“What I tried to say then, and will try to repeat now, is whatever hand pulled the trigger did not buy the bullet. That bullet was forged in the crucible of the West, that death was dictated by the most successful conspiracy in the history of the world, and its name is white supremacy.”
- James Baldwin, “No Name in the Street,” from The Price of the Ticket (510)
“In our time, Malcolm X stood on the threshold with the oppressor and the endorsed spokesmen in a bag that they could not get out of. Malcolm, implacable to the ultimate degree, held out to the Black masses the historical, stupendous victory of Black collective salvation and liberation from the chains of the oppressor and the treacherous embrace of the endorsed spokesmen. Only with the gun were the Black masses denied their victory.”
-Huey Newton, “In Defense of Self-Defense,” from To Die For the People (88)
“Such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.”
-Louis Farrakhan, in Muhammad Speaks, Dec. 4, 1964
“Do something about Malcolm X enough of this black violence in New York.”
-J. Edgar Hoover, telegram to the FBI New York office, June 5, 1964
WHO WAS MALCOLM X?
As permanent a fixture in American history as George Washington, brother Malcolm was a gangster, a thief, an inmate, a scholar, an orator, a demagogue, a revolutionary, a messenger of peace and a hero. He lacked formal education beyond the 9th grade but crossed swords with Arthur Schlesinger and William F. Buckley, knew and inspired Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, met with countless foreign dignitaries, and grew into a man whose words carried massive international historical impact. In our own time he is a powerful influence on popular culture, perhaps even moreso than Martin Luther King, often considered his counterpart although they only met once. He is forever associated with the Civil Rights movement, although unlike many of his contemporaries he was not, for most of his life, congenial to its aims. And he had a genius for communication, both in terms of his ability to select a phrase for maximum effect and in deploying his gifts of diction and inflection; he was the Mozart of the spoken word.
In his new book, the eminent founder of the African-American studies program at Columbia University, Manning Marable, attempts to decipher the contradictions and complexities of Malcolm X’s life and death. In a sad turn of events, Professor Marable died just as his book was released to the general public, meaning that this is truly his last word on the subject. It was a project that took him ten years to complete, with access to FBI files that have only been released during that period, and the resulting book has been worth the wait.
The author points out that Malcolm’s life has always been understood as being made up of discrete, ascending chapters. The legend begins with little Malcolm Little, son of a Garveyite father murdered by the Klan. Then comes his gangster phase, wearing a conk inspired by Latino ‘Zoot Suit’ gangs and adopting the name Detroit Red. Then his prison education – (“I’m proving to you that Jesus is black,” he tells the chaplain) – and conversion to the Nation of Islam. Afterward follows his career as the chief spokesperson of that organization (“the white race is the devil.”) Then, finally, his expulsion from the NOI and pilgrimage to Mecca, at which time he becomes an ambassador for a much broader revolution. Marable finds this all too facile, too comfortable, too shaped by the man himself in collaboration with Alex Haley. What results us a mass of detail as self-contradictory and complex as any of our own lives would be.
FATHER TO THE MAN
Of all the key events that “created” Malcolm X in the early years, the one that may have played the largest role is his own father’s death. The inherent lesson in the disparity of justice for black and white could not have been plainer. Of Earl Little’s death at a set of railroad tracks, there were two versions: one, the accepted story of the authorities, and two, the one transmitted by their victims. “The Lansing coroner ruled Earl’s death accidental, and the Lansing newspaper account presented the story that way as well. Yet the memories of Lansing blacks as set down in oral histories tell a different story, one that suggested foul play and the involvement of the Black Legion.” (31) The Black Legion were a Klan offshoot that wore black robes instead of white ones.
Another event that stained itself on Malcolm’s memory occurred once he had moved to New York. Struggling, but enchanted with the city, he found himself staying at the famous YMCA on west 135th in New York and washed dishes at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, where Charlie Parker had done the same a decade earlier. (49,51) It was during this period that a singular event took place in Harlem.
