Malcolm X speaking at a Harlem rally, ca. 1962
O'Neal L. Abel / Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

Beyond the Myth of Malcolm X

Understanding the humanity, and the communities, that shaped the brilliant, troubled, selfish, generous, sincere radical

To anyone walking through Roxbury, Massachusetts, the sounds that waft over Dale Street are far away—the fart of buses on Washington Street to the west and on Warren Street to the east. The sidewalk that abuts the bowfront brick rowhouses and wood-frame two-families with porch railings and multiple mailboxes feels comfortably quiet. And it is possible to forget that the recently renamed Nubian Square—Roxbury’s central business district—is less than a 10-minute walk away.

In the early 1940s, when Boston’s El towered over what was then called Dudley Square, Ella Mae Little-Collins purchased a two-and-a-half-story house at 72 Dale Street, not far from Washington Park, and invited her 15-year-old half brother, Malcolm, to move in with her. Over the next five years, until he was arrested in January 1946 on charges of larceny, breaking and entering, and illegal possession of a firearm, Malcolm Little lived off and on at No. 72, walking the streets of Roxbury and the South End in his wide-brimmed hats and zoot suits.

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When he described 1940s Black Boston to Alex Haley as they worked together on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, two decades of distance had left him with barely concealed disdain for the Dale Street neighborhood. The cocky teenager had once marveled at the number of Black people in Dudley Square and the upper South End. But the man known variously as “East Lansing Red,” Prisoner 22843, Malcolm X, and Malik el-Shabazz told Haley that the enclave where he and Ella once lived was a bastion of middle-class Black pretension and snobbery. Yet despite this disavowal, Black Boston had a profound effect on the figure whom the artist-activist Shirley Graham Du Bois later referred to as “the most promising and effective leader of American Negroes in this century.”

At the city’s jazz clubs—the Hi-Hat, the Savoy, and Wally’s Paradise—East Lansing Red fell in love with Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, and Ella Fitzgerald. As a shoe-shine boy, he arranged sexual dalliances between white people and those he referred to as “Negro streetwalkers,” and went on to court a pious Black teenager at Townsend Drugstore on Humboldt Avenue, smoke copious amounts of weed, and fraternize with his Armenian American lover on Beacon Hill. When Malcolm performed his own crooner act at various South End clubs, he went by J.C., borrowed from the stage name Jimmy Carlton, used by his talented half brother, Earl Little Jr. The original J.C. had died of tuberculosis shortly after Malcolm’s arrival in Boston, and Malcolm used the nickname throughout his life.

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Today, with the exception of Wally’s on Massachusetts Avenue, few of these landmarks of Malcolm Little’s Boston remain. Gentrification has turned the skeletons of mid-20th-century Black Boston into condos and restaurants, and 72 Dale Street is no longer the worn house with the overgrown lawn that I remember seeing as a child in the 1980s, when my grandparents pointed it out to me on the way home from my cello recital. Back then, in the age of Ronald Reagan and deindustrialization and crack cocaine, the neighborhood was frequently mentioned with the dismissive sigh that political pundits reserve for the “inner city.” Then, too, the area was riddled with the broken promises made by the Massachusetts liberal establishment: The 1970s busing crisis and the failed 1983 mayoral campaign of the Black community activist Mel King had left Black Boston with neither the quality public schools nor the representative political power that its residents demanded.

Today, No. 72, which has been designated a historical landmark by the Boston Landmarks Commission, is still in need of paint, but its lawn is freshly mowed, its porch decorated with banners announcing the Malcolm X–Ella Little-Collins House. It is owned by Rodnell Collins, Ella Collins’s son and Malcolm X’s nephew, and is marked by a weathered plaque on a stand in the grass.

Like his early childhood in Omaha, Nebraska; his troubled preadolescence in Lansing, Michigan; and his immersion in street-corner politics in 1950s Harlem, Malcolm’s coming-of-age in Boston shaped his radicalism as profoundly as the Nation of Islam and his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca did. And yet, in our current political moment, as Black scholars and activists demand that America reckon with the structural and institutional mechanisms that threaten Black existence, it is easy to forget the complexities of community, of place, of Blackness itself that shape Black lives. In order for Black lives to matter in the radical ways that we demand, we must reckon, honestly and humbly, with the personal histories of those who have made our present movement possible.

Precisely this kind of textured attention to Black life and community, whether in Omaha or Boston, Atlanta or Accra, distinguishes Les Payne’s masterful biography, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X. Payne takes as a given that Malcolm was neither the propagator of hate that his critics claimed—a radical messiah manipulated by an extremist cult, as many Black leaders at the time considered him to be—nor the tragic transnational revolutionary assassinated before he could be fully redeemed. Rather, The Dead Are Arising is a meticulously researched, compassionately rendered, and fiercely analytical examination of the radical revolutionary as a human being.

