcolm as one of the “two Black men of the twentieth century”—the other being Marcus Garvey—“who posed an implacable challenge to both the oppressor and the endorsed spokesmen” of Black accommodation. Like their idol, however, these Black Power radicals and their organizations were subjected to catastrophic state repression, including feuds orchestrated by undercover agents, unjust arrest and imprisonment, disparaging propaganda campaigns, and—as in the horrific case of Chicago BPP members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark—cold-blooded assassination. As these measures crippled Black radicalism, Carmichael fled to Guinea in self-exile, while Newton’s once-promising BPP leadership unraveled in a spiral of drug abuse, paranoia, and violence before his murder on the streets of Oakland in 1989.
Stunningly, the tragedies that befell Malcolm’s political progeny did not prevent him from enjoying a manic revival near the end of the twentieth century. Against the backdrop of Reagan-era conservatism, he reemerged as a cultural icon of the hip-hop generation, appearing frequently on “X”-themed streetwear, folk art, and chart-topping rap albums. By 1992, Malcolm received arguably the best fortune of any Hollywood biopic subject, with Denzel Washington’s performance in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. And if one insists that all imitation entails flattery, then no account of the Malcolm revival of the 1990s is complete without a begrudging mention of Louis Farrakhan’s breakthrough popularity with an oily imitation of his former NOI mentor.
Malcolm’s enduring popularity, even in its later waves, remains unintelligible without reference to Martin Luther King Jr. By the late twentieth century, King became, mainly through the movement to establish a federal holiday in his honor, a symbol of multicultural inclusion and the striving integrationism of a growing Black professional and political class. The rough edges of King’s radicalism, reflected in his widespread unpopularity at the end of his life, were sanded down for safe handling. Liberals appropriated his image for antiracist symbolism without acknowledging his critiques of capitalism and militarism; conservatives usurped his talk of transcending color discrimination to demonize reparative justice and eat away at the voting rights protections so many died to win. The resulting civic mythology left generations of youth with the impression that Malcolm, rather than King, was the Black tradition’s leading exemplar of authentic radicalism.
Although much of the commentary around “Malcolm-mania” in the 1990s focused on the rage, ambivalence, and disappointments of post–civil rights integration, the most underappreciated force behind the Malcolm revival was the new centrality of crime and incarceration in the lives of Black families. While the list of arrested Black political leaders and thinkers is long (Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Claudia Jones, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and, of course, King), the state persecuted nearly all of them for expressly or conventionally political actions. By contrast, Malcolm’s pre-NOI criminal record—including charges for drug possession, larceny, and armed robbery—was far more akin to those prevalent among the marginal men of America’s ghettos.
For Black communities at the height of the overlapping crack cocaine, street violence, and zero-tolerance-policing epidemics, therefore, Malcolm’s story of overcoming drug addiction and nihilism through revelation, self-exertion, and discipline was uniquely gripping. In the most extreme uses of Malcolm’s biography, his example could seductively and tragically suggest that such transformations might be achieved en masse through Black soulcraft and self-organization alone.
In a 1987 interview, Clarence Thomas, who often identified Malcolm as one of his heroes, proclaimed, “I don’t see how the civil-rights people today can claim Malcolm X as one of their own. Where does he say black people should go begging the Labor Department for jobs?” For Thomas, Malcolm’s lesson was about self-discipline and self-sufficiency: “When you have the economics, people do have a way of changing their attitudes toward you.” Farrakhan, in his keynote address at the 1995 Million Man March, echoed these sentiments, favorably comparing Asians and Asian-Americans with a benighted Black America whose indulgence of crime, sexual licentiousness, vulgarity, and dependency fed “the degenerate mind of White supremacy” and undermined the ethical and financial foundations for group flourishing.
Such exhortations, despite their strident moralism, profoundly underestimated the gravitational pull of the ghetto’s controlled chaos. How could such strivings find their footing amid the assault by market fundamentalists on social protections, finance capital’s pressure on US wages and collective bargaining rights, discriminatory patterns of credit and real estate lending, and the repressive policing used to contain the effects of economic hardship?
