You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

The revolutionary legacy that the media covers up
The real Malcolm X

April 5, 2002 | Page 8

THE RECENT discovery of letters, diaries and notebooks belonging to Malcolm X has stirred new interest in the man and his politics. LEE SUSTAR argues that establishment voices that treat Malcolm X as a saint today seek to bury his real legacy of revolutionary internationalism and anti-imperialism.

WHEN THE news came that Malcolm X's personal papers might be auctioned off, the New York Times published an indignant editorial against the sale. "Malcolm Little (a.k.a. Detroit Red) entered prison as an illiterate drug hustler in 1946, but he emerged several years later as Malcolm X, a charismatic speaker and social critic who was soon to become one of the civil rights movement's most electrifying voices," the Times wrote last month.

Compare that to what the Times had to say the day after Malcolm's assassination: "Malcolm X had the ingredients for leadership, but his ruthless and fanatical belief in violence not only set him apart from the responsible leaders of the civil rights movement and the overwhelming majority of Blacks, it also marked him for notoriety and a violent end...Malcolm X's life was strangely and pitifully twisted. But this was because he did not seek to fit into the society or into the life of his own people. The world he saw through those horned-rimmed glasses of his was distorted and dark. But he made it darker still with his exaltation of fanaticism. Yesterday someone came out of the darkness that he spawned and killed him."

Of course, the New York Times isn't the only ruling-class institution that's changed its views on Malcolm--in public, anyway. In New York City, you can walk down Malcolm X Boulevard in the heart of Harlem. In Chicago, you can attend Malcolm X College. And you can buy a Malcolm X postage stamp anywhere in the U.S.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

IT ISN'T hard to imagine what Malcolm X would say about being turned into a symbol of the "American dream."

"I'm not an American," he once said. "I'm one of the twenty-two million Black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of democracy--nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver--no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare."

Malcolm made those remarks in a speech in April 1964--a month after formally breaking with the Nation of Islam (NOI), which he had joined while in prison 16 years earlier.

A 1959 CBS documentary on the NOI by Mike Wallace, "The Hate that Hate Produced," made Malcolm X a household name. In those years, Malcolm articulated the NOI's views, which combined a separatist, Black nationalist politics and a strict moral code.

The NOI believed in building up a separate Black economy and society until a divinely imposed day of reckoning--and dismissed the civil rights movement. But Malcolm increasingly gave the NOI's views a political character.

He also mocked the Black and white students who participated in the Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate bus lines in the South. "The Northern Freedom Riders could light some fires under Northern city halls, unions, and major industries to give more jobs to Negroes…Yes, I will pull off that liberal's halo that he spends such efforts cultivating. The North's liberals have so long been pointing accusing fingers at the South and getting away with it that they have fits when they are exposed as the world's worst hypocrites."

He scorned the idea of a "civil rights revolution": "I shall tell them what a real revolution means--the French Revolution, the American Revolution, Algeria to name a few," he said. "There can be no revolution without bloodshed, and it is nonsense to describe the civil rights movement in America as a revolution."

But the size and social depth of the civil rights movement attracted Malcolm X, despite the NOI's policy of strict abstention from politics. And the young activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were increasingly attracted to Malcolm X. SNCC organizers in the South, faced with racist terror by the Ku Klux Klan and law enforcement--often the same people--looked to Malcolm X's ideas of self-defense "by any means necessary."

"If we react to white racism with a violent reaction, to me that's not Black racism," he said. "If you come to put a rope around my neck and I hang you for it, to me that's not racism. Yours is racism, but my reaction has nothing to do with racism."

Malcolm's prominence overshadowed Elijah Muhammed, who resented Malcolm and opposed involvement with politics. It was Malcolm's comments following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy--that the event was the "chickens come home to roost"--that finally gave Muhammed the excuse to suspend him.

But Malcolm was already disillusioned with corruption in the NOI and its abstention from politics--and its willingness to negotiate with the Klan. "It could be heard increasingly in the Negro communities: 'those Muslims talk tough, but they never do anything unless somebody bothers Muslims,'" Malcolm later recalled.

Malcolm's last year saw a rapid political evolution. He traveled to Mecca and embraced orthodox Sunni Islam and founded a new religious group on that basis. He also formed a new political group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

Malcolm increasingly identified the Black liberation struggle in the U.S. with the revolutionary anti-imperialist and anticolonial movements then sweeping the world. "From Washington, D.C., they exercise the same forms of brutal oppression against dark-skinned people in South and North Vietnam, or in the Congo, or in Cuba, or in any other place on this earth where they're trying to exploit and oppress. This is a society whose government doesn't hesitate to inflict the most brutal form of punishment and oppression upon dark-skinned people all over the world."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

MALCOLM'S TURN to the left--he spoke at socialist meetings on a number of occasions--alarmed people, from the NOI to the FBI, which had been spying on him for more than a decade.

His home in New York was firebombed--and Malcolm publicly accused the NOI of being responsible. In fact, Louis Farrakhan, today leader of the NOI, had written an article declaring that Malcolm was "worthy of death"--for which Farrakhan finally apologized a couple of years ago.

Malcolm was shot to death as he prepared to make a speech at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965. To this day, questions surround his murder--whether or not the shooters were NOI members and why New York Police Department informants did nothing to protect Malcolm.

There is been much speculation as to how Malcolm's politics would have developed. While he ceased describing himself as a Black nationalist and publicly sympathized with socialism, he still operated within a Black nationalist political framework. He saw all whites as benefiting from racism and argued that Black unity had to be achieved before Black and white workers could achieve unity.

And while Malcolm was opposed to the Democrats--"the Democratic Party is responsible for the racism that exists in this country, along with the Republican Party"--he held out the possibility of a strategy of electing Blacks to public office.

The tragedy is that Malcolm X was cut down before he could resolve these issues. But the core of his politics--a revolutionary commitment to the liberation of the exploited and the oppressed, and an implacable opposition to U.S. imperialist war--are unquestionable.

In his last speech, Malcolm declared, "We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of the rebellion against the oppression and colonialism which has characterized this era."

Malcolm made a tremendous contribution to that rebellion--and to the struggle that continues today.

Home page | Back to the top