Malcolm X was an influential Black radical in the 1960s. He joined the Nation of Islam while in prison but broke with them in the early 1960s. He was in the process of establishing a new programme for mass action when he was assassinated on 21 February 1965.
This is a lightly edited version of an article first published by the International Socialist Review, Spring 1965, Volume 26, No 2, pp 35-36.
Afro-Americans have produced many remarkable leaders from Crispus Attucks to Frederick Douglass. Malcolm X was the latest and not the least of these revolutionary representatives of the Black people. His sensitivity enabled him to establish instant communion with the oppressed millions who impatiently await the emancipation and equality they have been promised. He was faultlessly attuned to their feelings of frustration, indignation and rebellion. “He made it plain, he tells it as it is,” was their spontaneous response to his indictments from the platform, on TV and in the streets of Harlem, of the torments capitalist America inflicts on its Negro citizens – and to his summons to resist and abolish them by any available means.
Malcolm’s intransigence had the same powerful appeal to the rebel youth, Black and white, in the United States as the personalities of Fidel Castro and Hugo Blanco in Latin America. He merited such admiration.
Malcolm’s life of 39 years passed through three distinct periods. In his youth he was the victim of the cruelties and deprivations of the Northern big city ghettos. But he was not an unresisting one. He hit back by resorting to jungle methods in order to survive in the asphalt jungle.
The prison he entered did not further corrupt him but served as a school in which he first learned about the Black Muslims. His conversion to their doctrines and practices regenerated and steeled his character, arming him with a gospel of racial salvation opposed to the hypocritical white man’s Christianity which sanctified the Black man’s servitude.
He rose to national prominence as the foremost spokesman and organiser of Elijah Muhammad’s brotherhood. His call for Negro self-reliance, his condemnations of the moderate Negro leaders tied to the established power structure and his outspoken justification of the right and duty of self-defense against racist violence made him the target of vilification and misrepresentation. Malcolm was crucified by the paid press long before he was martyred by the assassins’ bullets.
Regardless of their beliefs, most Negroes welcomed Minister Malcolm’s message. He expressed what they really felt and thought about white America. At the same time the Freedom Now movement could not be channelled within a narrow religious sectarianism which turned away from social and political struggles. The insurgent Black masses had to be united around a social programme which combined methods of vigorous mass action with the building of independent power on all levels of national life.
Malcolm demonstrated his exceptional political sagacity by recognising that the theocratic cultism of Elijah Muhammad ran counter to the imperative needs of the Negro revolt. Early in 1964 he parted from the man he had revered as Allah’s messenger and the fountainhead of wisdom.
This rupture ushered in – and possibly prepared the termination of – the final chapter of Malcolm’s brilliant and too brief career. To cut loose from the tutelage and ties of the Nation of Islam required personal, moral and intellectual courage of a high order. Malcolm had to repudiate the anti-political, sectarian and anti-white teachings of the Black Muslims. He had to construct a new organisation from the ground up while adding more enemies to an already extensive aggregation of opponents.
Well aware of the risks, Malcolm moved forward fearlessly on his new course. He separated the religious side of his activity from the projected Organization of Afro-American Unity. He started to assemble his numerous and scattered supporters. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca and visited the Near East and Africa where he discussed the problems of liberation struggle with some of the principal figures of the anti-imperialist forces from Premier Nkrumah of Ghana to Muhammad Babu of Tanzania and Che Guevara of Cuba. He sought support for the human rights appeal he was to submit to the United Nations on behalf of the 22 million American Negroes.
He set about to formulate a programme and outlook which could redirect the Freedom Now movement along more effective lines. He was about to announce the first results of his thinking when he was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom.
During these last months Malcolm was shedding old ideas, absorbing and emitting new ones with astonishing rapidity. He was learning, growing, changing. He adopted not only the official Muslim creed but also many ideas shared by the most uncompromising African, Asian and Latin American freedom-fighters and by the revolutionary socialists of the United States. He became willing to collaborate with everyone who refused to cower before the ruling powers and stood ready to battle for the rights of the Negro population.
Unfortunately he was not given time to formulate a comprehensive programme, impart it to his followers and build a strong nationwide organisation. In a discussion with him and his colleague James Shabazz at his Harlem headquarters several weeks before his murder, we referred to the speeches he was planning to give in February. “I hope they are better than the one I gave last Sunday,” he said. “Why?” I asked, “were you suffering like so many of us from a touch of the flu?” “No,” he repeated twice, “I am just tired. Mentally tired.” This fatigue came from the immense burdens Malcolm bore in launching a new revolutionary organisation with inadequate resources and forces, besieged by rich and relentless foes who never ceased harassing him. He tried to surmount these difficulties through a strong will and untiring exertions. He knew that he was working as a marked man on limited time.
Unlike Toussaint L’Ouverture, Malcolm X was unable to display all the qualities of generalship that he possessed. Nevertheless, he towered so far above his contemporaries that his death leaves the struggle for emancipation shorter by a head.
Figures like Martin Luther King, honoured and backed up by the establishment, continue to hold the limelight in the civil rights movement. But they are luminaries of the moment, representatives of a passing phase in the march of Black liberation in the United States.
Malcolm, whose memory they can patronise now that he has been silenced, was the herald and authentic spokesman of its future. His amazing ascent from the pit of degradation to the heights of national and international leadership indicate what a treasure of talents and creative capacities are hidden in the Black ghettos which can be called forth by the unfolding revolt. It indicated how the best of the freedom fighters can move in the heat of battle toward the most advanced viewpoints and positions. He progressed in a few years from depravity and demoralisation to the goal-directed enlightenment and energy of a mass agitator and then from religious sectarianism to revolutionary social action. He passed from hatred, fear and suspicion of all whites as an understandable conclusion from humiliation and oppression to the view that the actions and convictions of a person and group are more important than the tint of their skin. He solicited the cooperation of all opponents of Jim Crow so long as this involved no sacrifice or subordination of the welfare of the Black masses to the white majority. He looked forward to an alliance of Black men and women with white revolutionaries in anticapitalist struggles to bring equality and justice to all of our countrymen.
The capitalists and white supremacists would do well to heed and remember Malcolm’s warning that the racial explosion arising from the dissatisfaction of the Black people can be more dangerous to them than an atomic explosion. There are other potential Malcolms among the youth who will be inspired by his life and death to carry forward his work. They will help consummate his unfinished tasks by fusing the progressive Black nationalist aims of equality, dignity, jobs and justice with the goals of a socialist America.