Yet Malcolm-mania, despite its analytical weaknesses, powerfully affirmed love and hope for Black youth against politicians’ and social scientists’ talk of a generation of “superpredators” unreachable by care or reason. His story became a critical pillar of the hope that the young man on a street corner or in prison could yet become “a black shining prince,” to use Ossie Davis’s phrase from his legendary eulogy for Malcolm. And often enough, people condemned to the margins of society discovered, via his story, capabilities and self-regard they never before imagined, including the higher purpose of striving for one’s own emancipation. This is why, perhaps, Malcolm’s significance has always been more tied to biography than philosophy.
Malcolm’s significance for Black dignity and self-respect is the driving force of a major new biography, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne, an investigative journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the global heroin trade. The book, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction, is the result of a thirty-year labor of love and was heroically completed by Payne’s daughter, Tamara, after his death in 2018.
In Payne’s rendering, the most fundamental impact of oppression is how it inculcates a sense of inferiority and “self-loathing” in its victims. This view, which the historian Daryl Michael Scott has disparaged as “damage imagery,” is the cornerstone of Payne’s analysis of the American race problem. In a striking autobiographical essay called “The Night I Stopped Being a Negro,” first published in 2008 and quoted by his daughter in her introduction, Payne wrote:
I’d never met a white person, South or North, who did not feel comfortably superior to every Negro, no matter the rank or station. Conversely, no Negro I’d met or heard of had ever felt truly equal to whites. For all their polemical posturing, not even Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Great Richard Wright…had liberated themselves from the poisoned weed of black self-loathing.
This stunning indictment of King and all the others caught up in the American racial dilemma is rooted in Payne’s childhood in the 1940s. He describes his youth as a training in the rituals of acquiescence. “Inferiority,” he writes, was “inspired in us at the hearth, was reinforced by every shred of evidence on public display: the Little Black Sambo schoolbooks, the billboards, the Amos ’n’ Andy Radio Show, the drinking fountains.” “Our parents…curbed all signs of rebellion,” and “we were bent like saplings to the circumstance of a permanent underclass.”
Payne’s essay tells of the night in 1963 he saw Malcolm speak in Hartford, Connecticut, an experience that exercised a hold on his imagination for decades. Malcolm’s outstanding achievement, Payne came to believe, was that his thought and rhetoric were uniquely capable of dissolving “the mark of the conditioned Negro, the most despised—and self-despising—creature in America,” in an “acid bath of racial counter-rejection, tough-love logic, and bottom-up primer on American history.” It was the encounter with Malcolm, in Payne’s reminiscence, that began to free him from the psychic bondage of racial self-loathing, converting the future journalist from servile “Negro” to self-respecting “black man.”
That Malcolm could occasion such transformations, Payne contends, was due not just to his awesome rhetorical gifts, but to his ability to “demonstrate with his life” (my emphasis) that Negroes could overcome their shame and discover unimpeachable self-respect. That Payne could treat Malcolm’s life as singularly ready-at-hand to demonstrate such a point (as opposed to King’s or Wright’s, or Fannie Lou Hamer’s for that matter) is a testament not only to the dramatic material of Malcolm’s life story, but also to his uncanny talent for self-mythology and the gravitational pull it tends to exert on his biographers.
Born to a family of Black nationalist proselytizers for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Malcolm lived a childhood wracked with tragedy. His parents’ encomiums to Black pride caused them to be harassed and terrorized across the Midwest. In 1929 the family’s house in Lansing, Michigan, occupied in defiance of a racially restrictive covenant, was burned to the ground. Less than two years later, his father, Earl Little, died in a gruesome streetcar accident.
Malcolm often insisted—contrary to the police record, his older brothers’ recollections, and Payne’s investigation—that his father died at the hands of the Black Legion, a local white supremacist vigilante group. His belief surely added an element of primordial vengeance to his later life, but whatever the truth of the matter, the plausibility of murder was terror enough. So too was the fact that Earl was accused of being responsible for both the arson and his own death.
