Today, honoring the legacies of two civil rights leaders

mrtin luther king jr smiles and looks to the sidemalcolm x smilingt

On this day in 1968, 43 years ago, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., was murdered at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. He was just 39.

Also today, the new Malcolm X biography is being released. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, has caused quite a stir, and even moreso after the death of the author and Columbia University professor Manning Marable, who considered redefining the legacy of Malcolm X to be his life’s work. His biography seems to be poised to do just that: it contains claims that would drastically change our historical understanding of the man, including the claim that two of his assassins are alive and well (though at least one man has already come forward to deny these allegations), and that some other aspects of Alex Haley’s famed autobiography are bunk. Notably, the new book also claims that Malcolm had an early homosexual relationship with a white businessman, a fact that most media coverage has glossed over completely.

For my part, I feel it’s fitting that the legacies and ideologies of these two civil rights leaders be considered in tandem today. I feel that their images are often times oversimplified, with King being depicted as a nonviolent saint and Malcolm X as the opposite: a radical, sometimes violent, “by any means necessary” rabble rouser. But the truth is that both men were incredibly complex, and much of their complexity has been lost to the broad stroke of history books. Some are trying to reclaim that history now. Our own Rose has written eloquently in the past about her personal experience of remembering Malcolm, and Exec Editor Samhita has asked “Where would we be without Malcolm?“. Kai Wright has written for the American Prospect on King’s forgotten radical politics, and Cornel West has referenced the “Santa Clausification” of King and his legacy.

It is my hope that today, with the overlap of two important dates for each of these men’s legacies, we can all try to resist the temptation to classify and categorize, and instead allow the words, stories, and actions of these men be considered in all of their rich complexities.

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 4, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Regarding Malcolm X, I’m not sure what Alex Haley’s motives were precisely in writing the autobiography, but there’s always a bit of a tendency to sanitize away the rougher places. I think making Malcolm more of a person than a caricature may have been his overarching intention. As for his alleged homosexual experiences, I find it hard to believe that Malcolm would have confessed something that potentially damaging to Haley or anyone else, so I’m curious to know the source. I don’t question the allegation, I’d just like to know more.

    I do know that he deliberately had relationships with white women in his days of being a low-level hood, which the Autobiography does note. He and his partner in crime notably got harsher jail sentences specifically for that “offense” and the women who they were involved with escaped with little more than a slap on the wrist for “consorting with Negroes”. And I’m sure there’s much more to that story, for sure.

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