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The Achievement of Malcolm X

John J. Simon has been a book editor and public radio and television producer. He is a director of the Monthly Review Foundation.

It is tempting to speculate how the radical politics of the 1960s might have played out had Malcolm X not been assassinated on February 21, 1965. The campaigns for civil rights, for the liberation of people of color domestically and internationally, against the war in Vietnam and other instances of U.S. imperialism, and, above all, the then-nascent efforts to build popular multi-issue mass movements in support of these goals and calling for socialism surely would have benefited from his strong, clear voice and able leadership. Speculation, of course, is idle. But the direction taken by the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor Peoples Campaign of the late 1960s, as well as the emergence of strong anti-imperialist voices in the New Left, offer a glimpse of what might have been possible. As an aid in understanding Malcolm X’s historical place, we republish an interview with Malcolm conducted by the poet A. B. Spellman which appeared in Monthly Review‘s pages in May 1964. It is accompanied by Jigs Gardner’s examination of the political context of Malcolm’s killing which was published in MR in April 1965. The two pieces are introduced by John J. Simon’s survey of Malcolm’s life and work from the perspective of the present.

The Editors

The life of Malcolm X, who was murdered forty years ago this month, spanned a trajectory from oppression and victimization to inchoate rebellion and revolutionary autonomy. His was a voyage from resistance to an informed radicalism. It was a journey from which he ultimately gathered political and historical insight which, combined with his tools of persuasion and skills at leadership, made him at the time of his death arguably the most dangerous figure in this country’s history to confront its ruling class. For us, forty years later, Malcolm’s life is also informative: both about the destructive encounters that Africans, Asians, Latins, and indigenous peoples have had with this country, its culture and its history, and how deeply domestic resistance to that oppression is embedded in the global anti-imperialist struggle.

Malcolm was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925. While pregnant with him, his mother was attacked by Ku Klux Klansmen trying to force his family out of town because his father had spoken to a meeting of local blacks in support of Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” movement. Malcolm’s family moved to Lansing, Michigan where one of his earliest memories was seeing his home burnt down in 1929 by members of the Black Legion, a white fascist organization; later his father’s body was found hacked to death. There followed a spiral of family breakdown sadly all too familiar among the most victimized and vulnerable in this country in the last century. Malcolm’s mother went mad under the weight of trying to bring up eight children alone in extreme poverty. His family was broken up and Malcolm went to live in what is now called a group foster home. But, bright and good looking, he stood at the top of his class academically and was seventh grade class president in a mostly white school. Indeed, Malcolm might have been poised on the brink of a Horatio Alger-like ascent—if such a thing existed—had it not been for his skin color; a white teacher explained the real-word limitations of twentieth century America. When Malcolm said he might want to be a lawyer, the teacher suggested carpentry instead, saying, “We all here like you, you know that, but you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger.”

The amalgam of everyday racism, historic and institutionalized white supremacy, and the Great Depression found Malcolm vainly looking for work, moving to Boston and New York, running numbers for gamblers and dealing cocaine, heroin, and women. A junkie himself, he became a burglar and, inevitably, was caught, convicted of multiple crimes, and sentenced by a Massachusetts court to ten years in prison. There, in events movingly recounted in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm went through a kind of “conversion,” curing himself of his drug addictions and a propensity to extreme violence. Malcolm fortuitously met a long-serving ex-thief who introduced him to the prison’s uncommonly well-stocked library, which became his “university.” It was there that his intellectual odyssey began. He read everything, from philosophy, history, and fiction to the words (all of them, in alphabetical order) in the Merriam-Webster College Dictionary. He also encountered the sacred texts of Christianity and Islam, and, in 1948, was converted to the faith of the Nation of Islam, the Black Muslims.

In his review of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) in The New York Review of Books, the radical journalist I. F. Stone, attempting to understand both the cognitive and unconscious aspects of Malcolm’s experience and the life changing character of his religious conversion, cites the pragmatist philosopher William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Uncomfortable with such sudden, even radicalizing, changes in outlook and personality, James saw them as character flaws, describing them as a “liability” and noting “sudden and complete change as one of [man’s] most curious peculiarities.” But James also understood them as emancipating qualities; he quotes Martin Luther, “God is the God…of those who are brought to nothing…and his nature is…to save the very desperate and the damned” [Stone’s ellipses]. Stone was fascinated by Malcolm’s religious conversion because it prefigured his later political conversion.

