Books discussed in this essay:

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable and The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley

He began life as Malcolm Little and ended it as El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz; in between he was “Detroit Red,” “Jack Carlton,” “Homeboy,” “Satan,” and most famously, Malcolm X. The “X” was not a surname so much as a placeholder. The Nation of Islam (NOI) required its converts to renounce their last names as remnants of slavery. They bore the “X” as a sign of the decolonization process they were undergoing while awaiting their “Original” names. According to NOI doctrine, black Americans were “Earth’s Original People”; they belonged to the “Lost-Found Nation” that had been mentally and spiritually slumbering while the mutant white race (a race of devils genetically engineered by an evil black scientist named Yacub) acquired worldwide dominion.

The sect that gave Malcolm the “X” eventually stripped it from him, once it was clear that decolonizing his mind was taking him too far from the narrow confines of NOI dogma. After 16 years of submission to the Nation of Islam, faithfully promoting its central tenets of white hatred and black pride, Malcolm officially broke from the group in March 1964. His spiritual quest was leading him toward orthodox Islam and a new conviction of human brotherhood; his ambition and political maturation were leading him to repudiate racial separatism (though not radicalism). Less than a year later, a Fruit of Islam assassination squad (the NOI’s ideological enforcers) gunned him down during a speaking engagement at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. His legacy, like his name, was left unfinished—his identity still in flux. Today he is most often simply “Malcolm”—the serious version of one of those single-name celebrities who specialize in reinventing the self.

This matter of names is worth dwelling on. Among the first generation of great African-American leaders, name-changing was the norm. For escaped slaves like Frederick Douglass, it was an absolute necessity. As he explained: “Among honest men an honest man may well be content with one name, and to acknowledge it at all times and in all places; but toward fugitives, Americans are not honest.” During his flight to freedom, Frederick exchanged his birth name of “Bailey” first for “Johnson” then for “Douglass” (after the great Scottish chieftain). Harriet Tubman, perhaps the most famous of runaways, was born Araminta Ross; “Tubman” was her married name, but she changed her first name too. Sojourner Truth gave an Exodus-inspired account of her re-naming:

My name was Isabella; but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa’n’t goin’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them…and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people.

Booker T. Washington, born into slavery, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, knew himself only as Booker. On his first day at school, realizing that he needed to produce “at least two names,” he pronounced himself “Booker Washington.” The “T.” was added later when he learned that his mother had given him the name “Booker Taliaferro”—”but in some way that part of my name seemed to disappear and for a long while was forgotten.”

Post-slavery, African-Americans have continued to alter their names to make them more reflective of evolving identities. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t start life as “Martin” but as “Michael.” When King, Sr., changed his Christian name from “Michael” to “Martin” (after a tour of Europe, Africa, and the Holy Land), he did the same for his young son. The Black Power movement led many prominent activists to follow the practice suggested by the Nation of Islam: casting off “slave names” in order to embrace names of African and Arabic origin. Whether for purely personal or ideological reasons, Barack Obama, who was born with a genuinely African name, self-consciously abandoned his Anglicized nickname “Barry” in preference for his given name, which he shared with his absent African father.

Despite the fact that re-naming has been a common feature of black life in America (extending to the group itself: colored, Negro, black, African-American), the sharp discontinuities and phases in the life of Malcolm X make him unique. He remains more mysterious and unsettled than other figures in the black pantheon. For Douglass, Washington, and MLK, their new names linked them to a namesake (the Scotsman of “stalwart hand,” the Founding Father, the religious reformer of “here I stand, I can do no other” fame), pointing toward their destinies as freedom fighters and statesmen. By contrast, Malcolm’s new name was a cipher—a token of exile and displacement but also perhaps of fresh possibility.

