The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Critical Essay by Lawrence B. Good heart

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
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Critical Essay by Lawrence B. Good heart

SOURCE: "The Odyssey of Malcolm X: An Eriksonian Interpretation," in Historian, Vol. 52, No. 1, Autumn, 1990, pp. 47-62.

In the following essay, Goodheart examines the identity of Malcolm X—as set forth in The Autobiography of Malcolm X—using the theoretical framework of Erik Erikson.

The black search for identity in the United States has been well put by the poet Robert Perm Warren: "Alienated from the world to which he is born and from the country of which he is a citizen yet surrounded by the successful values of that world, and country, how can the Negro define himself?" At the heart of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s was the defining of the individual and collective identities of members of the largest racial minority in the United States. During what recently has been labeled a "Second Reconstruction." critical constitutional, legal, and federal-state relationships were reordered to promote equality under the law regardless of race. At the same time, there was a psychological revolution, a popular transformation of African-American identity from a culturally sanctioned racial inferiority to a black assertion of pride, beauty, and power.

The odyssey of Malcolm X was a search for "a definition of himself and his relationship to his people, his country, and the world," according to sociologist John H. Clarke. When Malcolm stated that "the black man in America has been robbed by the white man of his culture, of his identity, of his soul, of his self," he conflated his own experience with that of his people; his odyssey represented the militant black search for identity in the early 1960s. His individual rage spoke directly to the frustration of other African-Americans, especially urban ghetto residents—the black underclass—for whom the promise of civil rights legislation and racial integration offered little prospect of improving their degraded living conditions.

Public fascination with Malcolm cut across class and racial lines: The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) has sold over two million copies and has become established as a modern classic. Together with his extensive speeches, interviews, and recollections by associates, the Autobiography as narrated to Alex Haley captures the dramatic changes in Malcolm's life. Haley's empathy for Malcolm served to capture the style and substance of the public man. After an initial period of suspicion and distrust, the Malcolm-Haley collaboration developed into what resembled a psychoanalytic session. As Haley patiently prompted him, Malcolm recalled his past. Despite distortion, inaccuracy, and what historian Stephen J. Whitfield calls "impression management," the Autobiography is useful for the psychological reality it uncovers.

Psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson defined the psychological core of an individual as identity—"a subjective sense of an invigorating sameness and continuity." Yet he was careful to stress that the development of a person's identity over time is subject to change that must be understood within a broad cultural context. His biographies of Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi emphasized the interconnection between the life history of the subject and the historical moment, a linkage that could be momentous when an individual's psychic needs were resolved in a manner that crystallized communal aspirations. Similarly, the shaping of Malcolm's sense of self as a counterpart to the historic oppression of African-Americans constitutes a central theme in his life and lends itself to Eriksonian interpretation. Erikson's categories do not precisely fit Malcolm's life, particularly the months before his murder, when Malcolm was an isolated figure whom the white establishment feared, civil rights organizations shunned, and Black Muslims damned. Malcolm's resolution of his lifelong quest for a meaningful black identity in the United States was thus only partially achieved. Nevertheless the Eriksonian model, if applied selectively, illuminates the common ground where individual action, collective aspirations, and the historic possibility for change converge in the four major stages of Malcolm's identity, appropriately marked by name changes: "surrendered identity," Malcolm Little; "negative identity," Big Red; "fundamentalism," Malik El-Shabazz; and "beyond fundamentalism," El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Surrendered Identity:

Malcolm's "earliest vivid memory" was as a four-year-old in 1929 "being suddenly snatched away into a frightening confusion of pistol shots and shouting and smoke and flames." The Lansing, Michigan, equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan had burned his family's house down. Malcolm's recollection is a violent example of what Erikson termed a surrendered racial identity, historically "the fate of the black citizenry who were kept in their place so as to constitute what slaves meant besides cheap labor—the inferior identity to be superior to." Malcolm's childhood memories reveal a life representative of the collective African-American experience as he became ensnared in the racist perversion, as Erikson described it, of "light-clean-clever-white" and "dark-dirty-dumb-nigger."

His father, Earl Little—a tall, very dark-skinned man from Georgia with little formal education—used his itinerant Baptist ministry to preach the racial pride of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association. In contrast, his mother, Louise, "looked like a white woman" and was educated. Her shame was her father, an unknown white rapist. The mark of this grandfather was visited on Malcolm; of eight children, he stood apart with his reddish-brown color.

