Critical Essay Three Assessments of Malcolm X


Those parts of the Autobiography which are not strictly autobiographical, which were not narrated by Malcolm himself, should still be considered integral parts of this book. They give personal views of Malcolm by people who knew him, thus complementing the picture of him which we are given in his own words. The most important of these three sections is the Epilogue, written by Alex Haley, the editor who assembled the Autobiography with Malcolm’s direction. This section tells of Haley’s personal relationship with Malcolm, and of how the book was composed by the two men working together. But most important, it continues the narrative of Malcolm’s life through the last few months, describing the assassination and its aftermath in some detail.

The Introduction, by M. S. Handler of the New York Times, expresses a sympathetic white man’s attitude toward Malcolm, along with an assessment of Malcolm’s ultimate significance. Handler, whom Malcolm called “the most genuinely unprejudiced white man I have met,” stood in awe of Malcolm and, while often disagreeing with him, felt a genuine affection for him. Malcolm responded favorably to Handler’s openness with him, and this brief Introduction gives us one man’s honest and thoughtful opinion of Malcolm X.

Ossie Davis, a well-known black actor and director, delivered the principal eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral service. His contribution to the Autobiography is an explanation of Malcolm’s significance to him — as a black man. He praises Malcolm not only as a person, but as a symbol to the black community. As a black man who always told the truth as he saw it, regardless of the consequences, Malcolm was a reproach to those who were afraid to express their true feelings for fear of criticism from whites. Davis also considers Malcolm a symbol of African-American manhood, willing and able to stand and fight for what he believed in.

Alex Haley: Epilogue

The Epilogue details Alex Haley’s association with Malcolm — from the first time he heard of him in 1959 until Malcolm’s assassination in 1965. During this time, the two men progressed from a tentative, suspicious business relationship to a close, working relationship and friendship.

Haley first approached Malcolm during the early years of his writing career because of an article on the Nation of Islam which Haley was writing for the Reader’s Digest. Malcolm’s first reaction to Haley was one of suspicion; he accused him of being a spy for the white man. When the article appeared in early 1960, however, both Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad praised its objectivity. During the next two years, the association was continued when Haley co-authored an article for the Saturday Evening Post about the Black Muslims, and when he interviewed Malcolm for Playboy magazine. Malcolm, though still suspicious, began to like Haley, who had demonstrated his objectivity. Then in 1963, a publisher offered Haley a contract to do a biography of Malcolm, on the basis of his previous work with Malcolm and the Muslims. Again Haley approached Malcolm, and again Malcolm was suspicious and hesitant. But he finally agreed, on the condition that Elijah Muhammad approve the project.

Work on the book progressed very slowly at first. Haley notes that Malcolm, during his time as a criminal and then as a Black Muslim, had developed “a near phobia for secrecy.” He was unwilling to talk openly with anyone whom he did not trust — and he trusted no one completely. Malcolm seemed to regard Haley still as a spy for the white man, and he spent most of their early sessions repeating the same Black Muslim propaganda over and over. He avoided disclosing any details about his personal life. Part of this reluctance may have arisen from the fact that Malcolm considered everything he said as speaking for Elijah Muhammad at this time; therefore, he would avoid anything that seemed to be personal opinion. Yet most of the problem was due to distrust. And even after some progress was done on the book, Malcolm admitted to Haley that he trusted him only about twenty-five percent. (As a comment on the gradual change in their relationship, Haley mentions that in the last months of Malcolm’s life, he received a late-night phone call from Malcolm, who told him he now trusted him “seventy percent.”)

The first real “communication” between the two men happened as a result of Malcolm’s habit of scribbling random comments on napkins while he talked. Noting one of the comments Malcolm had scribbled, Haley asked him about his attitude toward women. Malcolm loosened up and began expressing his opinions. Then Haley asked him about his mother. By chance, he had picked a time when Malcolm was willing to talk; a great deal of useable information came out. After that, Malcolm was much more willing to talk openly with Haley.

