Legends & Legacies View More

The Ever-Evolving Malcolm X

Published: 2/22/2012

Forty-seven years after the death of Malcolm X, David Bradley examines his legacy. Originally published May 2009 on Obit-Mag.com.


The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

—Julius Caesar
Act III, scene ii

On Sunday, Feb. 21, 1965, at approximately 1 p.m., a man left the Hilton hotel in Manhattan. His name was El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Malcolm X (Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress/New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection)His appearance was distinctive — tall, reddish hair and goatee, skin the shade of stained maple — but he was conservatively dressed, in a dark suit, white shirt, narrow tie.

Like many Hilton guests he had prayed before retiring. But he had also prayed at dawn, not simply kneeling, but standing at almost-military attention, to face in the direction of the Holy City of Mecca, then lowering himself, in precise stages, to touch head to earth.

He performed that ritual again at noon. Then he checked out, ransomed his car and drove uptown. About 2 p.m. he reached an auditorium at the upper boundary of Harlem, the Audubon Ballroom.

Scheduled there, that afternoon, was a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Although Malik El-Shabazz headed that organization, the featured speaker was to be a black Presbyterian, the Rev. Milton Galamison. By 3 p.m. an audience of 400 blacks had gathered, yet Rev. Galamison had not appeared. So at 3:10 Malik El-Shabazz stepped to the rostrum.

He spoke the customary Muslim greeting: Salaam Alaikum — Peace be upon you. Although the audience was mostly non-Muslim, many knew the proper reply: Alaaikum As-Salaam. Even as most returned the wish of peace, three Muslims drew guns and shot him down.

He was borne to an emergency room, received, in haste, as "John Doe." Heroic treatment failed, and at 3:30 John Doe was pronounced dead.

In most cultures, naming a newborn is a significant, often religious ritual. Even the unobservant regard the name conveyed at brit milah, brit bat, baptism, christening or aqiqa as a connection to the past and harbinger of the future.

So it was with Malik El-Shabazz, born May 19, 1925, to Early Little, Baptist preacher hailed from Georgia, and Louise, née Norton, a native of Grenada. He was to be named John, after his paternal grandfather, but, learning the child was light-skinned, that gentleman declined the honor. The baby was christened Malcolm, for his maternal, albeit illegitimate, Scottish grandfather.

His life would be a litany of names: "Rhythm Red" in Boston dance halls; "Detroit Red" on the streets of Harlem; "Prisoner 22843" in the Massachusetts penal system; "Satan" on the cellblock, where he cursed God without ceasing.

There he became a disciple of Elijah Muhammad, leader of a sect called the Nation of Islam, although its dogma replaced Islam's Pillars with racist tenets: Whites were descended from a race of devils, created through selective breeding by an evil eugenicist. Negroes were descended from the "strong black tribe of Shabazz." Seduced by this racially affirming faith, Satan renamed himself Malachi Shabazz.

His devotion proved mighty. After his parole, he was taken into Elijah’s home, trained in the way he should go, given yet another name and sent forth as the apostle Malcolm X.

In 1957, he was minister of the Nation’s Harlem Temple when a member was arrested with little provocation but extreme prejudice. Malcolm X led a phalanx of the Nation’s martial arts-trained militia to the 28th Precinct, demanding that the beaten brother receive medical care. In those days the expected pattern of black protest came from the nonviolent civil rights movement: Negroes in short-sleeved shirts and shirtwaist dresses singing songs, carrying signs, walking behind Christian pastors. Malcolm X was neither Christian nor pastoral, and his all-male followers were as uniform in dark suits, white shirts and ties as the uniformed police. Harlem watched as they stood in silent and unmoving ranks until Malcolm X emerged from the station house and dismissed them with a wave. "No man should have that kind of power," a police official muttered. Harlem thought otherwise.