Denied a life insurance payout on the specious suicide allegation, the Little family was overwhelmed by Depression-era poverty. As a teenager, Malcolm began to skip school, commit petty crimes, and sell drugs. Citing his delinquency and his family’s destitution, a swarm of condescending social workers scattered the Little children across foster homes before declaring their mother, Louisa, “mentally incompetent.” She was committed to an asylum for nearly three decades.
Without either of his parents, Malcolm found himself in a lopsided battle of mutual contempt with Lansing’s teachers, social workers, and police officers. He was shuttled between a juvenile reformatory and various foster placements, his precocious intellect and gregarious personality unnourished by the nearly all-white environments he found himself in. He famously described himself as a sort of “mascot” to his fellow students. People talked around him, he recalled in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), “the same way people would talk freely in front of a pet canary. They would even talk about me, or about ‘niggers,’ as though I wasn’t there, as if I wouldn’t understand what the word meant.”
Malcolm’s autobiography also confronts, with scornful honesty, taboos around interracial sex and romance. Public norms, which left him standing alone on the sidelines of school dances and mixers, insisted that the “mascot” was not supposed to date or have sex with white girls. Malcolm, however, claimed that some white friends secretly urged him to sexually proposition white girls, in part because if the girls agreed, those friends could later coerce them into sex by threatening to expose their shameful transgression.
One of Malcolm’s long-standing criticisms of white supremacy was precisely this sort of sexual fetishism and the hypocrisy of “segregationist” logic in light of actual sexual practices. The Nation of Islam’s replacement of its members’ given last names with an “X” to mark their unknown heritage is often read as a reclamation of a distinctively Black identity from the enduring humiliation of chattel slavery. It also, however, expresses contempt for the way that the Western convention of passing down patrilineal last names works to obscure the mass rape and human trafficking through which African America was, in part, produced. “It would be impossible for me today,” Malcolm once remarked in a 1961 interview, “to carry the blood of a rapist in me and not hate that blood.”
By 1964, such frank speech would make him one of America’s most sought-after speakers on college campuses, but in Lansing, teachers doused the young Malcolm’s ambitions. He recounted that, after making the mistake of letting a teacher named Richard Kaminska know that he wanted to grow up to be a lawyer, Kaminksa (called “Mr. Ostrowski” in the Autobiography) replied:
You’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you canbe. You’re good with your hands—making things…. Why don’t you plan on carpentry?”
Eschewing the woodshop, fifteen-year-old Malcolm fled in 1941 from Lansing to cosmopolitan Boston to live with his half-sister, Ella Collins. In the historic Black neighborhood of Roxbury, Malcolm was tossed into the escalating storm of Black America’s class divisions, spurred by a booming wartime economy. While Ella, despite dabbling in shoplifting and fencing stolen goods herself, had high hopes that her brother’s complexion and charisma would gain them entry into Boston’s light-skinned Black elite, Malcolm recoiled at the self-delusion of a precariously privileged class. In his autobiography he says that while they “looked down their noses at the Negroes of the black ghetto,”
eight out of ten of the Hill Negroes of Roxbury, despite the impressive-sounding job titles they affected, actually worked as menials and servants. “He’s in banking,” or “He’s in securities.” It sounded as though they were discussing a Rockefeller or a Mellon—and not some gray-headed, dignity-posturing bank janitor, or bond-house messenger…. It has never ceased to amaze me how so many Negroes, then and now, could stand the indignity of that kind of self-delusion.
Instead of striving toward a respectability of dubious value, Malcolm turned service work in jazz clubs and as a porter on the New Haven railroad into a set of lucrative hustles that he plied from Harlem to Roxbury. Dodging the World War II draft, he dealt drugs, ran numbers, robbed, and steered clients to sex workers. Wearing zoot suits louder than the swing bands he sold reefer to, Malcolm adopted the name “Red,” in reference to his naturally red hair, which he flamboyantly wore “conked,” or chemically straightened with lye.
