The life and times of Malcolm X: new reflections

Developing Just Leadership

J A Progler

Shawwal 19, 1418 1998-02-16


by J A Progler (Features, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 24, Shawwal, 1418)

A key document for understanding Malcolm X is his Autobiography, published posthumously by Alex Haley. The Autobiography highlights the changes Malcolm went through during his life while also maintaining several consistent concerns. However, despite its usefulness, this document needs to be viewed in the context in which it was produced.

At that period in his life, Malcolm was being subjected to pressures on various fronts, and it is possible that he filtered the kinds of things he revealed to Haley (not to mention what Haley might have filtered; ongoing studies of his recently released papers should be instructive). This is less so perhaps in his early life history, but regarding the last years, the Autobiography needs to be read along with other works.

Clayborne Carson, in his book on the FBI’s Malcolm X files, points out that using only the Autobiography is limiting in certain ways - especially in charting Malcolm’s political growth. Carson offers the FBI files as a way to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, Carson also falls into tunnel vision, and his commentary is brief without much interpretation.

To understand the complexities of Malcolm X, the reader needs to supplement works like Haley and Carson with a broad selection of speeches (taking note of growth as well as consistency), accounts by contemporaries (for example, Remembering Malcolm by his close associate Benjamin Karim), and additional government files (such as used by Karl Evanzz in The Judas Factor), including those from the FBI and CIA.

In Carson’s FBI Files, one finds mostly descriptive memos, informant reports, and reprints from various media sources. There are very few prescriptive memos - the only major ones are requests to determine if Malcolm was violating the Logan Act and if he could be considered as an agent for a foreign State. From this collection alone, one is left with the picture that the FBI had interest in keeping tabs on Malcolm X, but didn’t implement any counter intelligence programs (COINTELPRO) against him.

However, in Evanzz’s Judas Factor, an entirely different picture emerges. Evanzz makes use of two FBI files on Malcolm - the HQ (Headquarters file) and the Public file. Carson doesn’t make a distinction between the two, but from the several cases in which it is possible to match one of Evanzz’s references to one of the documents reprinted in Carson, it appears that Carson was using the HQ file. In addition to the HQ file, Evanzz uses FBI files on several other figures and organizations, as well as CIA files.

Carson doesn’t discuss the files he used, except to say that he deleted repetitive items, and some media items. While there are several references in Evanzz from the HQ files which are not found in Carson, Evanzz only gives excerpts from these files, where as Carson gives the entire file.

Additional sources suggest that the US government was involved in a more direct way against Malcolm than is implied by the files Carson reproduces. >From works like Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall’s collections and discussions of government intelligence (e.g. The COINTELPRO Papers, or Agents of Repression), it is not hard to see that the FBI was engaged in major operations against the various Black Liberation movements. Reading Evanzz, one gathers that this was the case with Malcolm, whereas Carson implies that the FBI was undecided as to what to do with him. This latter view is also found in Karim, who suggests that the government didn’t know how to deal with Malcolm, so the FBI just kept a file.

In the Autobiography, there are instances in which Malcolm notes that he is being followed overseas (at one point he even confronts someone who was following him in Africa), implying CIA action (this is also alluded to in the incident in which he was barred from entering France in 1964). Malcolm also notes that the Nation of Islam was not capable of some of the things that happened to him during the last few months of his life. This suggests that there were COINTELPRO actions against him, and that several agencies may have worked in cahoots, giving further creedence to Evanzz’s sources.

Much of this documentation misses the personal attributes of Malcolm X, such as his honesty and dedication, his consistent moral stance in various contexts, and his struggle for human dignity. And despite his political rethinking, there is a continuity in these moral aspects that got buried under various political analyses. Malcolm’s moral stances and struggles for human dignity are closely related to his acceptance of Islam.

The Hajj is a mystical experience at a sacred place, rich in all its imaginal dimensions, and it is prepared for throughout one’s life. So to say, as many have (including a lot of Muslims; the Spike Lee film also treats the Hajj in this way), that Malcolm changed suddenly in Makkah is an over simplification. Certainly, the Hajj helped to reinforce and deepen some strong moral and ethical values that he had already been considering.

During the last two to three years of his life, according to Benjamin Karim, Malcolm began to distance himself from some of the more fantastic and racist teachings of Elijah Muhammad, focusing instead on historical and moral issues. Karim recalls that Malcolm began using the Qur’an as a book of moral and ethical guidance. What is impressive is not simply that he had a sudden mystical experience on Hajj, but that an individual who had developed a high regard for moral and ethical issues as they intertwine with justice and human dignity was attracted to Islam. In other words, his life’s journey led him to Islam. This important point gets overlooked by the various Malcolm X enthusiasts.

For example, it has been often noted how the Black Panther Party (BPP) was strongly influenced by Malcolm X’s Black Nationalism. But former members of the BPP, many of whom have since become Muslims, recall that there was a basic contradiction in BPP ideology. The BPP guidelines warned members to not smoke marijuana while doing party business (suggesting that while not doing party business, one can party out).

Others recall that BPP men had reputation for womanizing. Malcolm would not have endorsed either of these practices, though he would probably support the BPP’s social programs. Various nationalists and socialists who have appropriated Malcolm have missed a key issue - his strong sense of ethics and his struggle for moral righteousness. This is why he was attracted to Islam as a religion, and why he was opposed to the moral (and financial) corruption that had corroded the Nation of Islam.

The relationship between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King deserves careful study. Both had been targeted for COINTELPRO actions, and both had large groups of followers - Malcolm in the Northern cities and King in the South. The thought of their cooperation must have been perceived as a ‘nightmare scenario’ by the US government. It is clear from the documentary evidence that they were coming together on some very basic issues - Malcolm had renounced racism but still supported self defense, while King began to question his non-violence tactics. By 1963, King and the non-violence movement began defying the police into committing brutalities in open view, and he also began to more forcibly demand reforms. King’s later methods provoked conflict, but the current official homages and interpretations of non-violence generally ignore this.

With February 21st being the 33rd anniversary of the martydom of Malcom X, and with the Hajj season approaching, it is useful to recall aspects of his later life, when he entered the fold of Islam. El Hajj Malik El Shabazz Malcolm X, as his full name attests, is a complex figure. Part of the complexity is due to a series of changes which he underwent, while another part is due to how he has been treated by historians and activists.

Whatever the point of view, perhaps people are too close to him in time to realize his full impact. Perhaps in 50 or 100 years Malcolm X will be recognized as the single most important individual in the struggle for Black freedom, and perhaps even the most important figure of the 20th century in the struggle for human rights and dignity.

Muslimedia: February 16-28, 1998

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