Socialist Worker

Change through the ballot or the bullet

Kerri Parke's third and final column on US black radical Malcolm X looks at his last year

Issue No. 2000

Malcolm X was assassinated on 21 February 1965. By then his politics were evolving in a radical new direction.

Towards the end of 1964, Malcolm predicted that “1965 will probably be the longest, hottest, bloodiest summer since the beginning of the black revolution”. And he was right – uprisings exploded all over the country.

The riots, and those that followed throughout the 1960s, expressed the frustrations of black people who felt it was never going to be possible to get any real changes through peaceful means.

These waves of struggle in the 1960s forced the government to deliver small concessions.

Eventually more conservative elements within the movement took control. “Black Power”, a term coined as a slogan of empowerment for ordinary black people, increasingly came to mean tying black workers to a small, middle class black leadership.

Malcolm was one of the first to recognise the growing frustrations and the tensions in the movement.

In 1963 he argued, “There seems to be no way out, no way of escape. The wealthy black bourgeoisie, those uppity negroes who do escape, never reach back and pull the rest of our people with them. The black masses remain trapped in the ghetto.”

Another figure in the movement, Martin Luther King, who Malcolm had previously seen as an adversary, was also increasingly connecting the issues of race and class. Malcolm now argued, “Dr King wants the same thing I want – freedom!”

Malcolm’s Islamic faith was still an important part of his life. But, he argued, “they don’t hang you because you’re a Baptist, a Methodist or a Muslim, they hang you because you’re black”.

In 1964, a trip to Africa and the Middle East had a great impact on Malcolm’s views on race and religion. He saw “blonde, blue eyed” Muslims in Mecca treating people of all races equally, and met light skinned Algerians who were just as passionate about national liberation as he was.

He spoke of these experiences as a “spiritual rebirth”. He began to realise that the politics of black nationalism were “alienating people who were true revolutionaries”.

He began to see that at least some white people, “well meaning whites”, could be part of a fight against racism.

Malcolm’s classic statement of his emerging political vision came in a famous speech where he argued change would come, either through “the ballot or the bullet” (available online: www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/malcolmxballot.htm).

The “ballot” aspect was a major change, representing his movement away from narrow minded black nationalism.

Malcolm now advocated joining “any other kind of organisation – civic, religious, fraternal, political or otherwise – that’s based on lifting the black man up and making him master of his community”.

The “bullet” represented the continuity of his thinking, confirming his belief that black people had the right to demand freedom “by any means necessary”.

This implacable opposition to racism is one of the reason why attempts by establishment figures to co-opt Malcolm have always been unconvincing.

By the end of his life, he connected racism with the capitalist system, and identified with anti-imperialist struggles such as the one raging in Vietnam.

His increasingly revolutionary stand has led many to ask what might have happened if Malcolm had not been killed. Malcolm himself wasn’t sure where he was heading.

As late as January 1965, he said, “I still would be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of black people in this country.”

But this fluidity in his thought is one of the reasons why Malcolm should be admired by those fighting for liberation and against racism today. He shows how people’s ideas can change through struggle.

He was totally committed to the cause of black liberation, but was not so arrogant that he started off thinking that his was the only the solution to the problem. He may have been a leader, but he was also shaped by the movement.

Malcolm once said, “The future belongs to those that prepare for it today.” I think this is one of the most important parts of his legacy. If we are to ever truly get rid of racism, we must study the past and learn from it in order to avoid making the same mistakes.


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