The Legacy of Malcolm X
He terrified whites and turned Negroes into African-Americans
"We're not Americans. We're Africans who happen to be in America. We were kidnapped and brought here against our will from Africa. We didn't land on Plymouth Rock--that rock landed on us."
--MALCOLM X, 1964
In his day, Malcolm X was not widely regarded as an admirable figure. Except in Harlem, the man who rose from poverty and prison to the pulpit was virtually unknown until CBS's Mike Wallace, in a 1959 television documentary entitled "The Hate That Hate Produced," showed him leading an ominous "rise of black racism." Six years later, thousands of mourners attended Malcolm's Harlem funeral, but outside America's poorest neighborhoods few tears were shed. A New York Times editorial dismissed the murdered minister as "a twisted man" who turned "true gifts to evil purpose." Time termed him "an unashamed demagogue." Columnist Walter Winchell called him "a petty punk." Nor was the Negro press, as it was known in those days, any kinder. The Washington Afro-American described the black nationalist leader as "a professional race-baiter." Malcolm X, the Michigan Chronicle concluded, "reaped the harvest of his own philosophy."
Now, 27 years later, the man who called himself "the angriest Negro in America" is an inner-city icon. Malcolm X's grim visage bedecks sweatshirts, jackets and even the sides of buildings. Caps with a symbolic X are worn by millionaire athletes and the homeless, by the mayor in New York and by looters in Los Angeles. Malcolm's unusual life--"You wouldn't believe my past," he once said--is the basis of plays, operas and books. This week, the craze that one scholar dubbed "Malcolmania" is bringing forth Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," a long-awaited movie that will do much more than usher in a new tide of Malcolm products, including wristwatches, air fresheners, refrigerator magnets and trading cards. The epic, which opens with the video of Rodney King's beating and ends a fast-moving 3 hours and 21 minutes later in a sea of black faces in current-day Soweto, also will serve as a reminder that, for many, the struggle for civil rights did not end in the '60s. "Most of white America and even elements of middle-class black America are not listening to the rumblings from below," says Manning Marable, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who is writing a biography of Malcolm X. "They aren't listening to the voices of anguish and alienation. That's what Malcolm's popularity is about."
The movie is sure to shape and reshape the ways in which millions of people view a man who was one of his generation's plainest speaking but most-misunderstood personalities. "Malcolm X was a far more complicated figure than any of us knew in the '60s," says Robert O'Meally, an American-studies professor at New York's Barnard College. "If you look at the whole range of his career, you can see some pretty good Malcolms in the barrel with the bad ones."
Lamb and chicken. During the early '60s, the media presented one bad Malcolm after another. "If I had said 'Mary had a little lamb,' " he once complained, "what probably would have appeared was 'Malcolm X Lampoons Mary.' " But the press did not have to exaggerate Malcolm's rhetoric to make it frightful. All white people were devils, he declared, the members of an evil race created thousands of years ago by a mad black scientist. Hell was not something in the hereafter, Malcolm preached, but was what blacks endured every day on Earth. All of this, he warned, would soon be set straight by a global revolution of dark-skinned people--a "lake of fire," a "day of slaughter ... for this sinful white world." When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Malcolm talked cheerfully about "the chickens coming home to roost." He hailed as "a very beautiful thing" the crash of an airliner full of white people--a case in which God got "rid of 120 of them at one whop."