Malcolm X was gunned down on 21 February 1965 as he addressed a political rally in Harlem, New York. The entire US establishment heaved a sigh of relief. The New York Times’ editorial the day after Malcolm’s murder said:
“His ruthless and fanatical belief in violence not only set him apart from the responsible leaders of the civil rights movement it also marked him out for notoriety and a violent end. Malcolm X’s life was strangely and pitifully twisted. Yesterday someone came out of the darkness that he spawned and killed him.”
The reason for the abuse was that over the previous six years Malcolm had come to express, with astonishing eloquence, uncompromising resistance to US racism, imperialism and capitalism. His words could capture the feelings of the most downtrodden so brilliantly because he came from among them to terrify those at the top.
He was born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. He later described in his autobiography how his father had “seen four of his six brothers die by violence, three of them killed by white men, including one by lynching”.
Racists firebombed Malcolm’s home in 1929. The police tried to frame his father, Earl Little, for arson. Earl was a follower of a radical black movement led by Marcus Garvey and was killed in 1931, probably by racists.
The strain of bringing up eight children in depression-hit America broke Malcolm’s mother. She was put in a mental asylum in 1939.
Malcolm moved to live with his half sister in Boston just as the Second World War broke out. Hundreds of thousands of other black people at the time were drawn from the rural Mid-West and south of the US into the northern cities as industry expanded to pump out arms.
Many like Malcolm found themselves pushed to the margins. One dead end job (such as shoe shining) followed another and he drifted into petty crime. He was jailed in 1946 for burglary.
It was in prison that Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam in late 1948 or early 1949. The Nation of Islam or “Black Muslims” had been founded in 1930 and was led by Elijah Muhammad.
On joining the Nation of Islam converts replaced their surname with X to signify the unknown African name taken from their ancestors by slave owners.
The formal ideas of the Nation could best be described as eccentric. It took elements of Islam, but argued white people were the result of a bizarre genetic experiment conducted by a black scientist 6,000 years ago. Salvation for blacks lay in total separation from whites and following the Nation of Islam.
It was not this that attracted people but the defiant rejection of the idea that black people were inferior. The Nation’s membership in the early 1950s was in the low hundreds. A decade later it had 100,000 members.
It grew in the northern black ghettos as the movement against legal segregation, the civil rights movement, exploded in the south.
Malcolm became the Nation’s best known spokesperson in 1959 when he was interviewed for a TV documentary. He was asked about some modest legal challenges to racism and answered: “When someone sticks a knife into my back nine inches and then pulls it out six inches they haven’t done me any favour. They should not have stabbed me in the first place.”
Within two weeks he was splashed across the front pages and immediately accused of being a “racist in reverse”. Even commentators sympathetic to the civil rights movement said Malcolm was every bit as evil as the white supremacists.
But a response to racism, even a confused one, is not the same as racism itself. As Malcolm later put it: “If we react to white racism with a violent reaction, that’s not black racism. If you come for me and put a rope around my neck and I hang you for it, to me that’s not racism. Yours is the racism, but my reaction has nothing to do with racism.”
The biggest problem with the Nation of Islam is that it did not react. It refused to engage in the growing movement against racism. It attacked the civil rights movement particularly for working with white anti-racists.
Publicly, Malcolm stuck with the Nation’s policies. There is a scene in the excellent film about him in which a white student asks what she can do to fight racism. He replies, “You can do nothing.” He later said that was one of the worst mistakes in his life.
For in the early 1960s Malcolm was already moving in a different direction. He wrote in his autobiography: “Privately I was convinced that our Nation of Islam could be an even greater force in the American black man’s overall struggle — if we engaged in more action.”
When the Los Angeles police shot seven Black Muslims in April 1962 Malcolm wanted to launch a national campaign. He said, “It was a Muslim mosque this time; next it will be the Protestant church; the Catholic cathedral; the Jewish synagogue.”
Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad scuppered the campaign. The break between him and Malcolm came the following year.
Malcolm was asked at a meeting in December 1963 to comment on the assassination of John F Kennedy the week before. Despite its radical rhetoric, the Nation of Islam had instructed its members not to criticise the dead president, who had begun the US build up in Vietnam and had tried to tame the civil rights movement.
Malcolm, however, said of Kennedy’s killing:
“The chickens have come home to roost. Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” The Nation of Islam suspended him and he left in March 1964.
He now felt free to speak out. The anti-racist movement and the struggle against colonialism had a major influence on him, and he found an increasing audience among young black civil rights activists.
Over the next 11 months he travelled to the Middle East and Africa, and addressed scores of meetings across the US. His ideas became more and more radical. In Mecca he embraced “orthodox” Islam. On his return to the US he formed a new organisation and said:
“It’s true we are Muslims and our religion is Islam, but we don’t mix our religion with our politics and our economics — not anymore.
“We become involved with anybody, anywhere, anytime, and in any manner that’s designed to eliminate the evils afflicting the people in our community.”
In Africa he met leaders of a number of victorious anti-colonial movements. A few weeks before his murder he recalled a conversation he had had with the Algerian ambassador to Ghana, “who is extremely militant and is a revolutionary in the truest sense of the word”.
Malcolm had told him his philosophy was “black nationalism”. But where did that leave the ambassador, who was white?
Malcolm continued, “Where does that leave revolutionaries in Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and Mauritania? So I had to do a lot of thinking and reappraising of my definition of black nationalism.”
At about the same time he said, “I don’t speak against the sincere, well meaning, good white people. I have learned that not all white people are racist.”
In the last year of his life Malcolm came to see the connection between different struggles across the globe. He said:
“We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American negro is part of the rebellion.
“We are today seeing a global struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiters.”
And he became a staunch anti-capitalist. He said, “Show me a capitalist and I’ll show you a bloodsucker” and “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
He added, if you find someone who “makes you sure they do not have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists”.
Malcolm X did not become a socialist. But he was a revolutionary, and that meant he had to look at how the oppressed and exploited could overthrow the system that holds them down.
He said, “You have whites who are fed up, you have blacks who are fed up. When the day comes when the whites who are really fed up learn how to establish the proper type of communication with those [blacks] who are fed up and they get some co-ordinated action going, you’ll get some changes. And it will take both, it will take everything that you’ve got.”
He believed such unity was desirable, but very difficult to achieve. The first step, he said, was to build a militant black organisation.
The movement against the Vietnam war and the black ghetto uprisings in the late 1960s showed the possibility for unity between blacks and whites and for a revolutionary organisation that included both.
No one knows how Malcolm’s ideas would have developed had he lived to witness that.
We do know he had no time for the idea that an “enlightened elite” could reform away racism or that the mass of black people should put their faith in the handful accepted into the establishment.
He said, “It’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg. It can only produce according to what that particular system was constructed to produce. The system in this country cannot produce freedom for the Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system period.”
So you have to fight this system — “by any means necessary”.