Earl and Louise behaved towards Malcolm in antithetical ways because of his color. Of all his children, Earl took only Malcolm to Garveyite meetings, while Louise told him, "Let the sun shine on you so you can get some color." Earl saw Malcolm's complexion as a blessing in the spirit of the adage that "white is right; if you're brown, stick around; but if you're black, step back." Louise, however, favored her dark-skinned children and disparaged Malcolm's lighter color as an unwanted reminder of her white father. Malcolm's acute analysis of the effect of racism on the African-American psyche may well have developed out of his childhood experience of being alternately favored and censured for his complexion.

When Malcolm was six years old, vigilantes killed Earl, the fourth of six brothers to be killed by whites, for his Garveyite activities. As an adult, Malcolm's advocacy of the right to aggressive self-defense and his disavowal of nonviolent resistance developed from such memories of black victimization. Widowed, Louise exemplified the plight of impoverished female heads of household during the Great Depression. Racial discrimination, menial women's work, and rampant unemployment meant starvation for the Little family in 1934. As Malcolm remembered it, "We would be so hungry we were dizzy." Unable to provide for her offspring, Louise turned to state relief, a degrading condition that led to her eventual commitment to a public mental institution. Her children, including twelve-year-old Malcolm, became wards of the state.

The difficulties of growing up black in white-dominated communities provided Malcolm with a perspective that later caused him to denigrate the civil rights goal of racial integration as woefully naive and illusionary. Whites so routinely called him "nigger" that he thought it normal. Under the supervision of a white couple who ran his detention home, Malcolm was treated kindly but condescendingly. He remembered, "They didn't give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position." He also learned as a part of a growing sexual and racial awareness, through "some kind of psychic message," that he was not to dance with white girls at school parties.

Yet he knew that furtive interracial sexual liaisons occurred in town. Malcolm was in white society but was restricted to its margins.

Nevertheless Malcolm performed well through seventh grade; he was elected class president, played basketball, and was a good student. Then his English teacher, Mr. Ostrowski, ended Malcolm's adolescent dreams of becoming a lawyer by saying, "We all here like you, you know that. But you've got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer—that's no realistic goal for a nigger." The teacher suggested carpentry as the trade appropriate for Malcolm. The experience, Malcolm later reflected, was "the first major turning point of my life." Even though he believed that he was smarter than nearly all his white classmates he understood that his options were limited. The white man had initiated the black boy into a racial rite of passage. The term "nigger" predestined Malcolm's consignment to the nether world of the racial caste system of the United States.

Negative Identity:

The encounter with Ostrowski marked an identity crisis, a racist preemption of young Malcolm's self-perception. Erikson explained that the adolescent "must detect some meaningful resemblance between what he has come to see in himself and what his sharpened awareness tells him others judge and expect him to be." Knowing that his efforts to aspire to white standards were futile, Malcolm fatalistically responded to Ostrowski's pronouncement. He fled Michigan for a relative's home in the Boston ghetto, a migration route to the urban East traditionally followed by alienated Midwestern youths. During his late teenage years, he immersed himself in the hustling subculture of the Roxbury and Harlem ghettos where the lanky Malcolm was called Big Red.

The Autobiography, Malcolm cautioned, was not intended to "titillate" the reader with "how bad, how evil" a hustler Malcolm was but to show that "in every big city ghetto tens of thousands of yesterday's and today's drop-outs hold body and soul together by some form of hustling in the same way [he] did." The ghetto institutionalized racism, not only socially and economically but psychologically as well. High unemployment, deteriorated housing, inadequate health care, blighted schools, drug addiction, and rampant crime turned the American dream into a living nightmare. Historically, the European-American community has often defined its success by comparison with African-American failure and subordination; in effect, Northern ghettos replicate antebellum Southern plantations. Erikson discussed the nature of racial victimization: "The oppressor has a vested interest in the negative identity of the oppressed because that negative identity is a projection of his own unconscious negative identity." Blacks served whites as psychic scapegoats, readily identifiable and culturally sanctioned.

As Big Red, Malcolm embodied what Erikson termed "the evil identity of the dirty, anal-sadistic, phallic-rapist 'nigger.'" Slavemasters of the Old South had projected their own fear of racial revenge for black subjugation and wanton sexual abuse of slave women onto the black males. The exploitation of blacks in the United States created an uneasy dialectic for whites: racial degradation sowed the seeds of racial retaliation. The provocative title of Julius Lester's book, Look Out, Whitey, Black Power's Gonna Get Your Mama (1968), and Eldridge Cleaver's justification of the rape of white women as a "political act" in Soul on Ice (1968) exemplified the enduring menace of the black male in the white mind.

