DON'T believe the hype: the latest Malcolm X revival portrays him as a hem of the ghetto, a hardline,popular alternative to integrationists like Martin Luther King.
Don't get sucked into this it might not be p.c. to criticise Malcolm, who is now enjoying a fame and popularity among the Left which he never knew when he was alive, but the truth about him is that he was a fringe figure with limited regional support. Martin Luther King and the mainstream civil rights leaders were always far more popular with blacks than Malcolm X, the Black Panthers or any of the other black militant organisations.
In fact, (heresy of heresies) so were some white leaders. When Malcolm X was assassinated, black ghettoes did not explode the way they did when King was killed. In the days following 4 April. 1968. few American cities were untouched by thelarge-scale rioting in response to the news of King's death. The army had to be called in to deal with the unrest, as black anger spilled over and there were attacks on government buildings in state capitals across the nation.
Despite all the angry young blacks Malcolm was supposed to have inspired, his death elicited no such reaction. In fact, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy appears to have outraged blacks more than the death of the militant
black Muslim. Thousands of troops were on standby following Kennedy's death. Police leave was cancelled in Washington DC and the Pentagon was put on red alert in case the cities erupted in violence. No such precautions were necessary when Malcolm X was killed.
Make no mistake, Malcolm X contributed much to the notion of black consciousness and black pride, and gave the civil rights movement an important international dimension, but he was no hero of the Left. Anyone who advocates regular wife-beating as a way of keeping women in control should not be deified as a beacon for human rights.
Although many of Malcolm X's claims have been called into question (it appears, for instance, that his father was not tied to a railway track by the Ku Klux Klan after all. but died a far less glamorous death), his memory seems to have grown steadily in stature since the 1960s, although in reality his support was generally confined to New York. Chicago and a handful of other urban black centres in the north of the USA.
In truth, he was largely a media figure whom journalists relied on to supply a predictably controversial quote when covering the stories like the assassination of John Kennedy ("Chickens coming home to roost").
The mythology of Malcohn X is rooted in his "autobiography". which was actually written by Alex Haley (who, you will remember, wrote Roots, which he later admitted was substantially fabricated). Although the autobiography is an invaluable insight into ghetto life in the 1940s and 1950s, and into the American penal system at that time, much of Malcolm's political and religious philosophy is derisory. He suggests. for example, that God did not intend men to be monogamous. All white people, too, are "blue-eyed devils" bent on a global conspiracy inspired by Lucifer to subjugate black nations. (Anyone of mixed race. too. must be the result of a white man's rape.)
Muslims throughout the rest of the world were generally unimpressed by the Chicago-based "Nation of Islam", especially when the corrupt practices of Malcolm's leader, Elijah Mohammed, were exposed. While King's work for civil rights was acknowledged with a Nobel Peace Prize, Malcolm remained relatively unknown outside America.
His cry to take back what whites had stolen from blacks "by any means necessary" was never an anthem for American blacks. The real heroes of blacks during the mid1960s proved to be Harry Belafonte, Martin Luther King, Sammy Davis Jr and Bobby Kennedy. When Kennedy stood for President in 1968, he won primaries largely on the support he received from black ghettoes, voting figures not emulated by any candidate before or since.
The Marvin Gaye song which hit the US charts in 1969, was about "Abraham, Martin and John", and included a verse about Bobby Kennedy. Lincoln, King and the Kennedys came before Malcolm X in the pantheon of black heroes. (A fuller account of Bobby Kennedy's appeal is included in a biography have written about him, due out later this year).
Malcolm X's current popularity reflects the bankruptcy of present black leadership. Jesse Jackson appears to have lost his fire, and figures like New York's Al Sharpton do not enjoy national support. Perhaps it is time for American blacks to have spokespeople who are neither entertainers nor Church leaders (King, Jackson, Sharpton and Malcolm X were all religious ministers).
It is hard to see what the Malcolm X revival can offer ghetto kids today, apart from exploiting them for commercial gain.
Publicity surrounding the 25th anniversary of King's death next month is likely to generate comparisons between the two black leaders. King supporters will be able to draw on a long list of tangible gains he made during the 1950s and 1960s, including his influence on important international legislation.
Those trying to defend Malcolm X's record will be hard-pushed to come up with much more than a very dodgy political programme and a couple of dated slogans. Don't believe the hype.