Moving toward revolution

February 23, 2015

In the second part of a feature on the revolutionary politics and enduring relevance of Malcolm X, Lee Sustar moves on from his early years to see how Malcolm's efforts transformed the Nation of Islam--even while setting the stage for a later clash with the organization. Click here to see all the stories in the series.

FOR MALCOLM X and his siblings, the Nation of Islam provided a kind of stability that had long been denied them. Having endured the loss of two houses when racists torched them, the Little family had lost their father when he likely died at the hands of racists and their mother when she was institutionalized for mental illness. Government authorities dispersed the children to various foster homes.

The Nation of Islam (NOI) seemed to fill that void. Malcolm and his siblings found a familiar, uncompromising message of Black nationalism that had been embraced by their parents, followers of Marcus Garvey. What the NOI added were religious dogmas that diverged in many fundamental ways from orthodox Sunni Islam.

The inner world of the NOI was highly structured and deeply conservative. Members had to abide by a strict moral code or face suspension or expulsion. Women recruits were expected to undergo Muslim Girl's Training, which encouraged them to be subordinate to men and become homemakers rather than work. The group was rigidly hierarchical, investing spiritual leader Elijah Muhammad with virtually total authority. The NOI was enthusiastically pro-capitalist, too: The problem, in their view, wasn't the pursuit of profit, but the fact that African Americans were excluded from opportunities to do so.

Malcolm X speaking to a crowd in Harlem
Malcolm X speaking to a crowd in Harlem

By focusing on prisoners, the poor and the unemployed, the organization taught African Americans who were among the most marginal and despised in a racist society to be proud of their heritage and to band together to create their own separate society, with their own businesses, schools and social institutions.

Malcolm, the one-time zoot-suited hustler, aspiring entertainer, low-wage worker and convict, could speak to the NOI's target audience with authority:

To have once been a criminal is no disgrace. To remain a criminal is the disgrace. I formerly was a criminal. I formerly was in prison. I'm not ashamed of that. You never can use that over my head, and he is using the wrong stick. I don't feel that stick. They charged Jesus with sedition. Didn't they do that? They said he was against Caesar. They said he was discriminating because he told his disciples, "Go not the way of the gentiles, but rather go to the lost sheep." Go to the people who don't know who they are, who are lost from the knowledge of themselves and who are strangers in a land that is not theirs. Go to these people. Go to the slaves. Go to the second-class citizens. Go to the ones who are suffering the brunt of Caesar's brutality.

And if Jesus were here in America today, he wouldn't be going to the white man. The white man is the oppressor. He would be going to the oppressed. He would be going to the humble. He would be going to the lowly. He would be going to the rejected and the despised. He would be going to the so-called American Negro.

MALCOLM HAD won his first recruits to the NOI while in prison. Upon his release, he soon became close with Elijah Muhammad, who recognized that Malcolm's intellect, energy and unparalleled speaking ability could help the NOI.

Malcolm's first big assignment was to build the NOI's Boston temple. There, he shook up the local leadership and found a protégé, a young calypso singer named Louis Walcott, would become Louis X, and later Louis Farrakhan, the leader of a reconstituted NOI in the 1970s. In the 1950s, with Malcolm's support, Louis wrote and performed a play called The Trial, which was featured at NOI meetings around the U.S.:

I charge the white man with being the greatest liar on earth! I charge the white man with being the greatest drunkard on earth...I charge the white man with being the greatest gambler on earth. I charge the white man, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, with being the greatest murderer on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest peace-breaker on earth...I charge the white man with being the greatest robber on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest deceiver on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest troublemaker on earth. So therefore, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you, bring back a verdict of guilty as charged!

