I believe that there will be ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think it will be based on the color of the skin…
Malcolm X, One Month Before His Murder
There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain – and we will smile. Many will say turn away – away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man – and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate – a fanatic, a racist – who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them : Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him. Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people.
Eulogy delivered by Ossie Davis at the Funeral of Malcolm X, Faith Temple Church Of God, Harlem, February 27,1965
On February 21, 1965 – 50 years ago this week – Malcolm X, the great African-American and US freedom fighter and outstanding world revolutionary leader, was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom in upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights on Broadway and 165th Street in New York City. Commemorations of this bitterly sad anniversary that truly altered US and world history have been held in New York City, Malcolm’s home base, across the United States, and throughout the world. (1)
Malcolm X was a peerless orator of tremendous wit and power as well as an indefatigable and effective political organizer. On that fateful and horrible 1965 day he was murdered in cold blood, in front of his wife and children, while addressing a full house of over 400 people, under the auspices of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the non-religious political formation he founded after his split from Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (called the “Black Muslims” in the US media).
The gunmen were undoubtedly agents and operatives of the Nation of Islam (NOI). From the moment Malcolm X left the NOI he was subjected to the most vile personal attacks and slanders from Louis Farrakhan and other NOI leaders, including open calls for his death. While the evidence directly linking NOI leaders to the murder plot continues to be covered up, their moral and political responsibility is unquestionable. But this truth also begs the larger question of the direct or indirect responsibility of the United States government in Malcolm X’s death. It is known that US government agencies, that is, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) within the United States, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which took over during Malcolm’s international travels, had stepped up their illegal surveillance, harassment, and hounding of Malcolm X after his departure from the NOI. Federal and local cops and spooks had Malcolm X under constant surveillance. The New York Police Department (NYPD) knew two weeks in advance that Malcolm X was being targeted for assassination. NYPD had at least one undercover agent in the OAAU and had a wiretap on Malcolm X’s phone. Yet no police were in sight at the Audubon Ballroom when he was murdered right in the open. It is also know that part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation directed against Malcolm X included exploiting and instigating person venom against Malcolm by his former associates and manipulating the atmosphere of hostility and provocation.
Much of the documentation of this outrageous and illegal US government harassment – which included poison pens letters, instigating and promoting false rumors, personal antagonisms, the leaking and planting of disinformation in the media, and so on has come to light from lawsuits under Freedom of Information Act legislation. In a then-secret 1968 memorandum, Hoover wrote that the FBI must, “Prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement. [Malcolm X] might have been such a ‘messiah’…”
A Hero of My Youth and Always
My first lasting memory of Malcolm X was when, as a 13-year old boy in southern Indiana I was shaken by a graphic photo-spread of his assassination in the old LOOK magazine which my parents subscribed to. I had developed the habit of reading newspapers and following what was called “current events” in school so I was aware of and instinctly sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement, as were my parents, although they had no direct involvement. A year or two later, we moved to the relatively big city of Cincinnati, Ohio and I went from a segregated small-town high school to a late-1960s urban cauldron.
The racial and social composition of my new high school was, more or less, about 40% “white” working class and middle class, 40% Black working class, with the rest, including me, mostly Jewish. It was a volatile mix in extremely volatile times, with the Black rights struggle literally exploding nationally as the Vietnam War — and mounting opposition to it — escalating. Interesting alliances and struggles formed in my new high school alongside racial antagonisms and tension. Black and white students united to change the schools draconian dress code; T-shirts, long-haired “hippies,” and Afros proliferated. My high school was even written up in LIFE magazine in one of the era’s ubiquitous pieces on the alienation and rebelliousness of “today’s youth.”
A few of my radicalizing Jewish friends and I gravitated to some of the outspoken Black students. I started sneaking off to attend civil rights protests. At one point we organized a controversial protest over the required recitation of the “Pledge of Allegiance” to the US flag at morning homeroom. Where the closing line says, “One Nation Under God, With Liberty and Justice For All,” we added, “”If You’re White.” That landed us in the Principal’s office.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Black ghetto in Cincinnati exploded and my High School was shut down by students who refused to attend classes, considering it an insult to King’s memory that schools remained open.
