Twenty years ago this month, on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. Like the re-election of Ronald Reagan, the remembrance of Malcolm X is sure to inspire drastically different responses among blacks and whites in the United States. White America's image of Malcolm X during his lifetime, and the one that lingers today, was of a fanatical Black Muslim preacher of anti-white hatred. But to most of black America Malcolm is remembered as a courageous and forceful leader who told the unvarnished truth about American racism with a skill and honesty rarely seen before or since.
As is so often the case, it is the predominant white perception of Malcolm X, formed by the establishment media, that is skewed and distorted. Fortunately the true legacy of Malcolm X has been preserved in his autobiography, which was published shortly after his death. In that book we find a man who struggled against the highest of odds to claim simple human dignity first for himself and later for his people. He was an angry man; perhaps, as Time magazine put it, "the angriest Negro in America." But his anger was justified, and often righteous. And as all who read his book discover, he was also a person of profound insight, intelligence, wit, compassion, and faith.
It is true that Malcolm X first came to national prominence as a preacher in Elijah Muhammad's black separatist Nation of Islam, which at that time held bizarre quasi-religious doctrines about the superiority of the black race. But in the last two years of his life, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and denounced its racial teachings. This change of heart was the result of Malcolm's religious experience during his Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.