In 1940s America, Malcolm’s bodily adornments signaled, if nothing else, a rejection of mainstream norms of thrift, restraint, and modesty. Later, as part of his conversion story, he effaced whatever value he once saw in such self-expression, recasting beauty practices—especially straightened hair—as exemplary of the depth of Black abjection under white supremacy. Malcolm argued in his autobiography that his conking was no innocuous form of youthful rebellion but “literally burning my flesh to have [my hair] look like a white man’s hair.” Describing chemical straightening as a mutilation of the God-gifted bodies of African-descended people, Malcolm derisively declared straightened hair as one’s “emblem of his shame that he is black.” In this he followed Garvey, who implored Black people, “Don’t remove the kinks from your hair! Remove them from your brain!”
Malcolm’s accusation represents an important entry in debates on race, aesthetics, and the body. Some see such sweeping denunciation as too dogmatic, placing undue suspicion on individual choice and self-fashioning, or denying our power to playfully transform existing strictures of race. Yet the celebration of choice cannot be so fetishistic that it denies that it is exercised amid culturally powerful attributions of value and beauty that reverberate through hiring and promotion, dating and marriage, celebrity and prosperity. America continues to produce a steady stream of workplace and school discrimination cases concerning illegal attempts to ban kinky hair worn in its natural state, as well as more legally permissible (if ethically egregious) attempts to ban distinctively “Black” hairstyles like cornrows and braids.
Long after the Black Power movement made the defiant celebration of natural hair its most recognizable aesthetic legacy, the noxious equation of kinky hair with “bad hair” and its effects remains a reasonable preoccupation with figures as disparate as the singer Beyoncé Knowles, the comedian Chris Rock, the children’s author Natasha Tarpley, and the political theorist Shatema Threadcraft. In what may be the most original (if aesthetically underwhelming) entry in the Black hair wars, Justin Simien’s 2020 film Bad Hair riffs on NOI demonology and the growing horror movement in Black film to depict a young Black woman pushed by corporate pressure to receive a hair weave revealed to be literally evil, murderous, and possessive.
Whatever one thinks of Malcolm’s hairstyle, it is clear that no adornment delivered as much social status as the mutually parasitic romance he began at sixteen with Beatrice Caragulian, a white woman from the Boston suburbs who was three years older and continued their affair through the early part of her marriage. Against the backdrop of interracial taboos, his relationship with the striking Armenian-American made “the big, important black hustlers…club managers, name gamblers, numbers bankers, and others” take notice. As Malcolm learned, however, such attention could have severe consequences.
Using Bea, her sister, and another white woman to help case houses in the Boston suburbs, Malcolm organized a small burglary gang. When he tried to pawn a stolen watch, he was arrested and swiftly gave up his co-conspirators. As punishment, Malcolm was sentenced to Massachusetts state prison for eight to ten years. This lengthy sentence was, in part, cruel retribution from a judge disgusted by Red’s audacity in recruiting white women to larceny and Bea to adulterous sex across the color line.
In contrast to leading accounts from the Black Power and Malcolm-mania eras, Marable’s biography tended to downplay his subject’s own account of his street exploits, deriding his “amateurish” crime career as exaggerated for rhetorical effect. Departing from the slick hustler depicted in Spike Lee’s film, Marable focused instead on more bumbling exploits like Red’s being arrested for stealing his sister’s coat, the careless, incriminating trip to the pawnshop, and snitching on his fellow burglars.
Yet Marable’s fixation on the small scale of this criminality obscures what is most significant about it. Payne’s account of Malcolm’s street life has the virtue of recapturing the dispiriting way that injustice can foster desperation, resentment, and, ultimately, callous predation. In his autobiography and elsewhere, Malcolm’s aim was not to project larger-than-life gangsterism. Instead, he struggled to underscore a more visceral truth about crime at the margins of society, namely the banal cruelty it visits on one’s most intimate relationships and the deleterious effects it has on one’s self-regard.
Describing himself as having “become an animal, a vulture, in the ghetto,” Malcolm strains to capture how a life of predatory crime turns corrosive, burdening and profaning the web of social ties and close bonds that constitute who we are as persons and the practices of care that sustain them. Payne details, for instance, the teenage Malcolm stealing money from his mentally ill mother to spend on white girls in Lansing, while she was so destitute that she was boiling dandelion greens for food. We see “Detroit Red” try to pimp out his brother’s estranged wife in New York. And we see Malcolm abusing and manipulating women for money, drowning whatever regrets he may have had about the white ones in racial resentment and recrimination.