Barred from emulating dominant cultural ideals, the ghetto hustler of the twentieth century sought self-respect through illicit activities on the margins of society. Sixteen-year-old Malcolm spurned the hard-earned bourgeois respectability of Roxbury's Hill Negroes for the sensual pleasures of the dance-hall crowd at Roseland. Shorty, an older Michigan emigrant, instructed his young protegé in the hustler's craft. As a shoeshine boy, Malcolm not only snapped a polishing cloth but satisfied his customers' needs for alcohol, marijuana, condoms, and prostitutes. He eventually graduated into numbers running, drug selling, specialty sex, and armed robbery—all part of an underground economy based in the ghetto. Under Shorty's tutelage, Malcolm was metamorphosed into a hipster, the "Harlem jigaboo archetype." He flaunted his zoot suit with its punjab pants, dangling gold chain, and long coat. A wide-brimmed hat and pointed orange shoes completed his defiant caricature of formal dress and rejection of middle-class standards. Using a homemade concoction that included lye, he painfully straightened his kinky hair to make it look "regular," like a white man's hair. It was, he later remembered, his "first really big step toward self-degradation." On one desperate occasion when the winter cold had frozen the water pipes, he had to wash the burning lye off his scalp by dunking his head into a toilet. The image of becoming excrement itself, disgusting black refuse that should be flushed away from the sight of decent people, was not lost on the older Malcolm. Outrageous adornment served to mark Big Red's entry into an underworld and outwardly compensated for his sense of racial inferiority.

This type of negative identity, Erikson wrote, is "a desperate attempt to regain some mastery in a situation in which the available positive identity elements cancel each other out." In the absence of a culturally acceptable identity, the ghetto hustler became a symbol of heightened masculine aggressiveness and sexuality. Armed, angry Big Red used the threat of violence to gain deference, if not actual respect. In successfully resisting military conscription during World War II, he acted out a drama for the examining army psychiatrist: "I want to get sent down South. Organize them nigger soldiers, you dig. Steal us some guns, and kill up crackers!" Big Red had the same unsettling effect on the psychiatrist as Malcolm X's advocacy of militant self-defense later had on white society and black civil rights leaders.

Further, he exploited the imagery of the "big black buck" to affirm his self-worth in a society that at once denigrated and feared him. He abandoned Laura, a sheltered and studious black girl, for Sophia, a blond white woman. Big Red then "paraded" Sophia, who was "a status symbol of the first order" among black men in the ghetto. By attracting a white woman, he had validated himself as the equal of any white man. In turn, Sophia sought the "taboo lust" personified by the ghetto hustler. Each responded eagerly to the culturally forbidden pleasures the other represented. In addition, as a "steerer" to specialty sex assignations in Harlem, Malcolm directed white "johns" to black prostitutes who catered to their clients' racial fantasies about heightened black sexual potency and promiscuity. Malcolm's experiences in the netherworld of interracial sexual liaisons led to disgust with the moral hypocrisy of whites, to the adoption of a puritanical code of conduct, and to a persistent suspicion of women.

Although Big Red defied white society, the hustler's life was short and self-destructive. The common predatory allusions in Malcolm's rhetoric and his lifelong habit of never sitting with his back to a door dated from these combative days on the ghetto streets. Pursued by police, gangsters, and Sophia's irate husband, he felt "everything was building up, closing in…. [He] was trapped in so many cross turns." Drug addiction muddled his thought; the ever-present pistol foreshadowed a violent end. "I had gotten to the point," he reflected, "where I was walking on my own coffin." Finally, carelessness led to his arrest. A Massachusetts court sentenced him to ten years incarceration for burglary—an excessive sentence, Malcolm believed, to punish him for his relationship with Sophia. Not quite twenty-one years old, he had "sunk to the very bottom of the American white man's society." Big Red had been walled in.


