Author Joseph Green begins our special feature with a second look at the work of Manning Marable, whose biography of Malcolm X he had previously reviewed for us (see the link below). Green asks hard questions of those progressive historians who wish to fit Malcolm into a predefined pattern, emphasizing how resistant to categorization he was (one could, though certainly to a lesser degree, claim something similar for all the figures to whom this site is devoted). At the same time, Green lauds Marable's serious interrogation of Malcolm's assassination as rather unique within the academic mainstream.
We also reprint here, for the first time since its original appearance fifteen years ago, James W. Douglass's masterful study of the last year of Malcolm's life, how it sealed his fate, and how law enforcement and intelligence agencies conspired to bring about his murder. Included are the two affidavits of Talmadge Hayer, the only assassin in the Malcolm X case to be apprehended.
For Joe's review of Manning Marable's biography, which we first published on the CTKA site, see:
For the long essay by James W. Douglass on Malcolm X, which first appeared in The Assassinations (ed. DiEugenio & Pease, 2003), see:
Finally, Talmadge Hayer's affidavits, also included in The Assassinations, are reproduced here:
It should be noted, however, that the statements made by Hayer with respect to Norman Butler may be questionable. Film footage which came to light subsequent to this article has revealed his presence (along with that of William Bradley) outside the Audubon Ballroom in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. See:
Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: An Introduction
by Joseph E. Green
I haven’t changed. I just see things on a broader scale. We nationalists used to think we were militant. We were just dogmatic. It didn’t bring us anything.1
~Malcolm X, February 25, 1964
Manning Marable’s final book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which went to press the same week he died, has left a complicated legacy. Part of the problem is that Malcolm X resists all categorization, a hurdle for academics whose primary method of understanding all history is categorization. He wasn’t a modern liberal the way we would typically understand a liberal; for most of his ideological life, he was a hardline separatist who attacked his enemies on the Right but maintained contempt for the Left. Malcolm never wanted to assimilate and he doesn’t, even in death. As one FBI document recorded:
The subject warned at this meeting, according to the newspaper article, that Negroes can expect little better treatment from President Kennedy than they get from Alabama Governor George C. Wallace. He characterized the two men as a wolf and a fox. “Neither one loves you,” he said. “The only difference is that the fox will eat you with a smile instead of a scowl.”2
(And yet all three men – Wallace, Kennedy, and Malcolm – would be shot, two fatally.)
For Marable, who founded the Institute of African-American Studies at Columbia University, there was an understandable onus to place Malcolm in a line of progressive American history leading up to the election of Barack Obama. However, this approach tames Malcolm and gives too much credit to Obama. It also drew intense criticism that resulted in one collection of rebuttal essays, A Lie of Reinvention, edited by Professor Jared Ball. But Marable was not the only person to view Obama through this lens. No less than Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale told me that he loved Obama because of his background as a community organizer.3 In his own way, Seale views him as a part of the Civil Rights history that both he and Malcolm X are important figures in.
However, the question remains: Would Malcolm X really have approved of Barack Obama? The idea seems dubious at best, a betrayal at worst. The big problem, of course, is that Malcolm X’s trajectory was interrupted by assassination. If Act One of his life was his experiences as Detroit Red, and Act Two his conversion in prison and later fame as Elijah Muhammad’s understudy, then Act Three would have been the fallout from his experience at Mecca. We know that he had undergone a powerful transformation, and had started to see and conduct himself as a citizen of the world. Alas, he was dead less than a year later; what would he have done given another twenty or thirty years? We’ll never know. But it’s safe to say, I think, that he would have never endorsed the assassination of Gadaffi or the murder of Libyans by drone. He would not have endorsed the neoliberal corporatization of our political parties. As he said, “If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her.”4
There is no doubt Marable took great liberties with Malcolm’s life. And although the man himself curated his own story, with the assistance of Alex Haley, it was his story to curate. Marable’s attempt to reinvent Malcolm in the progressive liberal image was doomed by dubious (or occasionally absent) sourcing, but also because it is an impossible task. For example, the writer Glen Ford argues:
Malcolm never did accept the notion of revolution as bloodless, nor did he recognize the fight against segregated public accommodations as revolutionary. But Marable tries to convince us that Malcolm must have contemplated a reformist political path in his mind, if not in practice. This is William Styron-style biography… [italics in the original]5
I agree with Ford that Marable is on shaky ground here. And yet there is value in Marable’s book, in my view, because it does something that academic books generally don’t do. It takes seriously the idea that Malcolm’s murder came about as a result of a conspiracy, and that the conspiracy was perpetrated by forces in our own government, and it goes further to name names, and explain why this was done.
Scholars of Manning Marable’s stature don’t do that. The fact that he did do it, and did it well, although not with the depth and intensity of Karl Evanzz in The Judas Factor, or Baba Zak Kondo in Conspiracys, has value in my opinion. It becomes part of the literary and historical record in a way that other works do not.
Now this does not sway everyone. I asked Professor Ball whether he thought that aspect of the book might have real benefits at a COPA conference, and he responded in the negative. If the book has such serious flaws in presentation and interpretation, in his view, then whatever good it might contain is invalidated. Professor Ball also criticizes what he sees as a weakness in Marable laying too much blame on the Nation of Islam:
…I think it’s the United States, it’s Western imperialism that were the greatest beneficiaries to Malcolm’s assassination, and as Malcolm said himself before he was killed, it was not the Nation of Islam that blocked him from going to France. It was not the Nation of Islam that could have the resources to follow him all around the world and tap all of his phones. So the state was highly involved and was the greatest beneficiary and that needs to be addressed because that apparatus is still intact and is still doing all of the things that Malcolm was trying to get us to eradicate…6
He is certainly right about the state. Malcolm X was murdered by forces within the United States government, and it falls within a pattern of other murders that is as identifiable as a serial killer’s motif. Professor Ball says Marable’s book soft-pedals this idea. I felt just the opposite, especially as he brings out the way one of Malcolm’s killers was able to escape justice for that and other crimes throughout his life, but that might be chalked up to differing expectations for such a book.
What I would say about Malcolm X – A Life of Reinvention, six years later, is that it should be read as part of a continuum of books and government documents necessary to help understand the complex figure of Malcolm X. The author may have been attempting to replace the Autobiography – although I don’t necessarily agree and find the notion problematic since Marable wasn’t around to be questioned about it – but in any case, the book clearly doesn’t do that. It is instead a flawed but significant chapter in the never-ending conversation about the Civil Rights era in its relation to the present. Indeed, far from being out of date, Malcolm’s words seem remarkably prescient and insightful regarding how to contend with, and combat, the forces of white supremacy that have given us our 45th President.
1. Breitman, George, ed. Malcolm X Speaks. New York: Grove Press, 1965 (213).
2. Carson, Clayborne. Malcolm X: The FBI File. New York: Ballatine Books, 1995 (227).
3. Green, Joseph. Dissenting Views II. San Antonio. Texas: Createspace, 2014 (206).
4. Speech by Malcolm X, November 1963, NYC.
5. Ford, Glen. “Dragging Malcolm X to Obamaland.” April 27, 2011. Accessed January 23, 2017. http://blackagendareport.com/content/dragging-malcolm-x-obamaland
6. Armah, Bomani. “Jared Ball Discussing His Book ‘A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X.’” May 7, 2013. Accessed January 23, 2017. https://notarapper.com/2013/05/06/jared-ball-discussing-his-book-a-lie-of-reinvention-correcting-manning-marables-malcolm-x/amp/?client=safari