These vignettes, as hard as they are to read for those of us reared to idolize Malcolm, restore, as it were, the challenge of his testimony regarding his life of crime. As he intended, they show how the trauma of structural injustice reverberates through desperation, vice, and vulnerability, and they underscore Malcolm’s mature self-disgust at his complicity with “the muck and mire of this rotting world.”
By restoring this drama to Malcolm’s conversion experiences, Payne manages to glean the great tragedy of his subject’s life. While he was in prison, Malcolm’s siblings slowly converted him to the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad’s blend of Islamic mysticism, Orientalist mythology, and black nationalism. Discovering a new purpose through the Black Muslim movement’s discipline and his own preternatural talent for self-education, he rapidly became Muhammad’s greatest advocate.
Raised by Garveyites, Malcolm knew better than most that the NOI offered little that was new in the way of black nationalist political philosophy. Its paeans to race pride and an independent nation-state, skepticism toward multiracial democracy, and conflation of bourgeois enterprise with “self-sufficiency” were all familiar. The genius, and limitation, of the NOI was its ability to inject the increasingly implausible demands of classical black nationalism with spiritual fervor through esoteric prophesy and rituals regulating diet, sex, exercise, prayer, and sensual pleasures.
It was Malcolm, however, who deepened and best articulated what would become the Nation’s and his own most profound political challenge to the Black tradition, and arguably to America writ large: an unprecedented insistence that the most disadvantaged—the incarcerated, those surviving on illicit or semi-licit economies, the drug-addicted—could nonetheless come to have a critical part in their own redemption and emancipation. Malcolm raised Muhammad’s injunction to “go after the black man in the mud” into an ethical maxim and, struggling against his mentor’s quietism, a program of political organizing.
As Malcolm relayed in the Autobiography, “converts from society’s lowest levels were a sizable part of the Nation’s broad base of membership.” He preached with evangelical zeal that “no one can change more completely than the man who has been at the bottom.” The moral and, at least for Malcolm, political agency dormant in these benighted souls had been lost to the systematic degradation of their self-image and the lack of discipline necessary to navigate the traps that were contemptuously laid for them by a hostile society. Thus, along with Malcolm’s excoriation of white supremacy and exhortations to Islamic piety, he also pioneered programs for paramilitary and martial arts training, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, religious and historical study, and, as Payne details, experiments in “semi-communal” cooperative living for young men.
Though he died before he could test these ideas outside the NOI, Malcolm nonetheless offered a valuable rejoinder to a society whose practices of punishment, policing, and the distribution of public goods passed arrogant judgment on the meager horizons of African-Americans herded into prisons and ghettos. Rhetorically, Malcolm sought to turn the stigma of criminality back onto the basic structure of American society. “You don’t have to go behind bars to be in jail in this country,” Malcolm declared; “if you are born in this country with black skin you are already in jail.” These dimensions of his ministry inspired a wave of frenzied organizing in secular black politics, including the Black Panther Party’s enthusiasm for the so-called lumpenproletariat, King’s 1966 attempts to convert the gangs of Chicago’s West Side to the gospel of nonviolence, and the prison movements defended by Angela Davis.
Despite the profoundly humane and egalitarian vision behind Malcolm’s commitments, however, Payne reveals how he fatally did not, and perhaps could not, do enough to uproot a toxic alliance between street predation and sectarian corruption that emerged within the NOI and gave it some of its martial glamour. Building on the underappreciated work of the historian Karl Evanzz, Payne shows how the discipline, entrepreneurial success, and inspiring conversions of the NOI were backed, in some mosques, by brutal beatings administered by the paramilitary “Fruit of Islam” and the extraction of excessive tithes from its economically precarious membership. He details the ways in which mosque leaders subjected members to violence for violations like failing to meet sales quotas for the NOI’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and how “goon squads” in cities like Newark—whose mosque was infamous for prostitution, bank robbery, and drug dealing—dispensed lethal violence on command from higher-ups. Ironically, despite the NOI’s rhetoric of retaliatory violence against whites, nearly all of this violence was directed at blacks alone—including Malcolm.