Haley’s 1965 Autobiography asked us to truly see the passion that Malcolm had for Black people, to meditate on his willingness to die, as Ossie Davis said at his funeral, “because he loved us so.” Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011) dissected Malcolm’s personal and intellectual relationship with the Black radical tradition, providing new revelations about his sexuality and constant political reinvention. Payne has combed this scholarship, yet draws above all on thousands of hours of interviews with Malcolm’s family, friends, enemies, and converts. Completed after his death by his daughter, Tamara Payne, whose research was crucial all along, Payne’s biography forces us to understand Malcolm X as his various communities experienced him—as a brilliant, troubled, selfish, generous, sincere, ugly, and beautiful Black radical whose faith in working-class Black folk was surpassed only by his compassion for the communities from whence they came.

Like most Black teenagers in the early 1990s, I was obsessed with Malcolm X even before I watched Spike Lee’s 1992 film over and over again. I read The Autobiography at least once every summer and wore out my cheap CD player playing Arrested Development’s “Revolution” on repeat. I listened to his speeches on my Walkman, on a grainy cassette recording that skipped whenever Malcolm said “tee” in the rhetorical “the Honorable Elijah Muhammad tee-ches us.” I wrote most of my 10th-grade Shakespeare paper sitting at my desk beneath a crooked poster of Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. shaking hands in 1964. And like most of the young Black people I grew up with, I never understood Malcolm as a foil to Martin but as an affirmation that our lives—Black lives—were far more nuanced than white people allowed.

My grandparents—the same well-heeled, proud, and unselfconsciously cultured couple who drove me, in their silver Cadillac, to see 72 Dale Street one afternoon in the early ’80s—were activists in the mold of King and the theologian Howard Thurman, an influential mentor of his. They kept two versions of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited and a mimeographed, neatly stapled copy of “Letter From Birmingham Jail” among my grandmother’s Progressive Architecture magazines and wilted copies of Ebony. They joined my mother, sisters, and me every January in lighting a cake and singing “Happy Birthday” long before Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday. They taught me to see Ella Baker, Coretta Scott King, Flo Kennedy, and Shirley Chisholm as the logical heirs of King’s dream in that Technicolor way that middle-class Black families talked about the 1960s in the post-movement ’70s and ’80s. Yet some version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X was always there, too—either the black-covered one with Malcolm’s pointing finger, or the one with a picture of Malcolm mid-speech, wearing a thin black tie, a press microphone in front of him.

These books didn’t keep my grandmother, the most beautiful and glamorous woman I’ve ever known, from pursing her lips disapprovingly and ignoring my adolescent fascination whenever I asked about her encounters with Malcolm X. She remembered Malcolm Little as “riffraff,” the hoodlum teenager who robbed brownstones in the South End in the 1940s, when she and my grandfather first moved there. As newlyweds after my grandfather left the Navy, my grandparents purchased property on Columbus Avenue, which they rented to Black and brown tenants who never stole or cheated or pimped, many of whom became stock characters in my mother’s stories of her New England childhood. King stayed with a friend of one of these tenants when he was a theology student at Boston University; the future Senator Edward Brooke was just another pretty college boy who went to house parties with another tenant’s relatives in the late ’40s.

These Black people, my grandmother knew, were deeply political in ways that can easily be taken for granted—as poll workers, as literacy teachers, as organizers of school boycotts and volunteers for community legislative campaigns. And because of that, my grandmother could never understand how a Black boy who stole and pimped—whom she remembered as being decidedly apolitical—could reinvent himself as a pious messenger of global Black revolution. Malcolm’s infamy was probably deeply personal for her, too: One of her brothers, another brilliant Black man shamed and exploited in ways I will never know, joined the Nation of Islam, moved his wife and kids to a tiny apartment in Dudley Square, stopped visiting my grandparents, and sold bean pies and Muhammad Speaks outside the train station. Nobody in my family can tell me exactly when this uncle joined the Nation or why, but they recall the trauma of being one of only a few Black families in a predominantly white Boston suburb, and the shock of that brother’s defection. My mother still remembers visiting her favorite girl cousin through a car window, because this suddenly militant uncle refused to let his children associate with those he called integrationists.