Seven years spent in prison forced the young man to turn inward. His incarceration approximated what Erikson defined as a psychosocial moratorium, a period of delaying adult commitments and experimenting with roles in a youthful search for a social niche. Although the options offered in the penitentiary were restricted, Malcolm likened prison to an intense college experience, an environment conducive to self-education and self-examination. In 1947, Malcolm came under the influence of an older black convict, Bimbi, the prison's scholar and sage. The respect Bimbi gained with his reasoned arguments made Malcolm realize the futility of his own thoughtless rebelliousness. With Bimbi's encouragement, he took correspondence courses to improve his command of language. In addition, Malcolm became a "fanatic fan" of Jackie Robinson, who had broken baseball's color barrier. Malcolm began to appreciate that there were more effective ways to cope with a racist society than his previous dead-end roles.

In 1948, Malcolm underwent a momentous religious conversion. His brothers and sisters gradually won him over to the teachings of the Nation of Islam, presented as the "natural religion for the black man." Malcolm said, "The first time I heard the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's statement, The white man is the devil,' it just clicked." The powerful appeal of Elijah Muhammad to the black underclass derived from the origins of the Nation of Islam in Detroit during the Great Depression. The Nation of Islam preached black supremacy, racial separatism through the formation of an African-American nation, social uplift, and economic self-reliance. Believing that divine wrath would soon destroy the evil white race, Elijah Muhammad became the savior of America's blacks trapped in a white Babylon.

Elijah Muhammad's teachings were a fusion of bourgeois aspirations with the millenniarism of racial redemption. According to the demonology of the Nation of Islam, white devils had been created to spite God and his favored people, the black tribe of Shabazz. This dogma provided an affirmation to blacks by a denigration of whites; the oppressed projected their negative identity onto the oppressor where it could be scorned. Elijah Muhammad had imaginatively inverted the axioms of white racism.

The doctrine of the Nation of Islam represented a fundamentalist world view, which Erikson called "totalism" and defined as "something you can totally identify with or against, a stable reference point against which you can know who you are." The Black Muslim's ideological certainty spurred Malcolm to turn against his past. The sense of being saved gave Malcolm the emotional strength to remake himself. He read voraciously, studied the dictionary, and devoured words to fill an internal void. He joined the prison debating society and learned to use language to expose the white conspiracy against blacks. His extraordinary rapport with audiences of the black underclass derived from the power of rhetoric, a modern example of the oral tradition of African-American culture. In his powerful oratory, words were weapons.

The doctrinal message of the Nation of Islam was accompanied by the personal regeneration of its downtrodden members, beginning with deletion of the slavemaster's surname; Malcolm Little became Malcolm X. The faithful practiced what Malcolm preached in 1960 to a Harlem street audience of several thousand: "Stop fornication, adultery, and prostitution. Elevate the black woman; respect and protect her. Let us rid ourselves of immoral habits and God will be with us to protect and guide us." Thus was created a gospel of personal cleanliness, hard work, and small business entrepreneurship that acculturated drug addicts, exconvicts, prostitutes, and others of the ghetto underclass into bourgeois behavior patterns.

After his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm increasingly served as the principal spokesman for the reclusive, asthmatic prophet, whom he revered as his personal redeemer: "He had rescued me when I was a convict; Mr. Muhammad had trained me in his home, as if I was his son." There was, however, an ambivalence in their emotionally charged relationship, which resembled that of father and son. The older man, prodded by envious leaders in the Chicago headquarters, resented Malcolm's growing prominence, while the dynamic young man had matured beyond the simple fundamentalism of his withdrawn mentor. By 1959, the mass media had discovered the electrifying presence of Minister Malcolm X and the alarming doctrine of the sect they called the Black Muslims, as exhibited in a CBS television documentary, The Hate That Hate Produced.

Malcolm's espousal of the Muslim doctrine of racial separation, black superiority, and the right of violent self-defense clashed with the emerging mainstream civil rights movement represented by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The image of white racists assaulting defenseless blacks who proposed "to love their enemy" and "to turn the other cheek" perpetuated in his mind the stereotype of the passive Negro, the Uncle Tom. He later explained, "Any time you know you're within the law, within your legal rights, within your moral rights, in accord with justice, then die for what you believe in. But don't die alone. Let your dying be reciprocal. This is what is meant by equality."

By the early 1960s, Malcolm was clearly frustrated with Elijah Muhammad's policy of inaction, premised on the chiliastic dogma that the chosen people needed only to await Armageddon for their redemption from racial oppression. He admitted to a journalist that "the rest of us have not seen Allah: we don't have this divine patience, and we are not going to wait on God," and that "the younger Black Muslims want to see some action." Added to the jealousy, ideological differences, and organizational rivalry was a sexual scandal. Malcolm confronted Elijah Muhammad in 1963 about a long-standing rumor that he had fathered a number of children with his young secretaries. Elijah Muhammad admitted his adultery but excused it as part of his divine fulfillment of Old Testament practices. Malcolm, who had read his own brother Reginald out of the Muslims for a similar sexual infraction, was emotionally shattered. In his words, "My faith had been shaken in a way that I can never fully describe." The exposure of Elijah Muhammad's low moral character finally broke the fundamentalist hold that he had over Malcolm.

