Review of The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. Liveright Publishing, New York: W. W. Norton, 2020. 612 pages.
Reviewed by Roger Marheine
The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, is by father and daughter team, Les and Tamara Payne. Sadly, Les Payne died just before the book’s completion, and Tamara, his daughter and primary researcher, finished the text which has achieved great critical acclaim, including the National Book Award. Les Payne’s distinguished journalistic career includes four Pulitzers for coverage of the Bosnian wars, Rwanda genocide, Ebola in Zaire, and U.S. friendly fire deaths in Iraq.
The biography displays Les Payne’s pain staking pursuit of significant detail and a novelist’s sense of literary flair and pacing. In particular, scores of investigatory interviews establish a compelling historical record that includes members of the Ku Klux Klan who sought Malcolm’s help to eliminate Martin Luther King, and members of the Nation of Islam who were the planners of Malcolm’s murder. This is one of Les Payne’s great achievements—to extract from the culprits themselves death bed confessions and historical clarifications of the killings of the two most famous black men of the era. For Les Payne, the book is a labor of love that he worked on for much of his life. He views Malcolm X as a thinker in constant ideological transition.
The biography has four main sections: Part I (1925-1939); Part II (1939-1946); Part III (1946-1963); and Part IV (1963-1965). Malcolm’s early life established austere beliefs—his father, Earl Little, a follower of Marcus Garvey and a stern taskmaster was killed by a trolley car. The facts are not clear–if by accident, suicide, or murder by white supremacists. Malcolm always claimed murder. His mother, Louise Little, wrote for Negro World, often praising her husband’s activism in Omaha’s chapter of the Garveyite Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). (1)
In “The Night I Stopped Being A Negro,” Les Payne eloquently states how Malcom X impressed him: “For all their polemical posturing, not even [James] Baldwin, Martin Luther King, or the great Richard Wright, with all his crossed up feelings, had liberated themselves from the poisoned weed of black self-loathing with its deeply entangled roots in the psyche” (Introduction, xii). For Payne, this foundational belief drives the book’s narrative. Malcolm embodied an icon of transformation from being “a negro” and defined as victim, to being “black” and historical protagonist. (2)
The Paynes’ text is best read within the context of other influential works on Malcom. Alex Haley’s edited The Autobiography of Malcom X (1965) established Malcolm’s legacy and became a global phenomenon. A quarter century later, Bruce Perry’s Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (1991), entailed exhaustive research, including many interviews of those who knew Malcolm personally. Perry also edited Malcolm X: The Last Speeches (Malcolm X Speeches and Writings) (1989).
Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011) traced Malcolm’s constant reevaluation of his own beliefs, including his shift to class politics. It received the Pulitzer and was praised by acclaimed black figures, Cornel West, Eric Dyson, and Ta-Nhsei Coates.
In rebuttals to Marable, Bruce Perry and Todd Steven Burroughs edited A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Reinvention (2015). Recently, was the publication The End of White World Supremacy: Four Speeches (2020), edited by Imam Benjamin Karim. Finally, Peniel E. Joseph’s The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (2020) argues that Malcolm and King were much closer ideologically than is commonly believed.
Thus, mapping the ideological terrain of Malcolm X studies partially clarifies the Paynes’ task.
Significantly, Spike Lee’s biopic Malcolm X (1992), starring Denzel Washington, achieved global acclaim by mainstream critics and influenced millions who may or may not have read the original autobiography. The 2019 fictional television series Godfather of Harlem featured Malcolm immersed in Harlem’s complex power relationships. Most recently, One Night in Miami (2021) directed by Regina King fictionalizes an actual gathering of Malcolm, football star Jim Brown, singer Sam Cook, and soon to be champion Cassius Clay, before his religious conversion to Islam.
Perhaps only Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Tse Tung embody more twentieth-century global iconic status as oracles of resistance than African-American activist, Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little (1925-1965). Militant revolutionaries, including Marxists, anti-imperialists globally, and African-American nationalists have all agreed that qualitative change could only be achieved through Malcolm’s famous words, “by any means necessary.” (3) Usually this meant militant mass movements to overthrow dominant capitalist power structures. One key difference however is that three were communists themselves, or in the case of Mandela, worked closely with communists (in the African National Congress).
Racism is the achilles heel of capitalism. Liberal platitudes that all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights never applied to blacks, and certainly not to non-European immigrants. The Paynes make clear that Malcolm understood that completely. However, for the most part of his adult life, he was not influenced by Marxism.
