Because all the people here in Asia, Arabia and Africa love you madly, you must now be forever aware of your responsibility to these billions of dark-skinned people... You have shook up the whole world. --MALCOLM X, journal entry, May 21, 1964

Of the American lives that were famously cut short in the 1960s, Malcolm X's arguably holds the most intriguing questions, because he died not just young but unfinished, still in headlong transition from the racist, separatist ideology of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. About the Kennedy brothers or Dr. King, we can speculate on what they would have done; about Malcolm, the question is what he would have become. Some clues may lie in five spiral-bound notebooks holding Malcolm's journals from the last year of his life, which disappeared shortly after his assassination in 1965 and have never been seen by scholars. Now, scholars fear, they may disappear again into the hands of collectors, if they are sold as scheduled on March 20 at Butterfields, eBay's San Francisco subsidiary, as part of a trove of Malcolm's letters, notes and photographs, ranging from pictures of Cassius Clay to Malcolm's annotated copy of the Qur'an.

As news of the auction spread last week, scholars scrambled to ensure historians' access to the material. "The worst thing would be for curiosity seekers to buy individual pieces and put them on the wall," said Manning Marable, who heads Columbia University's vast Malcolm X archive. Marable wouldn't discuss his plans in detail, but several institutions were lining up donations to buy--alone or in concert--the entire collection, which eBay estimated at $300,000 to $500,000. Meanwhile, a lawyer for Malcolm's family was attempting to stop the sale altogether, claiming the material belonged to the estate of Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, who died in 1997. The lawyer, Joseph Fleming, said the material had been removed from the family's control "without their knowledge," although he alleged no crime; Butterfields said the unidentified seller had bought the papers after they were disposed of by a storage warehouse in Florida. Fleming said he expected to succeed in voiding the Florida sale, which would prevent the auction. Malcolm's six daughters, he said, intend to make the material available to scholars, but "they want to be the proprietors of their own legacy."

And a wonderful legacy it is, judging from the glimpses Butterfields made available last week: intimate, impassioned and full of Malcolm's wide-ranging intellect. "Under no circumstances, don't ever preach to me," the 20-year-old Malcolm, writing from jail in 1946, scolds his brother Philbert, an earlier convert to Islam; but within a year he is beginning his letters with a prayer. "Be happy and enjoy yourself," he writes to Betty in 1959. "You will stay young and beautiful longer that way. Keep me posted on how you are fixed on money. I don't want you to be out there broke, and at the same time, I don't want you to break me. (Smile.)" By far of greatest interest to scholars are the notebooks from his last year, which is thinly treated in the autobiography that was completed after his death by Alex Haley. One of the few people who claim to have seen the notebooks is Malcolm's nephew Rodnell Collins, who says he helped move them to Malcolm's office in Harlem after his uncle's house was firebombed, just before he was killed. Collins told NEWSWEEK that the notebooks contain details of Malcolm's meetings with African revolutionaries, at which he discussed sending black American veterans to help fight in South Africa and Angola, and his plan to have America condemned in the World Court for its treatment of African-Americans. No doubt the FBI, whose file on Malcolm X runs to 19,000 pages, would have loved to see that. For once, perhaps, history will learn something before the spies.