Encountering Malcolm X

Still from ‘Who Killed Malcolm X?” (Netflix).

Watching the six-part documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” on Netflix stirred up powerful memories of how important he was to my political evolution. While the documentary is focused on exploring the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) role in his murder, it also sheds light on Malcolm’s post-NOI political odyssey. By creating a rival movement to the pseudo-Islamist sect, he risked a fatal encounter with four assassins on this date fifty-five years ago at the Audubon Ballroom in New York.

Just six weeks before his death, I heard Malcolm X speak at the Palm Gardens in New York. I went with my girlfriend Dian, who was on midterm break from Bard College, just like me. I remember taking a seat about ten rows from the podium and being perplexed by the five or so leaflets on the chair that advertised rallies or meetings geared to radicals. Although I was much more of an existentialist liberal a la Camus in 1965, I was eager to hear Malcolm speak. Little did I know at the time that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a sect I would join two years later, organized the meeting. The Trotskyists placed leaflets on the chairs to draw people closer to the party, an approach that the Internet would supersede just as Facebook would supersede the mimeograph machine.

Malcolm’s speech was titled “Prospects for Freedom” in 1965. It started with a friendly nod to the sponsor:

It’s the third time that I’ve had the opportunity to be a guest of the Militant Labor Forum. I always feel that it is an honor and every time that they open the door for me to do so, I will be right here. The Militant newspaper is one of the best in New York City. In fact, it is one of the best anywhere you go today because everywhere I go I see it. I saw it even in Paris about a month ago; they were reading it over there. And I saw it in some parts of Africa where I was during the summer. I don’t know how it gets there. But if you put the right things in it, what you put in it will see that it gets around.

The speech was notable for its revolutionary internationalism. Malcolm was probably too smart to consider joining the SWP but reading the Militant must have been partly responsible for his evolution away from the narrow black nationalism of the NOI. His reference to Vietnam was particularly prophetic for my generation since within a year or two, I would be grappling with the problem of how to stay out of the army:

Also in 1964, the oppressed people of South Vietnam, and in that entire Southeast Asia area, were successful in fighting off the agents of imperialism. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men haven’t enabled them to put North and South Vietnam together again. Little rice farmers, peasants, with a rifle—up against all the highly-mechanized weapons of warfare—jets, napalm, battleships, everything else, and they can’t put those rice farmers back where they want them. Somebody’s waking up.

By early 1967, I had left Camus and existentialism far behind. I asked a fellow student at the New School, an SWP member hoping to recruit me, for some reading recommendations to help me understand what the hell was going on. He wisely recommended John Gerassi’s anti-imperialist masterpiece “The Great Fear in Latin America” and Malcolm’s autobiography instead of some turgid Marxist classic. The two books, especially Malcolm’s, were reverberating in my mind as I began working as a Welfare Department caseworker in Harlem.

One of my “clients” was a jazz drummer named Jonathan “Jo Jo” Jones Jr., who had just gotten out of drug rehabilitation. He was the son of legendary Count Basie drummer Jonathan Jones. In short order, I got welfare to pay for getting his drums out of hock and him back on his feet. We became good friends, and I made sure to go to all his gigs. Somewhere along the line, Malcolm X came up in our discussions. He looked me in the eye and told me that one of the two men serving time for the crime was innocent. He was referring to Norman 3X Butler, who was married to Jo Jo’s sister (or perhaps a cousin.) He said that when she visited him in prison, he always insisted on his innocence. Not only did he have a solid alibi, but he also was a member of the Harlem mosque that would have been instantly recognizable to Malcolm’s guards and blocked from entering the Audubon. The assassins had to be from another mosque to get past security. That mosque turned out to be in Newark, where a small group hatched the plot.

In the final moments of “Who Killed Malcolm X?”, we meet Abdur-Rahman Muhammad in conversation with Norman 3X Butler. Butler is still alive at the age of 81 and now known as Muhammad Abdul Aziz. Born in 1962, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad is a Howard University graduate who became a political activist, Muslim and a one-man crusade committed to preserving Malcolm’s legacy. Part of that crusade involved becoming an amateur detective devoted to identifying the actual killers.