In 1943, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, known today for its association with “Peanuts” characters in friendly television commercials, brokered a deal to build a housing complex where the famous Savoy had stood in Harlem. The Savoy had been closed by a bogus campaign that blamed an explosion of venereal disease on prostitutes in the area. Met Life, with the agreement of Mayor LaGuardia, came forward with a plan to build a whites-only tenement. After much public outcry, it was determined that similar tenements in the future could not be segregated, but the Met Life tenement went on as planned. (57-58) Young Malcolm thus understood that racism in the North was every bit a structural component of everyday society as in the South. In some ways, things have not changed much to this day. One thinks of the Katrina situation, in which the Wall Street Journal immediately crowed how, after the terrible Katrina storm passed through Louisiana, natural disaster could provide an impetus for white businesses to move in.
Malcolm determined it made little sense to fight in a white war. He was designated 4-F, in one of the humorous anecdotes of his life, after he told military recruiters he couldn’t wait to join the army in order to “steal us some guns and kill crackers.” (59)
The final key event of his early life was, of course, being sent to prison. Under the tutelage of the Nation of Islam (NOI), writing letters directly to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, he educated himself and began to effectively channel his gifts. It should be noted that the Nation of Islam had the respect even of revolutionaries who did not share their religious views at the time. The most important influence on Huey Newton, Robert Williams, wrote positively of Elijah Muhammad in his seminal work Negroes with Guns (Williams, 74). For its part, there is no doubt that the NOI gave a tremendous focus to Malcolm and helped him understand the nature of American propaganda. In one of the most famous passages in modern American literature, the former Detroit Red looks up definitions of the words “white” and “black,” finding their connotations anything but neutral. “I could spend the rest of my life reading,” he reflected. “I don’t think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did.” (91)
Marable points out that Malcolm does not say that he ever perpetrated crime in Harlem, but the author finds this illogical. He feels that there is some revisionist history in Malcolm’s account. It’s not clear why Marable thinks this, except that Malcolm would have been struggling to make ends meet during this time and presumably it would have been easier to steal closer to home. Perhaps, but it’s unclear what his evidence would be. (61)
Marable also calls attention to the odd passage in the Autobiography detailing Malcolm’s friend Rudy, who tells a story about putting talcum powder on an old rich man for money, which causes the old man to reach climax. (Autobiography, 143) From this, the author concludes: “Based on circumstantial but strong evidence, Malcolm was probably describing his own homosexual encounters with [his white friend] Paul Lennon.” (66) One looks in vain, however, for Marable’s source for this conclusion, although presumably it comes from some of the interviews he undertook that inform the rest of the chapter. For myself, it would not matter at all whether he was gay or not; but for Marable to throw this comment into his book without further elucidation or sourcing is both bizarre and unfortunately reminiscent of JFK books that have sex as their main theme.
Malcolm wrote a letter to President Truman that arrived on June 29, 1950 in which he asserted that he was a Communist. Not coincidentally, the FBI began its monitoring of Malcolm X on that day. (95) Seven years later, Malcolm’s position had grown to the point that the FBI realized that if they could insert a split between him and Elijah Muhammad, they had a chance at driving a stake into the Nation. (140)
Marable’s key insight into the ultimately regressive nature of the Nation of Islam is in its position of separation: “The Nation found it difficult to make headway, largely because its appeal was apolitical; Elijah Muhammad’s resistance to involvement in political issues affecting blacks, and his opposition to NOI members registering to vote and become civically engaged, would have struck most Harlemites as self-defeating.”(109) Indeed, the NOI’s position is civically self-defeating by definition; non-involvement in political affairs is a means of draining one’s political power, not increasing it. There was always a tension between the NOI’s apolitical stance and Malcolm’s desire for change. His well-known August 10, 1957 speech, for example, is very early and yet sounds a bit like (a more militarized, to be sure) Martin Luther King in his alluding to “a full voting voice” and “equal rights struggle.” (133)
“The FBI never understood that the NOI did not seek the destruction of America’s legal and socioeconomic institutions; the Black Muslims were not radicals, but profound conservatives under Muhammad. They praised capitalism, so long as it served what they deemed blacks’ interests. Their fundamental mistake was their unshakable belief that whites as a group would never transcend their hatred of blacks.” (154)
Malcolm preached misogynistic attitudes frequently as a member of the Nation of Islam. (116) This continued to be a problem throughout his life, as he does not appear – at least in Marable’s account – to have been entirely successful as a husband and father. And with a little thought, one finds this plausible. Malcolm was on the road all the time, and serving in an institutional framework that sets powerful boundaries on women’s activities. It should not be surprising that Betty Shabazz, as Marable reports more than once, was often unhappy. However, Marable also reports that Shabazz was unfaithful to Malcolm, although the principal instigator of these stories is Louis Farrakhan, who has his own agenda(s) to promote. Farrakhan (then known as Louis Walcott) was a young man at the time and a Nation of Islam recruit. He claims to have modeled himself after Malcolm and refers to him as “the father I never had.” (114)
Nevertheless, it was never in the cards for Malcolm to have been a follower rather than a leader. One should remember that Elijah Muhammad was not merely the spiritual leader of the organization; he was also God. And, bearing this in mind, the Nation of Islam behaved like any similar monarchy in its obsession with bloodlines. This therefore made Malcolm not a candidate to take over the NOI, as many outsiders felt would be a natural progression. Marable notes: “…most members of the patriarch’s family rejected him as a potential heir apparent because he was not related by blood.” (118) This, of course, made Malcolm a rival – and, later a hated one – in Muhammad’s mini-fiefdom. Ironic that in an organization devoted to rising up against white power, that in large part it should duplicate some of the worst aspects of that power. This was certainly one factor playing into Malcolm’s eventual separation from the NOI. However, the main issue at hand was his incredible natural leadership.