One day in 1967 I was looking to spend my sparse allowance money on some music at a rock-and-roll and “soul music” store in downtown Cincinnati when there in the stacks, in a section called “Spoken Word,” I saw an LP titled “The Wit and Wisdom of Malcolm X,” excerpts from his speeches. At $1.49 I could afford it. It was an earthshaking experience for me. What eloquence and logic I found within those grooves. What powerful use of language, what masterful employment of analogy and metaphor. What uncompromising exposure of hypocrisy and duplicity. What passion and compassion.
Perhaps most unexpected for me was the profound and brilliant humor. At the time I had ambitions to be a comedian and I devoured comedy albums and movies as well as books on comedy “theory” — Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Slappy White, the Marx Brothers, Burns and Allen, Flip Wilson, Don Rickles, and all the regulars on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson. I found out that the feared and hated (by some) Malcolm X was funny as hell! I played that soon-to-be scratchy album on my rickety record player to the point where I’m sure I drove my mother crazy. Soon after that purchase I stayed up all day and night and read The Autobiography of Malcolm X nonstop barricaded in my room. Like so many millions of others, reading The Autobiography was a real turning point in my life outlook and in the development of my political and social consciousness.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a riveting and astonishing book that rises to great literature. Translated into over 30 languages, it should be essential reading for any literate human being in this country and indeed on this Earth. But if your only introduction and exposure to Malcolm X is this wonderful book, you will be unable to grasp and understand his world historical significance and true legacy, both the continuity and the profound transformation of his short, remarkable life.
The Autobiography was a book dictated by Malcolm X to Alex Haley on the run over the last two years of his life, while he was engaged in a grueling schedule of intense political organizing in the United States that was intertwined with extensive international travel that broadened and sharpened his moral and political outlook. His collaboration with Haley began while Malcolm X was still a member of and under the discipline of the Nation of Islam. But by the end of 1963 Malcolm’s estrangement from the NOI was reaching a climax. For Malcolm X the radical split, which had been building for some time from moral and political motivations, became a personal and political liberation that was the catalyst pushing him forward. Responding later to a reporter trying to tie him to old NOI dogmas, he stated, “I feel like a man who has been asleep somewhat and under someone else’s control. I feel that what I’m thinking and saying is now for myself. Before it was for and by the guidance of Elijah Muhammad. Now I think with my own mind, sir!
Malcolm X was unable to edit and correct many specific mistakes and misinterpretations in The Autobiography. He was unable to explain and elaborate on the new positions and his rejection of NOI nostrums he had promulgated by rote as an NOI leader. One example of this was his position against interracial marriages which he changed as he dumped Muhammad’s “Yacub’s theory” that “all whites” were the devilish offsprings of the experiments and machinations of an evil scientist from way back when. An expression of his old position was contained in The Autobiography. But in a November 23, 1964 press conference –less than three months before his murder – Malcolm was asked, “Are you against the love between a black person and a white person.” His answer: “How can anyone be against love? Whoever a person wants to love that’s their business – that’s like their religion.”
In general, Haley’s editing of The Autobiography transcripts dilutes or deletes what was a sharp shift and trajectory to the left in Malcolm’s political and philosophical views. Steadily, and more and more explicitly, Malcolm X embraced anti-capitalist and pro-socialist standpoints as he understood them. Within the Nation of Islam, Malcolm had always positioned himself on the side of the Black masses, the working people, as opposed to the more “respectable” “Black bourgeoisie,” as he put it, who were afraid to “rock the boat.” His blistering, uproarious popularization of the class divides within the oppressed Afro-American nationality at the time of the mass struggles of the 1960s was articulated brilliantly in his classic oratorical construction, “The House Negro and the Field Negro” that he inserted into many speeches. (This can be easily found on YouTube and elsewhere online.)
Outside the NOI, and in close contact with revolutionary internationalists of all skin colors and nationalities who were influenced by Marxist ideas and working-class struggles, these questions had moved more and more to the center of Malcolm’s consciousness at the end of his life.
