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On Irving Kupcinet’s Chicago television program, Malcolm X and this commentator participated in a  discussion of public affairs, a few months ago. Now Malcolm X—or Malcolm Little, as he was born—has been murdered before hundreds of people. Revolutions do, indeed, devour their own children.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found Malcolm X to be a man of considerable intellectual powers, certainly no conventional demagogue, dignified, and rather winning in manner. He was a strange being, but no fool or madman. He had then just returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca, capping his formal conversion to the Mohammedan faith.

He rose out of violence and crime in the urban jungles, and he died by violence and crime. Yet the convicted burglar who made himself a minor power in the land did not appear to be a natural fanatic or incendiary.

In part, his talk of violence was a means of ensuring the continued support of his followers, in a time when the man who rise the tire dare not dismount. He was unquestionably courageous; and, having taken the sword, he was prepared to perish by the sword.

Inconsistent and erratic though many of his remarks were in recent months, Malcolm X may have been working his way toward some program less crazy than that of the Black Muslims he left–and who seem to have wreaked their vengeance upon him. He despised the sentimental American liberal of the sort that patronizes the Negro, and his first principle was that the Negro must work out his own improvement.

In time, his talents for leadership, and the fact that his very notoriety compelled him to think about what he said, might have converted him gradually from fanatic utterance to reasonable courses. The man had more in him than simple hatred.

Had Malcolm X been born in the modern black Africa with which he proposed American Negro solidarity, in this time of troubles he might have gone straight to the top; for he had the intelligence and the zeal and the self-confidence which give men power in revolutionary eras. He might then have risen to the dignity of president or premier; but then, too, he might have died at the hands of assassins, as still more African politicians will die before this year is out.

In America, he was a freak; in ‘emergent’ Africa, he would have been a statesman. In Africa, after all, ‘separation’ of the races is a possibility; but to have separate Negro commonwealth in which Malcolm X professed to believe never could be realized in America.

Our Chicago meeting was not acrimonious, and I should have liked to talk to Malcolm X longer, to ascertain if truly there was forever a great gulf fixed between us. But that unquiet spirit will not be heard again.

Originally published in the Helena Montana Independent Record, March 3, 1965. Republished at The Imaginative Conservative