A film of The Trial became the opening sequence of a 1959 five-part television series on the NOI in New York called The Hate that Hate Produced (now available online), hosted by Mike Wallace, who warned viewers of a rising "Black supremacist" movement. The FBI monitored the program, providing a "substantially verbatim" transcript of parts of the series to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

In fact, the FBI had been keeping an eye on Malcolm since he began protesting prison restrictions on the practice of Islam, and twice sent agents to meet--that is, harass--him. Historian Clayborne Carson's edited volume of Malcolm's FBI files recorded two agents' January 1955 "interview" with Malcolm at his home in New York City's borough of Queens:

The subject was uncooperative in this interview. He refused to furnish any information concerning the officers, names of members, to furnish doctrines or beliefs of the MCI [the abbreviation for "Muslim Cult of Islam," the FBI's term for the NOI] or family background data for himself...

When asked if he considered the MCI a government as well as a religion, the subject would not answer. When asked if he considered himself and the Negro race in slavery in the United States by the white man, the subject remarked that you would have to only read the history books in the library to know that they are in slavery.

BY THE time The Hate that Hate Produced went on the air, Malcolm was a well-known figure across Black America. Now the television show, while broadcast only in New York, made him a national star. A man who a few months earlier had been frenetically travelling the country to run recruiting drives at sleepy NOI temples now found himself as the most visible figure in what had taken the shape of movement.

The NOI didn't have the 250,000 members guessed by Mike Wallace, or even half that number. But it was certainly a phenomenon--one that grew in parallel with the Southern civil rights movement, which had taken shape under very different politics and leadership. Where the Southern movement demanded integration and an end to Jim Crow, the NOI spoke to working class African Americans north of the Mason-Dixon line, whose lives were still constrained and disfigured by racism.

Malcolm's unflinching determination to speak out about racism--and the hypocrisy of Northern politicians--won recruits to the NOI and the sympathy of many more who never considered joining the organization. The African American poet and activist Sonia Sanchez recalled Malcolm's message as this: "'I am not afraid to say what you've been thinking all these years, that's why we loved him. He said it out loud, not behind closed doors. He took on America for us."

Malcolm's success--especially his rapid rise in the NOI and his close relationship with Elijah Muhammad--rankled veteran leaders of the organization, writes Manning Marable in his book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. In the NOI's command-and-control culture, Malcolm's punishing regimen became the standard by which all others were judged. Those who failed to measure up were pushed aside. Malcolm himself showed little personal ambition, always giving credit to Elijah Muhammad for any success.

But as Malcolm brought in many thousands of new recruits every year--each of them expected to pay 10 percent of their income to the organization--the NOI flourished. Malcolm had married an NOI activist, Betty Sanders, in 1958 and began a family even as he remained on the road for weeks at a time, systematically building the membership base of the organization.

Malcolm's commitment to the NOI put strains on his marriage, but his very success as an organizer created problems for him within the organization. Marable shows how Elijah Muhammad, under pressure from his top lieutenants, at times reigned in Malcolm. The Fruit of Islam (FOI), the organization's highly trained security force, came under control of a man who viewed Malcolm as a rival. Nevertheless, Malcolm's success in recruiting was lucrative for the NOI, which allowed Elijah Muhammad to move ahead in his program of Black capitalist development.

THE BIGGEST tensions between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad, however, were not the result of maneuvering within the NOI, but Malcolm's attempts to engage with the world beyond the organization.

As Marable notes, Malcolm was first forced to change tack when he took on the task of building the NOI's Temple No. 7 in Harlem, where the NOI faced competition on several fronts. The Ahmadi sect, for example, also blended Black nationalism with another, somewhat more orthodox tradition of Islam. There were also various Black nationalist organizations, often led by veterans of the Garvey movement. Then there was a small but rising layer of Black Democratic activists, such as the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Hulan Jack, the first African American elected president of the borough of Manhattan.

"The Nation found it difficult to make headway, largely because its appeal was apolitical," writes Marable. "Elijah Muhammad's resistance to involvement in political issues affecting Blacks, and his opposition to NOI members registering to vote and becoming civically engaged, would have struck most Harlemites as self-defeating."

Malcolm adapted. Having immersed himself in world history and international affairs while in prison, he closely followed the 1955 conference in Bandung, Indonesia, that brought together the Non-Aligned Nations--the Third World, in contrast to the First (the U.S.-dominated West) and the Second (the Eastern bloc run by the USSR). In the NOI's conception of race, African Americans were, in fact, the "Asiatic Black Man," which opened the way to a kind of unity with nonwhite peoples of the world.

