Ron Radosh

Remembering an Evening with Malcolm X, and Some Thoughts on the new Manning Marable Biography

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.”

After the talk, my friend, the historian Martin J. Sklar, walked up to Malcolm and asked if he would consider coming to a friend’s house to spend the rest of the evening talking with people from the white Left who would like to meet with him. Malcolm replied, “I’m not supposed to go and talk to white people in a white person’s house; I talk with black people.” Then he paused and said something like, “but why not? I may as well,” virtually stunning us.

We walked to the nearby home, and all sat down in the living room for an impromptu question and answer session and dialogue that went on for well over one or two hours.  The discussion covered his views on race, foreign policy, the civil rights movement, and of course, the nature of the Left in America.

At one point, one of our group, a black activist named Jim McWilliams, asked a rather pointed and hostile question. Malcolm X, who had been cordial to everyone up to that point, looked at him and said, “What is your name?” When he answered, Malcolm X quickly retorted: “I don’t talk to black people named McWilliams. That is a slave name.” And he asked for the next question.

The most vociferous of those arguing with Malcolm X was Fred Ciporen. Freddy raised the issue of the Cuban Revolution, which Malcolm X had said in his talk he supported.  My friend’s argument was that the revolution was not about race, but class — that Castro had made the revolution for all the country’s poor, not for blacks. Malcolm X responded that if you look at those Cubans who were fleeing the country, it was only light-skinned Cubans, while the dark skinned Cubans remained and supported Castro. (One wonders what Malcolm X, had he lived, would have thought when he learned how Castro’s revolution suppressed Cuban blacks and practiced harsh discriminatory measures against them.)

Fred answered that the Cubans who left were upper middle class bourgeois Cubans, property owners who did not want a revolution, and their leaving had nothing to do with their skin color. And so it went, back and forth — neither convincing the other.  Freddy was especially articulate, and would not give in or stop trying to convince Malcolm X, who sat there smiling and taking it all in.

After the formal Q and A was over, everyone sat around and talked informally. Malcolm X then walked up to Freddy, embraced him, and said: “Freddy, are you by any chance Jewish?” Looking at Freddy and hearing his strong New York accent, anyone would know that he was. Then Malcolm X said, “I love Jews. Spinoza was Jewish, and he was a black man.” Then he put his arms around Freddy and said, “Freddy, if it was up to me, you could have an X.”

In his personal relations with us that evening, Malcolm X did not appear to us as anti-Semitic. Perhaps it was because, as Marable explains how he saw Jews, Malcolm respected them because he thought black people should do what he thought Jews had done; i.e., exercise economic power to develop their own ownership and power. Marable reports Malcolm X saying that Jews through their economic power owned Atlantic City and Miami Beach, and ran both Hollywood and the garment industry. “When there’s something worth owning,” Malcolm X complained, “the Jews got it.” He also thought Jewish money controlled the mainstream civil rights groups, and forced an integrationist strategy on them.  Malcolm X, then, believed the old stereotype about Jews that all anti-Semites held.

I look forward in the next few days to giving Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X a through and close reading. He was a major figure in our country’s recent past, a man who moved quickly from the leadership of the Nation of Islam to a contradictory blend of pan-Africanism and neo-socialism, who was obviously capable of deep thought and an ability to rethink old assumptions. He influenced many African-Americans, and as we know, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has in his own writings written about how he too held Malcolm X in great esteem.  As Justice Thomas told Reason magazine, “I’ve been very partial to Malcolm X, particularly his self-help teachings. I have virtuallv all of the recorded speeches of Malcolm X.”

Thomas readily acknowledged that there was too much of anti-white rhetoric in Malcolm X’s speech, but he understood his wide appeal.

Now, with Marable’s new book, we can all have the chance to further explore what led to such appeal to so many diverse groups of people.