Stone wrote in the context of the early 1960s debate among white liberals about the nature of the Black Muslim movement. Many condemned it as a hate-breeding cult, violent, extremist, and subversive of what mainstream commentators saw as a civil rights movement led by the “respectable” black middle-class leadership. Malcolm attacked those leaders, seeing them as compliant and submissive. In his eyes they were willing to betray those they purported to champion even as they sought admission to the white establishment. While not accepting Malcolm’s blanket condemnation of the civil rights leadership, Stone did see the Black Muslims as addressing in unique, imaginative, and transmuting ways the seemingly intractable and humiliating problems of material exploitation and abuse that was Jim Crow. “The sickness of the Negro in America is that he has been made to feel a nigger; the genocide is psychic,” Stone wrote. What the Muslims did for Malcolm, as they did for numerous others, through their sometimes fantastical teachings—for example, the white man as “blue-eyed Devil”—was to invalidate the debilitating and self-destructive mindsets that accompanied the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and unremitting poverty, replacing them with a sense of liberation and allowing them the prospect of being actors in their own history.

Released from prison in 1952, Malcolm went to Chicago to meet Elijah Mohammed, leader of the movement, and then moved to Detroit, working at various industrial jobs and becoming increasingly engaged in Muslim activities. Ultimately he became a minister in the Nation of Islam, preaching in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. With Malcolm often the spur, the Nation of Islam grew from a small religious sect based around Chicago and Detroit to an important national force among primarily northern urban blacks. That population had grown dramatically during and after the Second World War, migrating north, first to find jobs in defense plants and later fleeing the loss of work due to the mechanization of cotton harvesting, work traditionally done by blacks since slavery. Increasingly crowded into ghettos and substandard public housing, working at ill-paid jobs, and enveloped in a climate of desperation, many were attracted to the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam taught self-help and preached self-respect; it provided schools both for children and adults and offered cooperative food and clothing shops. Its mosques became centers of a culturally enriched life. Many were attracted to its religious and ethical message offering both salvation and spiritual protection from the “white devil.” The Nation of Islam was attractive, presenting a middle-class face to the community; it was free of crime and drugs, and, perhaps above all, it offered pride. The Muslims were viewed sympathetically by politicians such as Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and included among its adherents the heavyweight boxer and Vietnam war resister Muhammad Ali. But its catalyzing personality was Malcolm X.

From 1952 to 1963 Malcolm oversaw the Nation of Islam’s rise in numbers, prestige, and influence. Malcolm was charismatic, dynamic, possessed of a commanding stage presence. He was learned, quick witted, and erudite. He was also telegenic and was increasingly sought for debates with both black and white adversaries. At the same time, but especially after the Brown vs. Board of Education school integration decision in 1954, Malcolm was increasingly attacked in white media as a purveyor of hate for standing for black racial autonomy. In his view, consistent with the black pride stance of the Muslims, racial separateness was better than some vague promise of equality. But with his growing celebrity, Malcolm was also increasingly attacked from within the Nation of Islam, primarily by those wary of his prominence, for his outspokenness on matters that were perceived to be non-theological. Tensions rose. Finally, Malcolm described the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy as “chickens coming home to roost.” What he meant was that Kennedy’s killing was of a piece with societal violence spawned by institutionalized racism, but he was widely excoriated for his remark and was muzzled by Elijah Mohammed. This was followed by Malcolm’s break with the Nation of Islam and his establishment of an independent mosque in New York and a political group, the Organization of African American Unity.

All this played out against a background of domestic and international upheaval. Industrialization, agricultural decline, and unremitting oppression of blacks led to the rise of the Southern civil rights movement, marked by the huge 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights, Jobs and Justice. International anticolonial and national liberation movements led many countries to at least nominal independence in Africa and Asia. The triumph of the Cuban revolution confronted U.S. dominance in Latin America and sent tremors through the region. And U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia led to war and a homegrown antiwar movement.