In 1959 Mike Wallace, then a journalist-without-portfolio, made a documentary about Negro groups that rejected the goals and strategies of the civil rights movement as articulated by the Rev. Martin Luther King: an integrated society achieved through nonviolent means. The Hate That Hate Produced highlighted the Nation of Islam and, while acknowledging Elijah’s authorship of the hateful theology, presented Malcolm X as hatemonger-in-chief.

Over the next five years Malcolm X became a celebrity. His verbal style was shaped by classical rhetoric but infused with homespun similes and barbed with factual ironies. It made for lively late-night television and call-in radio. He "gave good quote" to newspapers, provided provocative profiles to magazines — Time, Life, Ebony, Jet, Reader’s Digest, Playboy. A major publisher commissioned an autobiography. The New York Times said he was "the second most sought after speaker at American colleges."

He became a new embodiment of the iconic "Angry Negro," replacing Bigger Thomas, the inarticulate, imbecilic murderer/rapist of the best-selling novel Native Son. As such, Malcolm stood in opposition to the iconic "New Negro," also recently re-embodied, in Martin Luther King. Malcolm’s actual opposition was phrased in satire, as when he questioned whether King’s nonviolent strategies, based on the satyagraha of the Indian Hindu Mohandas K. Gandhi as well as the beatitudes of Jesus, were appropriate to America. "Gandhi," said Malcolm X, "was a big, dark elephant sitting on a little white mouse. King is a little black elephant sitting on top of a big white elephant."

But in 1963 King co-opted him into the nonviolent movement. In April, desperate for dramatic victory, King and his ministers took their crusade to Birmingham — a city not only firmly segregated but so rife with racist violence that blacks called it "Bombingham." There, during Holy Week, King staged a passion play, in which passive protesters offered themselves up to the city’s centurions, commanded by Theophilus "Bull" Connor.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, 1964 (Wikimedia Commons/Marion S. Trikosko, U.S. News & World Report Magazine)On Palm Sunday eve peaceful marchers were arrested for parading without a permit. On Palm Sunday police dogs were unleashed. On Good Friday King was jailed, but two days after Easter, he smuggled out a letter in which he justified his presence and methods with references to the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. He also warned of a "force of bitterness and hatred in the Negro community" waiting to wreak havoc should "those of us who employ nonviolent direct action" be dismissed — "people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity." He named Elijah Muhammad. He did not need to name Malcolm X.

Nor did he need to speak the name in August, as he exhorted the multitudes marching in Washington to "forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline" and never permit "protest to degenerate into physical violence." He needed only to mention "militancy" and "whirlwinds of revolt." People knew who he meant.

In December, Malcolm X co-operated with King’s co-optation by calling the assassination of President John F. Kennedy "chickens coming home to roost." With the nation still in mourning, responses were … unfavorable. Elijah Muhammad, determined to distance himself, publicly commanded Malcolm X to silence and wondered, privately, would no one rid him of this troublesome priest.

Malcolm X (Wikimedia Commons/ U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress)Fourteen months later, someone obliged. But Malcolm X would not be silenced even by his own assassination. That summer, "Malcolm X" became a graffito on ghetto walls and a rallying cry of urban uprisings. That fall, his ghost-written autobiography, which told of childhood experiences that confirmed au currant sociological theories, won an eclectic intellectual and youthful white audience. Malcolm X, already a legend on the streets, became a legend on college dormitory posters, a shibboleth in the tea rooms of the Revolution. The anniversary of his birth became "Malcolm X Day," celebrated in a dozen cities. "Parks, streets and ghetto playgrounds have been named after him," reported Time in 1970. In 1972, Malcolm X became the title of a low-budget documentary and, in 1992, of an over-budget Spike Lee "joint" — although graphics often reduced it to X. All of which ignored that Malcolm X did not survive the winter of 1964.

In many cultures, adults may signify a personal metamorphosis by adopting a new name. So it was with the "Hebrew of the Hebrews" named Saul at brit milah, who persecuted Christians "unto death" but saw a blinding vision on the road to Damascus and became the Apostle Paul.

So it should have been with Malcolm X, who sometime between January and March rejected Elijah’s ersatz theology, repented the "sickness and madness of those days," submitted to the orthodoxy of Sunni Islam and made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

After completing the eight-day hajj he wrote an epistle to the handful who still followed him, telling of seeing "tens of thousands of pilgrims … of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans … all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist" and the revelation that "If white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man." He signed a name that melded past and present, erasing Malcolm X. Now he was El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

In American culture, for an adult male to adopt a new name is regarded as evidence of instability or deception. So it was with Malik El-Shabazz. Although then, as now, many a Sunday sermon was based on the Epistle of St. Paul, Malik El-Shabazz’s "Letter from Mecca" was received as a mere press release. And even as it published a four-color portrait of him praying in the Great Mosque in Cairo, The Saturday Evening Post sneered at his "pseudoreligious revelation."

Even those who respected his faith were confused. Malik El-Shabazz was undeniably devout. He studied scriptures analogous to Torah, Gospels and Acts, followed rituals as rigid as a monk's and served One God — albeit by another name. He confessed that "Once I was a racist — yes. But now I have turned my direction away from anything that's racist." Yet his political organization accepted no white members, and its motto goals — freedom, justice, equality — had a threatening refrain: "by any means necessary."

"They won’t let me turn the corner," Malik El-Shabazz lamented. Actually they missed the corner. They assumed he'd found himself on the road to Damascus, which would bring him closer to a faith that taught that the meek would inherit the earth. But he'd turned instead toward Mecca and a faith that taught "permission to fight is given to those upon whom war is made because they are oppressed."

In 1999 the U. S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp. The familiar narrow-tied visage was identified as "Malcolm X" in large, emphatic type. The name he'd chosen for himself was a small-type subtitle.

So let it be, for Malcolm X does loom larger. But let it be spoken: There was Malik El-Shabazz, who named himself for the man he'd made himself. He died as John Doe — appropriately, for what he might have become, no mortal can say.

We can say that, the year before, while he sojourned in the Holy Land, a protest march to the 28th Precinct, led by a disciple of Christ and Gandhi, was met with excessive force that became a six-day eruption of assault, arson and anger.

We can say that the following year became — to quote one commentator — "the year black power darkened the skies of the civil rights movement." Black Power paid homage to Malik El-Shabazz, but was an irreligious doctrine — a pragmatic realpolitik lacking the limitation of any higher law. Thus, that year, a Committee of Negro Churchmen bemoaned "a situation where conscienceless power meets powerless conscience."

And we can say that in years since, many who would make a better world have sacrificed efficacy to hover on King's high plane, and any who descended have been dismissed as degenerate. Protest itself has been paralyzed by polar images: marchers with heads beaten bloody; a mob capering before the flames.

Malcolm X offered another image: black men in dark suits, white shirts and ties, standing before a precinct house. Malik El-Shabazz might have offered a theology that unified conscience and power.

Admittedly, while he still lived, America was not only Judeo-Christian but more nominally religious; Islam would have seemed alien (although it is actually less so than Hinduism). Now, although America itself is less religious, Islam seems inimical, as, in his lifetime, did Communism. But, as Malik El-Shabazz wrote from Mecca, "America needs to understand Islam." In any case, Americans have ever been adept at adapting alien customs to our own character.

And so what might have been was symbolized when Malik El-Shabazz was returned unto God. Islam, like Judaism, commands swift burial. Yet for three days his body lay in state, in dark suit, white shirt and tie, as thousands filed by. Then the rite was interrupted by a Muslim elder in dark robes and a turban white as desert sand. The body was withdrawn, stripped of Western garb, anointed with sweet oils, draped in seven pure white linen shrouds, and again revealed unto the populace. Thousands who had already passed by now returned to pay respect to Malik El-Shabazz.

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