Malcolm Little

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is a painstaking reconstruction of his many divagations. Written by Manning Marable, professor of public affairs, history, and African-American Studies at Columbia University, and published in the very month of the author’s untimely death in 2011, it will surely be the definitive biography. One of its aims—an aim that has caused consternation in some quarters—is to sort fact from fiction, including those myths propagated by Malcolm himself in The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley (1965) as well as subsequent rumors and conspiracy theories about his assassination. Aided by a crew of researchers under the auspices of the Malcolm X Project, Marable created a massive and minute chronology which he then richly reworked with the story-telling skill of a good historian. The final chapter, “Reflections on a Revolutionary Vision,” presents his own thoughtful assessment of Malcolm X, although elements of both his criticism and appreciation can be glimpsed throughout the book.

Marable does an especially fine job evoking the atmosphere of black life in the early 20th century. Although the central political debate was between the camps of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, Marable focuses on Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), an organization premised on racial separatism that preached black capitalism, culture, and eventually the “conquest of Africa” (with Garvey himself, “His Excellency, the Provisional President of Africa,” as the black Napoleon). A flamboyant personality, Garvey appealed very successfully to the urban and rural black poor; by a conservative estimate, the UNIA’s many hundred chapters enrolled upwards of a million members, “making it one of the largest mass movements in black history.” While Du Bois was in sympathy with Garvey’s emphasis on black uplift and pan-Africanism, he very early saw that Garvey was a demagogue and that his methods (selling shares in a shipping venture, the Black Star Line) were “bombastic, wasteful, illogical and ineffective and almost illegal.” He feared that bankruptcy might well follow, with dire consequences for the “poor and bewildered people who have been cheated all their lives” and who now trusted Garvey: “His failure would mean a blow to their faith, and a loss of their little savings, which it would take generations to undo.” Within a decade, Garvey was jailed (on charges of mail fraud) and then deported back to Jamaica. Loyal Garveyites, however, were not deterred. Although the movement disintegrated in the larger U.S. cities (with the notable exception of Detroit), “in rural and isolated black communities and small towns of the United States, Garveyism still flourished.”

Malcolm’s parents, Earl and Louise Little, were among the true believers. Agreeing to serve as a field organizer for the UNIA, Earl Little moved his family from Philadelphia to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1921. Their arrival coincided with the dramatic rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan whose membership surged into the millions by 1923. In Nebraska, Klan parades and picnics were well-attended public events. There was a women’s auxiliary branch, the Junior Klan for boys, and Tri-K clubs for girls. Since both the UNIA and KKK denounced race mixing, Garvey reached out to Klan leaders whom he regarded as “the invisible government of the United States.” Inasmuch as his back-to-Africa project was premised upon the existence of an unremittingly hostile white America, he had both a need and appreciation for whites who didn’t disguise their race hatred. Whatever the upshot of that infamous meeting, it did nothing to protect the Littles from the depredations of the Klan. Into this violent mix, Malcolm was born in 1925.

Hounded by whites for his militant self-assertion, disdainful of complacent (or simply fearful) fellow blacks, Earl Little reared his children on the principles of black nationalism. The couple’s recruiting activities (and accompanying Klan threats) led them to relocate to Milwaukee, then East Chicago, and finally Lansing, Michigan. They struggled financially; although Earl was a skilled carpenter, he was also a social pariah since solid black citizens kept their distance from Garveyites. Earl’s scorn for middle-class black leaders was clearly communicated to his son who often accompanied him to speaking engagements. Violence, both internal and external, escalated. Earl beat his wife and children (though Malcolm was usually exempt—a fact he attributed, whether correctly or not, to being light-skinned). The family home was burned down in a nighttime attack. Finally, in 1931, Earl Little was found dead, run over by a streetcar, in a non-black section of town. Although the death was ruled an accident, it is quite possible that he was murdered by the Black Legion, a night-riding Klan spin-off. That was certainly the view of Malcolm’s mother and many others in Lansing’s black community.

Louise and her seven children were thrown into extreme poverty and the humiliation of dealing with state relief agencies. Within a few years, completely broken, she was confined to an asylum. Malcolm was placed with a neighborhood family, then in the county Juvenile Home, and finally, almost 16 and increasingly ungovernable, was sent off to Boston to live with Ella Little, his older half-sister. Thus began a five-year period that Malcolm later called a “destructive detour.”

