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Ron Radosh

Today, the late Manning Marable’s new biography of Malcolm X was published.  After working on it for over twenty years, Marable sadly passed away last Friday, a few days before publication.  I do not share the late scholar’s political and social views, especially his socialist perspective and his neo-Marxist ideology.  But a quick read of some of the chapters of the book indicate that he has produced a thorough, beautifully written and insightful account of Malcolm X’s life, one that forces readers to reevaluate much of what they thought about where Malcolm X stood on many issues, and how and why he came to take positions that he held.

Marable rightfully saw Malcolm X as a major figure in 20th century black American life. Yet he is able to be critical about him and many of the choices he made, a man who, he writes, “was being strangled by the iconic legend that had been constructed about him.”  Readers will learn that at a critical moment in the civil rights struggle, Malcolm X made the foolish decision to negotiate and meet with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, during which he told the Klan representatives that his people too wanted “complete segregation from the white race.” On this episode, Marable writes: “To sit down with white supremacists to negotiate common interests, at a moment in black history when the KKK was harassing, victimizing, and even killing civil rights workers and ordinary black citizens, was despicable.”

On the issue of Judaism and Israel, Marable does not hide the many times that Malcolm X made blatant anti-Semitic remarks; nor does he hide his early opposition to Israel. On why Malcolm X developed opposition to Israel, Marable reveals that his position was tied up with the money he was receiving from Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. As Marable writes: “Soliciting the support of the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser for his activities on behalf of orthodox Islam in the United States may have made it necessary to adopt Nasser’s political positions, such as fierce opposition to Israel.”

At the same time, however (1964), readers learn that in the upcoming presidential election, “Nearly alone among prominent black leaders, he continued to support Barry Goldwater as the better candidate to address blacks’ interests,” even though, Marable writes, Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act “made him the de facto candidate of Southern white supremacists.” Malcolm X, in other words, was a bundle of contradictions.

All of this is a preface to my recollections about  the night I and other young leftist activists at the University of Wisconsin had one evening  sometime in either 1961 or 1962, before Malcolm X went to the Middle East and before he was expelled by Elijah Muhammad from The Nation of Islam, then usually referred to as “the Black Muslims.”  Malcolm X had come to speak at the University’s Great Hall, the smaller of the two venues for speakers at the University in Madison.  The audience was largely composed of black students, with a smattering of white radicals. At that time, the crowd I was part of was highly critical of integrationist strategy, and was sympathetic to various forms of black nationalism.

Malcolm X’s speech, as much of it as I can recall, was made up of the kind of boilerplate comments we were already familiar with from the media. I remember him saying: “When you want a good and strong cup of coffee, you ask for black coffee. You don’t dilute it by putting in cream or milk.” He reaffirmed his opposition to the mainstream civil rights movement, criticized the integrationists and the mainstream, and gave the largely black audience the kind of red meat it had heard so much about and had come to hear in person. He was charismatic, charming, and to anyone who heard him speak, a powerful and fiery personage, a man who obviously was sincere and furious at the harsh treatment of black people in America. He ended by asking anyone who wanted to get in touch to write him. I recall his closing. “You don’t even have to know the address of Mosque Number 7 over which I preside,” he said, “just send the letter to Malcolm X, Harlem. It will get to me.”

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