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The Murder of Malcolm X

Jigs Gardner is a college English teacher who has written many essays on current events and socialism.
This essay first appeared in the April 1965 issue of Monthly Review following Malcolm’s murder on February 21, 1965.

By publishing this article, we do not mean to imply endorsement of the view that Malcolm X’s actual murderers, the men who wielded the fatal weapons, were politically motivated. On the basis of what little evidence is available, it would seem as reasonable to assume that he was the victim of a vendetta in which the murderers were mere tools. But in a deeper sense, the only sense that has historical meaning, we have no doubt that Malcolm’s assassination was a profoundly political event. It was because of his ideas and his politics that he represented a threat to the privileges and vested interests of powerful groups, both white and black. Whatever the immediate pretext, it was certainly this threat in the background which caused his enemies to wish to be rid of him. [Introduction written by MR’s editors in 1965.]

Here is a man who was killed for his ideas. Think of it! In 1965, when we have become inured to the hypocrisy, venality, stupidity, and brutality of public figures in this blighted land, he was a hero, a martyr.

Secret societies, conspiratorial organizations are phenomena common to all oppressed groups, especially minority groups with a long history of oppression and enforced ignorance. Surrounded by secrecy, based on exclusiveness, serving an elite, pervaded by obscurantism, these organizations are essentially reactionary, and the most striking fact about Malcolm’s career, since he left Muhammad’s “Nation of Islam,” was his explicit and implicit rejection of these qualities. He traveled; he studied; he learned; he developed. The most striking thing about him was his growth, unique among Negro leaders, so that one eagerly read his speeches or interviews to see this progressive development, to see what he had learned. By his study of Islam he was enabled to see the phoniness of Muhammad’s pseudo-religious doctrines, especially their racism. Thus he wrote,

as a follower of Elijah Muhammad I said that I believed in the religion of Islam but his teaching or version of it was not based upon the brotherhood of man. It was against people just on the basis of their color. But my beliefs now are 100 percent against racism and against segregation in any form and I also believe that in the religion of Islam, as I now understand it, that we don’t judge a person by the color of his skin but, rather, by his behavior, by his deeds and we think that this is justified.*

His travels in Africa taught him the most important lesson: that there is a direct relation between events in the Congo and events in Harlem; that imperialist exploitation and oppression are caused by the same force—United States capitalism—which exploits and degrades American Negroes. As he said:

Now the African nations are speaking out and linking the problem of racism in Mississippi with the problem of racism in the Congo and also the problem of racism in South Vietnam. It’s all racism. It’s all part of the vicious racist system that the Western powers have used to continue to degrade and exploit and oppress the people in Africa and Asia and Latin America during centuries.

Malcolm X and those Negroes who were members of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (and who thereby created him as a leader) were emerging from the sterile, stupid, hateful world of the secret societies which help to perpetuate the slavery of working-class Negroes (the middle-class “struggle” is purely reformist), emerging from that dark world into the light of consciousness—knowledge of the real nature of the American Negro’s condition, its causes and its cure. Significantly, he did not conceive of the OAAU as an exclusive, narrowly-based organization, and he welcomed cooperation with other groups:

The Organization of Afro-American Unity will support fully and without compromise any action by any group that is designed to get meaningful immediate results.

Malcolm X, while he lived, was often condemned as an advocate of violence and now that he has been murdered, the hangers-on of the ruling class can scarcely contain their satisfaction as they piously chant their smug phrases about “violence begetting violence,” and “as they sow, so shall they reap.” In fact, as anyone even superficially acquainted with his career must know, Malcolm was not an advocate of violence:

[We] think that when non-violence is taught to the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizens Councilor these other elements that are inflicting extreme brutality against blacks in this country, then we would accept it. If we’re dealing with a non-violent enemy, then we would be non-violent, too. But as long as our people in this country have to face the continued acts of brutality on the part of the racist element in the North as well as in the South, then I don’t think that we should be called upon to be non-violent. When they’ll get non-violent, we’ll get non-violent.

Such a position is unassailable. But its justice is irrelevant to the ruling class; any form of effective resistance to oppression enrages those hypocrites who themselves do not hesitate to use whatever forms of violence are necessary to maintain the exploitation of the mass of Negroes. Violence against Negroes is standard operating procedure; it is unthinkable that Negroes should defend themselves.

Malcolm X’s absolute determination to end the degradation of his race, symbolized by his resolute stand on “violence,” as well as the breadth and depth of his understanding of the Negro’s present situation, were what alarmed the ruling class and aroused its implacable hostility. For although we cannot call Malcolm X a socialist, since he did not wholly grasp the fact that racism is the result of capitalist exploitation, there is no question that he was developing in that direction, and consequently was the only prominent Negro leader with an intelligent, far-reaching grasp of the realities of the Negro struggle.

Is it any wonder he was murdered?

Look at the effects of the murder, at the way in which the United States capitalist ruling class is using it: how many words have been expended in vilifying his example, in warning, and threatening, and “deploring” such a man and such a career, at the same time that the truth of his career, his knowledge and its meaning, is deliberately disguised and distorted? How eagerly do the organs of the ruling class seize this opportunity to discredit the Negro struggle, to drive working-class Negroes back into apathy, and to enforce the confinement of middle-class Negroes within the servile limits of the civil rights organizations (which servility, the product of class, is amply shown by the craven response of the leaders of these organizations to Malcolm’s murder).

This is not the beginning of the suppression of the only meaningful, the only revolutionary Negro struggle—that of working-class Negroes—for that struggle itself has hardly begun. We cannot say that suppression of a revolutionary movement has a specific moment of inception; it is implicit, immanent in class society. But the lesson of the murder of Malcolm X and the reaction to it, is that the fear and hostility of the ruling class toward the Negro struggle increases in direct ratio to the involvement of working-class Negroes in the struggle, and consequently, that attempts to suppress that revolutionary aspect of the struggle are increasing and will continue to increase at the same time that the middle-class Negro struggle is tamed and “used” as a complementary tactic of the ruling class.

Malcolm X is dead. The exploitative society of capitalism, which created Malcolm, lives on. The basic economic structure, the social forces, the class dynamics called into being by it continue to develop, to create their opposites, their reactions, their negations. Malcolm’s organization, the OAAU, may disappear; we may see a temporary pause in the working-class Negro struggle. So long, however, as capitalist exploitation exists, we may be sure that as the consciousness of working-class Negroes develops, they will create new organizations, new leaders in the tradition of Malcolm X. And we can be equally sure that they will be socialists. The capitalist ruling class is capable of distortion, vilification, suppression, and assassination—but it cannot destroy the forces which a Malcolm X represents; no, not until the ruling class and its system of exploitation and degradation is itself destroyed.

Notes:

* All quotations are from an interview with Malcolm broadcast over radio station WBAI-FM, january 28, 1965, and printed in The Militant, February 8, 1965.