He plunged into the street-life and nightclub scene. A brief railroad job on the New York-Boston route (hawking sandwiches in a minstrel mode) enabled him to explore Harlem as well. Within a year, he had relocated there. He acquired a conk (chemically straightened hair), a drug habit, and a zoot suit. The zoot suit was a political as well as fashion statement. As Marable explains: “zoot-suiters were widely identified with draft-dodging.” In response, the War Production Board in 1942 banned the apparel’s further manufacture and sale. Malcolm wore his when he was called before the local draft board in 1943. His wild behavior and talk secured him a 4-F card on psychiatric grounds. Marable’s verdict:

Malcolm’s zoot-suited performance at the induction center was a different version of his Sandwich Red routine on the railroad. Both were examples of buffoonery, designed to achieve, respectively, financial reward and a permanent deferment from military service; both directly repudiated the forward, militant, and assertive model of his father. Though he had objected in principle to going to war, his choice of method for avoiding service was pointedly the opposite of actually embodying that principle.

The downward slide continued. Hustling, numbers-running, drug-dealing, pimping, “paid homosexual encounters,” an abusive love affair with a white woman—all culminated in his arrest as the ringleader of a smalltime burglary crew. The involvement of three white women (and their witness-stand claims of coercion) guaranteed a long prison term which Malcolm began serving in 1946. The experience also confirmed for him the weakness and devilishness of women-white women most of all.

Up From Prison

Prison brought salvation. There were two distinct (and in certain respects incompatible) aspects to his rescue: first learning, then belief. The man who initially changed Malcolm’s life was not Elijah Muhammad but a black inmate, John Elton Bembry, an atheist and polymath whose discourses were listened to by white prisoners and guards as well as black prisoners. In the Autobiography, Malcolm says of him that “he was the first man I had ever seen command total respect…with his words” (ellipsis in original). More a Sophist than a Socrates, Bembry (whom Malcolm calls “Bimbi” in theAutobiography) “would prove to us, dipping into the science of human behavior, that the only difference between us and outside people was that we had been caught.” Malcolm was fascinated. Under Bembry’s tutelage, he undertook correspondence courses in English and Latin, stopped cursing (a mark of weak rather than strong atheism), and also started “some little cellblock swindles.”

His new seriousness helped secure a transfer to a more lenient facility, where he continued his “homemade education” with the dictionary as his foundation text. To improve both his limited vocabulary (which made reading often no more than “book-reading motions”) and his atrocious penmanship (letters were his link to family and friends), he copied out and studied the entire dictionary, a page a day. Through this exercise, the world spread itself before him; he discovered that “the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia.” Voracious book-reading followed, especially in the fields of history and philosophy. His verdict on the advantages of confinement versus college is worth pondering:

I imagine that one of the biggest troubles with colleges is there are too many distractions, too much panty-raiding, fraternities, and boola-boola and all of that. Where else but in a prison could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day?

Malcolm’s account of his self-education deserves to be read alongside the equally remarkable accounts of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington (in their respective autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom and Up from Slavery). Each of them powerfully establishes the equation between education and freedom.

During this same time, Malcolm was introduced to the Nation of Islam through the visits and letters of his siblings, all of whom were recent converts. Adding Islam to the black nationalism and pan-Africanism of their Garveyite upbringing was not a surprising step. Marable provides an interesting overview of Islam’s adoption by black intellectuals like Edward Wilmot Blyden, as well as its emergence among the “illiterate sharecroppers and landless workers who had trekked from the rural South during the initial wave of the Great Migration” (and later, of course, its appeal to America’s black prison population). The faith often took unorthodox and strangely distorted forms, from the Moorish Science Temple (founded in Newark in 1913) to the Ahmadiyya movement (founded in 1889 in India, spreading to the U.S. in the 1920s) to the Nation of Islam (begun in Detroit during the Great Depression). It didn’t take long for Malcolm to become the most disciplined of followers. The Nation set forth a very strong anti-vice program, recasting Islam’s religious proscriptions (no alcohol, no pork) as part of its anti-white message. Once Malcolm understood his earlier life of crime, addiction, and sexual license as a form of enslavement—a continuation of the white conspiracy to weaken and oppress blacks—his fecklessness and aversion to work were replaced by astonishing powers of self-control and concentrated effort.

