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Malcolm X Revisited
Examining the life and autobiography of the civil rights leader.

by S.E. Shepherd
July 26, 2001

Malcolm X Revisited_S.E. Shepherd-Examining the life and autobiography of the civil rights leader. Growing up in white suburbia during the 70’s, I was aware of the struggles of the Civil Rights movement and the triumphs and tragedy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In school, we were taught that white people in the South treated black people very badly and unfairly. Dr. King began a movement in the 50’s to end these unfair practices, and on the fringes of this movement was an angry radical named Malcolm X.

Malcolm X was portrayed as a sort of anti-King; where King proclaimed the need for all races to unite as brothers and sisters, Malcolm X was preaching separatism, anger, and, if necessary, violence against the white people. As a young boy, the impression I received from old video clips was that Malcolm X was angry at me and my family, and all white people, and I couldn’t understand why this man had so much hatred for people he didn’t know.

As I grew older, I began to understand the race issue more clearly, though the mystique of Malcolm X still eluded me. I realized the treatment of African-Americans in the South was just an overt prejudice that actually existed throughout the country, even in the places I grew up. But in my mind, Malcolm X was still a radical who took the extreme against racism. When Spike Lee directed a biopic, based on Malcolm X’s autobiography; it took me about several years to getting around to seeing it. When I finally did, I immediately became interested in reading the book it was based on. There, I began to understand Malcolm X.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published shortly after the author’s death in 1965,was written in a period where Malcolm X began to rethink many of his views. Although actually written by Alex Haley, the book was literally dictated to Haley by Malcolm X during a series of interviews between 1960 and 1965. Haley describes the process in which the book was written in the epilogue; Malcolm X told Haley exactly what he could write, and Malcolm X had to approve the final draft of every chapter.

The book is a fascinating look into the mind of Malcolm X. During the time span the book was written, Malcolm X went from being the right-hand of the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, to being ousted by that organization and reforming a new organization supporting his new views. Malcolm X never changes the earlier chapters to reflect the bitterness he certainly felt towards the Nation of Islam; rather he leaves the book as an honest testimony to the changes he was undergoing.

From a white man’s perspective, much of book is difficult to read. Most of the book, indeed for most of his life, Malcolm X rages against the white man and his mistreatment of blacks and all non-white peoples. Though hard to swallow, Malcolm X’s attacks on white society, especially white society circa 1960, are on target. He speaks of the “white devil’s” attempts to keep blacks divided and feeling lost and racially inferior.

Was Malcolm X a racist? Initially, I think he was. Like those that oppressed him and his people, Malcolm X tried to deny the achievements of one race, and glorify the achievements of another. He revels in telling stories how he tricked white people, pointing out their own hypocrisies. He didn’t trust whites trying to help blacks, and saw many of their actions as covert attempts to keep blacks in their place. Once asked sincerely by a white co-ed, “What can I do to help?” Malcolm X replied, “Nothing.”

I believe the hardest thing for Malcolm X was to accept that many white people were listening to his message and agreeing with him. It was not until he broke with the Nation of Islam, and delved further into the true Islamic faith, that he realized many of his beliefs about white people were as unfair as those that whites had about black people. Always affirming the black race, Malcolm X nevertheless conceded that many whites, especially the youth of that generation, were as opposed to racial injustice as he was.

Malcolm X also faults black people as well as whites for the racial inequality that has existed in this nation since its conception. He acknowledges that black people have allowed themselves to be “brainwashed” into believing in their own inferiority. Malcolm X gave a voice to the anger and bitterness black people felt over centuries of oppression. He was boldly declaring what others were afraid to say.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a powerful book, full of truth and uncompromising honesty. Unfortunately, Malcolm X was silenced at a time when he was most needed. Self-titled “The Angriest Black Man in America,” Malcolm X was beginning to move past the anger and find real solutions to the race problems of America. While the death of Dr. King was a powerful blow to the Civil Rights movement, I believe the death of Malcolm was as devastating, if not more so, to racial relations. One cannot help but speculate how race relations might be different, had Malcolm X lived. Fortunately, we do have his book, which speaks with a relevancy and truth we still need to hear today.

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