Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Who Killed Malcolm X?” – a six-part Netflix series that started streaming during Black History Month – has not only reintroduced this icon of black political radicalism to a new generation, it has pushed the Manhattan district attorney’s office into relaunching the closed investigation into a political assassination that occurred 55 years ago.
This series makes it explicitly clear to a new generation Malcolm’s efforts at organizing a global political revolution that would lead to black dignity and the forces – ranging from the FBI and New York Police Department to factions within the Nation of Islam – arrayed against him. Malcolm’s death was a political assassination, one met with an investigation and prosecution that historians and others have long maintained was botched.
I served as one of the on-camera historians of Malcolm X who was interviewed by the filmmakers. As someone who has read, studied, and researched Malcolm, I found the search for the truth behind his death to be a fascinating and invigorating way to reconsider how he lived, the communities he impacted, the local, domestic, and international political landscape he indelibly shaped. Malcolm’s life as an organizer promoting black dignity, citizenship, and freedom inspired me to become a writer, teacher, and scholar – and this series goes a long way toward rescuing the man from the mythology that continues to suffocate his contemporary legacy.
“Who Killed Malcolm X?” offers refreshing insights into Malcolm’s complex political and organizational history. The series examines how Malcolm proved to be an indefatigable grassroots political organizer who turned the Nation of Islam (NOI) from a small group of several hundred dedicated followers into a major organization that boasted over 25,000 members and garnered millions of dollars in revenue through the acquisition of real estate, small businesses, and a thriving newspaper (Muhammad Speaks) that he founded and which reported on the major domestic and global racial justice issues of the era.
Malcolm X’s world-shattering life reads like something out of Greek mythology. The son of pioneering black activists Earl and Louise Little, Malcolm’s childhood in Michigan was destroyed by his father’s death; the family believed (though it could not be proven) that local white supremacists who had threatened Earl had killed him. Malcolm’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown that resulted in her commitment to a state psychiatric hospital for decades.
Malcolm spent time in a series of foster homes before transforming into and calling himself Detroit Red, a street hustler in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury and Harlem during the war years. Malcolm’s hustling days came to an abrupt end in 1946, when he was sentenced to eight to 10 years in jail for leading a burglary ring.
In prison, Malcolm Little became Malcolm X, finding his vocation as a religious leader through the teachings of Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Elijah Muhammad, a former sharecropper from Georgia. Malcolm’s prison transformation inside the walls of three correctional facilities in Massachusetts reverberated globally through his writing and the transformational commitment to teaching and activism that began during his confinement.
The renamed Malcolm X became the NOI’s national representative and the leading spokesperson of a struggle for black dignity that made him the boldest critic of white supremacy in American history.
As “Who Killed Malcolm X?” illustrates, FBI informants within the Nation of Islam helped to plant seeds of doubt within Elijah Muhammad and his family about Malcolm’s loyalty to the group. FBI and NYPD special surveillance teams infiltrated the NOI and both of Malcolm’s subsequent independent political organizations, the Muslim Mosque Incorporated and the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
At the same time, Malcolm’s political ambitions made him chafe against Muhammad’s orders to stay on the sidelines of political demonstrations, arguing that the Nation represented a religious, not secular, tool for liberation. These tensions came to head after Malcolm publicly broke with Elijah Muhammad after being suspended for 90 days following his comments after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Characterizing Kennedy’s death as “chickens coming home to roost” offered the press a soundbite that seemingly celebrated the death of a sitting president. Malcolm’s words gave his enemies within the Nation the excuse they needed to expel him from the group he helped to thrive.
Malcolm found temporary refuge in a friendship with Cassius Clay, the young boxing genius whose athletic talents dazzled the world in February 1964 with his upset victory over Sonny Liston. One of the series’ best moments is documenting how Elijah Muhammad ended this friendship by offering Clay a new name – Muhammad Ali – as the price for remaining loyal to the Messenger. Muhammad Ali’s very public “bromance” with Malcolm X and subsequent abandoning of that friendship is one of the many jewels to be found in watching this series.
Malcolm X’s deepening Islamic faith and inroads into forging diplomatic ties through two trips to Africa and the Middle East during the last year of his life found him eager to ally with civil rights activists – especially Martin Luther King Jr. and student activists within the movement. Malcolm listened, alongside a rapt audience, as King gave a speech in Harlem shortly after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Weeks before his assassination, Malcolm attempted to visit King in jail in Selma, Alabama, only to be rebuffed by local officials. He did get the chance to speak to Coretta Scott King, reassuring her that his efforts were designed to bolster Dr. King’s political effectiveness.
Malcolm’s long list of enemies shortened his time on earth. Former protégés turned into potential assassins and death threats stalked his final days. Three NOI members were arrested and charged with his death but as “Who Killed Malcolm X?” effectively demonstrates, the mystery behind his political assassination remains as more assailants, including the main shooter, remained at large for decades.
Malcolm X’s legacy, initially cultivated through the best-selling Alex Haley memoir, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” continues to flourish in our own time. A fictionalized depiction of Malcolm’s relationship with Harlem underworld figure Bumpy Johnson was featured on last year’s “The Godfather of Harlem” and now “Who Killed Malcolm X?” offers a nuanced portrait of the historical Malcolm X.
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Smiling, gregarious and good humored in private, Malcolm is still too often remembered without these personal and individual details, as an icon and not as a man. Malcolm was – the righteous avenging black angel of justice, a bold oracle of truth telling who gave his life in the pursuit of black dignity – but he was also much more. Whereas King’s holiday ensures an annual reflection of his life and times, Malcolm’s legacy requires constant and careful tending – thoughtfully searing analysis that allows us to recognize, on what will be the 55th anniversary of his death, the man behind the myth and the real life beneath the legend.
An earlier version of this op-ed said incorrectly that Malcolm X lived in Oklahoma as a child.