The legacy of Malcolm X, the black radical human rights leader who would have turned 95 on Tuesday, matters now more than ever in the context of the coronavirus. Disproportionate black death, illness and suffering since the start of the pandemic have resulted in the painful recognition of the limits of racial progress in America. Malcolm X’s insistence that black lives mattered deeply enough to defend, by any means necessary, dovetails with the outrage over racial inequities that have been both unleashed and amplified in the wake of the coronavirus.
During the civil rights movement’s heroic period, Malcolm X gained recognition as the political counterpart of the seemingly more palatable Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm’s passionate truth-telling about racial slavery, Jim Crow segregation and police brutality helped turn words of fire into a brutally elegant stump speech. His posthumously released autobiography became a bestseller that rescued him from political obscurity at the expense of mythologizing large aspects of his legacy.
In death, Malcolm became exalted as the avatar of a Black Power movement that argued, paradoxically to its critics, that the key to forging an anti-racist world rested on a radical embrace of racial identity. Malcolm, lacking credit for the type of signature policy victories associated with King, became revered for teaching “Negroes” to love their black selves. The Reagan-era hip-hop generation embraced the martial aspect of this legacy, burnished by rap groups such as Public Enemy and auteur Spike Lee, whose 1992 film “Malcolm X” starred Denzel Washington and successfully imprinted an image of Malcolm as a fearsome political warrior, the sharp-edged sword to King’s peaceful shield.
Twenty-first-century interpretations of Malcolm have found this powerful image to be incomplete. The late Columbia University scholar Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography paid special attention to the man behind the myth, highlighting Malcolm’s personal vulnerabilities to better understand his political and historical legacy.
“Who Killed Malcolm X?,” a six-part Netflix series that premiered earlier this year, reintroduced Malcolm to millions unfamiliar with his story by attempting to solve the mystery behind his Feb. 21, 1965, assassination in New York. The freshest parts of the series highlighted Malcolm’s keen intelligence, sharp sense of humor and personal vulnerability as he navigated political adversaries ranging from former mentors and proteges to the New York Police Department and the FBI.