Last week I looked at the early life of the US radical Malcolm X and how his arrest for burglary led to a life changing experience. Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam after he was introduced to the organisation by a relative while in prison.
After leaving prison in 1952, he rose through the ranks of the organisation and became a leading spokesperson.
He was popular with the militant wing of the civil rights movement because he talked about the complete rejection of white society
The stress placed on “black pride” and their implacable condemnation of racism saw the rapid growth of the Nation of Islam.
Here was an organisation that proposed complete separation from the system, stressing the importance of black ownership of businesses so that people didn’t have to rely on white society for economic survival.
While the more mainstream civil rights movement around Martin Luther King initially organised in the Southern states, the Nation of Islam was especially popular among poor black people in the cities of the Northern states.
Malcolm spoke passionately about the nightmare that was life for ordinary black people in the Northern ghettoes.
There had been successive waves of migration from the Southern states, where a institutionalised system of racist laws reigned. But those who arrived in the “promised land” of the North faced bitter disappointment as they faced continued poverty and discrimination.
Malcolm never shied away from blaming white people for the suffering of black people in the ghettoes.
He recognised no difference between whites in the North of the US and those in the South – except that those in the south were more honest about their hatred of black people.
Therefore Malcolm deliberately used the most offensive language designed to infuriate white people, especially the police and the media who often attended the rallies.
He sprang to national attention when he featured in a documentary entitled “The Hate that Hate Produced”. He was seen simply as a hard edged militant who was just as bad as the white racists.
He was called a “black supremacist” and “a racist in reverse”, and the establishment was keen to use this as a weapon against him.
Some mainstream black leaders also attacked him, and the authorities encouraged them in order to sow division.
The growing movement had many different elements to it and it was difficult to see which one was going to come to the fore.
But more and more people were starting to take their lead from Malcolm, who in turn was learning from the wider movement beyond the Nation of Islam.
Over time his politics moved in a radical direction, which led to tensions between him and the more conservative elements in his organisation.
Malcolm’s religious commitment was inseparable from his concern for the political liberation of black people.
While the Nation of Islam’s leader Elijah Mohammed saw the organisation as competing with the black churches, Malcolm saw it as a competitor with the civil rights organisations.
He believed that the Nation of Islam could deal with the moral decay of the black community by stopping people from taking drugs and getting drunk. But he knew this wasn’t enough – after they sobered up, they were still poor.
He wanted the Nation of Islam to give black people the political confidence to fight the injustices they faced, but this meant active engagement with the social forces that could challenge racism and poverty.
Malcolm’s growing political awareness was a major factor in his split with the Nation of Islam. Elijah Mohammed could see the split coming and used Malcolm’s comments about the assassination of US President Kennedy as the official reason for a 90-day suspension, which eventually led to expulsion.
From this time onwards, Malcolm began to increasingly identify racial oppression with a wider system of exploitation – capitalism – which had to be challenged.
He was still unsure of the best way to attack it. But one thing was becoming clear to him. The version of black nationalism he had looked to in the past was not the best way forward.
In the final column next week, I will show how Malcolm struggled to find a new political identity.