‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ by Malcolm X, Alex Haley: A Review

The Autobiography of Malcolm XThe Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the greatest leaders of the 20th century and this is ‘his life in his own words’ as written by Alex Haley. The story of his transformation from a hustler in the streets of Harlem, Detroit Red to Malcolm X, a Minister of the Nation of Islam to finally, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz before he was brutally assassinated is exhilarating and inspiring.

The most illuminating chapter in the book is one in which Malcolm X describes the famous Civil Rights March to Washington on August 28, 1963. History books will tell you how a coalition of the ‘big six’, James Farmer, of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); John Lewis, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); A. Philip Randolph, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Whitney Young, Jr., of the National Urban League led a march to Washington with one of the major stated demands being the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation. Malcolm X explains that “the idea of a mass of blacks marching on Washington was originally the brainchild of Philip Randolph. For twenty or more years the March on Washington idea had floated around among blacks. And, spontaneously, suddenly now, that idea caught on.” It was “a national bitterness; militant, unorganized, and leaderless”. A nervous White House called on black civil rights leaders to stop the march. When the leaders responded that they had nothing to do with it, “the White House, with a fanfare of international publicity, ‘approved’,’endorsed’, and ‘welcomed’ a march on Washington”. He described it thus “any student of how ‘integration’ can weaken the black man’s movement was about to observe a master lesson…the original ‘angry’ March on Washington was now about to be entirely changed. Massive international publicity projected the ‘big six’ as march on Washington leaders. It was news to those angry grassroots blacks steadily adding steam to their march plans. They probably assumed that now those famous ‘leaders’ were endorsing and joining them. Invited next to join the march were four famous white public figures: one Catholic, one Jew, one Protestant, and one labor boss. The massive publicity now gently hinted that the ‘big ten’ would ‘supervise’ the march on
Washington’s ‘mood’, and its ‘direction’. The four white figures began nodding. The word spread fast among so-called ‘liberal’ Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and laborites: it was ‘democratic’ to join this black march. And suddenly, the previously march-nervous whites began announcing they were going. It was as if electrical current shot through the ranks of bourgeois [blacks]-the very so-called ‘middle-class’ and ‘upper-class’ who had earlier been deploring the march on Washington talk by grass-roots [blacks]. But white people, now, were going to march. Why, some downtrodden, jobless, hungry black might have gotten trampled. Those ‘integration’-mad blacks practically ran over each other trying to find out where to sign up. The ‘angry blacks’ march suddenly had been made chic. Suddenly it had a Kentucky Derby image. For the status-seeker, it was a status symbol. ‘Were you _there?’ You can hear that right today. It had become an outing, a picnic.”
Of course, today, we know the march as a pre-cursor to Martin Lutherking Jr’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Often called militant and violent, (still so, in some circles), he had a knack for communicating extremely complex race issues with the simplest of allegories or metaphors:”‘Conservatism’ in America’s politics means ‘Let’s keep the [blacks] in their place.’ And ‘liberalism’ means ‘Let’s keep the knee-grows in their place-but tell them we’ll treat them a little better; let’s fool them more, with more promises.’ With these choices, I felt that the American black man only needed to choose which one to be eaten by, the ‘liberal’ fox or the ‘conservative’ wolf-because both of them would eat him.”

What struck me about his character was an uncompromising stand when it comes to his principles and at the same time, a willingness to learn with an open mind. He was a hustler like no other, he spent his time in prison where he was exposed to the Elijah Muhammad’s ‘Nation of Islam’ and spread its message for 12 years in the USA. When he began to have doubts about Elijah Muhammad’s preachings, he borrowed money from his sister to travel to Mecca and then to several African countries made him realise the follies of absolute blind belief in any one human being. After coming back from Mecca, he explained that he had discovered true brotherhood and real Islam.

The greatest tragedy is as M.S. Handler describes in the Foreword, “‘Assassins” bullets ended Malcolm’s career before he was able to develop this new approach, which in essence recognized the [blacks] as an integral part of the American community-a far cry from Elijah Muhammad’s doctrine of separation. Malcolm had reached the midpoint in redefining his attitude to this country and the white-black relationship. He no longer inveighed against the United States but against a segment of the United States represented by overt white supremacists in the South and covert white supremacists in the North.”

If anything, mainstream history’s confused representation of Malcolm X while the outright confidence among both liberal and conservative whites and blacks in Martin Lutherking serves as a reminder of how history is always written by the victor.

“Anyway, now, each day I live as if I am already dead, and I tell you what I would like for you to do. When I am dead, I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form-I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with ‘hate’. He will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of ‘hatred’-and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race. You watch. I will be labeled as, at best, an ‘irresponsible’ black man. I have always felt about this accusation that the black ‘leader’ whom white men consider to be ‘responsible’ is invariably the black ‘leader’ who never gets any results. You only get action as a black man if you are regarded by the white man as ‘irresponsible’. In fact, this much I had learned when I was just a little boy.
And since I have been some kind of a ‘leader’ of black people here in the racist society of America, I have been more reassured each time the white man resisted me, or attacked me harder-because each time made me more certain that I was on the right track in the American black man’s best interests. The racist white man’s opposition automatically made me know that I did offer the black man something worthwhile. Yes, I have cherished my ‘demagogue’ role. I know that societies often have killed the people who have helped to change those societies. And if I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help to destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America-then, all of the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine.”

Brother Malcolm saw the truth like no other.

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