Most people are familiar with the Reese Poe incident, vividly dramatized in the Spike Lee biopic on Malcolm. On April 26, 1957, a pair of police officers nearly beat Poe to death, before they were stopped by several hundred Harlemites, which by the time of Malcolm’s arrival had grown to several thousand. After marching to the police station, Malcolm signaled his power to the police by using hand signals to direct the crowd away in lockstep unison. In the film, Peter Boyle delivers the line (drawn from life): “No one man should have that much power.” (128) Marable correctly notes that this is the Origin Story, the beginning of Malcolm X as a public figure on the national, and later world, stage.
The NOI, and indeed Malcolm himself, made overtures to white racists. It came about, as Malcolm himself stated, that unlike dealing with Northern whites, there were “no illusions.” (138) They also, ironically, had the same goal: total segregation. As Marable points out, if you come from a framework in which racism will never be conquered and separation is the only means by which peace can be maintained, then there is a kind of devastating logic to the collusion. Marcus Garvey himself had made the same mistake – and Malcolm’s own father had been a Garveyite. The grouping of Nazis and NOI members never made practical sense, however, and the flirtation was short-lived. In 1961, the NOI did meet with George Lincoln Rockwell, who had been a mainstream conservative for a while, even working for William F. Buckley, but later turned into a deeply committed Nazi. Rockwell spoke of his admiration for the Elijah Muhammad in having, in effect, “cleaned up” the black population. (199)
THE SEPARATION INCREASES
Mike Wallace owes his career to the Nation of Islam; in 1956, he produced a short film called The Hate that Hate Produced, a tabloid, Bill O’Reilly-style piece about NOI racism against whites. Jack Gould of the New York Times dismissed it as journalism without a conscience, referring to the “…periodic tendency of Mike Wallace to pursue sensationalism.” This flies in the face of his later image as the Steadfast Seeker of Truths on 60 Minutes, the bastion of anti-sensationalism. “It gave him the break he needed,” writes Marable. (161-162) One thinks of Dan Rather, who became “the most trusted man in America” by breaking out as a cub reporter and lying about what he saw in the Zapruder film. However, as a practical matter, the film fueled white fear against black “extremists” and increased Malcolm’s public profile. He became a staple of television programs and did extraordinarily well on them.
Malcolm tended to destroy all comers; his unflappable presence, speaking voice, intelligence and command of the facts caused him, in debates, to crush the talking heads on television. However, he did meet his match in a debate against Bayard Rustin. Rustin simply pointed out that for all Malcolm’s rhetoric about changing political conditions for blacks, this could not happen as long as the NOI remained a political nonentity. The author feels (with good cause) that this resonated with Malcolm and was one of the propositions that caused him to doubt the NOI’s ultimate efficacy, contributing to the break. (177) Indeed, in later speeches comparing the police to an occupying force in black ghettoes, he unconsciously echoed Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. (187)
Publically, he continued to maintain disregard for the efforts of the Civil Rights movement, denouncing “the Farce on Washington” as having been co-opted by white liberals. (256) Marable calls his view on the events “a gross distortion of the facts” but this was a natural outgrowth of Malcolm’s perspective at the time. He could not accept that there was any level of sincerity on the part of Kennedy or other white liberals, nor could he appreciate the public relations coup it represented. The fact that white faces were interspersed with black faces on television during the March on Washington arguably did a great deal to get across the idea of the permanence of assimilation. For many, racial segregation would no longer be respectable or acceptable – a small victory, perhaps, but global change is measured in such small victories.
