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Lee Harvey Oswald. James Earl Ray. Sirhan Sirhan. And Willie Bradley.

Willie who?

The lead assassin in the killing of Malcolm X never has become a household name, despite being a member of the infamous band of killers who turned the turbulent 1960s into the Decade of Assassination in America.

But Malcolm X, thanks largely to his "autobiography" that became standard reading to students in the 1960s and 1970s, became a singular figure in the troubled '60s -- a counterpoint to Martin Luther King Jr., by becoming a black man who infuriated most whites by calling them devils.

In this painstakingly detailed portrait, it's author Manning Marable's thesis that Malcolm X actually was a much more complex man, who continually reinvented himself as he evolved from a petty criminal and trickster to a serious political intellectual and Black Muslim to, finally, a man who embraced worldwide Islam and no longer placed devils' horns on the white race.

So Marable, in effect, puts a lot of skin on this otherwise stick figure that many Americans in middle age (and beyond) recall from their high school days almost half a century ago.

This is an even-handed look at Malcolm, with the author poking holes in some of the distortions found in the old autobiography (co-written with Alex Haley of "Roots" fame), especially when it came to exaggerating Malcolm's early criminal record.

Sadly, Marable didn't live to see his definitive biography published. He died April 1, three days before the publishing date.

Malcolm X, who never even lived to see age 40, didn't frighten just white people.

Consider this assessment of Malcolm: "He was an imposing man, talking so bad about white people, I was scared of him."

That comment came from none other than Louis Farrakhan.

Younger Americans who didn't read the "Autobiography of Malcolm X" in school may know little about this huge figure in American racial relations.

Born in 1925, Malcolm Little became a hustler, pimp, drug dealer and finally a convicted thief. But he discovered Allah before leaving prison in 1952 and joining the Nation of Islam.

Its members preached that whites were devils and that black Americans were the lost Asiatic tribe of Shabazz, forced into slavery in America's racial wilderness, Marable writes. The road to salvation required these converts to reject their slave surnames. Thus, Malcolm X.

As a follower of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm preached the necessity of racial separation. And he adhered to the Nation of Islam tenets of black pride, self-sufficiency and rejection of integration.

Malcolm's statements and actions became anathema to much of white America. He sat down with Ku Klux Klan leaders in 1961; called it a "beautiful thing" when a Paris plane crash killed 121 well-to-do whites from Atlanta in 1962; and called the John F. Kennedy assassination a case of "chickens coming home to roost."

But Malcolm soon grew weary of the Nation of Islam's apolitical, anti-activist platform. And Malcolm -- a highly disciplined man who never cursed or smoked and rose at 5 a.m. each day to say prayers -- lost his reverence for the Nation's leader, Elijah Muhammad, who fathered at least six children out of wedlock in the late 1950s and early '60s.

Marable makes Malcolm's split from the Nation of Islam seem inevitable, a clash of politics more than personalities. Malcolm knew that to survive, the Nation had to immerse itself in the black community's daily struggles and the civil rights movement.

That split put a bull's-eye on Malcolm's back.

His assassination, on Feb. 21, 1965, is a fascinating subject in and of itself, marked by the justice system's complete indifference or incompetence leading to the conviction of three men, only one of whom was involved. The other two shooters went free.

Marable also raises the issue of Elijah Muhammad's role in that slaying, carried out at a rally before hundreds of Malcolm's supporters.

"The fatwa, or death warrant, may or may not have been signed by Elijah Muhammad; there is no way of knowing," the author writes. "It is far more likely that Muhammad, like the fabled King Henry II, announced no decision but made his feelings all too clear, allowing his underlings to take their own murderous initiative."

At Malcolm's funeral, actor and activist Ossie Davis explained the hold that Malcolm -- a stormy, controversial and bold young man -- had on so many Harlem blacks:

"Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him or have him smile at you? ... Malcolm was our manhood, our living black manhood. ... And we will know him then for what he was and is -- a prince -- our own black shining prince -- who didn't hesitate to die, because he loved us so."

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

> NONFICTION

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

By Manning Marable

Viking

594 pages, $30