Beyond Fundamentalism:

The schism became formal in December 1963 when Elijah Muhammad suspended Malcolm for ninety days from speaking in public. The ostensible reason for the ban was Malcolm's unauthorized comment to the press that President Kennedy's assassination was a case of "chickens coming home to roost"—a controversial remark about endemic violence in American society. Malcolm submitted to his leader's orders until he learned that Elijah Muhammad had secretly called for his execution. The "spiritual and psychological crisis" of Elijah Muhammad's betrayal escalated into a question of survival. As Malcolm recalled. "The first direct death-order was how, finally, I began to arrive at my psychological divorce from the Nation of Islam."

The following March, Malcolm announced his break with the Nation of Islam and the creation of a rival organization, Muslim Mosque, Inc. The narrow sectarianism of the Nation of Islam had transformed the hustler but had constrained him in an ideological strait jacket. "I was a zombie then—like all Muslims—I was hypnotized," he remembered, "pointed in a certain direction and told to march." After that realization, Malcolm sought to think and act anew. From an Eriksonian perspective, the schism provided the occasion to restructure his identity from a "totalism" characterized by absolutes and conformity to a "wholeness" able to tolerate tension and diversity. He spent nearly half his last year in Africa and the Middle East, seeking solutions in the Old World to problems in the New. As a result, he abandoned Elijah Muhammad's caricature of Islam and embraced Sunni orthodoxy; he also changed his understanding of racism from a crude demonology to a sophisticated cultural analysis.

Malcolm noted: "Around 1963, if anyone had noticed, I spoke less and less of religion. I taught social doctrine to Muslims, and current events, and politics." Although he supported Elijah Muhammad's goal of a separate black nation, he was immediately concerned that "twenty-two million of our people who are still here in America need better food, clothing, housing, education and jobs right now." He further modified Elijah Muhammad's doctrines by stressing the power of the black ballot in the 1964 presidential election and by extending the olive branch to other black leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. However, Malcolm's advocacy of the right of self-defense still prevented any alliance with the middle-class civil rights organizations. In addition, he placed the African-American struggle in the worldwide context of colonial liberation movements and demanded a United Nations' investigation of the violation of black human rights in the United States.

Having established a tentative political credo for Muslim Mosque, Inc., Malcolm sought to anchor the new organization within the Islamic faith. In April 1964, he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Uncertain if he would even be accepted as a legitimate Muslim, he was overwhelmed by the gracious treatment accorded him. He wrote:

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.

The pilgrimage experience led to "a radical alteration in [his] whole outlook about 'while men.'" The prefix El-Hajj, added to his name in honor of the hegira, marked a "spiritual rebirth." Shortly after his return to the United States, he announced, "I'm a human being first and foremost and as such I'm for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole."

Denouncing Elijah Muhammad's demonology, Malcolm argued, "The white man is not inherently evil but America's racist society influences him to act evilly." He abandoned what Erikson labeled a "pseudo-species mentality," one that ignores or denigrates the humanity of others. In Erikson's words, "Nobody can really find his most adult identity by denying it to others." The challenge therefore was to change the psychology of racism and the system that nourished it, not to fantasize devils.

In June 1964, Malcolm founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which captured his affinity for pan-Africanism. A subsequent eighteen-week trip to Africa and the Middle East further broadened his outlook. As he told an African summit meeting, "Our problems are your problems. It is not a Negro problem, nor an American problem. This is a world problem; a problem for humanity." Malcolm dropped the phrase black nationalism in describing the OAAU program because of its racial exclusiveness. Malcolm's desire to forge a broader African-American identity was in keeping with Erikson's observation that "the alternative to an exclusive totalism is the wholeness of a more inclusive identity."

Much of Malcolm's thought was provisional. As he told an audience in November 1964, "I don't profess to have a political, economic or social solution to a problem as complicated as the one which our people face in the Stales, but I am one of those who is willing to try any means necessary to bring an end to the injustices our people suffer." While skirting doctrinaire commitment, he indicted "the American 'system,'" including U.S. foreign policy in the Congo and Vietnam as he linked the government's opposition to revolutionary nationalism abroad with racial oppression at home.