The early parts of the Epilogue, up to Malcolm’s return from Mecca, are valuable mostly because they allow us a new perspective of Malcolm. We have already seen the main events of this time through Malcolm’s own eyes, in the Autobiography itself; Haley, therefore, does not spend much time reviewing the details of events. Instead, he discusses his personal relationship with Malcolm and his impressions of Malcolm as a man. He also includes Malcolm’s comments on various subjects which were not covered in the Autobiography. He discusses, for example, Malcolm’s private opinions about members of the press and about other black activists. Haley also comments, as an impartial observer, on the ghetto black’s genuine fondness and admiration for Malcolm. And he notes times, especially during Malcolm’s silencing by Elijah Muhammad, when Malcolm’s inner feelings conflicted with his public statements.

It is in the passages dealing with the last seven months of Malcolm’s life that the Epilogue is most valuable. The main text of the book is quite sketchy as to biographical detail after Malcolm’s return from Mecca. Haley here fills in many more details about Malcolm’s various activities in his last stage of his life — though even here, it could hardly be considered a closely-detailed biography.

After Malcolm’s “divorce” from the Nation of Islam, he and Haley agreed to leave that section of the book which was finished as it was rather than revise it because of Malcolm’s new ideas. This decision was not easy, especially as Malcolm’s disillusionment with Elijah Muhammad increased. Haley argued against any further changes in the book, feeling that such changes would destroy the dramatic immediacy of much of the book, and, reluctantly, Malcolm finally agreed. As Haley says, it is unlikely that the book would ever have been finished under such circumstances. Malcolm did not have sufficient time to spend on extensive revision, especially in the latter days of his life. Besides, such revisions might have falsified Malcolm’s attitudes; his opinions were changing rapidly and drastically. To revise all the statements about the Nation of Islam would have made a large portion of Malcolm’s earlier life difficult to understand; his deep faith in Elijah Muhammad did not lend itself to objective analysis. But, for all the problems it solved, this “no-revision” policy does create certain difficulties for the reader. The book, it is important to remember, was quite lengthy before Malcolm’s split with the Nation of Islam, and statements from his later period often contradict some earlier statements. Although Haley has tried to make such passages more comprehensible, it is still often up to the reader to identify which statements were made at what time. And generally, Haley is probably correct in feeling that the book is clearer and more effective than it would have been after extensive revision.

Haley also makes clear that, even during the last part of his life, Malcolm still delighted in shocking and outraging his white audience. To those who followed his statements closely at the time, the changes he was undergoing after the pilgrimage were astonishing. To the average reader and listener, though, especially those who had to rely upon the national press for their impressions, the changes were less than apparent.

Haley notes that Malcolm’s second trip to Africa, which lasted eighteen weeks, disillusioned his immediate followers and may have lessened his popularity among the people of Harlem. The Organization of Afro-American Unity was still in the early planning stages, and only Malcolm could sufficiently organize it. His protracted stay in Africa caused discontent among his followers. Haley began, for the first time, to hear outright criticism of Malcolm in bars and on street corners. Ironically, this criticism resembled Malcolm’s own criticism of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. The people wanted positive action; they had begun to feel that all Malcolm could do was talk.

During this time, it became obvious that Malcolm was under surveillance by government agents. Haley himself was questioned by a Justice Department official about how Malcolm was being financed. There were rumors at the time that Malcolm was acting as the agent of a foreign government, perhaps Cuba or Communist China, and these rumors may have been the reason for the Justice Department’s interest in him. Haley does make it clear, though, that Malcolm provided his own finances — mostly from advance royalties on the book and by loans from his sister Ella.

In fact, Malcolm’s financial situation was responsible, in part, for his inability to give the OAAU any clear sense of direction during the last few months of his life. When he had been a Nation of Islam minister, that organization had provided him with living expenses; now, however, he was on his own and had to make frequent public appearances in order to raise money to support himself and his family. Such appearances took an increasing amount of his time, as financial pressures mounted. In addition, the house in which his family lived still belonged to the Black Muslims, who were suing in court to have Malcolm and his family evicted. During the legal proceedings, the family was permitted to remain in the house, but it was clearly only a matter of time before the eviction would go through. Meanwhile, Malcolm was borrowing money from Ella in order to finance his second trip abroad.

