Malcolm X made the cover of The New Yorker this week, and I was reminded of my first encounter with the strange movement with which he was for many years closely identified.
It was in 1966, when the fledgling Black Students Organization at our predominantly white New England university invited Louis Farrakhan to address one of the group's regular Saturday
Mr. Farrakhan, who had become Elijah Muhammad's spokesmen little over a year earlier, following the assassination of Malcolm in New York, arrived on campus alone, having taken the train in from nearby Boston. I recall him as a dapper young man with ingratiating manners who seemed slightly ill at ease among the ivied halls of academe.
He sat on a stool before our little group -- at the time there were fewer than 30 black students out of a total enrollment of 2,500 -- and in a quiet, almost apologetic voice, launched into a fervent denunciation of white people, whom he described as a pallid race of "blue-eyed devils" who had been created some 6,000 years ago by an evil scientist named "Mr. Yakub."
At the end of this scarifying tale, Mr. Farrakhan folded his hands and politely asked if we had any questions. One of my classmates said, "What about Malcolm?"
I can't recall Mr. Farrakhan's exact words, though I remember his face darkened with scorn and he suddenly seemed agitated. The gist of his answer was that Malcolm had been guilty of serious transgressions against the Nation of Islam generally and against its leader, Mr. Muhammad, in particular. He left us to understand that Malcolm got what he deserved on that fateful day in the Audubon Ballroom.
I left the meeting shortly afterward, convinced that the loopy cosmogony advanced by Mr. Farrakhan, which Malcolm also had embraced before rejecting it in the final year of his life, was nothing more than the flip side to the racist nonsense white hate groups had espoused for years. It pained me that our group, begun with such hopeful purpose, had inexplicably lent its forum to a speaker whose rantings reminded me of nothing so much as a Klan wizard in blackface.
A couple of years later I read Alex Haley's masterful "Autobiography of Malcolm X" and realized with a shock that in the days preceding his death Malcolm had become convinced that his fellow Muslims were plotting to kill him.
"Each day I live as if I am already dead," he told Haley, who died earlier this year. Marshall Frady, author of the New Yorker cover story, also reports that shortly before Malcolm's death, Mr. Farrakhan, who had been Malcolm's protege before the latter finally broke with the Nation of Islam in 1964, turned on his mentor with a scorpion-tongued denunciation in a Muslim newspaper.
By then, however, Malcolm himself had renounced the vituperative racial demagogy of the Black Muslims. He had visited Mecca the previous year, where he apparently underwent some sort of spiritual conversion. On his return he declared that in Mecca he had seen for the first time the possibility of true interracial brotherhood and that henceforth his mission would be to work toward making that ideal a reality in his native land.
It was Malcolm's final transformation from black racist to something closer to the humanism that characterized Martin Luther King Jr., the other great figure of the period, that accounts for the nearly universal esteem in which he is held by blacks today.
He is a hero to impoverished ghetto youth because he fearlessly expressed, better than anyone before or since, the blind rage and despair of an oppressed people.
Yet his ultimate refusal to be consumed by bitterness also made him an avatar of spiritual regeneration for the black middle classes who, while rejecting violence as a solution, clearly recognize the extent to which racism still flourishes in America.
Historians doubtless will continue to debate Malcolm's accomplishments when measured against the changes in American society brought about by King's civil-rights movement. But Malcolm never really aimed for the kind of change King sought. What he wanted was to liberate black minds and hearts from the degenerative self-hatred inculcated by centuries of humiliating second-class status in America.
In the last year of his life, Malcolm finally began to overcome the fearful demons that so tortured his own life even as they scourged the complacency of white America. His career was a constant, painful struggle for self-renewal -- a courageous pilgrimage of the spirit that the Farrakhans of this world still seem utterly unwilling to make.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.