Malcolm wished to change and reformulate many things in The Autobiography, especially in the last chapters covering the period of his split from the NOI. Haley resisted, citing deadline pressures and Malcolm was murdered before the book was published. The printed book focuses on – doing a generally beautiful job — the narration of Malcolm’s turbulent and searing life experiences. But the published narrative is incomplete. To fully appreciate the complete journey and legacy of Malcolm X, The Autobiography must be supplemented by reading and studying the man and his ideas directly in his own words.
Fortunately this is possible in print, audio, and video. Pathfinder Press is a small but prestigious socialist publishing house, affiliated with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a Marxist group which developed a close relationship with Malcolm X, and published his speeches, before his death. Pathfinder undertook immediately after Malcolm X’s death a major project, in collaboration with his wife Betty Shabazz, to gather and publish as much direct material of Malcolm X’s considerable output – speeches, essays, transcripts of interviews and press conferences, and so on from the crucial last year-and-a-half of his life. All of this remains in print today, completely uncensored and in basic chronology, so the reader can see for themselves the development and political evolution of this genuine American revolutionary. (I was a member of the SWP for over 20 years from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s and played a small part in helping Pathfinder to proofread and prepare for print some of the later published volumes.).
Targeted for Destruction
During this last period of his life Malcolm X functioned under and confronted –almost alone – tremendous pressures and life-threatening circumstances. He was literally marked for death by the NOI. A week before his assassination, his Queens, New York home was firebombed as he, his pregnant wife, and their four daughters were sleeping, all narrowly escaping death. The NYPD “investigation” was slovenly and perfunctory, implying he did it himself!
Malcolm X’s accumulating and mounting estrangement from the Nation of Islam intensified with his deep revulsion and abhorrence at a sordid sexual scandal and cover up involving Elijah Muhammad. This brought to the fore growing and irreconcilable political differences between Malcolm X and the conservative NOI hierarchy over how to achieve Black freedom in the United States. The differences were not abstract or theological in content, but had red hot immediacy because the context was the exploding movement among the Black masses for freedom that characterized the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s. The obscurantist and hidebound Nation of Islam (NOI) preached religious piety and individual self-improvement and abstained from the mass political struggles and mobilizations that were rocking Black communities North and South.
Malcolm was attracted to these struggles and wanted the NOI, which his organizational skills had largely built into a significant presence in the Black ghettos and among Blacks incarcerated, as Malcolm had been, in US prisons, to jump into these struggles. But under Muhammad’s extreme sectarian outlook – which disdained mass political struggle and counterposed “self-reform,” abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and promoting the NOI’s growing business interests (which made Muhammad a rich man), this was rejected. Malcolm began to feel like a prisoner within the NOI. It was not only the growing mass mobilizations of the Civil Rights Movement and the growing political militancy and radicalization among Black youth and working people that found resonance within Malcolm X. He was also increasingly conscious of the contradictions and absurdities of the philosophical rationalizations put forward in the above-mentioned “Yacub’s theory” for the “separatist” program of the NOI. Malcolm’s accumulating break with all this quasi-religious mystification and hocus-pocus became definitive once he was liberated from the NOI straightjacket. Among the elements of the NOI positions that Malcolm jettisoned was his open rejection of the anti-Semitism and scapegoating of Jews that was embedded in the NOI outlook.
Rid of NOI dogma, Malcolm’s trip abroad across the African continent and to the Middle East and Mecca facilitated his final break with race-based theories and generalizations about “white” people. He sharpened his view that “race” is, at bottom, itself a myth and a wholly artificial political construct. In the United States, he said, “white” essentially means “boss,” that is, that “white supremacy” has no rational scientific content or meaning other than as an expression of and rationalization for the oppression, subordination, and degradation of the Afro-American people or nationality.