During this time, the number of death threats against Malcolm and overt attempts to kill him increased. In Boston, a car in which he was supposed to have been riding was blockaded in a tunnel by armed men. Late in January and early February, Malcolm was openly followed at each stop on a cross-country trip by gangs of black men, some of whom Malcolm recognized as Black Muslims. Two carloads of them chased his car to the airport in Los Angeles, and in Chicago, where he was provided a police escort, groups of them waited around his hotel.

When Malcolm returned from this trip, he was served a final eviction notice. Shortly afterward, he called Haley to arrange a meeting for a final reading of the manuscript of the book. He wanted to visit Haley’s home, as a vacation from the intense pressures he was being subjected to. The meeting, however, never took place; Malcolm was murdered the weekend that he had planned to go. And in arranging the meeting, Malcolm acknowledged that another reading of the manuscript was unnecessary, but he wanted to read it once more because he was convinced that he would be dead before the book was published.

During the last month of his life, Malcolm flew to Selma, Alabama, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was in jail, and where a massive civil rights protest was underway. He spoke to Mrs. King, who reported that he said he “was trying to help.” He was, in effect, trying to take some of the pressure off the moderate Dr. King by exposing himself as a target for white hostility. He threatened, in his address to the civil rights protestors, that if Dr. King failed, “other forces” were waiting to take up the struggle.

In early February, Malcolm was scheduled to address a Congress of African Students in Paris, but he was refused entry to France. Speaking later of this incident, he strongly implied that it was related to the threats on his life and that perhaps the Black Muslims were not the ones trying to kill him. He felt that the United States government had intervened to keep him out of France, where he had been twice before in the preceding three months. He also told Haley that other things, which he did not specify, had been happening to him, things which Elijah Muhammad could not have been responsible for; they could only have been ordered by someone with more authority.

After a brief stopover in England, where he spoke at the London School of Economics and visited an industrial town with a large black population, Malcolm returned to New York. That night, February 13, his home was firebombed. The family was rescued, but half the house was destroyed. The Muslims charged the next day that Malcolm himself had had the house bombed, for publicity; Malcolm charged that the Muslims did it. The day before his death, however, when he telephoned Haley to see about an advance on the book, so he could buy another house, Malcolm said that he was becoming convinced that it was not the Muslims who were behind the attempts on his life. The night before Malcolm’s death, the hotel where he was staying was visited by groups of black men looking for his room. The morning of his death, he received an anonymous phone call with no particular message. It was obvious that someone had him under continual surveillance.

That afternoon, Malcolm was to address an OAAU meeting at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. Before the meeting, he was obviously nervous and irritable. The afternoon’s schedule was confused, and one of the speakers was unable to attend. As Malcolm began to speak, a fight broke out in the front part of the auditorium. While Malcolm was trying to calm the crowd, three men rushed forward and gunned him down. He probably never even saw them; he fell backward onto the stage, and it was later determined that he had died almost instantaneously. Ironically, Malcolm had personally ordered that the practice of searching the audience for weapons be discontinued. He felt it was making people distrust him. And he had excluded the press from the meeting because he felt that their coverage of him was distorted.

The events following the murder are confused. One of the assassins, a man named Talmadge Hayer, was captured by the crowd, then rescued from them and arrested by police. It was initially reported that another gunman was arrested on the scene, yet all reports of him subsequently vanished, and the initial report was never explained. The Deputy Police Commissioner reported that police protection had been offered Malcolm, but that he had refused the offer. Yet Malcolm had stated earlier that he had been trying to get police protection, and the police department had refused his requests.

Such contradictory reports, coupled with Malcolm’s last-minute assertions that it was not the Muslims who were trying to kill him, have led to widespread speculation among his followers and admirers that he was the victim of some mysterious official conspiracy, perhaps involving the FBI or the CIA. Talmadge Hayer and two Black Muslims, however, were arrested, indicted for the crime, and were subsequently convicted. The case is officially closed, but it is unlikely that the rumors will ever be finally put to rest.

