A Life of Reinvention
By Manning Marable
Viking, 608 pages
It was the great good fortune of the modern civil rights movement that its leadership was equal to its mission and principles. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. liked to play the naughty boulevardier, but the Harlem congressman was a shrewd politician and essential pragmatist. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sonorous voice and pious manner did little to endear him to Middle America, but his moral integrity and commitment to nonviolence were self-evident. Walter White, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, and Bayard Rustin were all classic behind-the-scenes types: privately uninspiring, publicly astute. Setting them beside their successors in the movement—Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lowery, Benjamin Chavis, Rev. Al Sharpton—only heightens the difference between the golden age of civil rights (1955–65) and its long twilight.
Somewhere off to the side of the firmament stands Malcolm X. Resolutely uninterested in the struggle for civil rights, he deserves no credit for the dismantling of segregation and died before he had clarified any vision for post–Jim Crow America. Apart from his ongoing quest to practice Islam in some form, there is no civic or philosophical doctrine associated with his name. At a moment when Americans struggled to reconcile the black and white races after a long and tortured history on the continent, he preached racial estrangement. Even his much-admired testament, the posthumous Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), was ghostwritten by Alex Haley, who may or may not have been faithful to its name-sake’s intent.
About the Author
Philip Terzian, literary editor of the Weekly Standard, is the author of Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.