Literary critic and African American Studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. referred to American historian and author Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
(2011) as "the definitive biography
" of the prominent civil rights activist and Muslim minister. The book won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History and received a nomination for the National Book Award.
Born Malcolm Little in 1925, Malcolm X grew up in the Midwestern United States. Due to his father, Earl Little's outspoken nature as a black activist, the family relocated numerous times in the wake of threats from the Ku Klux Klan and particularly the Black Legion, an especially militant white supremacist group that broke off from the KKK. In 1931, when Malcolm was six, Earl died in what police characterized as a streetcar accident, but many in the community, including Malcolm's mother, Louise, believed he was murdered by the Black Legion. Seven years later, Louise suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to the Kalamazoo State Hospital in Michigan, sending her children to separate foster homes. A year later, Malcolm dropped out of junior high after a teacher told him his dreams of becoming a lawyer were "no realistic goal for a n*****."
Over the next four years, Malcolm moved frequently and held a number of jobs. At the age of eighteen, he moved to Harlem where he engaged in a variety of criminal activities, including drug dealing, protection rackets, burglary, and prostitution. Marable suggests that Malcolm significantly exaggerated the extent of his criminal behavior in his autobiography in order to paint “an allegory documenting the destructive consequences of racism within the U.S. criminal justice and penal system.” Furthermore, Marable states that by exaggerating his criminal record, Malcolm sought to heighten the dramatic transition in his life from wayward youth to religious leader.
Nevertheless, after relocating to Boston, Malcolm's criminal activity resulted in his being arrested in 1946 for a series of burglaries committed against wealthy white households, receiving an eight-to-ten year prison sentence. In prison, Malcolm met fellow convict John Bembry whose education and oratory inspired Malcolm to read and learn as much as he could in prison. At his brother Reginald's urging, Malcolm became interested in the Nation of Islam, a Muslim religious movement that encouraged black self-reliance and a reversal of the African Diaspora. At first, Malcolm engaged with the religion chiefly because he thought it might help him secure an earlier release from prison. Over time, however, Malcolm's interest in it grew. By late 1948, Malcolm was corresponding regularly with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam.
In the years following his parole in 1952, Malcolm ascended rapidly through the ranks of the Nation of Islam, capitalizing on his good looks, imposing physical presence, and soaring oratory. While serving as the lead minister at a temple in Harlem, Malcolm helped establish new temples in Boston, Hartford, and Atlanta, aiding the Nation of Islam in recruiting hundreds of new members each month.
During this time, the FBI maintained a file on Malcolm X due to his involvement in the Nation of Islam and earlier statements he had made declaring that he was a communist. Authorities' monitoring of Malcolm intensified in 1957 following a police brutality incident involving a Nation of Islam member named Hinton Johnson. After Johnson witnessed the police beating a black man with nightsticks, he attempted to intervene by shouting, "You're not in Alabama, this is New York!" The police retaliated by beating Johnson so badly that he suffered subdural hemorrhaging and brain contusions. Malcolm went to the police station and demanded that Johnson be sent to the hospital. When police refused, hundreds of Nation of Islam members began to congregate in front of the station. Eventually, the police relented, but only after the crowd had swelled to four thousand people. When Malcolm concluded he had done all he could, he made a hand motion to the giant crowd, causing it to silently disperse. A police officer was later quoted in the New York Amsterdam News
, "No one man should have that much power."
Until around 1962, Malcolm continued to be a loyal adherent to all of the Nation of Islam's teachings, including controversial tenets about how white people are "devils" and inferior to black people. Over time, however, Malcolm became disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, particularly its refusal to work with other civil rights groups and the allegations that Elijah Muhammad frequently engaged in extramarital affairs with young secretaries working for the organization. There was also a great deal of tension between Malcolm and Muhammad owing to the increasing amount of media attention being paid to the former.
After officially breaking with the Nation of Islam in 1964, tensions only increased. Malcolm frequently received death threats and, on February 21, 1965, he was gunned down in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom. Three gunmen were charged and convicted of his murder, all of them members of the Nation of Islam.Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
is a fascinating biography called
"revealing and prodigiously researched" by the New York Times