These two developments—his turn toward the life of the mind and his embrace of a life of faith—are conflated in the Spike Lee movie Malcolm X where a fictitious prisoner named “Baines” plays the role of both scholarly mentor and NOI missionary. The inaccuracy is perhaps justified by the fact that once Malcolm became a Black Muslim he entirely subordinated his intellectual curiosity to his new faith. He read ever in quest of evidence of the white man’s deviltry. It wasn’t hard to find: “I perceived, as I read, how the collective white man had been actually nothing but a piratical opportunist who used Faustian machinations to make his own Christianity his initial wedge in criminal conquests.” He also read for evidence of “the black man’s true role in history”—a role that had been deliberately concealed and “whitened”: “Spinoza impressed me for a while when I found out that he was black. A black Spanish Jew.” One sees here the skewing of education toward an ideological and collectivist purpose. In a prescient short essay titled “The Myth of Black Studies,” published in 1969, Bayard Rustin demolished this brand of “mythologized history” which has as its main aims “political mobilization” and psychological uplift. Instead of the “cheap separatist solution” of Afrocentrism, Rustin declares:

What Black Studies should mean is a thorough and objective scholastic inquiry into the history of the black man in America. This history has been scandalously distorted in the past…. But I am afraid that Black Studies, as it is presently conceived by its proponents on campus, will not correct these errors so much as compound them, for its primary purpose will be to further ends that are fundamentally nonscholastic.

W.E.B. Du Bois, who was not averse to education serving certain race-purposes, nonetheless also insisted upon a conception of liberal education that transcended group-consciousness. At the close of his essay “Of the Training of Black Men,” he describes “that higher individualism which the centres of culture protect” and which offers “the chance to soar in the dim blue air above the smoke.” Malcolm rightly said of his time behind bars that “up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.” But freedom has degrees; and admirable though his self-education was, its partisan nature closed him off from the ultimate freedom.

Malcolm’s studies galvanized his activism. In the Autobiography, he explains the genesis of his public speaking career: “My reading had my mind like steam under pressure. Some way, I had to start telling the white man about himself to his face.” He joined the prison debating club, honing his skills as an orator. He learned much more than how to score polemical points. He studied human nature and figured out how to reach “this caged-up black man.”

After his release from prison, Minister Malcolm showed what the art of rhetoric could do. The Nation of Islam burgeoned from a few hundred members in 1952 to tens of thousands by 1960. Malcolm also had important debates with James Farmer and Bayard Rustin in which he quite adeptly made the weaker argument the stronger, thereby gaining the admiration of many blacks who were not about to join the Nation of Islam but who carried a new militancy into the civil rights struggle, triggering the Black Power movement. And, of course, his confrontational language and threats of violence frightened the bejesus out of white Americans and the FBI (which had been keeping tabs on him since 1950 when he was still in prison). Many whites were intrigued, nonetheless. Malcolm became a highly sought-after speaker on college campuses; in 1964, only Barry Goldwater (whom the contrarian Malcolm in fact supported for the presidency) drew more invitations.


The nation of Islam could not contain Malcolm X. His trajectory towards independence has certain parallels with the intellectual journey of Frederick Douglass. For many years Douglass advocated the view of the American Anti-Slavery Society that the U.S. Constitution was a blood-soaked pact with the slave-holding devil. Reform via the courts and ballot box was adamantly rejected by William Lloyd Garrison and his followers. Because the government was fundamentally corrupt, one should simply “come-out” from it. Over time, Douglass became convinced that this millenarian brand of Abolitionism was politically unworkable—Americans were not about to annul the Constitution as a result of appeals to conscience—and irresponsible, since it supported the slaveocratic interpretation of the Constitution. Eventually, Douglass issued his own declaration of independence, “Change of Opinion Announced,” expressing his new conviction that the Constitution was “a glorious liberty document.” Garrison, a mentor whom Douglass had idolized, did not treat dissenters kindly (although, being a pacifist, he had no goon squads to enforce sectarian orthodoxy).