A voracious reader of history and politics Malcolm began to develop a coherent anti-imperialist world outlook. He knew his facts and he had a keen grasp for the historical framework to sort out and understand factual contradictions. As a result he was a master at sniffing out and untangling media distortions, lies, and half-truths. With withering contempt he exposed media disinformation and lying spin regarding anti-colonial struggle for independence and national liberation across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. He bristled when “Western” media, echoing Washington’s line, attacked the Mau-Mau freedom fighters in Kenya who were fighting the brutal rule of a declining British imperialism, as “savages.” The bourgeois media, Malcolm never tired of pointing out, were masters at “turning the criminal into the victim, and the victim into the criminal.”
Even before his split with the NOI, Malcolm was, like Martin Luther King and the emerging new generation of US civil rights leaders and activists, deeply affected by the African independence struggles that burst onto world politics in the post-World War II period through the 1950s and 60s. He connected the experience of what he termed “Afro-Americans” to the struggles in Africa and the rest of the so-called Third World. The Black freedom struggle, he argued, was part of, not separate from the worldwide anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle. Both were interconnected and exploding at the same time under the dynamics unleashed by the massive revolutionary changes ushered in by World War II and its end. Malcolm sought to build practical relations of political collaboration with leaders of oppressed peoples around the world.
Washington Targets Malcolm
The powers-that-be in Washington were at this time the unchallenged leader of the capitalist world and facing the post-World War II explosion of colonial independence and national liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Washington sought to prevent the vacuum left by the weakened and withered ex-colonial empires of Britain, France, and other European powers from resulting in radical social revolutions along the lines of the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban Revolutions. These national liberation struggles were seen as both a threat to US and “Western” economic and financial interests as well as an arena of “geopolitical” “Cold War” competition with the Soviet Union and “Red” China.
As previously said, Malcolm X was under permanent surveillance and harassment by agencies of the United States government – the Lyndon Johnson White House and its J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI. The US State Department and CIA dogged his every step during his overseas travels to newly independent African countries and elsewhere. A month before his murder, Washington pressured the French government to bar his re-entry to the country where he had been invited to speak before a huge gathering. Washington feared his broad political appeal after he gained his moral and political independence from the NOI and began to devote his indefatigable energy to organizing in the United States and internationally.
In particular, Washington was horrified over Malcolm’s outspoken condemnation of the brutal US intervention in the Congo, his early, sharp opposition to the escalating US war in Vietnam, and his open, enthusiastic embrace of the Cuban Revolution. Additionally, Washington undertook a big effort to counter Malcolm X’s major campaign to bring before the United Nations General Assembly for a vote the human rights violations against African-Americans in the United States, which was gathering support internationally and in the US. In the period before his murder Malcolm was preparing to go on a speaking tour of US campuses to speak out against US aggression in Vietnam.
Events in the Congo had a powerful impact on the political consciousness the evolution into a revolutionary of Malcolm X. What transpired in the Congo was surely one of the greatest crimes of both the 19th Century, repeated again in the 20th Century. A Belgian colony, the Congo, in the 19th Century under the rule of King Leopold, was essentially a semi-slave territory where huge profits for Belgian capitalists were extracted among rubber workers and other toilers under the most horrid conditions, including amputations of workers limbs for supposed labor infractions. Belgian Congo was a laboratory for the genocides of the 20th Century, with an estimated 4-8 million indigenous Congolese killed under Leopold’s reign of terror. (For documentation see the classic indictment by Mark Twain, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, written in 1905 by the great American novelist, essayist, and satirist and Adam Hochschild’s grim and vivid 1998 best-seller, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.)
By the 1950s Belgian rule was in crisis and no longer tenable as the Congolese people became a leading contingent of the post-World war II struggles for independence that swept the African continent from top to bottom. The decrepit, declining Belgian rulers conceded the holding of elections to be followed by a formal process leading to independence. The central figure and inspiring leader of the Congolese independence struggle was the teacher Patrice Lumumba who handily won the promised elections and established a popular government that began to implement desperately needed measures in a large country which the Belgian colonialists had left destitute with a puny number of schools and hospitals and no infrastructure other than what was needed to transport the country’s vast mineral and other wealth out of it. Lumumba’s government also staked out an independent non-aligned foreign policy which Washington found intolerable.