After Malcolm’s death, there was widespread fear of open warfare between his followers and the Black Muslims. Mosque Number Seven in Harlem was destroyed by arsonists, and a similar attempt was made to burn San Francisco’s mosque. But, apart from a few minor confrontations, the mass violence that was expected never materialized. The next week, the Nation of Islam held a convention in Chicago, and much of the talk was about Malcolm’s fate. Wilfred and Philbert both spoke, urging unity behind Elijah Muhammad. And Wallace Muhammad, who had broken with his father’s organization, publicly asked forgiveness and asked to be allowed to rejoin the Muslims.

As Malcolm had predicted, the white press emphasized his “hate” image in their stories. And Carl Rowan, the black director of the United States Information Agency, attempted to silence international commentary about Malcolm’s death by attacking Malcolm and all he stood for. Still, however, the international press, especially the press of the non-white countries, gave the assassination wide coverage and treated Malcolm as a martyr.

The funeral took place the following Saturday. Thousands of people, white as well as black, attended it. Ossie Davis delivered the main eulogy, and although the ceremony was held in a Christian church, Malcolm was buried according to Muslim ritual, with all the Islamic traditions observed.

Haley closes the Epilogue with a statement about his own role in the writing of the Autobiography. He tried, he says, to be “a dispassionate chronicler,” to tell Malcolm’s story as Malcolm told it to him, without imposing his own values and judgments. Yet he admits that perhaps his subject was too large for him — that the final chapter dealing with Malcolm X remains to be written.

M. S. Handler: Introduction

M. S. Handler was one of the few white reporters for whom Malcolm X had any respect. In his Introduction, Handler gives his impressions of Malcolm, both as a man and as a public figure.

Handler notes that Malcolm’s public image and his private personality were really quite different. As a public speaker, he was frightening, threatening to white audiences. In private, he was almost aristocratic — self-assured, intelligent, and confident. Yet there was always a sense of danger about him. His puritanical personal morality stood as an example for his people, and his utter self-confidence in dealing with the white man won him the admiration of black people. Handler notes, however, that Malcolm’s followers were of two sorts: the poor, downtrodden blacks of the ghettoes and the black intellectuals and artists. Like the latter, he was, in his own way, intent on forging a black identity.

Malcolm, always forthright in his personal conversation, warned Handler not to take too seriously other Afro-Americans’ protestations of friendship for whites. For his part, Handler seems to feel that Malcolm’s hostility was much more genuine than most submissive declarations of brotherhood. He spoke with an anger that arose, not out of himself, but out of the centuries-old misery of his people. And even in his later life, when he became more receptive toward whites, he still believed that his first priority was to establish a sense of identity among blacks, an identity that would enable them to face the white man on equal grounds. The degree of his success is a tribute to the strength of his personality, and Handler sees in the Autobiography, as in Malcolm’s life itself, “a testimony to the power of redemption and the force of the human personality.”

Ossie Davis: On Malcolm X

In the Introduction, M. S. Handler mentions the black writers and artists who were drawn to Malcolm X. Ossie Davis, a well-known black writer, actor, and director, was one of these. He delivered the eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral, and this essay was written to explain his reason for doing so. Davis points out that it is significant that no black has ever asked him that question; only the whites fail to understand.

The major emphasis in Davis’s portrait concerns Malcolm’s being a symbol of black manhood. Malcolm was the one Afro-American who was not afraid to tell the white man exactly what a black man was thinking. Most blacks, says Davis — himself included — are afraid to unleash their true feelings. They lie to the white man, mainly to avoid criticism. Malcolm would not lie, and he devoted himself to combating the sorts of lies which other blacks were telling. Malcolm, as a man, was free, and he was trying to win this freedom not only for other black people, but for everyone — black and white. Davis comments that the world may eventually consider Malcolm a martyr, which in a sense he was, but black people will continue to think of him as a man. That is where Malcolm’s true importance lies.

Thus the reason for Davis’s eulogy: while Malcolm was alive, Davis and other black intellectuals who sympathized with him were afraid to speak for themselves — for fear of damaging their relationships with the white community. But, Davis says, now that the white man is safe from Malcolm, it is time for those black people who admired him to stand up and, as Malcolm did, speak for themselves.