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Malcolm X and the Perils of Philanthropy

Much has been said and written over the years about early elite philanthropic interventions into the civil rights movement, but the first book to treat this topic seriously was Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America: An Analytic History (Doubleday, 1969). As Allen noted in the introduction to his timeless treaty on power and resistance:

“In the United States today a program of domestic neo-colonialism is rapidly advancing. It was designed to counter the potentially revolutionary thrust of the recent black rebellions in major cities across the country. This program was formulated by America’s corporate elite – the major owners, managers, and directors of the giant corporations, banks, and foundations which increasingly dominate the economy and society as a whole – because they believe that the urban revolts pose a serious threat to economic and social stability. Led by organizations as the Ford Foundation, the Urban Coalition, and the National Alliance of Businessmen, the corporatists are attempting with considerable success to co-opt the black power movement. Their strategy is to equate black power with black capitalism.” (pp.17-8)

Allen defined his use of the word co-opt in this way: “to assimilate militant leaders and militant rhetoric while subtly transforming the militants’ program for social change into a program which in essence buttresses the status quo.” (p.17) This co-optive function of philanthropic largesse applied across the board to all manner of progressive movements, as illustrated by Professor Joan Roelofs in her important book Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (2003).

Some forty years later, Allen took time out from his activism to reflect upon the continuing relevance of his first of many books. As he recalled, at the time of writing Black Awakening he had been living in San Francisco while working as a reporter then with the left-wing Guardian newspaper. His assignments for the paper meant he was tasked with “covering the Black Panthers, the anti-war movement, and the student movement.” His ground-breaking book grew out of a series of articles he had published in the Guardian in 1968, which were then brought together in a pamphlet entitled, “Dialectics of Black Power.” As Allen noted: “The series was a first attempt at thinking about Black Power, internal colonialism, and the role of government and private foundations like the Ford Foundation.”

Although not known at the time, the FBI had expanded the remit of their infamous counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) to black activists within the Black Power movement. “Using any means necessary, including police attacks and murder, the avowed purpose of COINTELPRO was to destroy militant organizations and individuals identified by the FBI as so-called threats to national security.” Aspects of this toxic history were revealed in the 1976 Congressional report “The FBI’s covert action program to destroy the Black Panther Party,” a history recounted in chilling detail in Agents of Repression (1988).

We should recall that in February 1965 Malcolm X had been gunned-down in a “factional dispute” which the FBI took credit for having “developed” within the Nation of Islam — a conspiracy elaborated upon within the book The Assassination of Malcolm X. Moreover it turned out that at the time of his murder one of Malcolm’s personal bodyguards, Eugene Roberts, had actually been working for the New York Police Department’s “subversives” unit which itself worked closely with COINTELPRO operatives; while in later years Roberts went on to serve as a infiltrating “charter member” of the New York Chapter of the Black Panther Party.

As an insightful and charismatic leader, Malcolm X was killed precisely because of his rising influence among Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Speaking in November 1963, shortly before his break with the National of Islam, he accused white liberals of dressing up the anointed leaders of the civil rights movement to use them as house Negroes. He drew particular attention to the manner why which millionaire elites like Stephen Currier – who before his own early death helped set up the Urban Coalition — has acted to take control of the March on Washington which had taken place in the summer. After outlining these co-optive actions Malcolm famously surmised:

It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it’ll put you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it. They didn’t integrate it; they infiltrated it. They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. They ceased to be angry. They ceased to be hot. They ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.”

After splitting from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm spent the last year of his life planning and strategizing about how to end injustice in ways that departed from his earlier commitment to Black Nationalism.

After bearing personal witness to Malcolm’s tragic slaughter in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, Robert Allen recalled how after falling into despair, he soon “realized that perhaps the best thing that I could do would be to find ways to connect with social movements, movements that would press for equality and justice and empowerment of the oppressed.” Writing in Black Awakening Allen notes:

“It goes without saying that black people should not postpone their freedom struggle until white America rouses itself out of its lethargy. On the contrary, blacks should never desist from struggle and agitation. But neither should black people deceive themselves into thinking that simple separation from oppressive white society will solve the problem. Blacks and white here have live in separate worlds for four centuries, but this was hardly an economic or political boon to black people. In the quest for black liberation, white society cannot be cast aside with a sigh of relief. It must be changed. Otherwise, the racism and exploitative social relations which characterize that society will defeat even the best efforts of black freedom fighters. This is one of the clearest lessons of the black experience in America.” (p.281)

In terms of putting forward a concrete strategy for change, Allen quoted Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who writing in late 1968 explained:

“Revolutionaries must always go forth to answer the momentary desires and needs of the people, the poor and the oppressed people, while waging the revolutionary struggle. It’s very important because it strengthens the people’s revolutionary camp while it weakens the camp of the capitalist power structure.” (p.87)

Emphasizing the power of this argument Allen responds: “The critical question is who, or more specifically, what class controls the means of reforms, and for what purpose?” (p.88)

Allen’s documentation of the “manifold ways in which the American social structure absorbs and neutralizes dissent” through philanthropic organs like the Ford Foundation was therefore critical reading in the sixties. The same is true today, especially in the context of Ford’s ongoing million-dollar-interventions into the Black Lives Matter movement. As Allen recognized, even by 1969, “the Ford Foundation had shaped itself into one of the most sophisticated instruments of American neo-colonialism in ‘underdeveloped nations,’ whether abroad or within the borders of this country.” (p.76) The working-class require their own political organizations that are independent of the ‘humanitarian’ philanthropic machinations of the ruling-class… certainly the Democratic Party have never been up to this task. Thus Allen counsels:

“In a struggle to transform an oppressive society, it is indeed necessary to fight for certain reforms, but this requires that those who are oppressed are conscious (or made conscious) of how the reforms fit into an over-all strategy for social change. All too often black leaders hail piecemeal reforms – and mindlessly advocate reformism – while overlooking the fact that frequently reforms serve mainly to salvage and buttress a society which in its totality remains as exploitative as ever.” (p.157)

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Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).

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