The departing Belgians, with Washington’s backing, began from day one to subvert and work to destroy Lumumba’s government. Along with the South African apartheid state they financed, armed, and promoted separatist forces led by the notorious mercenary and killer Moishe Tshombe. With growing chaos, and under United Nations cover, Washington and Brussels engineered a coup against Lumumba in September 1961. Lumumba was taken hostage and brutally murdered in January 1961. The CIA had a direct hand in all of this. The imperialist coup installed a lackey regime led by the tyrant Tshombe that Washington and Belgian could depend on to protect the nation’s vast copper, rubber, and other mineral holdings for super-profitable exploitation by imperialist capital.
As resistance to the pro-imperialist coup mounted among the Congolese followers of the martyred Lumumba, Washington and Belgium organized a racist mercenary army. In cahoots with apartheid South African and the British colonial-settler state of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) they recruited racist and ultra-rightist mercenaries from the United States, other European states, and some anti-Castro counter-revolutionary exiles from Cuba. These forces, under barely covert US CIA supervision, carried out murderous bombing raids against “rebel-held villages” and other terrorist atrocities and massacres that resulted in many thousands of Congolese deaths.
These crimes, and the shameless lies turning reality on its head in the big-business US media towing the US government’s line, infuriated and galvanized Malcolm X. He continuously spoke out against Washington’s crimes, in solidarity with the Congolese people. He spoke the bold and unvarnished truth in the face of imperialist propaganda. In the last interview he gave before his death to the Young Socialist magazine, Malcolm stated, “Probably there is no greater example of criminal activity against an oppressed people than the role the US has been playing in the Congo, through her ties with Tshombe and the mercenaries. You can’t overlook the fact that Tshombe gets his money from the US. The money he uses to hire these mercenaries – these paid killers supported from South Africa – comes from the United States. The pilots that fly those planes have been trained by the US. The bombs themselves that are blowing apart the bodies of women and children come from the US. So I can only view the role of the United States in the Congo as a criminal role.”
US-led “Western” policy action eventually led to the installation of the dictator Joseph Mobutu (aka Mobutu Sese Seko) who led an exceedingly venal and vicious regime for over 40 years, becoming a multi-billionaire until his regime collapsed in 1997.
Malcolm X and the Cuban Revolution
Malcolm X was a strong supporter of the Cuban Revolution even before he left the NOI. Among the first acts of the revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959 was the radical extirpation of all laws and state practices upholding Jim Crow-style segregation in Cuba. Afro-Cubans were among the greatest beneficiaries and most enthusiastic supporters of the Revolution and as fighters in the guerrilla army. Malcolm X was prominent among a large layer of Black intellectuals and activists including W.E.B. DuBois, LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), Robert F. Williams, William Worthy and many others who welcomed and defended the Cuban Revolution, which was coming under increasing US attack.
The Cuban Revolution had already begun to implement radical social programs (of which smashing legal segregation was one), including a radical land reform, that was having a definite material impact on those US economic and financial interests which utterly dominated Cuban society. The Eisenhower Administration was already deeply involved in the initial planning of what became the Bay of Pigs invasion, and was leading the bipartisan consensus across the US government that the revolutionary Cuban government had to go down.
In September 1960, while still in the NOI, Malcolm X met with Fidel Castro in Harlem. The circumstances of Malcolm and Fidel’s meeting have become legendary (for details see Rosemari Mealy’s excellent Fidel and Malcolm X: Memories of a Meeting, Ocean Press). Faced with unacceptable impositions and expenses by the management of the Shelburne Hotel, the Cuban delegation to the special fall gathering of world heads of state at the United Nations packed up and moved uptown to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem and enthusiastic crowds of African-Americans and other friends and supporters of the Cuban Revolution.
Malcolm’s attitude to the Cuban Revolution was favorable before he exited from the Nation of Islam: “The Cuban Revolution, that’s a Revolution. They overturned the system,” he said in his last major speech as an NOI representative. But his political attraction to its revolutionary internationalist and socialist program deepened after his split from the NOI.