As with his later remarks about the Kennedy assassination, that “the chickens had come home to roost” (267), Malcolm made an error of judgment. In his defense, however, his position (given the historical background) made some sense in terms of realpolitik. And in both cases he may not have been 100% wrong. In the last analysis, however, Malcolm failed to recognize that in the first case (the March), it actually did provide a benefit to his people, and in the second case (JFK), his death truly was a blow to the people’s struggle. This time change, as Sam Cooke sang, really was coming.
Following the infamous “chickens” remark, Malcolm, as most people know, angered Elijah Muhammad for causing media trouble for the NOI. Muhammad silenced him indefinitely. Beyond this, of course, it also provided a ready excuse to rein in a powerful underling who had made himself potentially dangerous (in his mind, at least) to his power. “As the weeks lurched forward, the Nation boiled over with enmity toward Malcolm, spurred on by John Ali and Raymond Sharrief, who used their positions at the top of the NOI hierarchy to trigger a cascade of invective down through the ranks. Gross rumors of Malcolm’s disloyalty to Muhammad swept through the Nation…” (279) Malcolm’s imposed silence thus had the additional advantage of not allowing himself to respond to these rumors. There were several reasons for the NOI’s treatment of him: (1) Malcolm had discovered that Elijah Muhammad had been busy impregnating several of the Nation’s secretaries, including one of his old girlfriends; (2) as noted, many within the family monarchy, including Muhammad himself, grew concerned about the protégé’s massive public profile, and (3) the FBI had paying members of the NOI itself to stir up trouble.
There were several reasons for Malcolm’s eventual separation from the Nation of Islam and Marable goes through them in some detail. It seems clear that, for someone as intelligent as Malcolm, it must have begun to seem obvious that those beliefs which he held above all others could not be correct. Elijah Muhammad had committed moral wrongs, and now the Nation folded itself on him to protect his secrets, including firebombing his home. Malcolm had an extremely difficult and no doubt painful correction during this period, in which he was forced to renounce some of his prior public statements and make a public declaration of a change of heart and mind. Malcolm wrote in a letter to Alex Haley, on April 25, 1964: “I began to perceive that ‘white man,’ as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it describes attitudes and actions.” (310)
“For the first time, he publicly made the connection between racial oppression and capitalism, saying ‘It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism.’ Conversely, he noted, those who had a strong personal commitment to racial equality were usually ‘socialist or their political philosophy is socialist.’ What Malcolm seemed to be saying was that the Black Freedom Movement, which up to that point had focused on legal rights and legislative reforms, would ultimately have to take aim at America’s private enterprise system.” (336)
It was at this point that Malcolm X became one of the most dangerous men in America. His removal from the NOI, although it brought many hardships, freed him; he became a general ambassador to the oppressed world. He embodied resistance to the Genghis Khan morality of mass capitalism.
Malcolm decided to bring evidence of America’s racial crimes before a United Nations tribunal. FBI wiretaps recorded his plans and, recognizing their potential global impact, the FBI shared the information with the Department of Defense, military intelligence, and the CIA. (343) As Malcolm had embarked on a world tour of sorts, traveling to meet Castro in Cuba and with Saudi Arabian royalty, among others, the FBI followed him along every stop. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach sent a memo to J. Edgar Hoover suggesting at one point that Malcolm might be prosecuted under the “…Logan Act, which made it illegal for citizens to enter into unauthorized agreements with foreign governments.” (366) In a sense this underscores the incredible nature of Malcolm’s personal stature – greeted as a foreign dignitary at every spot, and tracked by a U.S. government that recognizes his extreme level of threat, despite his lack of resources. This in spite of the fact that, as the author points out, they were well aware that he had come to a “…spiritual epiphany in Mecca, [broken] with the Nation, and even [made] overtures to the Civil Rights movement.” (373)
His movement away from his former views even distressed his new followers in the newly created MMI (Muslim Mosque, Inc.) and OAAU (Organization of Afro-American Unity). When Malcolm, after returning from Mecca, talked about equality for women, members of his own group grew confused and even angry. (374) “Yet in other ways Malcolm had become more tolerant. He announced his new views about interracial romance and marriage: ‘How can anyone be against love? Whoever a person wants to love, that’s their business.” (386) A remarkable statement for someone who had declined association with anyone white, in principle, just a few years before.
