Did Malcolm X Hate Women?

Manning Marable's controversial book takes a hard look at Malcolm's complicated relationship with women.

Getty Images

Malcolm X was furious to learn at the last minute that a speaker had decided not to appear at a rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, N.Y., on Feb. 21, 1965. A flustered aide said that he'd phoned Malcolm's wife, Betty, with the information, according to Manning Marable's controversial biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

Malcolm exploded: "You gave that message to a woman?! ... You should know better than that."

The remarks, hours before he was assassinated, capped off a lifetime of frustration with, dependence on and anger at the women in his life. The fact was, Betty, pregnant with twins, did not know how to reach him. She and her four daughters had been living with friends since they were evicted from their former Nation of Islam-owned home -- which had just been firebombed. Malcolm kept his distance from the family to keep them safe.

Malcolm, for his part, was likely spending his final night at a hotel with his 18-year-old secretary and alleged mistress, according to Marable. At the time, the woman, Sharon 6X, was living with Linward X Cathcart. Both had connections to members of the NOI mosque in Newark, N.J., who hatched the assassination plot. Both sat in the front row at the ballroom the day he was murdered. Marable wrote:

The seating arrangement may have been a coincidence, but subsequent evidence concerning Sharon and Cathcart makes this hard to believe. More than 40 years after the assassination, Cathcart and Sharon 6X Poole Shabazz live together in the same New Jersey residence, and Shabazz has maintained absolute silence about her relationships with both Malcolm X and Cathcart.

Last month in a Newark court, Cathcart filed a $50 million defamation suit against Marable's estate and the publisher of the biography, according to the Amsterdam News. Cathcart flatly denies any role in Malcolm's assassination. And Cathcart's attorney says that Cathcart and Sharon 6X were not an item at the time of Malcolm's murder; they were married to other people and she was renting an apartment in his house. (There are others who have had problems with Marable's findings; two of Malcolm's daughters, for example, have criticized the book for its depiction of their parents' marriage.)

But if true, Malcolm's alleged affair with his teenage secretary would be particularly hypocritical, since much of his moral fury against the NOI stemmed from Elijah Muhammad's multiple out-of-wedlock births with his female subordinates. But beyond that, many of Marable's other revelations about Malcolm's life paint a striking picture of his marriage and attitudes toward women in general.

The strain began with Malcolm's mother, who was a widow who suffered from mental illness and was institutionalized for much of her life. In his brief career as a house robber, Malcolm used his white lover as a front; later, she betrayed him in court to save herself. As he rose through the ranks of the NOI, Malcolm was constantly pursued by women drawn to his magnetism, a charm that "physically unsettled" women such as Maya Angelou, who returned from exile in Africa to join his fledgling organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. (The secular group was run by a woman named Lynne Shifflet, who abruptly resigned in 1965 after Betty accused her of sleeping with Malcolm.)

Then, too, Malcolm had a complicated relationship with his sister Ella, who bailed him out during his Detroit Red days. After he was kicked out of NOI and lost his platform and source of income to support his massive family, it was his sister who threw him a life preserver by financing his trip to Mecca, and later his tour of Africa and the Middle East. But the two often fought, and he wrote in his autobiography that she "wore out" her three former husbands with her dominant personality.

Most telling, though, was his troubled marriage -- the opposite of the tender, sexually charged romance depicted by Angela Bassett and Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's film. Malcolm married Betty at the suggestion of NOI elders.