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Shedding Light on Malcolm X

Malcolm X's diaries, photos, letters and other items -- saved from the auction block last year -- have found a new home at the New York Public Library. The papers of the late civil rights and religious leader "help reconnect the icon with the human being," says Howard Dodson, director of the library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which will make the collection available to researchers and the general public.

"The more people become icons, the further away they move from their existence as human beings," Dodson tells NPR's Bob Edwards. "What the collection does as much as anything else is to help reconnect the icon with the human being."

The items had been placed in a temporary storage facility by one of Malcolm X's six daughters. After monthly payments were not received, a buyer arranged for them to be auctioned at Butterfield's, an auction house owned by eBay. Dodson became involved in an effort by the family and scholars in retrieving the documents last year.

Under an agreement announced in January with Ilyasah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazz, as the administrators of the estate of Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow, the materials will be deposited with the Schomburg Center for 75 years. Ownership of the collection will remain with Malcolm X's family, who will also retain intellectual property rights.

The papers include sermons by Malcolm X that allow readers "to track the evolution of his Muslim beliefs," Dodson tells Edwards. "Most people in the United States, at least, tend to forget; they generally think about Malcolm X as a political leader, but he was a spiritual leader."

The collection also includes a set of diaries from Malcolm X's trips to Africa and Mecca in 1964. Alex Haley used the diaries to write The Autobiography of Malcolm X, "but it doesn't appear that anyone else has seen these diaries to date. Those are some things that are going to be very, very important in continuing to study and learn about the transition that Malcolm X went through."

"Of course, everyone was very much aware of the fact that he was at times harshly critical of American society and harshly critical of the African-American community, but he was equally harshly critical of himself," Dodson says.

The papers show that Malcolm X -- who was assassinated in 1965 at the age of 39 -- refined his speeches, "constantly trying to sharpen his thought and his understanding of the issues he was trying to present," Dodson says.

They also reveal the changes Malcolm X was undergoing, shifting away from the Nation of Islam, which was headed by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X "had made it clear as he was making the break from the Nation of Islam that his loyalties lay with the entirety of the African-American community and with the struggle for human rights of oppressed and exploited people around the world, irrespective of religion or race," Dodson says.

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