In late April 1962 Los Angeles police shot and killed an unarmed black man, Ronald X Stokes, during a disturbance outside a Nation of Islam temple. Malcolm X, then the second most powerful figure in the NOI, rushed to the city. At a rally he told protesters: ‘You’re brutalized because you’re black, and when they lay a club on the side of your head, they do not ask your religion. You’re black, that’s enough.’ Sound familiar?
The Dead Are Arising, a new biography of Malcolm X, is timely. But perhaps this sobering book’s clearest message is that it will always be timely, because the story it narrates is timeless. In 1964 it would be Harlem, in 1965 Watts, in 1967 Detroit. Today, it’s Minneapolis and Louisville.
He may not have used the phrase, but Malcolm X was one of the innovators of concepts such as systemic racism. In contrast to his great rival Martin Luther King, Malcolm preached a gospel of separation, not integration, because he didn’t feel that white America would ever give blacks a fair chance. This wasn’t simply a southern problem but a national one, and it’s telling that Malcolm was born and raised in northern states such as Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan. ‘Mississippi,’ he once declared, ‘is anywhere south of the Canadian border.’
Bracing, perhaps — but such an outlook stemmed from all that African Americans endured. The system seemed rigged because it was rigged, not just in subtle, systemic ways but in the frequent, blunt application of physical violence and economic force: ‘The hate that hate produced,’ to go by the title of a 1959 television documentary on black radicalism that featured Malcolm and the NOI, and that about gets it right. This doesn’t excuse the hate, but it does explain it.
The young Malcolm Little, born in 1925 when the Ku Klux Klan was at its full might, was a difficult child. He was clearly different, more intelligent but also more wayward than any of his six siblings, and all through adolescence he had trouble with the law. After moving to Boston at the age of 20, the small-time crook graduated into a full-time thief. He was arrested, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Prison breeds revolutionaries, and so it was for Malcolm Little. With nothing else to do, he read voraciously and eclectically, everything from sociology to Shakespeare. He was also introduced to the writings of the NOI, an eccentric amalgam of Protestantism and Islam that divided the races as stringently as any white supremacist. NOI doctrine held that all whites were ‘devils’, that racial harmony was a delusion, and that blacks had every right to defend themselves.
These hard-edged views made sense to Malcolm, and after being released on parole he quickly established himself as the rising star of this more radical wing of the black rights struggle. The hoodlum Malcolm Little dropped his ‘slave surname’ and became the upright and forthright Malcolm X.
Les and Tamara Payne are especially good in detailing these early years of delinquency and rebirth. Like Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Johnson, The Dead Are Arising delves deeply into the wider context of Malcolm’s world, sometimes leaving Malcolm himself on the sidelines. The book shows better than any previous biography the extent to which the NOI’s outlook was rooted in Marcus Garvey’s ‘Back to Africa’ movement of the 1920s. Malcolm’s parents had worked for Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and Malcolm was a natural heir to this tradition of black power.
Garvey believed in racial separation so fervently that in 1922 he held a secret meeting with the KKK to discuss how to make it happen. The meeting went nowhere, but it set a precedent for Malcolm’s own clandestine meeting with the Klan 40 years later. Malcolm was uneasy about sitting down with white supremacists, but he’d been ordered to do so by ‘the Messenger’ Elijah Muhammad, the NOI’s spiritual leader and chief executive. The encounter, covered in a riveting 63-page chapter that’s based on a wealth of new evidence, is the Paynes’ showstopper.
It was probably inevitable that Malcolm would have a falling out with Elijah Muhammad and the NOI establishment, which ultimately ended in Malcolm’s assassination in February 1965. But his more enduring rivalry, one that continues to shape African American identity, was with King. One was a voice of peace and integration, the other a voice of resistance and separatism; both wanted justice, but Malcolm vowed to get it ‘by any means necessary’. Both were assassinated, though ironically King was gunned down by a white man and Malcolm by fellow black radicals. Perhaps fittingly, though tragically, not long before they died they had each come to appreciate the other’s point of view. This potential synthesis of ‘Martin and Malcolm’ has provided the civil rights movement’s elusive lodestar ever since.