Fifty years after his assassination in New York’s Audubon Ballroom, the name Malcolm X remains synonymous with militancy and rage, with the angrier voice in the Civil Rights Movement. If Malcolm Little’s path to becoming Malcolm X and, before his death, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, is the hero’s journey, with all its epiphanies and tribulations, then Martin Luther King Jr. is the stranger who had come to town.
No two men could have been more different. Where X was accusatory and inflammatory, King was diplomatic and measured; where Malcolm was Icarus, flying close to the edge of violence, King was Amos, eroding racial inequality with Thoreau’s civil disobedience. Both men died as martyrs, but I’d like to offer a perspective in which both men were alike, why they were both ideological threats, and why both men remain relevant with one resonant message.
Malcolm X did the one thing that Americans claim to appreciate but seldom respect: he used blunt, direct speech. People will remember his “chickens coming home to roost” after JFK’s death, but forget that he spoke about the equally abhorrent and senseless murders of Medgar Evers, Patrice Lumumba, and the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing in the same sentence.
Malcolm X was angry, and Anger is easy to reject because it implies the irrational, whereas America could tolerate Outrage, if it is articulated within the framework of that familiar cultural touchstone, the Christian sermon, regardless of denomination. Like musicians, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. rang out their messages in two different keys. Where Martin appealed to the ideals of the New Testament, Malcolm invoked the punitive register of the Old Testament, which makes sense since Islam is a continuation of the Old Testament. Muslims consider themselves the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s half-brother. The irony is that Martin was optimistic, for he spoke to what America aspired to, but lacked the courage to embrace, whereas Malcolm X was a hardened realist, for he spoke about the streets as they were, as he knew them as a petty criminal, and as a citizen of these United States under Jim Crow.
As to how these two men were ideological threats, it is too simplistic to point to events and their biographies, but I think my point will be clear after a brief look at one American writer. I had said that Martin was the stranger who had come to town because he had a better sense of who he was as a person. Malcolm Little did not. He could easily have stood in as Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, an angry, confused man, whose anger and confusion are redirected under the auspices of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X could have been either Ellison’s riot provocateur Ras or the titular Invisible Man, but I’d suggest a different character altogether: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Abe North.
Tender is the Night is Gatsby revisited, with Dick Diver as Jay’s unlikely protégé. Doubt the comparison, then read this:
But to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect. Then, without caution, lest the first bloom of the relation wither, he opened the gate to his amusing world. So long as they subscribed to it completely, their happiness was his preoccupation, but at the first flicker of doubt as to its all-inclusiveness he evaporated before their eyes, leaving little communicable memory of what he had said or done.
Is that not Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island? My point is this: there is a section in the 1934 novel that I believe Fitzgerald wrote to both satirize and comment on racial violence in America. That Fitzgerald died in 1940 does not diminish his insight. In the novel, Nicole receives a call from the Parisian police. She is told: “We have arrested a Negro. We are convinced that we have at last arrested the correct Negro.” The police, in doing their job, do right wrong; they make a mistake and identify Abe North, a pianist, as ‘Afghan North.’
Fitzgerald, the pun on Abe for Abraham Lincoln notwithstanding, will also pun on the name ‘Mr. Freeman’ and add some humor when Abe tells Dick to look out for a Negro from Copenhagen who makes shoe polish. The tragedy is that Abe North wants to return to New York and he is murdered, beaten to death, outside a speakeasy. A dark comedic argument occurs after the murder because it is questioned whether a Negro like Abe could have been admitted into the speakeasy. It is a Negro’s blood on Nicole’s pillow that causes her crack-up. The horror of Abe’s violent death is negated for the sake of Nicole’s precarious state: “Look here, you mustn’t get upset over this—it’s only some nigger scrap.”
Malcolm and Martin were alike because both understood that there is no ‘correct’ Negro, so long as he or she questions the status quo, or tries, as Abe North did, to realize the ‘American Dream.’ James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner and Richard Wright can dramatize racism in America, but Fitzgerald did for American letters with Tender is the Night what Molière had done for comedic theatre and social critique three centuries earlier. Martin worked with the confines of legal and moral codes. Malcolm rejected both outright; and both approaches proved fatal.
Martin advocated for dignity and justice throughout his ministry. Malcolm campaigned for nationalism and separatism, often using provocative and polarizing rhetoric, because he had no hope for racial peace and equality in America. Like Joe Christmas and Bigger Thomas, he had seen too much: life was like a dubbed foreign film; the words do not jibe with the moving lips. It wasn’t until Malcolm had made the Hajj, after his break from the Nation of Islam in 1963, that he softened somewhat, for during that pilgrimage he had seen Muslims of all colors.
Why did Martin and Malcolm pose a threat? Why was their message metaphorical, relevant to all Americans? I don’t think that the threat they posed concerned race; rather it had to do with economics. In today’s circles, had Martin Luther King, Jr. continued his course unchanged, he would be called a socialist democrat. The direction that he was taking at the end of his life suggests that he envisioned an all-encompassing ministry for social justice. King was assassinated in Memphis, where he had gone not to speak about race again, but about the inequity in pay and about the rampant discrimination against striking sanitation workers, both black and white. His ministry sought to redress economic disparities among all Americans.
Martin believed in autonomy, yes, but Malcolm also called for economic independence. Through the Muhammad Speaks newsletter, which Elijah Muhammad had started in 1960, Black communities in major urban areas formed their own news services; but it was the militant groups that Malcolm had inspired that made self-defense and separatism a reality, for the Black Panther ‘survival programs’ provided free sickle-cell anemia testing, breakfasts for children, security for the elderly, health clinics and even veterinary services. With economic success, there is self-sufficiency, and Black self-determination would have no need for interdependence with White businesses, or America. Had Malcolm and Martin converged on the realization that though race was an issue, it is economics that is the greater lever for parity?
Malcolm died in 1965, probably murdered by men he knew and recognized in his final moments. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr met for all of one minute, just long enough for photographs. King died in 1968, taken down by a sniper’s bullet. Malcolm X’s death picture foreshadows Robert F. Kennedy’s. The photograph of the balcony at the Hotel Lorraine is iconic, with accusatory fingers pointing in the distance. Nobody knows how they would have matured into elder statesmen. Martin is not around to give his assessment of whether the Dream has been denied or deferred, fulfilled or coopted by opportunists. I wish that I could listen to Malcolm’s opinion on ISIL, who are, as he was, Sunni Muslims. By 1968, ‘Black’ had replaced ‘Negro’; the term African-American came into use later, at some uncertain date. I suspect that Malcolm would see the name-change as no different than corporate shell games and the con man’s skilled hand at distraction. He would remind us that we had been ‘hoodwinked’ and ‘bamboozled’.