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2011-05-19

"Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention": Manning Marable’s Exhaustive Biography of the Civil Rights Leader

Guests

Zaheer Ali, one of the doctoral students of the late Dr. Manning Marable and a key researcher for his new biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Ali also served as associate director and senior researcher of Columbia University’s Malcolm X Project, a program that focuses on the life and legacy of the civil rights activist.

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Events are being held today across the country to mark what would have been Malcolm X’s 86th birthday. Earlier this year a major new biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, was published. The book’s author, Columbia University Professor Dr. Manning Marable, died at the age of 60 just days before its publication. Two decades in the making, the nearly 600-page biography is described as a re-evaluation of Malcolm X’s life, providing new insights into the circumstances of his assassination, as well as raising questions about Malcolm X’s own autobiography. We speak with Zaheer Ali, one of the researchers who worked with Dr. Marable on the biography. "In a sense, this book is a kind of iconoclasm in that way, in that it takes Malcolm off of the pedestal to examine him as a human being struggling through these political and religious currents that he was in," says Zaheer. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Events are being held today across the country to mark what would have been the 86th birthday of Malcolm X. He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19th, 1925. His mother, Louise Norton Little, raised the family’s eight children. His father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and avid supporter of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey.

In an interview in the 1960s, Malcolm briefly spoke about his childhood.

JIM HURLBUT: You were born in Omaha, is that right?

MALCOLM X: Yes, sir.

JIM HURLBUT: And you left — your family left Omaha when you were about one year old?

MALCOLM X: I imagine about a year old.

JIM HURLBUT: And why did they leave Omaha?

MALCOLM X: Well, to my understanding, the Ku Klux Klan burned down one of their homes in Omaha. They had a lot of Ku Klux Klan —

JIM HURLBUT: This made your family feel very unhappy, I’m sure.

MALCOLM X: Well, insecure, if not unhappy.

JIM HURLBUT: So you must have a somewhat prejudiced point of view, a personally prejudiced point of view. In other words, you cannot look at this in a broad, academic sort of way, really, can you?

MALCOLM X: I think that’s incorrect, because despite the fact that that happened in Omaha, and then when we moved to Lansing, Michigan, our family home was burned down again — in fact, my father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan — and despite all of that, no one was more thoroughly integrated with whites than I. No one has lived more so in the society of whites than I.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Malcolm excelled in school but eventually dropped out and became a drug dealer, a pimp and a thief. While serving time in prison, he joined the Nation of Islam, a move that transformed his life. He would rise to become the organization’s national spokesperson and one of the most prominent black leaders in the country. He eventually split from the Nation of Islam and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Malcolm X was shot to death on February 21st, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom. He was only 39 years old. Details of his assassination remain disputed to this day.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year a major new biography of Malcolm was published, entitled Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. The book’s author, Columbia University Professor Manning Marable, died at the age of 60 just days before its publication. Two decades in the making, the nearly 600-page biography is described as a re-evaluation of Malcolm X’s life, providing new insights into the circumstances of his assassination, as well as raising questions about Malcolm X’s own autobiography.

Manning Marable appeared on Democracy Now! a number of times to talk about the life of Malcolm X.

MANNING MARABLE: I think that Malcolm X was the most remarkable historical figure produced by Black America in the 20th century. That’s a heavy statement, but I think that in his 39 short years of life, Malcolm came to symbolize black urban America, its culture, its politics, its militancy, its outrage against structural racism, and at the end of his life, a broad internationalist vision of emancipatory power far better than any other single individual, that he shared with DuBois and Paul Robeson a Pan-Africanist internationalist perspective. He shared with Marcus Garvey a commitment to building strong black institutions. He shared with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a commitment to peace and the freedom of racialized minorities. He was the first prominent American to attack and to criticize the U.S. role in Southeast Asia, and he came out four-square against the Vietnam War in 1964, long before the vast majority of Americans did. So that Malcolm X represents the cutting edge of a kind of critique of globalization in the 21st century. And in fact, Malcolm, if anything, was far ahead of the curve in so many ways.

AMY GOODMAN: The late Manning Marable.