Unfortunately, without the organizational structure of the NOI, Malcolm found himself surrounded by volunteers, friends of friends, and loose associates. This was a ripe opportunity for infiltration, and the government made the most of it.
“The most important police operative inside the MMI and OAAU was Gene Roberts. A four-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, Roberts was admitted to the NYPD academy…By late 1964 Roberts had become an integral member of the MMI security team, standing guard at public events as one of Malcolm’s bodyguards…Through Roberts, all of MMI’s and OAAU’s major decisions and plans would be promptly revealed to the NYPD.” (422)
Like John Kennedy, Malcolm eventually found himself surrounded by powerful enemies capable of guaranteeing his death.
“Finally , the convergence of interests between law enforcement, national security institutions, and the Nation of Islam undoubtedly made Malcolm’s murder easy to carry out. Both the FBI and BOSS placed informants inside the OAAU, MMI, and the NOI, making all three organizations virtual rats’ nests of conflicting loyalties. John Ali was named by several parties as an FBI informant, and there is good reason to believe that both [Malcolm associates] James Shabazz of Newark and Captain Joseph fed information to their local police departments as well as the FBI…the CIA had kept up surveillance of Malcolm throughout his Middle Eastern and African travels.” (424)
|Malcolm X after shooting.|
Although Marable does not definitively point the finger at government agency, he does point out that the FBI continues to refuse to reveal “thousands of pages of evidence connected with the crime.” What national security object would be threatened by revealing such evidence, from 1965, is unknown.
Marable goes further than most academics in the direction of conspiracy, but we might be able to go still further. To the well-traversed political researcher, the assassination of Malcolm X has the morphology of a government hit. That is to say, the duck both walks and quacks.
Researchers are familiar with the details in other assassinations. Let’s run through them briefly:
JFK – The car rode without a bubble top, and the secret service men (who had been out drinking all night) were ordered off riding on the car’s running boards. (There is video evidence showing this.) As Fletcher Prouty pointed out, the hairpin turn and open windows would never have normally been allowed for a presidential motorcade.
RFK – Kennedy was led away from his security team at the main door due to a last-minute change of plans which caused him to go through the kitchen pantry in a huge crowd of people.
Fred Hampton – Hampton’s friend and treasurer is an FBI informant who puts drugs in his coffee to ensure that Hampton is asleep when is murdered by Chicago police.
9/11 – 9/11? Yes, 9/11:
“Captain Charles Leidig, the Deputy for Command Center Operations at the NMCC, takes over temporarily from Brigadier General Montague Winfield and is effectively in charge of the NMCC during the 9/11 crisis. Winfield had requested the previous day that Leidig stand in for him on September 11. Leidig had started his role as Deputy for Command Center Operations two months earlier and had qualified to stand in for Winfield just the previous month. Leidig remains in charge from a few minutes before the 9/11 crisis begins until about 10:30 A.M., after the last hijacked plane crashes. He presides over an important crisis response teleconference that has a very slow start, not even beginning until 9:39 A.M.” (Thompson, 364)
Now, having said all this, can we guess what happened at the Audubon the day Malcolm was murdered? Marable tells us: “The principal rostrum guards that afternoon were Charles X Blackwell and Robert 35X Smith, unusual choices as they did not usually serve in this role and had little experience guarding Malcolm.” (436) His normal, more experienced security people were out of the area.
On the day Malcolm gave his talk, just as he was getting started, a commotion broke out in the audience. The commotion had been staged to draw the attention of security, which it did. FBI man Gene Roberts was also in the room, toward the rear, and approached after the argument broke out. After this diverted the security guards, another distraction occurred in the form of a smoke bomb near the entrance to the building. Taking this as his cue, Willie Bradley stood up and shot Malcolm in the chest with a hand-held shotgun. Once this happened, two other men – Talmadge Hayer and Leon X Davis – came forward with pistols and emptied them into him as well. Bradley took off down a side door to make his escape, while the latter two instead tried to run out the main entrance, which meant they had to run all the way back from the stage through the people, smoke, and confusion. Hayer was shot, and then beaten up by several followers as the other men escaped.