Malcolm’s admiration for the Cuban revolutionaries not only flowed from his consciousness of the vigorous anti-racist measures carried out by the Revolution, but also from the words and deeds of the revolutionary Cuban government in support of African liberation in general and the Congolese anti-imperialist struggle in particular. Che Guevara not only spoke eloquently at the United Nations condemning imperialist policy in the Congo, saying “All free men must be prepared to avenge the crime of the Congo,” but later actually fought there with followers of Lumumba, attempting to organize an effective revolutionary resistance.
Malcolm X personally invited Che to speak in Harlem in December 1964, but his appearance had to be put off over security concerns. As Malcolm read Che’s solidarity message, he said, “I love a revolutionary. And one of the most revolutionary men in this country right now was going to come out…” When the crowd responded to Che’s solidarity message with strong applause, Malcolm said the applause “lets the man know that he’s just not in a position today to tell us who we should applaud for and who we shouldn’t applaud for.”
From Pariah to Icon
It would be hard to find a figure in US history more slandered, vilified, and misrepresented while he was alive than Malcolm X. He was labeled a “hatemonger,” a “racist-in-reverse,” a promoter and man of violence, and worse. This was not confined to blatant racists and segregationists but was the standard line in more respectable and genteel liberal society. When it came to Malcolm X, especially after he broke free from the dogma and narrow confines of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, moved sharply to the left, and began to speak out and organize freely, the gloves came off among most liberal voices, and a furious hatred came to the surface. This was captured in the classic Phil Ochs satiric ballad, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” whose opening stanza goes, “I cried when they shot Medgar Evers, Tears ran down my spine, And I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy, as though I’d lost a father of mine…But Malcolm X got what was coming, He got what he asked for this time, so love, love me, love me…I’m a liberal.”
Perhaps the most notorious example of this was a scurrilous editorial in the liberal, sophisticated, pro-civil rights New York Times, published the day after he was murdered. To the Times editorial board Malcolm X was “an extraordinary and twisted man, turning many true gifts to evil purpose.” With a stunning and brazen disregard for the slightest accuracy and truth, the editorial asserted that Malcolm X held a “ruthless and fanatical belief in violence…[that] also marked him for notoriety and for a violent end.” Continuing on the insinuation that Malcolm X was responsible for his own death, the Times editorial continues, “He could not even come to terms with his fellow black extremists. The world he saw through those horned-rim glasses of his was distorted and dark. But he made it darker still with his exaltation of fanaticism.
“Yesterday someone came out of the darkness that he spawned, and killed him…[T]his murder could easily touch off a war of vengeance of the kind he himself fomented.” ( all emphasis added)
The bile and vitriol of that shameful editorial was echoed in the even-more liberal Nation magazine which placed Malcolm X on the “Negro lunatic fringe” that was, furthermore, “defeatist.” (2)
Later that year, the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Malcolm X Speaks, unedited and uncensored full presentations of his actual speeches and words, were published by the maverick Grove Press, the latter book in conjunction with Pathfinder Press. They became instant classics and best sellers, especially among Blacks and students. It was no longer possible to write such lies and garbage about Malcolm X and both the New York Times and The Nation changed their tune, publishing reviews and articles that were highly favorable and sympathetic to Malcolm X, reflecting the new esteem and appreciation of him in growing layers of society, Black and Caucasian. Over time a new mythology regarding Malcolm X began to congeal, a new distortion of his political and moral trajectory, this time not from open opponents but purported friends and admirers. Of course, it helped that he was dead.
Today, fifty years after his murder Malcolm X has become as icon. There is a US Stamp issued with his likeness, major streets are named after him, the legendary Autobiography is considered a classic, still selling briskly and assigned to numerous high school and college classes. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and numerous other liberal and conservative political figures have cited it as a major influence on their lives.
