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.
In a heartbreaking and impossibly earnest letter to Elijah Muhammad, he asked for advice on how to fix his marriage. Betty said that he could not sexually satisfy her, and threatened to find satisfaction elsewhere. This wounded him deeply and led him to avoid her and home at all costs, according to Marable.
"Malcolm largely viewed his wife as a nuisance," Marable wrote. Aides said that she boldly flirted with the men around her, and they informed Malcolm that she was having a sexual affair with one of his aides charged with keeping the family safe during his absence.
Much of the evidence of a strained marriage was fed by Malcolm's former lieutenants, many of whom had axes to grind, cautions Russell J. Rickford, a Dartmouth historian, protégé of Marable's and biographer of Betty Shabazz. But, he tells The Root, it was clear that there were some deep, deep tensions in the marriage.
"To say there were internal and external pressures on the marriage is the understatement of the century," Rickford says. "Malcolm was, for almost his entire life, a rabid male chauvinist, and even a misogynist in many respects. Whatever notes of genuine affection may have existed between the two, Betty and Malcolm had a marriage of convenience."
It is gripping to read Marable's account of Malcolm's last days. Sleepless and paranoid, he survived multiple attempts on his life. His followers were being beaten and, in one case, killed in the war against the Nation of Islam. The FBI harassment was relentless. Yet through his comments to the press, he continued to escalate the public beef against his former mentor Elijah Muhammad with a venom that he had once reserved only for white people.
At the time of Malcolm's assassination, he was hunted and homeless. He had no platform, no job, but a wife and six children to support. He was, to quote Biggie, ready to die. He told a reporter in February 1965 that he lived "like a man who's already dead. This thing with me will be resolved by death and violence."
And if Marable is correct, in his final hours Malcolm did not even have at least the comfort of a loving, supportive marriage to dull his torment. That would make the tragedy even more profound. If it does turn out that his alleged mistress was implicated in his murder, it would be the culmination of a life filled with deep distrust toward women. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.