Both police and emergency services behaved appallingly on the day.
“Although one of the city’s major medical centers was only several blocks away, no ambulance arrived from the Audubon, which is why Malcolm’s own men had to run to the emergency room to pick up a gurney…MMI and OAAU members were outraged when the police finally showed up. ‘Their appearance was so ridiculously late,’ Mitchell recalled, ‘that one tearful woman yelled and waved them aside, saying, ‘Don’t hurry; come tomorrow!’” (441)
The police conducted a leisurely investigation, with some officers literally with “their hands in their pockets.” For the rank and file, this was simply a case of a black man who had overstepped his bounds and had been asking to be killed, and brought to bear all the seriousness to which they normally investigated a gang shooting in a black neighborhood. For those in positions of authority within the police structure, more sinister activity had taken place. James 67X, an associate of Malcolm, had left the scene after the shooting and returned soon after. He found himself being asked why he left by the police. “…’How do they know that I left?...They must have photographed the whole thing.’ Days later the police showed him ‘a seating plan…where everybody was seated in the Audubon Ballroom.’” (443-444)
“For the detectives working the case, too many facts didn’t make sense. The request from Malcolm’s team that the usual police detail be pulled back several blocks from the Audubon seemed strange, as did the police’s agreement to do so in light of the recent firebombing. The detectives were also suspicious when they learned that nearly all the MMI and OAAU security had been unarmed and that none of the audience had been checked for weapons.” (445)
However, none of this is as unbelievable as what happened that evening. Malcolm was killed at approximately three in the afternoon. Police arrived late, but nevertheless did eventually show up at the scene. However, no forensic examination was ever performed. The Audubon was a recital hall, after all, and there was a dance scheduled for seven that evening. In one of the more astonishing turn of events from all of the terrible history of the assassinations of the 1960s, the police agreed to leave the scene and allow cleaning people to take over by six. The George Washington Birthday Party went off as planned. (445) Four hours after Malcolm X was murdered, people were dancing in the very same hall.
The FBI had “at least five undercover informants [in the ballroom] at the time of the shooting.” (445) We will never how many really were in there, of course, but based on the released documents and interviews this was the number Marable came up with. These included Charles Kenyatta, who “cashed in one his political kinship with Malcolm for decades” (467) and Benjamin 2X Goodman (468). He notes:
“The NYPD had two priorities in conducting its investigation: first, to protect the identities of its undercover police officers and informants, like Gene Roberts; and second, to make successful cases against NOI members with histories of violence. Its hasty and haphazard treatment of forensic evidence at the crime scene suggested that it had little interest in solving the actual homicide.” (451)
The media also had little interest in pursuing the facts. As with other high-profile assassinations in the 1960s, the major media immediately began a propaganda campaign in support of the state-approved version of events. Marable quotes several national publications on their reactions. The New York Times editorial characterized Malcolm as having used his “many true gifts to evil purpose” and blamed his own “exaltation of fanaticism” as leading to his own death. Henry Luce’s CIA-endorsing TIME Magazine went further, taking a similar line in blaming Malcolm for causing his own death, but then also invented a story in which “characteristically [Malcolm] had kept his followers waiting for nearly an hour while he lingered over tea and a banana split at a nearby Harlem restaurant.” Malcolm, a fastidious and militarily precise man, is thus made ridiculous in playing on the stereotype of the “lazy Negro” to its white, comfortably racist audience. (454-455) For his part, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad made a public statement: “Malcolm was a hypocrite who got what he was preaching.” (461) White America seemed to agree.
As noted, one of the assassins had been captured and beaten by the crowd. He eventually faced trial along with two other former Nation of Islam members, selected seemingly at random by police.
“The prosecution’s star witness was Cary 2X Thomas (also known as Abdul Malik). Born in New York City in 1930, by his mid-twenties he had become a heroin addict and narcotics dealer. For years he was in and out of jail on drug charges, and in early 1963 was assigned to Bellevue Hospital after a nervous breakdown. In December of that year he joined Mosque No. 7, but soon left, siding with Malcolm in the split. Thomas’s extremely short tenure in the Nation meant that he knew relatively little about the organization, or the reasons for Malcolm’s separation. After detectives interviewed him, the district attorney’s office decided to arrest him as a material witness. For almost a year he was held in protective custody. On one occasion, highly disturbed, he set fire to his jail mattress.” (463)
Shades of the state retaining Marina Oswald for months, or the embarrassing key witness in the James Earl Ray assassination, a man so drunk he was unconscious at the time of the assassination.