Malcolm X’s difficult legacy—the fact that his rhetoric could radicalize Black communities even as the Nation of Islam fractured some families—was rarely acknowledged at the height of Malcolm X hagiography, during the 1990s. Malcolm was not a real person for those, like myself, who were born long after his assassination. And so I, like many in my generation, searched his speeches for the sentences that explained my experience. Hungry for more, I peppered my grandmother with questions about Malcolm in Boston, but she pursed her lips still tighter in that way that old, beautiful Black women have of telling you they are done.

Undeterred, I badgered my mother too, with questions about what Boston was like when Malcolm X lived there, whether he looked at all like Denzel Washington, and whether she agreed that, as Malcolm said, “it’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism.” No doubt weary from leaving an abusive marriage, raising three daughters in sudden poverty, and fighting with bill collectors who blamed her Blackness, not racism or capitalism, for her inability to pay, my mother always listened to me patiently. She then sighed and said, “Probably, honey, but race and politics are always more complicated than that. Even Malcolm X could admit that.”

image of Malcolm X
Eve Arnold / Magnum

The Dead Are Arising embraces this complexity. Payne sets Malcolm’s intellectual and political precocity alongside what many, like my grandmother, experienced as his disingenuousness—as an ambitious petty criminal turned Nation of Islam proselytizer who converted thousands of young Black people during the 1950s, only to disavow the group’s leader and champion global Black revolution in the 1960s. The result is a portrait that pushes us beyond the adolescent hero worship that many in my generation cling to in our current political moment as we reread Malcolm X, C. L. R. James, Angela Davis, and other Black thinkers. We demand of our radical intellectual icons far more than any human being is capable of giving, even as their reconception of Blackness and global power fuels our radical calls for justice.

The Dead Are Arising refuses to do this. With new information gleaned from decades of research, Payne sheds fresh light on key moments in Malcolm’s political journey. He reassesses the racial traumas of Malcolm’s childhood, his disillusionment with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, and the details of Malcolm’s 1965 assassination. In the process, Payne portrays the Black revolutionary as a flawed and ever-evolving man, and evokes the ambivalence toward revolutionary leaders that Black communities experience in their own time.

The Little family, Payne shows, vacillated between remembering Malcolm as the chosen seventh son (as his nephew Rodnell Collins put it) and claiming that his childhood incorrigibility contributed to his mother’s mental anguish. Louise Little famously suffered a mental breakdown after the death of her husband, Malcolm’s father, in 1931. Earl Little Sr.’s death, and the subsequent collapse of the Little children’s home life, occurred just a couple of years after white terrorists burned the family’s house to the ground in Lansing, Michigan.

In The Autobiography, Malcolm tells Haley that his father was lynched: Earl and Louise were members of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the most significant 20th-century pan-African movement of the Black working class until the Black Power movement of the ’60s. Earl Little’s racial pride, and his belief in Black economic independence, enraged the white-supremacist Black Legion, which haunted Malcolm’s early childhood as the family moved across the racially violent Midwest.

White fury over the Littles’ Garveyism, Malcolm insisted, led directly to his father’s murder. The event is a defining moment in The Autobiography, and a recurring scene in Spike Lee’s 1992 film: Earl Little (played by Tommy Hollis), caught in the headlights of a barreling train, screaming as it bears down on his body. In A Life, Marable repeats the story, although with less certainty than Haley: He allows for the possibility that Little was murdered, but he also situates Little’s death in the context of the violent racist harassment that the family encountered as they moved from one predominantly white midwestern state to another. Payne’s meticulous digging and countless interviews, however, reveal that Earl Little was likely run over by a streetcar.

The fact that Malcolm X’s father was not lynched will surely disappoint readers searching for a simple origin story of Malcolm’s radical politics. But the actual catastrophe, in Payne’s rich and careful telling, was no less formative. He insists that even if Earl Little’s death was a terrible accident, it was racially traumatic for Malcolm, then 6, and his siblings, given the realities of organized white terrorism during the 1920s. Although family members never believed that Earl Little was lynched, white children told Malcolm what their own parents told them—that the proud patriarch was “lynched” by the Ku Klux Klan. As Payne shows and as Malcolm forced the world to admit, living under constant white-supremacist violence and contempt can feel as devastating as being 6 years old and hearing that a parent was lynched. Racism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness are systemic, but within these systems are real Black people—people for whom, Payne demonstrates, these systems are far more personal than academic and sociological discussion might suggest.

