But others are more skeptical about the depth of this conversion. "It is easy to make a bit too much of this development in Malcolm: It was, at most, only the beginning of a transmutation," Marshall Frady recently wrote in The New Yorker.
Lincoln suggests that too much may have been made out of the rift between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, even in the autobiography. "I read Alex's manuscript from beginning to end before it was published, and the published (final) chapters are quite different from what I read," said Lincoln, who did not elaborate on why Haley would have altered the narration. "I am trying to tell you that everything that has been written about Malcolm X is not kosher."
While Malcolm did announce he was no longer a racist, he was not willing to embrace integration and did not adopt King's philosophy of non-violence. Both the film and Worth's documentary end with Malcolm's warning that blacks would accomplish their goals "by any means necessary."
What did he mean by that?
"I don't think he meant picking up a gun and going out and shooting people," Worth said.
"I really think he meant things like, economically, do whatever you have to do, but he didn't mean armed revolution. It's not spelled out. I don't want to be presumptuous, and interpret for him, but I would think he probably wouldn't mind you taking it any way you wanted to take it, because, as they say, you get things through fear and respect."
This bravado illustrates one of the many contradictions in Malcolm. He had a menacing air, he talked tough and he recommended that blacks arm themselves; yet he himself did not carry a gun and he never engaged in violence. Indeed, on several occasions, he intervened to prevent angry crowds from rioting, according to Perry.
Although he scoffed at civil rights legislation, saying it would not help blacks, the ever-present threat he represented may have helped make it law. "By frightening whites and by making many of them feel that Martin Luther King's approach was a blessing in disguise, Malcolm helped create the political climate that spurred the passage of the civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965," Perry writes.
Despite his scorn for "white devils," he befriended many white people. "He was a man of great charm and courtesy. He was a rather courtly gentleman of the old school," Silberman said. Writer Nat Hentoff, another friend, remembers Malcolm's "very sharp sense of humor" and playful manner.
He made conflicting statements about Jews, condemning them for "siphoning out" resources from black ghettos while expressing understanding and sympathy over the prejudice they too had suffered. "The interesting fact is that in the last year of his life, he seemed to renounce a good deal of the anti-Semitism and bigotry of his ideology before that," said David Lehrer, Western States Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League.
By then, however, time was running out for Malcolm X. Animosity toward him had worsened as a result of his efforts to discredit Elijah Muhammad, viewed by the faithful as God's own messenger. He knew he had become a target.
But who exactly killed him? One suspect, Mujahid Halim (known then as Talmadge Hayer), was captured red-handed and went to prison along with two other members of the Nation of Islam. Halim later said that those two were wrongly convicted and pointed the finger at four other Muslims. But no new charges were filed.
Many of Malcolm's admirers blame the CIA, the FBI and/or the New York police for Malcolm's murder. "People believe overwhelmingly that he was killed (by the FBI)--that if you spoke out, that was going to be your fate," said Johnnie L. Cochran, a prominent black Los Angeles attorney.
While no evidence has been found of their complicity in the murder, it is clear that law enforcement agencies considered Malcolm dangerous, and there is plenty of documentary proof that the CIA watched him while he traveled abroad, and FBI agents and New York police kept him under surveillance at home. Prof. Cone and others believe the FBI infiltrated the Nation of Islam and "helped create tension" between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, knowing where this might lead.
"(Then-FBI director) J. Edgar Hoover's hostility to the civil rights movement is well-known now," said James Turner, a political sociologist at Cornell University.
Was Elijah Muhammad indirectly responsible for Malcolm's murder, or did his followers act without his knowledge? Hentoff is haunted by a conversation he had with Malcolm two weeks before the slaying. "We were kidding around, and then he got very somber. It was the first time I'd ever seen him really apprehensive . . . As he was leaving he said, 'Whatever happens to me, it won't be Elijah.' . . . The whole thing is very murky."
While some people remain troubled by the question marks surrounding Malcolm's death, others are more concerned about how his legacy is being received. Shelby Steele, professor of English at San Jose State University, said young African-Americans are drawn to Malcolm because of "the rage, the clarity, the rebellion, the flaunting of authority" but "skirt around" his insistence that they can change their lives only by altering their behavior.
"Today he would have been called a neo-conservative. His demands were unrelenting," Steele said. Noting that few have followed Malcolm into Islam or adopted his ascetic practices, he added: "Who wants to make those kinds of personal sacrifices? There are a lot of easy riders where Malcolm is concerned."