While it has been common knowledge since 2010 that Norman 3X Butler and fellow Harlem mosque member Thomas 15X Johnson were innocent, it has taken Netflix’s brawny reach to generate the momentum that should clear their name (Johnson died in 2009). Abdur-Rahman Muhammad met with Muhammad Abdul Aziz to get his approval for a legal case that would reverse his conviction and bring charges against the man who used a sawed-off shotgun to kill Malcolm X. Like survivors on both sides of a bitter struggle from fifty-five years ago, Muhammad Abdul Aziz saw no value in opening up old wounds. Pressing him gently, Abdur-Rahman makes the case that it would allow his children and grandchildren to see him as a victim rather than a victimizer. In the Muslim milieu that the two men travel in, living “righteously” should be reason in and of itself to move ahead with a legal case. The scene and the film ends with the two men shaking hands after Muhammad Abdul Aziz signs a statement giving Abdur-Rahman the green light.

Most of the documentary takes place in Newark. We follow Abdur-Rahman as he meets with veterans of the NOI, now in their 70s and 80s. The discussion revolves around the painful division between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam that would not tolerate Malcolm’s growing revolutionary consciousness and willingness to defend it uncompromisingly.

The cleavage deepened after Malcolm dared to state the obvious after JFK’s assassination: “The chickens were coming home to roost.” Elijah Muhammad had told his followers to avoid speaking about the assassination since the words might backfire. In 2011, I wrote about “Malcolm X and chickens coming home to roost” triggered by a predictably hostile review of Manning Marable’s new biography. Michiko Kakutani recoiled from Manning’s apt comparison of Malcolm’s comments about JFK to Barry Goldwater’s far more sinister “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” I offered my rebuttal to Kakutani:

With respect to the chickens coming home to roost, Malcolm X’s full statement on this has never appeared in print. He was responding on December 1, 1963 to an audience member who had attended a talk titled God’s Judgment of White America.

The next day the N.Y. Times reported on the exchange in an article titled “Malcolm X Scores U.S. and Kennedy”. Malcolm is quoted as saying that Kennedy twiddled his thumbs at the killing of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, adding that JFK “never foresaw that the chickens would come to roost so soon.” Certainly JFK’s CIA did more than just twiddle its thumbs when it came to foreign leaders it found inconvenient. The White House had lined up mafia hit men to kill Fidel Castro, as well as taken part in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. Malcolm´s rather uncontroversial statement simply pointed out that if you were going to kill people overseas in such a fashion you invited being killed in the same way.

To help refresh my memory of the period, I read the final three chapters of Manning Marable’s biography, titled “Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention.” While the Netflix documentary pays close attention to the firebomb that would destroy Malcolm’s home in Queens just a week before his assassination, I was shocked to see how far the NOI would go to punish him and his followers. Malcolm had become persona non grata not just for his JFK comments but for speaking out against the corruption in the NOI that allowed Elijah Muhammad and his family to get rich, just like the Christian TV evangelists. He also blasted the septuagenarian for having affairs with teenaged assistants that led to numerous pregnancies. Perhaps the NOI would have spared him if he had not pressed these buttons, but that was not in Malcolm’s nature. Manning writes:

On the street, safety soon proved elusive for Malcolm’s people in the MMI [Muslim Mosques Inc., Malcolm’s alternative to the NOI temples]. In late October, Kenneth Morton, who had quit the mosque at the time of Malcolm’s departure, was ambushed by members of the Fruit [the Fruit of Islam, the NOI’s goon squads] in front of his Bronx home. He was so severely beaten in the head that he subsequently died from his wounds. Captain Joseph [the head of the Harlem Fruit of Islam] denied that Mosque No. 7 and its officers had had any involvement in Morton’s death, but no one in the MMI needed proof to convince them to keep a low profile. Benjamin 2X narrowly escaped a beating or worse at the hands of Malcolm’s former driver Thomas 15X Johnson and a group of Nation thugs who chased him for several blocks. Almost as much a target as Malcolm himself, James 67X avoided sleeping in the same place for more than a night, rotating between four apartments, including one kept by his former roommate Anas Luqman.

As I read Manning’s three chapters, I could not help but think of Leon Trotsky’s assassination. Like Stalin, Elijah Muhammad had built a cult that demanded total loyalty. To criticize the cult leader in the USSR would initially lead to the loss of a bureaucratic post, but as the tyrant’s paranoia deepened, it would lead to execution. Most men and women are content to remain silent in the face of such a powerful adversary. However, if you had a principled commitment to truth and justice, how can you remain silent? Like Trotsky and other martyrs such as Che Guevara and Malcolm X, their legacy will live long after them. We must commend Abdur-Rahman Muhammad for his 30-year devotion to uncovering the real killers of Malcolm X. (I generally don’t mind including spoilers in a film review but in this instance, it would subtract from the intrinsic drama of this detective tale.)

