The murder of Malcolm X: forty-nine years ago today

Forty-nine years ago today, at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, gunmen opened fire on the African-American activist Malcolm X, killing him almost instantly. He was 39 years old. By the time of his murder, Malcolm had become an isolated figure in American life. He spent most of the last year of his life either abroad (in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe) or preparing to go abroad. Whereas at home in America he spoke before shrinking audiences, feared for his life, and was ostracized by civil rights leaders, outside America he met with heads of state, forged new political and religious connections, and turned himself into a hero of pan-Africanism, human rights, and third-world revolution. He was, to put it plainly, much more in his element in Accra or London than he was in Detroit or New York. And yet the global dimensions of his public career remain underexplored and misunderstood.

When, in 2012, Manning Marable posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize in History forMalcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Marable died just days before the book was published), one could almost hear the sound of the scholarly curtain falling on his subject. Marable’s long-awaited biography also won accolades from the major journals and newspapers, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. There was a general sense that we now had the definitive word on the topic.

In an  published in Humanity two years ago, I tried to explain why Marable’s book, while a considerable achievement in some respects, should be read not as the final word in a conversation but as the opening salvo of a new one. In particular, I highlighted the international context for Malcolm’s activism, the scope and significance of his plans abroad, the distinctions he made between civil rights and human rights, the separation he allowed between religion and politics, and the many ways that his afterlife has overshadowed his actual life. On this anniversary of Malcolm X’s death, Humanity brings this essay back to its front page in the hope of stimulating further vigorous discussion of human rights, anti-imperialism, revolutionary politics, international history, and the meanings of Malcolm X’s life, and death.

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