Can Malcolm Little, the man, be separated from Malcolm X, the symbol? Marable, who died shortly after completing this book, explains that if Martin Luther King Jr. was the leading anti-segregation voice of the U.S. South, the Nebraskan Malcolm became the voice of northern blacks living under de facto segregation. To this day he resonates with people who “perceive passive resistance as an insufficient tool for dismantling institutional racism.”
In the process of looking at Malcolm’s life, Marable fact-checks assertions in the famous Autobiography (whose co-writer, Alex Haley, often “felt that he had to insert himself into the text”). The book shows how he became such an important figure, first as a member of the separatist Nation of Islam and then, famously, as a NOI apostate who claimed to be “firmly within the civil rights mainstream.” The book is a valuable look at the Nation of Islam and how it deviates from regular Islam. Marable explains how the exclusionary, race-obsessed NOI didn’t live up to Islamic rules: “Islam was in theory colour-blind,” he notes, and Malcolm realized the conflict between Islam and black supremacy even earlier than he admitted in the Autobiography. Marable seems to prefer the Malcolm who emerged after he left the NOI: “His new commitment to gender equality confused and even outraged many members” of his new group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
But this reformed Malcolm only had a year left before he was struck down, which means it can be hard to get a clear picture of what he accomplished. What is clear is the extent of posthumous legend: from “the media’s sensationalizing of Malcolm’s anti-white image” to the Autobiography’s popularity with black and white audiences alike, what Marable calls his “modern version of Pan-Africanism” caught on worldwide. Marable may not know what Malcolm would have done had death not “cut short his maturity and full potential as a leader,” but it’s clear that in death, he did a great deal.