Unfortunately, Cary 2X Thomas misidentified the shooter, and claimed to have seen the other two people (Johnson and Butler) at the scene of the murder, despite the fact we know they were not involved. During the court proceedings, Talmadge Hayer himself announced that Johnson and Butler were definitively not involved. Unfazed, the judge continued with the trial. Then Betty Shabazz took the stand. As she was leaving, she pointed at all three men and screamed, “They killed him!” Defense requested a mistrial, which was denied. The three men were convicted. (465)
Perhaps the most incredible part of this story concerns Willie Bradley, the man who actually fired the first, killing shot against Malcolm X. He continued his life as a petty criminal afterward, but was arrested for bank robbery in 1968. Marable tells the story:
“On April 11, 1968, the Livingston National Bank of Livingston, New Jersey, was robbed by three masked men brandishing three handguns and one sawed-off shotgun. They escaped with over $12,500. The following year Bradley and a second man, James Moore, were charged with the bank robbery and were brought to trial. Bradley, however, received privileged treatment, and he retained his own attorney separate from Moore. The charges against him were ultimately dismissed; meanwhile, after a first trial ending in a hung jury, Moore was convicted in a second trial.
Bradley’s special treatment by the criminal justice system in 1969-1970 raises the question of whether he was an FBI informant, either after the assassination of Malcolm X or very possibly even before. It would perhaps explain why Bradley took a different exit from the murder scene than the two other shooters, shielding him from the crowd’s retaliation. It suggests that Bradley and possibly other Newark mosque members may have actively collaborated on the shooting with local law enforcement and/or the FBI.” (475)
It most certainly does, and it is very good of Dr. Marable to address the issue in his otherwise highly academically respectable book.
There are many fascinating details and side stories to follow in the tangle of Malcolm’s life and murder. The weblike structure of personalities and events will also be familiar to those who have done research into the other major assassinations, and I am unable to chase them all in the course of this review. The reader is directed to Marable himself, whose book, for all its flaws, is a major entry into the field to be sourced and argued with for years. It’s a shame that Marable himself will not be around for those discussions. One thing, beyond everything, seems clear: The existing power structure had no use for post-Mecca Malcolm X. A dismissible ideologue, dangerous but containable, became a genuine threat to capitalism itself, which deals with such people as white blood cells do a virus.
Malcolm had been in an almost constant state of transformation – indeed, his rise from Detroit Red to unofficial ambassador to the revolutionary is as outsized as myth. Marable calls its ‘reinvention’ and asserts that some of this myth was self-created. Perhaps, in the sense that all of us, consciously or unconsciously, invents or assembles a persona for ourselves. And yet the major events of his life all unquestionably happened; his public statements provide a record of his evolution.
The real tension exists in one simple fact: Malcolm’s story is one of the great human stories, but it is not one of the great American stories. This is not Horatio Alger, Benjamin Franklin, or even John Galt. His success as a human being is not measured in terms of wealth or prestige. It is measured in moral terms. His was not a life to be evaluated within the basic assumptions of mass capitalism. He cannot be reduced to a postage stamp or a children’s book. In his final days, Malcolm recognized that this is a worldwide struggle of the people versus mass capitalism, which was out of control in 1965 and now out-Orwells Orwell. This marked him for death in our society. It also made him one of the great figures of world history. If we ever figure out why this is true, we might have a chance at social transformation – a reinvention, as Manning Marable puts it.
Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 (St. Martin’s Press: New York 1985).
Breitman, George, ed. Malcolm X Speaks (Grove Press: 1965).
Friedly, Michael. Malcolm X: The Assassination (Carroll & Graf: New York 1992).
Haley, Alex, and Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Ballantine Books: New York 1989).
Marable, Manning. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking: New York 2011).
Thompson, Paul. The Terror Timeline (Regan Books: New York 2004).
West, Cornel. The Cornel West Reader (Basic Civitas Books: New York 1999).
Williams, Robert. Negroes with Guns (Wayne State University Press: Detroit 1998).