Joining us now is Zaheer Ali, one of Manning Marable’s doctoral students and a key researcher for his biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Zaheer Ali also served as associate director and senior researcher of Columbia University’s Malcolm X Project, a program that focuses on the life and legacy of the civil rights activist.

Thank you so much for being with us, and our condolences on the death of your mentor and friend and colleague. Manning Marable spent two decades of his life working on this book. Talk about what you feel is most central, what Professor Marable felt was the most important aspect of what he discovered.

ZAHEER ALI: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here to speak on Dr. Marable’s work. This was a two-decade labor of love, with a 10-year concentrated focus on the specific project of the biography of Malcolm. But for Professor Marable, when he first approached the life of Malcolm, he told me when I started working with him that he envisioned a political biography, because one of the things he felt in reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X is that it was a powerful literary story of transformation. But what was missing was the larger historical context that Malcolm functioned in, as well as the political vision that Malcolm was moving towards. And so, he initially set out to do a political biography of Malcolm, very early on. And as he did more research and as the Malcolm X Project was able to access more materials, what emerges is a complex, complicated, multidimensional portrait of Malcolm in his humanity. And I think — so one of the first things that I think Professor Marable wanted to do was present a humanized portrait of Malcolm. And so, in a sense, this book is a kind of iconoclasm in that way, in that it takes Malcolm off of the pedestal to examine him as a human being struggling through these political and religious currents that he was in.

The other ideas and, I think, themes that are really important to highlight in terms of Professor Marable’s work is Malcolm’s political evolution. And the clip that you played gives a sense of what Professor Marable felt that evolution was moving towards. What’s interesting is that this political evolution begins far earlier than I think most people recognize. As early as 1955, Malcolm is trying to connect what’s going on with Bandung Conference, and he calls for a Bandung in Harlem. So he was inspired by this meeting of African and Asian heads of state to call for a meeting of the different organizations in Harlem. And so, he was already, as early as the mid-’50s, connecting what was going on abroad with what was going on domestically.

The third main, I think, theme that comes across in this is Malcolm’s deepening sense of faith as a Muslim. And this is something, I think that has been hardly discussed in much of the scholarship on Malcolm. And I think it’s especially critical today. We have President Obama about to give a second, what is being called, major speech to the, quote-unquote, "Muslim world." And what Malcolm’s story, I think, does, as Professor Marable presents it here, is it reasserts the importance of the African-American Muslim experience and how that experience is at the intersection of the traditions of Islam that came up in the United States, as well as the global tradition of Islam that Malcolm connected with when he traveled.

And finally, I think one of the other major themes, of course, is the — or are the unanswered questions surrounding Malcolm’s assassination. And towards the end, I think Dr. Marable draws on some of the previous scholarship done, in addition to engaging some new materials that he had access to, to highlight unanswered questions about the assassination, irregularities with how the case was handled, and he really desired, as he was moving towards the end of this project, that the case be reopened.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But now, in terms of the — much has been made of the new material that Manning Marable had access to, not only the missing chapters of the original Alex Haley — his autobiography with Alex Haley, but also access to speeches that Malcolm had made at the Nation of Islam made available. Could you talk about the importance of some of this new material, in terms of fleshing out the story of Malcolm’s life?

ZAHEER ALI: Yeah. This book, I think, is — Dr. Marable is one of the first scholars to engage material that was only recently made available in the last five to 10 years. In addition to the materials you highlighted, he also is the first scholar, I think, to engage Malcolm’s diaries, that were made available through the Schomburg Library archive of Malcolm X’s papers. And what emerges, for example, with the access to the speeches that Malcolm gave while he was in the Nation of Islam, we get a sense of the kind of inner life of the Nation of Islam, which is, again, something that’s neglected in the scholarship on Malcolm, because for 12 years Malcolm functioned within the organizational apparatus of the Nation of Islam.

AMY GOODMAN: Manning Marable named who he said was the killer of Malcolm X. Who does he say is the killer, and what evidence does he have for that?