His ideas, however, were always in transition. The Paynes note that while in prison, the young Malcolm showed provocative tendencies but less than a coherent vision: “In June  [Malcolm] drew the FBI’s attention when he wrote a letter to President Truman, opposing the Korean War and claiming to be a Communist who had tried to enlist in the Japanese army during World War II” (270). Indeed, the young Malcolm showed more bravado than ideological clarity!
The Paynes help substantiate the dichotomy between “Malcolm X the idea” and “Malcolm X’s ideas,” a distinction made by Michael E. Sawyer in Black Minded: The Political Philosophy of Malcolm X (2020).
Upon his prison conversion to the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcom’s theoretical ideas were rooted in the NOI’s narrow metaphysics, and extreme Garveyite ethnocentrism. Both are tragically flawed, politically, and had Malcolm failed to move beyond them, his legacy would be much less significant.
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx clarified how historical context shapes any individual: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
As a 20 year-old at the end of World War II, Malcolm indeed could not make his history as he pleased. He came of age during a dark historical moment. American capitalism enjoyed unprecedented power, and for the next 19 years (until his death), it promoted a vicious, uncompromising defense of Jim Crow racism, a brutal de facto segregated North, and an assault on progressive political figures (e.g. members of the Communist Party) through the McCarthyite Senate hearings and those of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Malcolm could not make history as he pleased, but rather worked with the limited ideological tools at his disposal. Instead, his early years were dominated by Marcus Garvey’s ideas (never ally with the “white devils”), a lumpenproletarian regard for the street hustle and petty crime, and the belief that his father, Earl Little, had been murdered by white supremacists.
In Marxist terms, what does Malcolm embody? First, he lived the contradiction of his era, and chose to intensify that contradiction—to confront the fundamental fact of American racism. His was a magnificent militancy, an uncompromising devotion to the integrity of struggle itself, both the ideological and the physical. In that sense, he embodied an intense hatred for racism and for those who perpetrated it. Hatred, so often denigrated in polite civil society, must in fact be a fundamental scaffolding for the revolutionary endeavor. Malcolm championed that hatred.
By the early 1960s, black writers like James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Lerone Bennet, and Louis Lomax (author of The Negro Revolt) challenged Malcolm’s Nation of Islam (NOI) ideology. However, the Paynes state, “As a Muslim minister, Malcolm held out no such hope that whites were capable of heeding such warnings [of black revolts]” and further that “Negroes should unite with Africans on the African continent, as well as with other non-whites, because a global war—an Armageddon—between whites and others was inevitable, which the black man would win” (424).
He understood Brazilian Paulo Freire’s great truth that the most important weapon in the hands of the exploiter/oppressor was control of the minds of the oppressed. Mao organized the most “backward” of Chinese peasant coolies, and Ho Chi Minh led peasant revolutionaries to fight for their liberation. Malcolm lived the assertion of black humanity, and that urban blacks must lead any meaningful revolutionary struggle. In that regard, Black Lives Matter is at least partly Malcolm’s legacy.
However, while he spoke eloquently of the particulars of racism, he was, for the most part of his activist life, wrong about its source and its solution. Recently, in MLT, Charisse Burden-Stelly’s “Caste Does Not Explain Race” clarifies theoretical errors of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Any analysis of modern racism that does not clarify its roots in capitalism and class is theoretically a dead end.
The Paynes make clear that Malcolm’s derisive “white devils” tended to smear all American whites with the same guilt. Thus, the hopelessness implied in caste theories of discrimination, as Burden-Stelly clarifies, was functionally Malcolm’s view as well. While Martin Luther King sought an end to segregation, Malcolm rejected integration and insisted upon separation. For Malcolm, any integration with whites was viewed as hopelessly naïve, or even treacherous.
The ideological comparisons between Malcom and M. L. King have recently been in explored in Peniel E. Joseph’s The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (2020). Joseph argues that in the popular imagination, Malcolm embodied the “sword” and performed as “black America’s prosecuting attorney.” King is viewed as the “shield” who prevented a racial blood bath. However, Joseph claims this two-dimensional understanding is incomplete. He seeks to conflate the two as more ideologically similar than oppositional.
However, the Paynes emphasize the activists’ differences.
Both Malcolm and Martin Luther King were martyred by racist killers with U.S. government complicity, but their differences were fundamental. King, the Christian pacifist, multi-racialist, mass movement leader, contrasted sharply with Malcolm the Muslim, militant, black nationalist. King sought to unite blacks and whites to pressure the largely white political establishment to abolish Jim Crow laws and cease all racial discrimination. In contrast, Malcolm promoted the Black Muslim doctrine which focused almost solely on blacks themselves. His pessimism for a legislative solution to entrenched racial structures, his distrust of all whites, and his contempt for Christianity precluded any thought of unity with even progressive whites.