Nevertheless, this latter iconization of Malcolm X, more often than not, is the other side of the coin that previously disparaged him when he was alive, in the sense that he has been transformed by “mainstream” forces into a harmless icon, with his sharp revolutionary anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist political program diluted and softened. The conscious or unconscious operation strains to turn Malcolm X, who was above all else a genuine revolutionary, into a conventional liberal or conservative, someone who can be folded into the traditional spectrum of bourgeois Democratic and Republican party US politics. This is a travesty of the actual Malcolm X and his actual political and moral trajectory.
The death of Malcolm X was a devastating blow to the Black freedom struggle in the United States and for oppressed and exploited people in every continent worldwide. In the US, Malcolm was trying to establish the Organization of Afro American Unity as an independent Black political movement, that is, completely independent of both the Democratic and Republican parties. He rejected lesser-evilism and the two-party set up and division of labor that oversaw the capitalist system of racism, imperialism, and exploitation. “The difference between the Republican and the Democrats,” Malcolm would say, “is that the Republicans stick the knife in your back six inches, and the Democrats pull it out one.” That perspective of complete political independence and principled opposition to both capitalist parties has never since had such a powerful voice.
The absence of Malcolm after 1965 had a deleterious impact on the revolutionary upsurge of the “Black Power” movement in the late 1960s which he greatly inspired. The movement had its greatest organizational advance with the mass growth of the Black Panther Party led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, but the Panthers floundered and collapsed under heavy illegal government harassment and murderous repression, as well as its own ultraleftist, militaristic, cultist, and opportunist mistakes under tremendous pressure. The Panthers and the 1960s generation of revolutionary-minded fighters would have benefited greatly from Malcolm X’s political clarity, organizational skills, tactical savvy, and discipline.
A new political reality is opening up in the United States today. A new generation of youth, of all nationalities, is radicalizing and mobilizing from Ferguson, Missouri to Staten Island, New York and across the US. This has been sparked by a wave of police killings of unarmed, mostly Black and Latino, civilians and subsequent Grand Jury exonerations in clearly manipulated settings. This reality now confronts the US ruling Establishment. The framework for this new consciousness and struggle is the grotesque obscenities that now mark the so-called criminal justice system in the US, with its mass incarceration of youth, especially Black and Latino youth, the virtual impossibility of seeing any kind of justice in case after case of police killings and brutality, and more broadly the mounting impact of the permanent capitalist economic crisis, growing impoverishment, and increased working-class struggles for decent jobs and wages, against obscene inequality in education, health care, and so on. Those coming into the fight will find no greater historic champion and inspiration in the fight for their better future than Malcolm X. For those who take the time to search, discover, and study this towering human being, beautiful vistas will open up before you.
Ike Nahem is a longtime anti-war, labor, and socialist, and activist. Nahem is the coordinator of Cuba Solidarity New York and a founder of the New York-New Jersey July 26 Coalition (july26coalition.org). Nahem is a retired Amtrak Locomotive Engineer and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a division of the Teamsters Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with comment or criticism.
1. When Columbia University threatened in 1989 to demolish the property, Black community activists, Columbia students, and landmark preservationists protested vigorously and forced the University to retreat. Today the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center stands in the lobby of the old Ballroom containing that portion where Malcolm X was assassinated which is now protected and restored.
2. Malcolm X never advocated, promoted or called for the initiation of “violence.” He was a personal victim of racist violence as his father was murdered by KKK-inspired racists. He was fully versed in the violent history of “American democracy” which he called “disguised hypocrisy” against African-Americans from slavery to his own time, where in face of mass struggles against the dying system of Jim Crow-segregation in the US South vicious violence was unleashed against peaceful civil rights activists. He led disciplined, peaceful struggles against police killings and brutality in New York City and Los Angeles. But he was not a pacifist and did not believe in turning the other cheek. He was for disciplined, legal, peaceful protest. But he believed in the right of self-defense. “I am non-violent to people who are non-violent to me.” “It doesn’t mean I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” “I don’t favor violence. If we could bring about recognition and respect of our people by peaceful means, well and good. Everyone would like to achieve his objectives peacefully.” “Concerning non-violence: It is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself, when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.” These views were shamefully twisted and distorted by Malcolm X’s political enemies.