Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention

In the spring of 1965, Martin Luther King led a series of marches across Alabama in support of black voting rights. His first attempt to complete the planned itinerary from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, came to a halt after police fired tear gas at the demonstrators and assaulted them with billy clubs. Bombs were then discovered at a black church, a funeral parlour and a lawyer's home. Only at the third attempt did the marchers reach their destination: the steps of the capitol, where Governor George Wallace had declared in his inauguration speech, just two years earlier, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

By the concluding rally on 28 March, the crowd had swollen to nearly 25,000 men and women, young and old. As army helicopters hovered above, King stepped on to the podium facing the square and described their journey as "one of the greatest marches in the history of America". Wallace refused to meet a delegation of protesters' representatives, but King knew he had scored a profound victory - the eyes of the world were upon them. Their rough treatment at the hands of the state and racist groups including the Ku Klux Klan had shattered what little remained of the fantasy of a happy, patrician South populated by noble whites and submissive Uncle Toms.

Yet, for all the symbolic power that the march lent the struggle against racial segregation in America, the aggressive reaction that those who took part experienced on the road also helped fan the flames of a more militant rhetoric that was sweeping through the black rights movement. It was a rhetoric that promoted separation, not integration; it advocated armed self-defence over non-violence. Looking back, King wrote: "The paths of Negro-white unity that had been converging crossed at Selma and, like a giant X, began to diverge."

That X found its most potent expression in the person of a former petty criminal who had embraced the Nation of Islam (NOI), then an obscure black nationalist religious sect, while serving a prison sentence for burglary. Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on 19 May 1925 to parents committed to Marcus Garvey's vision of pan-Africanism. During the Great Depression, his father, Earl, had moved the family from town to town, in part to escape persecution by white supremacist groups, but also to further the cause of Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Earl's sudden death condemned the Littles to poverty; his once-proud wife Louise descended into madness as she battled the social services to keep her children together. In 1939, she was admitted to Kalamazoo State Hospital. Malcolm would look back on the disintegration of his family with bitterness, reserving most scorn for the judge who had handled their case: "A white man in charge of a black man's children! Nothing but legal, modern slavery."

Much of this will be familiar to younger readers from Spike Lee's 1992 film Malcolm X and its enduringly popular primary source, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which its co-writer Alex Haley completed after the subject's assassination in 1965. By the end of the 1960s, Malcolm's disciples had elevated him to what Manning Marable, in this weighty biography, calls "secular sainthood"; in death, his image was quickly refashioned to "embody the very ideal of blackness for an entire generation". Those who lived through the civil rights crisis in America, however, will remember a far more complex figure who was equally loathed and respected, admired and feared. His transfiguration into an icon distorted the harsh realities of his life while ensuring his immortality as myth.

That myth goes as follows: in the 1940s, Malcolm, then known as Detroit Red, makes a name for himself as a flashy, zoot-suited hoodlum; he finds religion and educates himself; by the early 1960s, he is a minister and chief recruiter for the NOI, which views white people as "devils"; his popularity and increasing influence in the field of black rights incite the envy of rivals within the sect, who successfully press for his banishment after he celebrates the death of John F Kennedy in a speech; he founds a more inclusive group called the Organisation of Afro-American Unity and embraces Sunni Islam after making the haj in 1964; he is murdered in front of his wife and children at a time when his ideological agenda - now anti-racist and free from the dogma of the NOI - is at its most fluid and uncertain.

This narrative, which suggests that Malcolm's trajectory led him slowly but surely to the kind of integrationism advocated by King, evades a difficult truth: his politics always tended towards more reactionary and violent modes of dissent. But Marable, who died shortly before the publication of A Life of Reinvention, resists the temptation of hagiography and fills the gaps left by previous books. Where the autobiography, carefully organised by the NOI-sceptic Haley, presents an idealised vision of a man's growth as a thinker, Marable gives us Malcolm in all his self-contradiction and self-doubt. "No single identity ever captured him fully," he writes. By refusing to pin him down, he offers glimpses of the human being behind the legend.

Yo Zushi works for the New Statesman

Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention
Manning Marable
Allen Lane, 608pp, £30