BOOK REVIEW / . . . and Mr Little became Mr Cool: Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America - Bruce Perry: Element, pounds 9.95

MALCOLM was sharp. Malcolm was hip. Malcolm was almost as cool as JFK. It was not only the children of the ghetto who were hooked on his style. Ivy League college kids were drawn to him. They sat-in, rode freedom buses, some were beaten, a handful died in the struggle to desegregate the South. But it was the charismatic Malcolm, advocating separatism, not Martin Luther King, advocating integration, who was in serious demand on the lucrative campus circuit. According to Bruce Perry, Malcolm's first proper biographer, only Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters' crooked boss, commanded bigger fees than the National Spokesman for the Nation of Islam.

It was in the summer of 1963, at the height of the civil rights violence, that I first saw Malcolm: tall, slim, handsome, sharp-suited, sporting a crisp white shirt and a tightly knotted narrow tie. He strode onto the platform of a packed auditorium at Cornell University, looking as if he had come to play with the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Then he spoke. He was breathtaking. I have heard Churchill, Bevan, de Gaulle, Makarios: Malcolm was in their league. At a time when civil rights leaders preached florid secular sermons about how, black and white together, we would overcome, Malcolm lashed out with ice cold contempt and wicked humour. Playing to a young, idealistic, white, middle-class and disproportionately Jewish audience from radical chic New York, he poured scorn on his (non-Islamic) black brothers, exploiting all the old red-neck cliches to devastating effect. Young black men failed to respect their women, fathered children out of wedlock, drank, took dope and turned to crime because they were too idle to work. They despised themselves, and they had good reason to do so.

Then he turned on the nice Jewish girls in the audience, whose parents feared that the black activists would seduce them. 'Your parents are right,' he said. 'The only reason black guys want white chicks along is to use you and screw you and abuse you and disrespect you. The way your daddy and granddaddy used to abuse and disrespect black women. You run along home to White Plains and tell your mothers Malcolm agrees with them.' I have never seen an audience so deliciously shocked.

With college audiences, Malcolm kept away from the detail of his faith as I subsequently heard him expound it in Harlem. This was just as well. It was a bizarre concoction dreamed up by one Elijah Muhammad, self-styled Messenger of God and Leader of the Nation of Islam, predicated on the belief that humanity was originally black. Yacub, a mad scientist, fled Mecca for an Aegean island where he bred an artificial race, the whites, who were given diabolic powers to rule for 6,000 years. Allah would eventually lead a race war, employing nuclear weapons, flying saucers and poison gas to destroy the white devil and restore blacks to their rightful place as rulers of the world.

Mr Muhammad's millennial separatism appealed to the most downtrodden of American blacks. Amazingly, it instilled in its believers an impressive sense of self-worth and self-discipline. Members neither smoked, drank nor fornicated. Except, of course, for Mr Muhammad, who, Perry demonstrates, ripped off the organisation, made himself a multi-millionaire, slept with his secretaries and fathered a brood of illegitimate children.

This meticulous and lively biography goes into previously unrecorded detail about Malcolm Little's disturbed childhood and criminal youth. His feckless father was killed in a road accident when he was six. His mother, who claimed to be the illegitimate child of a white plantation owner, eventually went insane. Malcolm, who often passed for white, was on the streets from his early teens. After a period of pimping, male prostitution and petty theft he was imprisoned. There he was converted by the National of Islam. Almost overnight the unstable young hustler became the ascetic Malcolm X. He educated himself and became a superb debater. On his release he went to work for the Nation of Islam, rapidly becoming Mr Muhammad's deputy and the movement's media star.

According to Perry, Malcolm became increasingly embarrassed by the theological garbage he was forced to spout, and gradually aware of Mr Muhammad's personal corruption, which he despised. Moreover, Mr Muhammad preached non-involvement in white man's politics, but strict obedience to the law until a separate state could be achieved. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, Malcolm hankered after political activism, while continuing to pour scorn on the Uncle Toms and white niggers campaigning peacefully for integration.

Things came to a head when Malcolm celebrated the assassination of John F Kennedy in October 1963 with a gloating crack about chickens coming home to roost. He broke with the Nation of Islam and took himself off to Mecca on the Hadj. This was an astute move. It gave Malcolm - now El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz - a new standing as America's leading orthodox Muslim and he made Mr Muhammad look tacky, batty and heretical. The conversion enabled Malcolm to abandon racism as un-Islamic. It freed him to attempt to gatecrash the civil rights movement at its climactic moment.

But many of those who followed Malcolm out of the Nation of Islam were not happy about his (hesitant) abandonment of anti-white sentiments, and civil rights leaders were not keen to welcome this destructive creature who had for years vilified their non-violent crusade for integration. As for Malcolm's new objectives, they were still obscure when, on 21 Febuary 1965, he was gunned down while addressing a rally in Harlem by three killers from the Nation of Islam. In his final days, so Perry claims, Malcolm seemed resigned to his own murder, at times embracing martyrdom as a release from the racial contradictions he was being forced to confront. At home, Malcolm had been known as 'Milky'; at school, as 'Snowflake'. Like virtually every black American, he was part white, and separatism, as he came to realise, is the ultimate form of American self-rejection and self-loathing.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent