Who was Malcolm X?

December 07, 1992

Spike Lee's movie adaptation of Alex Haley's "Autobiography of Malcolm X" has prompted much criticism of the crass commercialization of the activist's name and image, in products ranging from Malcolm X T-shirts, caps and coffee mugs to a brand of potato chips bearing his likeness.

Perhaps this transformation is only to be expected from an industry notorious for turning almost anything into a profitable commodity. But fortunately, the movie has also stirred more serious reassessment of Malcolm's place in history, especially among blacks.

The spectrum of opinion reflects a remarkable diversity. Columnist Carl Rowan, for example, flatly declared, "Malcolm X was no great hero of mine." Retired Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall apparently shared a similar view: "What did [Malcolm X] ever do?" he complained in 1991.

Among Malcolm's admirers, columnist Clarence Page offered perhaps the most eloquent defense: "What did Malcolm 'do'?," Mr. Page asks. "He only built self-esteem in a people who felt perpetually beaten down . . . Maybe that's all he needed to do."

Surprisingly, perhaps, Malcolm is also a hero to conservative black Republicans like Justice Clarence Thomas, who owns a complete set of his speeches, and former Maryland GOP Senate candidate Alan Keyes, whose reading of Malcolm's position on community control of neighborhood resources convinced him that, "Malcolm X would have to be a black conservative today."

And one of the most intriguing views comes from '60s militant Angela Davis, who recalled hearing Malcolm as a undergraduate: "No one could have convinced me then that Malcolm had not come to Brandeis to give expression to my own inarticulate rage and awaken me to possibilities of militant practice." But Ms. Davis went on to criticize the male chauvinism that characterized not only Malcolm's thought but much of the civil rights movement and today's pop culture as well.

One wonders whether Malcolm's ideas about feminism might have evolved had he lived, just as his political philosophy matured from racial isolation and exclusiveness to a broader, inclusive vision of humanity. That at least seems a possibility, for as Mr. Lee shows, Malcolm's career was one of almost continuous growth and development.

Perhaps that is why so many people are drawn to Malcolm's legacy. His is a uniquely American story precisely because it is so intimately bound up with one of the most troubled periods of our history, the tensions of a diverse society and the eternal quest to define ourselves as a nation.

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