I should add that although Manning’s book had been sitting on my shelf since 2011, this was the first time I had opened it. Just as soon as I finish up reading some other books on my front burner, I will return to Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention. This is an informed and gripping account by someone with the political acumen needed to properly assess Malcolm’s legacy.

Before his death in 2011, just before the book’s publication, I used to run into Manning from time to time on the Columbia campus, where I worked as a computer programmer. I always looked forward to hearing his take on current events. I regarded him as America’s outstanding African-American Marxist scholar and mourned his untimely passing.

Reading the acknowledgments, I learned how difficult it was for him to complete this essential study of one of America’s greatest revolutionaries of the past century:

A final, unanticipated roadblock in completing this work came in the form of a serious health challenge. For a quarter century I have had sarcoidosis, an illness that gradually destroyed my pulmonary functions. In the last year in researching this book, I could not travel and I carried oxygen tanks in order to breathe. In July 2010, I received a double lung transplant, and following two months’ hospitalization, managed a full recovery. Throughout this ordeal, the writing, editing, and research on the Malcolm X biography continued.

My highest recommendations for “Who Killed Malcolm X?” and Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention.” Today, in a period when it is so easy to dismiss the idea of a revolution in the U.S.A., both works are a reminder of how close we came to some fundamental change. There is a good likelihood that even if the NOI was guilty of assassinating Malcolm X, the FBI might have been part of the conspiracy. It had dozens of agents in the NOI and Malcolm’s Organization of African-American Unity. So did the N.Y.C’s Bureau of Special Services (BOSS). J. Edgard Hoover created CONTELPRO to divide the left through all sorts of dirty tricks. While there were legitimate issues that created a great deal of mutual hostility between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, it would have been very easy for agents to fan the flames to the point when a cabal decided to carry out an assassination.

Toward the very end of his life, Malcolm was working to overcome the rift between black nationalists and Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement. If the two leaders had combined forces, it might have led to a black freedom struggle more powerful than any that had preceded them. As such, both the CIA and the FBI had a vested interest in destroying such a threat.

For those who have not read these two essential texts, I strongly recommend “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and “Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements.” George Breitman, a long-time member of the SWP who the cult leader expelled in the early 1980s, edited the second book. George was the first in the party to see the revolutionary potential of Malcolm X’s black nationalism. Unlike other groups on the left, the Trotskyist SWP rejected the sort of class-reductionism that is so popular nowadays, especially in the reborn social democracy that flocks to Bernie Sanders’s campaign.

Originally conceived as the demand for a separate black state, Malcolm’s concept of black nationalism developed into something far more threatening to the established order. He defended black rights militantly, just as was the case with Black Lives Mattered, but hoped to connect the black struggle to the broader movement to transform the world. In an interview he gave to the Young Socialists magazine on January 18, 1965, the Trotskyist youth asked him to define black nationalism. He replied:

I used to define black nationalism as the idea that the black man should control the economy of his community, the politics of his community, and so forth.

But when I was in Africa in May, in Ghana, I was speaking with the Algerian ambassador who is extremely militant and is a revolutionary in the true sense of the word (and has his credentials as such for having carried on a successful revolution against oppression in his country). When I told him that my political, social and economic philosophy was black nationalism, he asked me very frankly, well, where did that leave him? Because he was white. He was an African, but he was Algerian, and to all appearances he was a white man. And he said if I define my objective as the victory of black nationalism, where does that leave him? Where does that leave revolutionaries in Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Mauritania? So he showed me where I was alienating people who were true revolutionaries, dedicated to overthrowing the system of exploitation that exists on this earth by any means necessary.

Now, in 2020, those issues are still very much with us. Malcolm was struggling with a herculean task, how to connect the black nationalist movement not only to the broader liberation movement in the USA but to those beyond our borders. With the capitalist class threatening the planet through its genocidal wars and its wanton defiance of ecological imperatives, we must unite as internationalists to bring it to its knees and create a more just and egalitarian world.


Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.