Payne’s portrayal of Black communities negotiating with, defying, and dismantling systemic white supremacy in ways that transform the personal into the radically political has a powerful effect: It challenges the popular notion that Malcolm single-handedly brought a potentially revolutionary Black cosmology to unsophisticated yet sincere communities of working people. Released from prison in 1952, Malcolm formally joined the Nation of Islam in Detroit and quickly became the group’s most charismatic and visible spokesman, and a favorite of Elijah Muhammad’s. In 1955, Muhammad sent Malcolm to Hartford, Connecticut, where he helped a local resident, Rosalie Bey Glover, create one of the most durable NOI communities in all of New England.

Payne interviewed Glover and her family, as well as others who were members of Hartford’s NOI community during the 1950s, and their memories of Malcolm and the Nation convey the dissatisfaction that Black America felt in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education. In Hartford, Glover found work and respite after a young neighbor’s brutal lynching in her native Florida, an incident that Payne renders in horrifying detail. Yet even as Glover, like most Black migrants, built a life for herself and her nine children in Hartford, discriminatory federal housing loans and real-estate covenants kept Black residents segregated and underemployed.

The University of Texas at Austin professor Peniel Joseph has recently challenged the “neat juxtaposition” in popular culture between Malcolm’s fiery appeal to working-class northerners and King’s nonviolence in the South—a revisionist thesis that Payne takes as a given: His vivid description of Glover’s community captures the mood of New England Black folk who were disconnected, both personally and culturally, from King’s nonviolence, yet also skeptical of the nationalistic Moorish Science Temple, a predecessor to the Nation. Weary of legislative efforts made by the National Urban League and the local chapter of the NAACP, Black Hartford shaped Malcolm’s political translation of the Nation’s teachings, Payne suggests, as much as Malcolm galvanized the communities in which he organized.

Although Malcolm took credit for the NOI’s success in Connecticut’s capital—“The East Coast has many rough spots,” Payne quotes from a letter Malcolm sent in 1956 to Muhammad, “but overall the dead there are rising”—Payne’s extensive research revises the image of Malcolm as an all-wise radical messiah. The communities that Malcolm interacted with were already “woke”—as proved by the fact that Rosalie Glover brought Malcolm to Hartford after hearing him speak in Springfield, Massachusetts—but Malcolm channeled that wokeness into a radical reconception of Black possibility.

Malcolm’s role was on full display in Hartford’s North End “barracks,” the rented floors in adjacent apartment buildings where the Nation of Islam housed Malcolm’s initiates. Payne’s interviews with some of these early converts provide rarely revealed details of NOI discipline during the 1950s: cooperative (all-male) living, mandatory house cleaning, adherence to the Nation’s dietary restrictions. Payne shows that Malcolm was not paternalistic; rather, he had a gift for inspiring those whom the Nation referred to as “the lost-found”—Black Christians disenchanted by the piety, forgiveness, and humility preached by the Protestant tradition in which they’d been raised. These “lost-found” were not asleep—their disenchantment was part of the understandable Black impatience in the aftermath of Brown—and they were hungry for someone to articulate the racial reality that they knew. As one initiate told Payne, “I had seen white people do some terrible things in the South. Malcolm made me feel like a man for the first time in my life.”

Nation of Islam rally in Harlem in 1963
When Malcolm X held this Nation of Islam rally in Harlem in 1963, his loyalty to the group’s leader was weakening. The man who had once punctuated his speeches with “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us ...” now did so less often. Disillusioned by Muhammad’s political strategy and personal morals, he began to share the doubts of followers who were leaving the Nation. (Bruce Davidson / Magnum)

Because Payne takes the memories and views of Black communities seriously—because he never assumes that Malcolm’s Black contemporaries experienced him in the same way that we describe him in the present—The Dead Are Arising provides an invaluable glimpse into the mechanics of community mobilization led by Black women. One of Payne’s real contributions (which is indebted to the work of Black scholars like Ashley Farmer at UT Austin and Keisha Blain at the University of Pittsburgh) is to situate Malcolm’s insurgent radicalism within Black women’s communities without apologizing for Malcolm’s misogyny. As Payne shows, most of his earliest supporters and fellow organizers were, like Glover, working-class Black women. Yet NOI discourse was gendered—a fact that was very much on display at an early meeting in the Glovers’ apartment. Glover’s teenage daughter and namesake, clad in short shorts, was enthralled by Malcolm’s charisma, then publicly shamed when he disparaged what he deemed to be her skimpy clothes. Decades later she still recalled Malcolm’s declaration that although Black men need “to respect our women and to protect our women,” Black women had to earn their respect. Malcolm X might have helped usher in an era of arising Black dead, Payne suggests, but if we are to take Black lives and Black communities seriously, we have to reckon with his ever-changing place within these communities.

