Review: Marable’s Malcolm X

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Manny Marable

A deeply researched, clearly written, important work of scholarship on one of the most fascinating figures in modern American history.

Like many, I read Malcolm X’s autobiography in high school and was deeply effected by the story of the hustler turned political activist. I’ve encounter Malcolm’s ideas throughout the rest of my life. At times, I’ve agreed with him, at other times, I haven’t.  But while Malcolm’s ideas have long been a part of my intellectual world, I haven’t thought deeply about the man since I first read the Autobiography all those years ago. Indeed, I figured from reading the autobiography, I knew all I needed to know about the man.


The Malcolm of the Autobiography is a complicated character. A hustler, a religious zealot, a black nationalist. But in fact, when you dig deeper into the facts (and Marable has dug DEEP) Malcolm was much more than even that. He was the child of political activists (Malcolm’s parents were Garveyites), the son of a mentally ill mother, a thug and drug dealer, but more small time that he made it seem. He may likely an occasional sex worker. He was a zealot, first for the Nation of Islam (to which his family had deep ties) and later to orthodox Islam. He was anti-Semitic, and profoundly chauvinistic. He was brilliant, and troubled. A showman, and a gifted orator, willing to say more than he meant to get a rise out of a crowd but also introspective, and thoughtful.

If Malcolm himself wasn’t complicated enough, his life touches on a number of the fascinating social movements starting with the Garvey movement of his childhood, through his long involvement with the bizarre Nation of Islam, and ending with his involvement in the burgeoning pan-African movement.

All kinds of important figures in black history appear here as well. King, of course, but also Robert Williams, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and more.

Oh and for good measure, let’s throw in meetings with the Socialist Workers Party, the American Nazi Party, and the Klan.

The book is incredible and you should read it. If I have a quibble, it’s that it might be a bit too exhaustive. Every meeting with a foreign dignitary is chronicled, every trip detailed. It’s a little bit too much for the casual reader like myself. But it’s hard to fault Marable for being so thorough. He set out to write the definitive biography of Malcolm X, and he did.

At least for now.

Many mysteries still exist, especially around Malcolm’s assassination. Though Marable has strong theories on who the actual killers were, the extent of knowledge of the NOI leadership, the FBI and the NYPD is still unknown. Was a police informant involved in the killing? Did Elijah Mohamed directly order it? Did Farrakhan know? These questions remain unanswered, for now.  When the complete FBI files regarding Malcolm and the National of Islam are released years from now, perhaps we’ll know more.

Until then, if you care about civil rights, American history, or the stories of fascinating, complex men, you really should read this.



Review: Side’s Hellhound on His Trail

Hellhound on His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History
Hampton Sides

Hampton Side’s gripping, almost moment by moment, recounting of the events surrounding the assignation of Martin Luther King is a must read if the history of the civil rights movement, and the attempts to destroy it, mean anything to you.

The book alternates between the story of King’s and James Earl Ray’s lives in the year or so before King’s assassination. In some ways, this feels almost unfair. King was, of course, a much more important man that Ray. He gets more of the book’s pages, but perhaps not enough. While Ray spent the year before murdering King drinking too much, being a loser, and festering in a sea of hate, King was going about changing the country. Still, though at times I felt a bit uncomfortable with the attention bestowed on Ray, the minute attention paid to his life brings his sad existence into clarity. While it doesn’t explain why he did what he did, it does give is some context.

I think of myself as pretty well versed in the civil rights movement, but there was much here that was new to me, including the detailed recounting of the internal politics within the SCLC. Jackson comes off as ethically challenged, Abernathy as in over his head, and King as a flawed but brilliant — an almost messiah like leader. It makes for compelling stuff. This book was obviously deeply researched, but it wears that research lightly. You’ll learn much about King, the strike in Memphis, the hate filled corners of America, the conspiracy theories surrounding Kings death, and all that was insane about America in the mid-60s, but you’ll learn it within the breezy language of a journalist at the top of his game. For fans of popular history, this book can’t be beat.



Review: Piven and Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements

Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail
Frances Fox Piven, Richard Cloward

The classic Marxist tract every undergraduate leftist must read. Basically, by looking at specific case studies, including labor struggles and the civil rights movement, Piven and Cloward argue that poor people’s movements grow and flourish when they are amorphous and lead from below. They whither and die when top down leadership tries to stifle the movements natural radical democracy. What is important for a successful movement is therefore not that it has access to money and elite circles, but rather that it gathers widespread public support and disrupts the social order in a way that creates new, exciting opportunity.

My political theory education is spotty at best, but I think there’s a lot of truth in here, even if it is presented in, perhaps, a reductionist way.

Recommended for the enthusiast.