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Pete Willows
May 8, 2011
Word count: 1247

Manning Marable. Malcolm X: a life of reinvention. Viking Press. 2011. Pp. 608. ISBN-13: 978-

The 1965 assassination of Malcolm X was different from the killings of other American

leaders of that era. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy were killed

by lone gunmen whom struggled with emotional disorders, and had no professional involvement

with their targets. Malcolm X was killed by three shooters—some say there were more—and by

members of the organisation that had both made him and later expelled him, The Nation of


Malcolm’s trajectory was remarkable. He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska

in 1925, which was a time of legislated race segregation in the United States. Even though his

family moved to the more racially tolerant north, Detroit, their house was fire-bombed and

Malcolm’s father died a violent death with suspicious details. Malcolm’s mother attempted to

maintain a cohesive family, but was eventually institutionalised for mental illness.

Malcolm never finished high school. When he expressed interest in becoming a lawyer,

one of his teachers suggested he pursue a vocation “better suited for a nigger.” These lessons in

humility and degradation, perhaps, were the propellant behind his anti-social behaviours.

Malcolm relocated to Boston and New York, where he went by the name, Detroit Red, as a

reference to his red hair. As Detroit Red, he became a petty thief, drug dealer, pimp and a

cocaine addict, who wore zoot suits and conked his hair.

Malcolm’s crime spree continued, and he was incarcerated in 1946 for a series of home

burglaries. It was during his time in prison that Malcolm began to read extensively, and also

when he discovered the Black American nationalist group, The Nation of Islam (NOI). Malcolm

was paroled in 1952, and left prison to enter a new phase of his life as a member in the NOI.

Malcolm’s rise in the NOI was meteoric. But the NOI was not an Islamic organisation in

the sense that the name would imply. The book’s author, Manning Marable, is casual about this

fact at times, by merely saying there were differences between the NOI and orthodox Islam. This

intimates the NOI was merely another sect of Islam, like the Sufi, Shi’ah or Wahhabi divisions.

It was not.

The NOI was founded by the mysterious Wallace D. Fard in 1930 Detroit. Fard, a

convicted drug dealer who served time in San Quentin, preached a weird belief-system that

professed racial segregation, with the Black African as the superior race, and the white man as

the ‘blue-eyed devil’. There are space ships involved. After Fard’s 1934 disappearance, Elijah

Muhammad took over the NOI and ran the organisation before and during Malcolm’s tenure, and

for a decade further after Malcolm’s death.

Malcolm, a reformed criminal in 1952, found in the NOI a discipline that suited him. It

was also when he took the surname, X, as a way of shirking his ‘slave name’, Little. He excelled

as a charismatic, bold and eloquent leader in the organisation. Malcolm responded positively to

the strict lifestyle of abstaining from alcohol, adopting conservative dress, and speaking and

behaving in a well-mannered way.

The NOI attracted the disaffected: ghetto, penitentiary and working-class Black

Americans, or what Malcolm referred to as ‘field slaves’. He preached violence as a response to


violence at a time of overt racial hatred and systemic oppression in American history. Malcolm

was a sort of foil to Martin Luther King Jr., whom preached non-violence and civil disobedience,

with hopes for racial integration. King attracted Black American followers from the petite

bourgeoisie and the entertainment industry, or the ‘house slaves’ as Malcolm referred to them.

But the NOI did more than attract and mobilise militant Black Americans, it also

attracted the interest of federal agencies and local law enforcement. The FBI infiltrated the NOI,

ran informants and set up wiretaps to monitor activities. A secret detachment within the NYPD

did likewise. The CIA joined in the surveillance when Malcolm travelled overseas.

Malcolm’s personal, professional and intellectual development did not plateau as he

became a full-time minister within the NOI. He visited North Africa in 1959 as an emissary on

behalf of the organisation’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, meeting with Anwar Sadat in Cairo, and

with further travels in sub-Saharan Africa. It was at this time when Malcolm became aware of

the salient incompatibility between the NOI’s belief system and Islam—this awakening

engendered intellectual and spiritual momentum that could not be stopped.

By the time Malcolm went back to Africa and Arabia, in early 1964, he had announced

his break from the NOI. Author Marable tells us, Malcolm had been expelled from the NOI by

his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, whom Malcolm had been criticising for an embarrassing,

extensive and unstoppable extra-marital affair situation, and too, for siring multiple children out

of wedlock. The NOI, by this time, appeared to Malcolm as little more than a pyramid scheme

teeming with thugs and informants. Additionally, Malcolm saw the NOI as having little in

common with Islam, a religion toward which, Malcolm had been drifting since his 1959 visit


Malcolm formed his own group, Muslim Mosque Inc.—his break from the NOI,

acrimonious—the NOI’s pipe squads were turned loose on Malcolm and his family in

retribution. Threatening phone calls came late at night to his home. Armed thugs packed into

sedans swerved across traffic, in brutal attempts to run him off the road. And the house he lived

in with his wife and children was fire-bombed. That fire-bombing, the second in Malcolm’s life,

was an ironic parallel to the intimidation tactics he had experienced in his youth from angry,

volatile White Supremacist groups.

Malcolm was back in Cairo by the spring of 1964, immersed in Islamic culture, and

visiting at the high seat of Sunni Islam, al-Azhar University. He was interviewed by, and

published articles in, The Egyptian Gazette that same year; his by-lines include, Racism: the

cancer that is destroying America [August 25, 1964], and Zionist Logic [September 17, 1964].

He was treated like a movie star in Alexandria, his distinctive look easily recognised, as he

strode along the Corniche—his photo having been splashed across local broadsheets.

But Malcolm did more than sign autographs while overseas. He completed the hajj, and

stayed as a guest of the Saudi royal family in the Arabian Peninsula. He was awarded full

credentials as a Sunni Muslim, by the governing Islamic body in Cairo. He met with leaders

across sub-Saharan Africa, where he was treated with respect and dignity.

By the end of 1964, Malcolm was back in the United States, and ensconced in his

epiphanic vision of racial harmony and integration through Islamic unity. Malcolm had taken yet

another name, Hajj Malik al-Shabazz, to reflect the new station in life he had arrived at. Only a

few months later, he was killed by shotgun blasts and small arms fire, while delivering his

message in front of his wife, children and followers at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.

Malcolm’s autobiography, co-written with Alex Haley, was released after Malcolm’s

death in 1965, and sold millions of copies. That autobiography was required reading in many

universities’ Black Studies departments, when I went attended college in America in the 1980s.

A resurgence of interest followed the 1992 Spike Lee movie, Malcolm X, which starred Denzel

Washington as Malcolm and Angela Bassett as his wife, Betty Shabazz. The United States Postal

Service issued a stamp in Malcolm’s honour, in 1999. With this comprehensively researched

biography, Malcolm’s story has endured into yet another decade.

• Willows is a contributing writer to The Egyptian Gazette and its weekly edition, The
Egyptian Mail. He studied at the American University in Cairo, and now lives in Toronto.
He can be reached at