The Paynes quote Malcolm’s uncompromising critique of Christianity in 1960: “He then launched a frontal assault upon the New Testament promise of the ‘hereafter’ so widely accepted by Negroes, religious or not. Malcolm flatly dismissed all chances of postmortem reward, proclaiming that there would be ‘no Heaven beyond the grave’” (314). And carrying the metaphor further, Malcolm castigated black Christians as “the lost sheep.” In the parallel historical moment, King carried the pacifist torch, and received more acclaim from mainstream media. The Paynes devote an entire chapter on media and its favoring of King, in effect the lesser evil to Malcolm (“Malcolm, the Media, and Martin Luther King”).
Further, the Paynes cite Malcolm’s contempt for King as late as June, 1963, just two months before the march on Washington and King’s “I have a dream” speech: “White people follow King, white people pay King, white people subsidize King, white people support King…The masses of black people don’t support Martin Luther King” (388). The two would meet only once and briefly in March, 1964, in Washington D.C. during debates on civil rights legislation. A photo was taken and polite exchanges made.
The three most compelling sections of the Paynes’ text cover Malcolm’s interactions with the Ku Klux Klan, the Nation of Islam, and international peoples from Africa and the Middle East after his trip to Mecca.
Malcolm and the Klan
For modern readers, the idea of Malcolm X meeting and negotiating with the Ku Klux Klan seems preposterous. However, in 1922, Marcus Garvey had met with the Klan, seeking the Klan’s support as both proposed total racial separation. The Paynes quote W.E.B. De Bois’ scathing critique of Garvey as “’the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world’” (319). Malcolm suffered from never having met Du Bois, nor was he apparently aware of Du Bois class analysis of racism (e.g. Dubois’ Black Reconstruction).
In the chapter, “Meet with Them Devils,” the Paynes document Malcolm’s conflicted mindset over Elijah Muhammad’s order to meet with Klan. The organizations had two interests in common. Both sought complete racial separation and both opposed Martin Luther King. The Paynes note, “The Muslims viewed King as a chief rival. The Klan saw him as a dangerous threat to white hegemony” (339).
What was Malcolm thinking? How could he possibly agree to such a politically outrageous act? If anything, the Paynes are not sufficiently critical of him. They propose a psychological explanation: “Elijah Muhammad had managed a cult-like hand on him as the spiritual surrogate for his long-departed father” (370). Details of several tense meetings between Malcolm and Klan leaders are well documented, partly because FBI spies attended.
Malcolm soon realized the Klan sought information on King, for a possible assassination attempt. He came to believe the whole affair with the Klan was a terrible mistake and resented Elijah Muhammad’s insistence that he undertake meetings with the organization which he believed had killed his father. Thus, began his fundamental break with Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm and the Nation of Islam
On February 21, 1965, in New York City’s Audubon Ballroom, thirty year old Betty Shabazz, mother of four, pregnant with twins, and wife of Malcolm X, shouted, “They’re killing my husband; they’re killing my husband” (479).
The Paynes document in extraordinary detail the assassination of Malcolm that entailed a complex plot organized by the highest levels of the NOI. Les Payne’s interviews with NOI leader, Yusuf Shah (aka Captain Joseph) reveals that Elijah Muhammad himself ordered the murder: “He said that the Harlem temple was under direct orders from Chicago to harass Malcolm and –after the secret meeting Elijah Muhammed held in September—to do him ‘terminal bodily harm’” (465). Further, another NOI Muslim Jeremiah X, from Philadelphia’s mosque, on his death bed confirmed that “top leadership in Chicago had ordered Malcolm X to be killed.” Thus, Malcolm X was assassinated by the very organization for which he had been the vibrant face for over a decade.
Malcolm’s initial prison conversion to the NOI erupted in a torrent of activism. From the start, he approached his tasks with a convert’s zeal. The Paynes argue that in fact he saved the NOI from oblivion: “The Nation of Islam (NOI) had entered the 1950s as a shrinking band of aging, largely uneducated, pioneers from the South. However, under Malcolm’s influence, the group was continually infused with younger [and urban] members, some with high school educations, a few with college degrees” (422).
His extraordinary oratorial skills could spellbind an audience. His harsh tones and compelling rhetoric would shock and infuriate, but also leave his listeners exhilarated. Although proud of his wit and verbal skills, he was never a prima donna. The Paynes stress his hands-on, feet on the ground organizational savvy. By all accounts he mounted terrific campaigns and was an indefatigable recruiter. He could hold a living room meeting with porters and maids, and avoid a preachy tone. He was a skilled and tireless organizer.