At the same time, Malcolm was on the move. He fulfilled a religious obligation and went to Mecca where he encountered not only Muslims of many colors, but leaders and participants in the anti-imperialist struggle. In the Middle East and in Europe he met with Algerians, South Africans, Palestinians, and others. Returning to New York he sought out Che Guevara at the United Nations and announced he planned to work to internationalize the struggle. In a move reminiscent of the 1952 petition against black genocide brought to the UN by Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson of the left-wing Civil Rights Congress, Malcolm reached out to other black groups, progressive and radical white organizations, and newly-independent African states to bring black people’s complaints before the international body. He also began working with these groups on their issues: voter registration and black and community control of such institutions as schools and the police.

Malcolm spoke widely and indefatigably throughout 1964 and early 1965. A measure of his evolution—his conversion to an irreversible revolutionary outlook—can be seen in a series of observations he made in the last year of his life. At a street meeting in Harlem, in response to criticism for not adopting nonviolence, he offered militancy,

If we react to white racism with a violent reaction, to me that’s not Black racism. If you come to put a rope around my neck, and I hang you for it, to me that’s not racism. Yours is racism….My reaction is the reaction of a human being reacting to defend and protect himself.

Soon, however, he connected the gradualism implicit in the nonviolence postulate with imperialist realities, saying, “They want you to be nonviolent here, but they want you to be very violent in South Vietnam.”

Malcolm’s political transformation continued; he told a group of Columbia University students,

We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of the rebellion against oppression and colonialism which has characterized this era….It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.

A measure of Malcolm’s understanding is seen in two brief remarks: “You can’t have capitalism without racism,” he said. And he understood the source of the latter was to be found in “Ignorance and greed. And a skillfully designed program of mis-education that goes along with a system of exploitation and oppression.”

Malcolm’s “conversion” was not simply changing his mind about certain issues. It had to do with the imprinting of a world view that, to be sure, came from keen observation, but also from deeply felt and imbued personal experience, and his immutable identification with the historical experience and ongoing pain of what Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” Malcolm was now seen by friends and enemies alike as a true threat to the system and the class that imposed it. Indeed, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal a pattern of surveillance and harassment by the FBI, CIA, and the New York City Police Department’s “red squad.” They show an ongoing fear of Malcolm as an actual and potential leader of a black America independent of the norms of subservience and coercion and, most frighteningly, connected to the storm of movements for change worldwide.

Malcolm X was gunned down in the early afternoon of a chilly February 21, 1965, as he addressed a meeting in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. The circumstances of Malcolm’s assassination remain murky to this day. There have long been suspicions of some government involvement. At the time of the shooting there were about forty NYPD officers at the scene, ostensibly to prevent any violent attack (there had been many threats to Malcolm’s life in the weeks leading up to the “hit”). Inexplicably though, the police were instructed to stand down at the moment of the shootings, complicating both the investigation of the crime and the capture of the assailants. Ultimately three men were indicted and served jail time. Two, from the Nation of Islam’s paramilitary unit, Fruit of Islam, were convicted for shooting Malcolm. The third, one of Malcolm’s bodyguards, was found guilty of illegally (but perhaps wisely) carrying a pistol into the ballroom.

Malcolm X’s legacy is ongoing. Schools, colleges, and streets have been named for him. He has inspired millions here and abroad. But with Malcolm “safely dead,” some have tried to dilute him into a kind of vague, nonthreatening, and distant icon. But for those of us who have a radical vision of a world transformed by a humanely engaged struggle for social justice—for socialism—one place we can surely start is that part of his legacy to be found in his own transformation, his own “conversion,” and what it can tell us in very bleak times about human possibility.

A Note on Sources:

Quotations from I. F. Stone’s “The Pilgrimage of Malcolm X” can be found in I. F. Stone, In a Time of Torment (New York: Random House, 1967). Quotations from Malcolm X are from the Youth for Socialist Action website, http://geocities.com/youth4sa/malcolm.html.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Nelson Blackstock, COINTELPRO: The FBI’s Secret War on Political Freedom (New York: Vintage Books, 1976); George Breitman, Malcolm X: The Man and His Ideas (New York, Pioneer Publishers, 1965); George Breitman, The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary (New York: Merit Publishers, 1967); Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, (New York: Grove Press, 1965); Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (New York: Merit Publishers, 1965); Malcolm X, Malcolm X: Speeches at Harvard (New York: Paragon House, 1991); Malcolm X, Malcolm X: The Last Speeches (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1989).

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