ZAHEER ALI: He draws on — well, there were three people who were convicted for Malcolm’s assassination: Talmadge Hayer, Thomas Johnson and Norman Butler. According to — and not just Manning Marable, I think there were several other scholars or people who investigated Malcolm’s assassination. Much of the evidence suggests that Talmadge Hayer, who was the only person caught at the scene of the crime and the only person to admit, openly admit guilt, that he was in fact guilty, but that the other two, Thomas Johnson and Norman Butler, the evidence suggested they were in fact innocent. And so, late — I think in the late '70s, Talmadge Hayer, in an affidavit, sworn affidavit with attorney William Kunstler, named his co-conspirators that he said were involved in Malcolm's — the plotting and execution of Malcolm’s assassination. And of the people that he names, Professor Marable tried to track down where those people are now. And he does do that in the book and identify someone who he says corresponds with that list of names that Talmadge Hayer listed.

AMY GOODMAN: And who was that?

ZAHEER ALI: That is a gentleman in Newark, New Jersey.

AMY GOODMAN: Named?

ZAHEER ALI: His name is — Professor Marable says his name in the book. And so, I think he does that by correlating public records, as well as some oral history interviews that he did do.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And of the — the role of the government, in the book he does talk about what the police department did and didn’t do on that particular day and the concerns that Malcolm always had that the government was targeting him for possible assassination.

ZAHEER ALI: Yeah, you know, one of the things, of course, when Malcolm was doing his autobiography, there were things that he would not have known, obviously, that was happening around him in terms of the level of surveillance. Now, he had an idea of the kind of surveillance that he was under, but what he did not know, for example, is that as early as 1950, when Malcolm is in prison and he writes a letter protesting the Korean War, that actually is the first page in his FBI file. So, as early — this is before he’s Malcolm X, the FBI has begun watching him.

And when he began working with the Nation of Islam, in 1954, as he was organizing temples around the country, he goes to Boston to establish the Temple No. 11 there, and he has a small meeting in a family home. And one of those, I think, 12 or 15 people was an FBI informant. So that is how deeply embedded the state apparatus was in terms of their agencies in surveilling Malcolm and the Nation of Islam.

Moving forward, we find, in terms of — closer to Malcolm’s assassination, we find several inconsistencies. We know that Gene Roberts, who was one of his security officers at the Muslim Mosque, Inc., we know that he turned out to be an agent of the Bureau of Special Services. And in this, Dr. Marable highlights questions about some of the other people who worked with Malcolm that may have had or served as informants to the police and federal agencies.

There were several, you know, irregularities on the day that Malcolm was assassinated, on February 21st, 1965. Typically there would be over two dozen police officers stationed at the Audubon Ballroom where he held his rallies. On this particular day, there were two uniformed officers seen. So, the question is, you know, why was there such a drastic reduction in security just one week after his home was fire-bombed? So these are some of the questions that he raises, I think, in this.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Speaking of questions, what about the criticism from some quarters that in this effort to humanize Malcolm, that Manning Marable stepped over the bounds, raising issues in the book about his personal life that even he could not confirm, and in essence, to some degree or other, sullied Malcolm?

ZAHEER ALI: Well, I think that what Professor Marable tried to do was get as a comprehensive a view of Malcolm as possible, drawing on all the existing materials that he had access to. And I think that there is room for discussion. You know, people are always trying to figure out where’s the public and private boundaries in looking at these historic figures. And in this book, Professor Marable makes his own determination. But I think the overwhelming ideas of this book are not about personal reputation, but what comes through this is a deeply sympathetic, but critical, compelling image of Malcolm. And I want to say that Dr. Marable, you know, when we worked with him as his researchers, he would discuss and debate these issues with us. And he really grappled with how he should handle it. And so, I don’t think that he approached this task lightly at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Zaheer Ali, we want to thank you very much for being with us, one of Manning Marable’s doctoral students, key researcher for the biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Zaheer Ali also served as associate director and senior researcher at Columbia University’s Malcolm X Project, a program that focuses on the life and legacy of Malcolm X. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a roundtable discussion with Michael Eric Dyson, Herb Boyd and Amiri Baraka. Stay with us.

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