Malcolm’s final break with Elijah Muhammad and the NOI in 1964 was long in coming. Jealousy at his success with recruits and the media swelled among Muhammad’s inner circle. Others worried that the aggressively ascetic Malcolm would purge mosques of factions seen as too corrupt or impious if he ever took power from the perpetually ill Muhammad.
Malcolm had long chafed against the NOI’s apolitical and superstitious theology, but he seemed especially incensed at how its reactionary separatism made the organization bedfellows with the pro-segregation American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. In one of the most heartbreaking parts of The Dead Are Arising, we read, for the first time, testimony from one of Malcolm’s rivals, Jeremiah X, regarding the infamous 1961 meeting where the two served as NOI emissaries to KKK representatives. In that meeting, the Klan, assuming a mutual interest in the defeat of racial integration, asked the NOI to assist in murdering King. A stunned Malcolm coolly refused the request, but the audacity of it, as well as the KKK–NOI nonaggression pact forged in the meeting’s aftermath, revealed a mordant truth. The most dedicated enemies of Malcolm’s people viewed the “natural religion for the black man,” as his brother Philbert first described Muhammad’s creed, with more cautious encouragement than conciliatory fear.
The growing rift between Malcolm and Muhammad’s inner circle was exacerbated and enabled by security state machinations, including the FBI’s rebuffed attempt to work with Malcolm against Muhammad in February 1964. Gene Roberts, an undercover police officer who infiltrated the OAAU as Malcolm’s personal bodyguard, told Payne how he identified preparations for the impending assassination but the NYPD refused to intervene. FBI files detail similar failures to prevent Malcolm’s death. Worse, interviews with both Roberts and an anonymous NOI source explicitly suggest further government complicity in abetting the assassination and its coverup.
The sad fact is that NOI top brass were willing to do their part. By 1964, an assassination order was issued from Muhammad’s inner circle, with hit squads from several mosques assigned the grisly task. Among them was Jeremiah Shabazz’s infamous Philadelphia mosque. (Known as the city’s “Black Mafia,” its members were later implicated in the horrific 1973 Hanafi Muslim massacre, in which seven people—including five children, two of whom were forcibly drowned in front of their mother—were slaughtered in Washington, D.C.) On Valentine’s Day, 1965, Malcolm’s home was firebombed while he, his wife, Betty Shabazz, then pregnant with twins, and their four daughters were at home. In a deathbed interview with Payne, Malcolm’s onetime protégé “Captain” Joseph (née Gravitt), a formerly homeless World War II veteran who was then head of the Harlem mosque’s paramilitary unit, admitted to ordering the arson.
Payne’s intensive focus on the mechanics of murder and commitment to the legend of Malcolm’s courageous defiance prevents him from assessing the crushing toll of his subject’s public persona on Malcolm’s family and the man himself. Just hours after the attempt to murder his family, Malcolm left them behind to fly to Detroit and deliver a speech that began with an apology for not wearing a tie. While Payne avoids the gossipy speculation that plagued Marable’s account of Malcolm and Betty’s relationship, his reticence to say much of anything about their personal life (or hardly anything about Betty at all) is a glaring omission. As the historians Ula Taylor and Garrett Felber have demonstrated, Betty and other Muslim women were able to call upon organized self-defense to deter the violence and humiliation regularly visited on other black women, but at the cost of enduring surveillance, subjection, and sanction within the sect. Arguably no one in the NOI paid a greater “price of protection” (to use Farah Jasmine Griffin’s classic phrase) than Betty Shabazz, who bore the weight of Malcolm’s projection of indomitability in life and death, and who struggled through the intergenerational trauma of her husband’s murder as an oft-reluctant symbol of Black nationalist endurance.