During the three months remaining in his life after his return to the United States, there was further modification of his views. In contrast to his earlier distrust of women, he linked national progress in Africa with the emancipation of women. He no longer supported a black state in North America or condemned racial integration and intermarriage. He endorsed black voter registration and political involvement but emphasized that civil rights legislation had not defused the "social dynamite" in the ghetto. He correctly predicted, "1965 will be the longest, hottest, bloodiest summer of the entire black revolution."

Malcolm's remarkable evolution of thought left him alienated. Black Muslims stalked him, the FBI monitored his activities, and the "Red Squad" of the New York City police infiltrated his bodyguards. "They won't let me turn the corner," he complained of his critics. After being unexpectedly barred from France where he was to address African students, he returned to New York only to experience a fire-bombing of his home in the early morning of 14 February 1965. Suspecting CIA involvement, he fatalistically told a reporter on February 18, "I live like a man who's already dead." Three days later he was shot down in a hail of gunfire from assassins in the audience as he spoke to an OAAU rally at the Audubon Hall in Harlem. A jury found three Black Muslims guilty of the murder, but speculation remains about the guilt of two of the convicted men and about the complicity of the New York City police and the FBI.

In an Eriksonian perspective, Malcolm's overall significance lay in the congruence of his life and a pivotal moment in time. Yet, such a broad generalization needs qualification where the fit between model and subject is imperfect. Erikson's concepts of "surrendered identity," "negative identity," and "fundamentalism" are more precise in describing Malcolm's earlier stages of development than is the final category, "beyond fundamentalism,"because Malcolm spent the final months of his life in a state of flux: he admitted to a reporter shortly before his murder, "I won't deny I don't know where I'm at." In assessing Malcolm's legacy, it is essential to come to terms with what he accomplished and what was left unfinished during the fifty weeks that remained of his life after the break with the Nation of Islam.

Malcolm's success in articulating black rage was the source of both his strength and his weakness. The militant black identity Malcolm embodied meant the end of psychic inferiority and demanded a radical readjustment of racial relations. He taught that "a person who is fighting racism is well within his rights to fight against it by any means necessary until it is eliminated." As Erikson observed, "Revolutions have to be shocking in order to really unhinge existing identities." Malcolm's scathing indictment of racial hypocrisy and injustice made him a riveting public figure. The night of his death, his widow lamented, "He was honest—too honest for his own good."

Malcolm's candor and charisma were, however, difficult to institutionalize. The major failure of his career was that after his schism with the Nation of Islam, his evolving conception of a new black identity and the social programs needed to facilitate its emergence were not incorporated into a viable organization. The program of the OAAU was inchoate, its administration in disarray, its membership limited, and its funds minimal. Malcolm's extensive foreign travel and hectic personal schedule left little time for organizational duties. His militant posture barred cooperation with well-established groups such as SCLC, NAACP, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Martin Luther King. Jr., Roy Wilkins, and James Farmer could best use Malcolm as a foil, who, by comparison, made their civil rights programs look more palatable. Malcolm told a Harlem street rally, "They charge us with being extremists but if it was not for the extremists the white man would ignore the moderates."

In Erikson's estimation, "The best leader is the one who can realize the actual potentials in his nation, and most of all the more inclusive identities which are ready to be realized in the world." Malcolm met Erikson's prescription only in part. His spiritual enlightenment in Mecca and abandonment of the goal of black nationalism significantly broadened his world view. "I am not a racist." he said repeatedly after his break with Elijah Muhammad. "I do not subscribe to any of the tenets of racism." He also stressed the inclusive identity of the black diaspora, pan-Africanism, and ultimately human solidarity.

Malcolm was most effective as a moral critic and an exemplar of a new black identity. "When we stop always saying yes to Mr. Charlie and turning the hate against ourselves," he explained, "we will begin to be free." He lacked the systematic program—not to mention white liberal support—that the middle-class leadership of the civil rights movement had gained. A month before his death, he acknowledged, "I would be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of the black people of this country." Nevertheless, he captured to a degree unattained by anyone else the frustration of the ghetto underclass whose degraded position remains largely unchanged since the Second Reconstruction. Two days before his death, Malcolm gave what in effect was his epitaph: "It's a time for martyrs now. And if I'm to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood. That's the only thing that can save this country."

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