Mystery of Malcolm X

From Ebony Magazine, September 1964

Today, on the fifty-third anniversary of El Hajj Malik Shabazz’s (Malcolm X’s) martyrdom, we re-present Hans Massaquoi’s article in Ebony covering the short period between his departure from the Nation of Islam in March 1964 and his assassination in 1965. Massaquoi followed Malcolm X across Harlem as he built the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), “a non-religious and non-sectarian group organized to unite Afro-Americans for a constructive program toward attainment of human rights.” The founding of this organization marked Malcolm’s official foray into “the Negro revolt” that is now called the Civil Rights Movement. Elijah Muhammad had restrained Malcolm X from commenting directly on the movement and ostensibly excommunicated him for his now-famous characterization of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination as “chickens coming home to roost.” Malcolm added a fresh, militant voice to the wider movement — calling, for example, to send “armed guerrillas into Mississippi to protect civil rights workers” from attacks by the Ku Klux Klan. This message quickly gained an audience in Harlem where “the pacific voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is but a whisper” and “white rookie cops… casually saunter by, their billy clubs twirling with suggestive ease.”

Massaquoi writes with a cautious optimism that ought to remind us that we barely knew Malcolm X because we were robbed of witnessing who he could have become. The message of upright, restrained militancy that has solidified his image was, in the summer of 1964, more of a vision than an actualized reality. The Malcolm X we know, as Massaquoi points out, is the one who built up the Nation of Islam. What would El Hajj Malik Shabazz make of the OAAU and Muslim Mosque, Inc.? How would a prominent militant voice have shaped the Civil Rights Movement? Would we today be speaking instead of a “Human Rights” movement (as Malcolm framed the struggle)? As the author notes, “[a]lmost everybody ventures to guess, but nobody really knows.” The “Mystery of Malcolm X” remains with us.

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