Malcolm ruled his Harlem mosque as a stern taskmaster, with an austere and rigid code of conduct; no one could question his sincerity or commitment. He practiced a religious patriarchy, respectful of women, but always insisting that women must win that respect. He was no feminist, and his marriage to Betty was painfully one-sided. He excluded her from important decisions, despite the fact that she was intellectually sophisticated and politically committed.
Malcolm’s meteoric rise within the NOI increased its coffers, exponentially. In 1954 alone, he created or reinvigorated Temples in Boston, Philadelphia, and ultimately Harlem (274). Under his leadership, Harlem’s Temple No. 7 became the NOI’s most lucrative money raiser. And make no mistake—the NOI was a capitalist enterprise. However, Malcolm’s charisma and success, the Paynes declare, “would have the unintended side effect of inspiring concern among Muhammad’s children and envy among fellow ministers” (275). The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover began spying on the NOI and in particular the articulate Harlem leader. The surveillance would ultimately aid and abet Malcolm’s assassination.
Despite Malcolm’s dedication to the NOI, its Newark and Philadelphia mosques became little more than organized crime syndicates. The Paynes claim, “Newark’s Temple No. 25…engaged in prostitution, grifting, and other street crimes….[and] graduated to extortion, armed bank robberies, and later, drug dealing” (499). NOI’s “body guard” security group, The Fruits of Islam (FOI), was often comprised of street thugs and enforcers who provided the muscle for racketeering of all kinds. While Philadelphia and Newark boasted proficient hit squads, it was to be Newark where the assassination plot was planned.
Malcolm became increasingly critical of Elijah Muhammad, the NOI’s Chicago based leader. Muhammad had numerous illegitimate children with his secretaries, he had ordered Malcolm to meet with the Klan, and he rationalized increasingly bizarre metaphysical theories. The Paynes suggest that Malcolm’s total religious devotion had blinded him to the reality of NOI. In retrospect, Malcolm’s naivete is striking; his faith in the NOI reflects a soldier’s devotion to the cause–confronting the “white devils.”
The Paynes probe in detail the US government’s outright participation of Malcolm’s assassination. There were multiple organizations involved, including NYPD and the FBI. Notably, the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations (BOSSI) undercover operative, Gene Roberts, revealed to Les Payne specific facts, regarding the melting of Malcolm’s security. (4)
The government trial covered up the facts. Two of the three Muslims convicted, Thomas Johnson and Norman Butler, were not even present at the assassination. The third conviction was of Thomas Hayer who had shot Malcolm with a pistol after the initial shotgun blast by Newark NOI hitman, Willaim 25X (aka William Bradley) who was never charged. The Paynes declare the trial a mockery of justice: “The prosecution of the case was itself a distraction from the truth about the murder of Malcolm X. It was a case study in covering the tracks of the police, the federal government, and the FBI—a whitewash” (494).
The Paynes, however, focus as much on the treachery, disgusting corruption, and complete lack of any revolutionary value in the Nation of Islam. For Les Payne in particular, Malcolm embodied an unmatched authenticity (“the idea of Malcolm”), and the NOI killed that. Even more damaging, the NOI was a false prophet that betrayed black revolutionaries and revolution itself. NOI leaders lacked imagination, practiced base criminality, and conducted counter revolutionary terror in concert with despicable government authorities. While rank and file Muslims exuded purity of purpose and sincere religiosity, NOI leaders betrayed that consciousness.
For Les Payne, Malcolm would unleash the great awakening in America. Thus, from the Paynes’ viewpoint, the NOI is more despicable than the US government, because the Nation promoted itself as a revolutionary organization but practiced a hucksterism whose main political function was to undermine liberation of the black masses.
Malcolm, the internationalist
Malcolm had invited Fidel Castro to stay at the black-owned Hotel Theresa in Harlem when Castro came to New York in 1960 to speak at the United Nations. For both Malcolm and Castro, the stay was a major public relations success. However, it would be another four years before Malcolm’s politics would change significantly.
The Paynes document Malcolm’s transformation during his trip to Mecca (April, 1964), upon which he quickly abandoned the narrow ethnocentric NOI and converted to Sunni Islam, and all within two weeks! The Paynes quote Malcolm’s ecstatic racial revelation: “During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)—while praying to the same God—with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin the whitest of white…We were all truly the same” (440).