On February 21, one week after the firebombing, a team of assassins from the Newark mosque killed Malcolm at the Audubon Ballroom in Upper Manhattan, with Betty and their daughters watching. According to Payne’s riveting investigation, two innocent men were convicted for the crime and all but one of Malcolm’s murderers escaped prosecution. Elijah Muhammad, rather than seeking forgiveness for sexually exploiting his followers or conceding that the NOI could do more for black political freedom, condoned the murder of his most devoted follower. Payne also reminds us that Farrakhan—who publicly denounced Malcolm as “worthy of death” before his assassination—was in Newark that day, and among the first informed that the hit was successful.
The callousness of Malcolm’s assassination makes it easier to evade the difficult questions it raises, but the fury of his rivals is not hard to understand. His public condemnation of the NOI could easily be seen by insiders as hypocrisy. After all, well before his public apostasy, Malcolm was aware of NOI beatings of defectors, “sinners,” and enemies. He knew, at least by his first trip to the Middle East in 1959, that Elijah’s Islam was profoundly unorthodox. Malcolm, himself a proponent of patriarchy, must have anticipated the vengeance and paranoia that would follow from his decision to recruit Muhammad’s favored son, Wallace, to join in the investigation of his father’s sexual misconduct. Had Malcolm decided to remain in Africa indefinitely in 1965, he might have survived—like W.E.B. Du Bois before him, or Stokely Carmichael after him—as a moralist and gadfly offering prophetic critique from exile. But if Payne’s account is right, once he decided to return home from his trip abroad following his split with the NOI, Malcolm simply had no plan or ability to elude the state violence or sweeping vengeance his apostasy and activism had unleashed.
In a speech given just days before his death, Malcolm lamented his “having played a major role in developing a criminal organization” out of what once was an organization with “the power, the spiritual power, to reform the criminal.” One of the great contributions of Payne’s work is that it may spur us, as we debate the principles and prospects for police and prison “abolition,” to take seriously the sociological underpinnings of the NOI’s fall. The state is not the only organized executor of violence, and illegitimate claims on the right to kill or punish would not disappear with prisons or the police. Though abolitionists have convincingly argued that self-professed “liberals” have permitted the cruelty of mass incarceration to become normalized, a reimagined model of public safety must take account of the ways in which the organizations best disposed to seize the powers of “community control” have been responsible for other forms of violence and abuse.
Hoping to quiet Malcolm’s inimitable voice, his enemies inadvertently consolidated his immortality. He dramatized, perhaps more than any other African-American of the twentieth century, the fact that our society’s contemptuous practices toward the poor, and especially the ghetto poor, have poisoned vast reservoirs of human potential and silenced truths we remain in desperate need of hearing. Malcolm never found a vehicle worthy of his great insights about the political and moral agency of the most marginalized. But the great inheritors of his legacy today, like the more than fifty organizations that make up the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People and Families Movement, are experimenting with policy campaigns, protest actions, lobbying efforts, and civic education led by formerly incarcerated people. In doing so, they will test the political efficacy and transformative power of institutions far less reliant than the NOI on charismatic leadership, authoritarian discipline, and racial or religious dogmatism.
One need not, with Payne, tar African America with the broad brush of self-loathing to concede that Malcolm’s story—now filled in with unprecedented detail—still has the virtue of piercing through the arrogant indifference that numbs most Americans to the scale of our catastrophic treatment of the truly disadvantaged. The staggering weight of the millions who languish in the largest prison population in the history of the world or who face down untimely deaths, fast or slow, in America’s dark ghettos is an indelible stain on this nation. Yet the avalanche of statistics and sordid histories that our recent summer of protest brought to the forefront of American discourse cannot alone produce the righteous indignation that such circumstances should compel. This outrage and the action it might engender seem ultimately tied to the recognition that, as Sonia Sanchez wrote in her beautiful elegy to Malcolm,
what might have been
is not for him/or me
but what could have been
floods the womb until I drown.
–From “Malcolm” (1966)
. . .
Brandon M. Terry is an Assistant Professor of African and African-American Studies and of Social Studies at Harvard. He is the coeditor of To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the editor of Fifty Years Since MLK. He is working on a new book, The Tragic Vision of the Civil Rights Movement.