Malcolm Remembered

We still ponder what he did and what he might yet have achieved.

February 20, 2005|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN STAFF

It has been 40 years since gunmen killed Malcolm X as he was about to address supporters in a Harlem ballroom.

His assassination on Feb. 22, 1965 - just before his 40th birthday - was part of a season of violence that sent many national leaders and civil rights workers to early graves, and also a murder with a peculiar set of circumstances.

When he died, few knew much about Malcolm beyond the fact that he could deliver a speech and stir up controversy.

Malcolm would become more important in death than he was during his life, both as a commodified pop culture symbol of defiance - the black counterpart to Che Guevara - and as someone who saw the limitations of the civil rights movement and called for an approach that would demand more fundamental changes.

For most on both sides of the racial divide, Malcolm was, in life, a symbol - of identity and pride, of violence and hatred. Whatever the vision, an early death by gunfire seemed poignant and fitting - either the inevitable silencing of a threatening voice, or just desserts.

In fact, it was neither. Malcolm was killed because he dared to defy Elijah Muhammad, who ran the Nation of Islam as a cross between a Mafia-style gang and a despotic Third World country.

But that violent death is an inseparable part of the image that lives on - the staid glasses, the piercing eyes, the strong words "By any means necessary."

Malcolm's time on the national stage was short. A 1959 CBS documentary, The Hate that Hate Produced, with Mike Wallace, introduced Malcolm and the Black Muslim movement to a wider audience.

But it was only in the last two years of his life - much of which he spent overseas - that he captured the spotlight. What is amazing is that, four decades later, we are still talking about what happened in that brief moment.

"When you get talking to students about what people actually did, they always want Malcolm X to have done more than he did," says Renee Romano, a historian at Wesleyan University. "He was really a master rhetorician, an incredible orator. Had he lived longer, who knows what he would have done?"

The Malcolm who died was very much a work in progress, just beginning to learn how to use his spiritual underpinnings, his political insights and his powerful charisma to reach his goals.

"He was a man in transition as the times were in transition," says Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "The bottom line on Malcolm X's legacy was that he was representative of something black people needed - an uncompromising, unflinching look at where we were in American society."

"Many people now see Malcolm X as much more prophetic than he was given credit for," says James Turner, founder of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. "He said integration alone was insufficient, that it would run into its limitations and not be able to deliver us full equality."

Turner and others note that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. realized this in the three years he lived after Malcolm's assassination.

Floyd Hayes of the Center for Africana Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, says that Malcolm was his model when Hayes led a black power movement as a graduate student at UCLA in 1968.

"For me, Malcolm was central, in terms of being a leader, being outspoken and assertive," Hayes says. "What was important for my generation was his self-assertiveness, his self-determination, the ability to stand up before anyone and not be afraid."

Though Malcolm is viewed as one of the most important African-American leaders that the country has produced, that was not the case 40 years ago.

"Polls showed that he was a relatively minor figure," says Taylor Branch, who is at work on the third volume of his biography of King. "His approval numbers in Jet magazine were down near the single digits. Roy Wilkens would be up there with 60 percent, King with 80 or 90, and Malcolm had 11."

He was perhaps best known as a black bogeyman, the evil side of the revolution that was sweeping the country.

"Malcolm would only pop up on the white radar screen when he would say something that would scare them," Branch says. "I don't think people knew very much about what was going on in his life."

Malcolm paid his only visit to the established civil rights movement a few weeks before his death, going to Selma, Ala., where a voting rights campaign was under way. King was in jail and, Branch says, Malcolm's sudden appearance caused turmoil among King's compatriots, who reluctantly let Malcolm address a rally in a church.

"What drove Malcolm down to Selma was that he realized he had been all talk" and no action, says Branch. It was in part Elijah Mohammed's orders to remain apolitical that drove Malcolm to leave the Nation of Islam.

During that visit, Malcolm told Coretta Scott King that he thought the fear he stirred up among whites helped her husband achieve his goals.

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