Post 9/11 readers might question Malcolm’s embrace of Sunni Islam which most recently produced fundamentalist terrorism of Osama bin Laden and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as well as Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism. The Paynes argue that his religious conversion lived Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) whose task was to link African revolutionaries with the anti-racist struggle at home. He reached out to American non-violent Civil Rights movements, including a meeting at the actor Sydney Poitier’s home (448). Further, he hoped to unite ascending African revolutionary groups to an internationalist condemnation of racism in America. In many respects, it was to be Malcolm’s most dynamic political moment.
Traveling to Egypt, Nigeria, and then Ghana, Malcolm embraced Pan Africanist movements. In Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, he found “A student of Marx, Lenin, and Garvey, and a proponent of ‘scientific socialism’” (442). (5) He met with Jomo Kenyatta, revolutionary leader of Kenya, and Gamal Abdel Nassar of Egypt, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and was treated as a major leader himself. Nkrumah had not only led the successful revolt against British colonial rule in 1957, but had a attracted a large group of black Americans including Maya Angelou, Richard Wright’s daughter, Julia, Julian Mayfield (a speech writer for Nkrumah) and Shirley Graham Du Bois, the widow of W.E.B Dubois (who had died in 1963). These American expatriates convinced him to take a broader more internationalist perspective and develop his thinking.
Ultimately, the OAAU would fail as Nkrumah, in particular, would not support any encroachment upon American imperialism for fear of reprisal. Still, these were heady times for the former hustler from Omaha, and most importantly, they elevated his political ideology beyond nationalism and his narrow ethnocentrism. Most striking, is that Malcolm’s interaction with an array of black Americans in Africa, helped him extract himself from American political provincialism.
Upon encountering a white Algerian revolutionary who asked where he, a white, would be in the victory of black nationalism, Malcolm was taken aback. The Paynes quote Malcolm’s reflection: “So he showed me where I was alienating people who were true revolutionaries, dedicated to overthrowing the system of exploitation that exists on this earth by any means necessary” (454). And further, Malcolm addressed capitalism itself (May 1964): “The last bulwark of capitalism is America.” Linking capitalism and racism, he argued, “It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism.” And he added, “if you meet a non-racist white, usually they’re socialists” (454).
Thus, Malcolm made the extraordinary pivot away from a narrow ethnocentrism to at least a partial class assessment of racism. To be sure, it was embryonic, and he would not live to see the complex African political landscape that fell victim to black nationalists who espoused socialist ideals but became pawns of international capital, or were simply complicit in killing socialist leaders. Nor would he live to see the great uprising of the 1960s, the rebellion that shook capitalism’s core and brought so many to a new consciousness.
For Les Payne and his daughter Tamara, The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, is a labor of love and for us a rich historical document.
- Omaha, Nebraska would seem an unlikely birth place for one of the most famous black activists of the 20th century, but the Paynes note that, outside of Los Angeles, Omaha had the largest black population west of the Mississippi River. 2.
- In the words of Ossie Davis who gave the eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral, “Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood…and in honoring him we honor the best in ourselves….[H]e was and is- a Prince-who didn’t hesitate to die because he loved us so” (quoted in Black Minded: The Political Philosophy of Malcolm X by Michael S. Sawyer).
- Ironically, the phrase could be heard, as uttered by right wing protesters at the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Whether the Proud Boys, QAnon crowd and assorted white supremacists who storm trooped the Capitol in January, 2021 fully grasped the irony of their own articulation of “by any means necessary” is unclear.
- Over two dozen African countries launched revolutions between 1945 and 1995. World War II had severely weakened old European imperialists, and major revolutionary organizations took full advantage. However, contradictory ideologies plagued those movements. How could Nkrumah be Marxist, Leninist, and a Garveyite? In the 1930s, Leopold Senghor had articulated “ La Negritude” (which roughly translates as “Blackness”), but Mao’s Chinese Communist revolution (1949-50) emphasized class politics. Whether a revolution was primarily inspired by Black Nationalism (Garvey, La Negritude ) or whether inspired by class analysis and roughly speaking a fight for socialism, it was often unclear. In Africa, the common unity initially was anti-imperialism and anti-racism, as racism had been a fundamental component of imperialism.
- As recently as February, 2021, former NYPD undercover cop, Raymond Wood, in a letter made public upon his death, confessed to participation in the plot to kill Malcolm. He claimed that while working for the NYPD and with the FBI, he was instructed to encourage NOI members to commit felonies, including to blow up the Statue of Liberty. Since the letter has come to light, Wood’s daughters have denied its claims.