Malcolm’s complicated relationship to the Black communities that he loved is also the basis for one of Payne’s most painful revelations—that the NOI and Malcolm sought covert cooperation with the Georgia Ku Klux Klan in 1961, even as white segregationists terrorized nonviolent Black protesters across the South. Muhammad had sent the Philadelphia NOI leader Jeremiah X to Atlanta in 1957, and four years later the partnership between nonviolent protesters and local civil-rights organizations was strong enough that a court case, Holmes v. Danner, ruled segregation at the University of Georgia unconstitutional. But Muhammad wanted to build an independent Black state in the South, and when Jeremiah received a telegram from the Georgia KKK, Muhammad urged Malcolm—in town to preach at Atlanta’s Temple No. 15—to meet with the terrorist organization.

With a screenwriter’s flair, Payne depicts the lazy drawl of the white Klansman talking to Malcolm and Jeremiah, and conveys Malcolm’s gift for intellectually dexterous debate without trivializing the meeting’s significance. Malcolm aimed to show the Klansmen (and the Black Muslims in the room, too) that Black separatism, as propounded by Muhammad, was economically and racially opposed to Klan-style segregation. Yet Muhammad encouraged Malcolm to pitch the Klan on helping the NOI acquire land for its independent Black state—and to accept the Klan’s offer to allow Black Muslims free movement throughout the South.

Malcolm, his faith in his leader already shaken by word of Muhammad’s infidelities, emerged from the meeting even more disillusioned with the Nation and its prophet—a disdain, Payne shows, that led Muhammad to ban Malcolm from building temples in the South. Malcolm was led in turn to reflect on the Klan’s murderous rage toward King and the nonviolent civil-rights movement. During the meeting, the Klan suggested that the Fruit of Islam, the NOI’s army, track King’s movements across the South—a chilling request that exposed just how much more threatened the violent white supremacists were by King and nonviolent direct action than by Black separatists, whom the group perceived (however wrongly) as sympathetic to segregation. “The national spokesman continued to answer—although less blindly so—to a religious leader more willing to work with the Ku Klux Klan than with Negro leaders of the civil rights movement. This thundering contradiction,” Payne concludes, “began to raise serious doubt in Malcolm’s mind about the efficacy of his cult leader’s program and indeed his personal ethics and commitment.”

During the height of my Malcolm X obsession as a teenager, my grandmother took to answering my badgering indirectly: She sent me gift certificates to various Harvard Square bookstores, wallet-size card stock folded in pastel envelopes, inscribed with a handwritten list of titles by Black women historians and scholars. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Paula Giddings, bell hooks—the caliber of Black women humbled me almost as much as the realization that my grandmother, who had only a high-school education and had spent decades as the secretary for white Harvard men less clever and intellectually curious than she was, seemed to read and study and understand historical nuance in a way that the authors of my history textbooks never could.

I used her gift certificates and purchased most of the titles that she suggested, but we talked about her reading recommendations only once. She and my grandfather were at our house for Sunday dinner, and I was splayed out on the living-room couch, reading one of the books that she’d suggested—Angela Davis’s Women, Culture, & Politics. She came in to watch me, arms neatly folded, ankles crossed in that way that older Black women have when they study people with barely concealed bemusement. When I attempted to hide Davis’s book behind the cover of my People magazine, feigning indifference like the insufferable teenager I was, my grandmother laughed. She said, “How sophomoric, don’t you think, to mythologize our people until we become fans rather than thinkers?” When I didn’t answer she added, almost conspiratorially, “My, my, my, just think of all the places and countries and contexts from which our people come.”

My grandmother passed in 2007, so she will never get to read The Dead Are Arising. But I think that she would appreciate the multiple interpretations that readers will likely have of Payne’s most damning revelation—that Malcolm’s assassination, authorized by the NOI, was tolerated by many in law enforcement, including the FBI. For Malcolm X scholars, and those who study government repression of Black radical movements during the ’60s and ’70s, this exposé (based on Payne’s interviews with many involved in the killing) will come as no surprise. But what is heartbreaking is the notion that, for all of his love for Black communities, for all of his radical sincerity—for all of the contexts from which he came, as my grandmother put it—Malcolm was still a man whose intelligence and passion enraged those, Black and white, who couldn’t control him. This reality is the reason that Payne’s description of the communities that Malcolm engaged with is so important: The Dead Are Arising forces us to ask deeper, more complicated questions about the Black people and places from which our heroes come.

This article appears in the November 2020 print edition with the headline “The Making of Malcolm X.” It was first published online on October 15, 2020.

By Les Payne and Tamara Payne

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