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.

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