The essential lines of Malcolm’s rethinking were similar to Douglass’s, despite extremely important differences in the substance of their positions. The Nation of Islam, like the American Anti-Slavery Society, was a “come-outerist” organization. It denounced existing arrangements in the strongest terms and yet scorned ordinary political engagement. Elijah Muhammad instructed his followers not to participate in civil rights rallies, protests, or boycotts. The NOI very actively sought recruits who then lived in a kind of internal exile; members, for instance, dealt as much as they could with NOI-owned businesses. Labeling King and other leading lights “Uncle Toms,” the Nation instead pursued “an anti-integrationist strategy.” Accordingly, in 1961, Elijah Muhammad reached out clandestinely to the Klan, with Malcolm serving as the point man. Muhammad hoped the Klan would support his solution: not just segregation but full separation—in furtherance of which the Nation sought the Klan’s help in purchasing substantial tracts of land in the South. (Malcolm’s involvement in this scheme provokes Marable’s strongest criticism: “To sit down with white supremacists to negotiate common interests, at a moment in black history when the KKK was harassing, victimizing, and even killing civil rights workers and ordinary black citizens, was despicable.”) Also in 1961, Muhammad reached an open accord with the American Nazi Party led by George Lincoln Rockwell. Flanked by his storm troopers, Rockwell began attending NOI events, pledging his support and hailing Elijah Muhammad as the “black Hitler.” White-hatred and black-hatred had hatred in common; they had Jew-hatred in common, too.

Malcolm found these alliances distasteful and he knew they hurt his credibility in the wider world. The praise of white supremacists for the NOI is reminiscent of the praise that John A. Campbell of Alabama bestowed on one of the Garrisonian tracts setting forth the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. Strategizing with John C. Calhoun, Campbell declared it “an able pamphlet…[which] we might circulate to great advantage excluding a few paragraphs.” When slaveocrats start distributing abolitionist literature, someone has the wrong approach—so too when Klansmen and Nazis salute you as brothers in arms. Douglass’s disaffection from Garrisonianism was furthered by his debates with Gerrit Smith and other political-action abolitionists. For Malcolm, Bayard Rustin assumed this pivotal role. In a radio debate with Malcolm in November 1960, Rustin demonstrated both the incoherence and inefficacy of the NOI version of black separatism. The two men remained friends and debate partners. According to Marable, Malcolm “knew Rustin was right” but, at that point, his doubts were not fully fledged enough to set him on a truer and better path. Within a very few years he did get there—or at least he got to the trailhead.

Ballots or Bullets

It remains to say something about Malcolm’s emerging political philosophy in the final tumultuous year of his life. In the immediate wake of his departure from the NOI in 1964, he founded two organizations: Muslim Mosque Inc. (MMI) and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). The first was a splinter group of Malcolm loyalists from the Nation of Islam whom he sought to Islamicize. The transition was difficult for former NOI members who had not experienced the epiphany he had during his recent hajj. Nonetheless, Malcolm managed to secure recognition from the Islamic Federation of the United States and Canada, thereby positioning himself as an evangelist for Islam and effectively marginalizing the Nation. Drawing upon the extensive and varied contacts he had made throughout the Middle East (the Saudi royal family, the Muslim Brotherhood, the PLO, and Gamal Abdel Nasser), the MMI was ready to become a “conduit for Arab financial aid.” Regrettably but perhaps not surprisingly, Malcolm embraced the anti-Zionist invective of his new connections, shifting also from the pro-capitalist stance of the NOI to praise for those paragons of socialism, Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong.

Although the MMI rapidly collapsed after Malcolm’s death, and the NOI has likewise faded, it is a remarkable fact that more than a million African-Americans now identify as Muslim. Daniel Pipes has calculated that black Americans are 200 times likelier to convert to Islam than white Americans, with hip-hop artists, athletes, and other celebrities sporting Malcolm X hats in the vanguard. Despite Malcolm’s late turn toward tolerance and the generally non-extremist character of American Muslims, Islamists abroad have tried to appropriate Malcolm X for their own anti-American agenda. In 1984, revolutionary Iran was the first country to commemorate him with a postage stamp. Although the U.S. tried to re-appropriate him in 1999 with its own stamp, this was unconvincing to John Walker Lindh, the youthful, white, Malcolm X devotee who became “the American Taliban.” Al-Qaeda too has deployed Malcolm: in a 2008 video, al-Zawahiri quoted Malcolm to denounce president-elect Barack Obama, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice as “house Negroes.” Malcolm is here no more than a pawn in Islam’s larger theological-political battles.

During the 24 weeks that Malcolm spent abroad from April through November of 1964, spiritual discovery was not his sole purpose. He was attempting to convince African and Arab nations to take the complaints of American blacks to the United Nations. He sought to internationalize the domestic struggle. He spent quite a bit of time in Ghana with the radical expatriate community gathered around Nkrumah; the young Maya Angelou was so smitten with him that she returned to the U.S. to assist with his other new organization, the purely secular Organization of Afro-American Unity (modeled on the Organization of African Unity) which was formed to give Malcolm an institutional base for his entry into the American political scene. Marable treats this pan-African strategy with more deference than it deserves. King’s verdict at the time was more accurate: “Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania and Nigeria are fighting their own battles for survival against poverty, illiteracy and the subversive influence of neocolonialism, so that they offer no hope to Angola, Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, and much less to the American Negro.” A century earlier, Frederick Douglass had made the same case that injustice in America was best addressed on the spot:

If we cannot make Virginia, with all her enlightenment and Christianity, believe that there are better uses for her energies than employing them in breeding slaves for the market, we see not how we can expect to make Guinea, with its ignorance and savage selfishness, adopt our notions of political economy…. The means for accomplishing our object are quite as promising here as there, and more especially since we are here already, with constitutions and habits suited to the country and its climate, and to its better institutions.

The last point about “better institutions” is crucial. Because of those better institutions, Douglass was confident that principled change was possible in the United States. There are signs that Malcolm—despite his ingrained Garveyite/Nation of Islam/pan-African tendency to long for some other land where dark complexions would be the majority—had begun to see some hope for his people within America. Minority status might not mean permanent oppression. Thus, even as he remained critical of those who posited integration as the goal of the movement (“you can sit down next to white folks—on the toilet. That’s no revolution”), he became willing to join with other civil rights organizations in denouncing state-imposed segregation. At the same time, he made an effort (not always successful) to moderate his earlier disrespectful characterizations of other black leaders.

Finally, in his greatest speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X began to reflect on the deepest questions of law and citizenship. Discussion of the relationship between ballots and bullets has a distinguished history in American political thought. Lincoln, for instance, when he argued against the constitutionality of secession, urged us to remember “that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections.” Of course, in denouncing secession, Lincoln was not denying the existence of a right of revolution—there could be situations in which ballots have not fairly and constitutionally decided. Lincoln agreed with Jefferson that where “peaceable remedies are unprovided,” the “sword of revolution” is always the ultimate resort. Frederick Douglass too had used the alliterative formula in a short 1859 editorial entitled “The Ballot and the Bullet.” In arguing against Garrison’s no-voting theory, Douglass stated: “What we want is an anti-slavery Government, in harmony with our anti-slavery speech, one which will give effect to our words, and translate them into acts. For this, the ballot is needed, and if this will not be heard and heeded, then the bullet.”

Malcolm X understood this Lockean logic. Legitimate government based on a free ballot binds the individual—binds him to work through the prescribed mechanisms of democratic consent; illegitimate government does not. The Lockean corrective to governmental abuse is revolution—or at least a potent threat that people will exercise their right of revolution. As Malcolm put it: “It’ll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It’ll be ballots, or it’ll be bullets. It’ll be liberty, or it will be death. The only difference about this kind of death [as compared to the turn-the-other-cheek deaths of those pledged to nonviolence]—it’ll be reciprocal.” Despite the incendiary quality of his language, Malcolm was careful to present this violence in the Lockean context of justifiable self-defense: “I don’t mean go out and get violent; but at the same time you should never be nonviolent unless you run into some nonviolence.”

Malcolm’s targets were the segregationist authorities who were initiating the state of war and the followers of King who thought they could devise a nonviolent form of resistance or a civil form of disobedience. Malcolm was consistently critical of King’s betwixt-and-between strategies. If the action is nonviolent it’s not really resistance; remember, “ballot” is a kind of shorthand not just for the elective franchise but for all the tools of democratic citizenship: free speech, the rights of assembly and petition, and access to the courts (including the powerful tactic, used to the full by the NAACP, of testing the constitutionality of local and state laws). If, on the other hand, the action is truly disobedient (i.e., against the law), then it cannot be civil. In the final chapter of his Second Treatise, Locke pokes fun at the unintelligible notion that one could “strike with Reverence.” Theoretically, Malcolm was on firmer ground than King. He stood with Locke, the American revolutionaries, and Abraham Lincoln—all of whom understood the choice to be either the ballot or the bullet, either the obligations of citizenship or the right of revolution. Psychologically too, Malcolm had a strong case: “If you don’t take this kind of stand, your little children will grow up and look at you and think ‘shame.'”


People today often make the case that Malcolm was useful to the cause of racial justice because his extremism frightened white Americans into accepting reforms they otherwise wouldn’t have—in other words, Malcolm played bad cop to Martin’s good cop. But instead of blithely harnessing Malcolm to the onward rush of progressive history, perhaps we should consider the possibility that elements of Malcolm’s radicalism were in fact superior, on their own terms, because they held true to the nation’s foundations and were in the long run less dangerous. Malcolm X is not antinomian in the way that King is. As Lincoln argued in the Lyceum Address, antinomianism (which acknowledges no authority other than the individual conscience) threatens not just law and order but law and justice. While I disagree fundamentally with Malcolm X’s assertion that blacks in America were nothing more than “victims of Americanism,” his classic formulation of the issue—”in 1964, it’s the ballot or the bullet”—allows us to ask the rarely-raised question whether the struggle for civil rights could have achieved its end without resort to King’s brand of supposedly “civil” disobedience. Would it have been better to focus more exclusively and directly on the ballot?

This seems to be the route Malcolm was exploring. Despite an opening statement of the black man’s essential alienation, “The Ballot or the Bullet” is by no means a straightforward call to arms. It’s more a nuanced thinking through of the alternatives. Malcolm notes that since the white vote is always split, the black minority could hold outsized electoral influence. One aim of the speech is instruction in how to use the ballot wisely—after all, “a ballot is like a bullet.” Malcolm is quick to acknowledge that greater political maturity may not be enough, if all politics in America is a white conspiracy—as race-based gerrymandering indicated. Nonetheless, he does not abandon the search for properly political solutions. Echoing Douglass, he notes that the parchment regime is on the side of fairness: “the Constitution itself has within it the machinery to expel any representative from a state where the voting rights of the people are violated.” Although he mentions favorable decisions by the Supreme Court, he still doesn’t trust Uncle Sam. By the end of the speech, he expands his search for friendly law to the World Court; but even this international strategy is grounded in law.

Malcolm’s sense of not belonging in America began early. His rage ran deep. Born “Little,” he struggled manfully against the belittlement that American race relations imposed on him. It’s not clear where his greatly-questing spirit would have taken him had he lived beyond the age of 39. Whatever the twists and turns ahead, I suspect Malcolm would have preserved his ability to charm and surprise. At the Harvard Law School Forum in December 1964, Malcolm told a story of being on a plane, conversing pleasantly for 35 or 40 minutes with the white woman seated next to him. Seeing his monogramed briefcase, she asked him “what kind of last name could you have that begins with X?” His answer: “Malcolm.” It took her some minutes to put that puzzle together but finally she blurted out, “You’re not Malcolm X?… I just wouldn’t believe that you were that man.”

* * *

The CRB discusses the life and legacy of Malcolm X with Diana Schaub and Peter Myers in our online feature, Upon Further Review.

* * *

For Correspondence on this essay, click here.