The notes of an FBI informant, uncovered by Marable, indicate that Malcolm embraced the Bandung conference as a model for African Americans at an African Freedom Day Rally held soon afterward. "We must come together and hear each other before we can agree," Malcolm said. "...And the enemy must be recognized by all of us [as] a common enemy...before we can put forth a united effort against him."

Malcolm's embrace of the Third Word struggle wasn't seen as threatening to Elijah Muhammad, since the NOI had, with some success, tried to cultivate relations with the Muslim world as part of its effort to be seen as a legitimate religion. In 1958, Elijah Muhammad sent a telegram to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, on the occasion of an African-Asian Conference, that read in part:

Freedom, justice and equality for all Africans and Asians is of far-reaching importance, not only to you of the East, but also to over 17 million of your long-lost brothers of African-Asian descent here in the West...May our sincere desire for universal peace which is being manifested at this great conference by all Africans and Asians, bring about the unity and brotherhood among all our people which we so eagerly desire.

The following year, Nasser invited Elijah Muhammad to visit Cairo. As he was in poor health, he sent Malcolm in his place. Malcolm met with Egyptian and Saudi Arabian officials. According to Marable, it was on this trip that Malcolm first became conscious of the gaps between NOI practice and traditional Sunni Islam, as he struggled with the daily prayers and other rituals. But in political terms, Malcolm was clear about his trip, which included stops in Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana. In a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential African American newspaper, he wrote:

Africa is the land of the future...definitely the land of tomorrow, and the African is the man of tomorrow...Africa is the New World, a world with a which the so-called American Negroes are destined to play a key role...Like the Asians, all Africans consider America's treatment of Negro Americans the best yardstick by which to measure the sincerity of America's offers on this continent...The veil of diplomatic art does not obscure the vision of African thinkers when abuse of Black Americans still obtains.

Elijah Muhammad made his own trip to the Middle East several months later, visiting the holy city of Mecca. However, Malcolm's trip had the greater impact, by intensifying his efforts to link the NOI, ideologically at least, more firmly to Third World nations and anti-imperialist struggles.

This effort literally came home to Malcolm in New York City when Cuban leader Fidel Castro, fresh from the 1959 revolutionary overthrow of the Batista regime, traveled to the city for the September 1960 meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Malcolm was part of the reception committee for Castro, and when midtown Manhattan hotels balked at housing the Cuban delegation, Malcolm arranged for them to stay at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, a hub of Black politics and culture. Malcolm met with Castro, which, according to Marable, made Elijah Muhammad unhappy.

IF MALCOLM'S forays into international affairs discomfited Elijah Muhammad, far more worrisome to the NOI leader was Malcolm's steady drift toward involvement with the inescapable day-to-day struggles of African Americans--which, inevitably, meant taking on the issue of racist police violence.

The pivotal moment, according to Marable, came on April 26, 1957, when two New York Police Department officers were beating a Black man they intended to arrest, and two members of Temple No. 7 and another man attempted to intervene. When the men yelled, "You're not in Alabama. This is New York," one cop jumped on NOI member Johnson Hinton, striking him in the head and face repeatedly, leaving him critically injured.

Once alerted, Malcolm went to the station house with a delegation of NOI members, and the crowd outside grew to 500. When the increasingly nervous cops agreed to let Hinton go to the hospital, Malcolm led a march of 100 NOI members in formation to the hospital. When Hinton was sent back to jail, Malcolm led a march back to the precinct house, where the crowd grew to some 4,000. The NYPD responded by sending "all available units" to the scene.

When it became clear that Hinton wouldn't be released until the next day, Malcolm gave a hand signal to NOI members, who then marched away in silence. One awed cop told the Amsterdam News "No one man should have that much power."

Hinton and two others were eventually cleared of all charges, and the city had to settle a lawsuit over Hinton's injury by making the largest payout to date for a police brutality case.

But Malcolm's clashes with the NYPD were about to get a lot more personal. In 1958, the NYPD showed up at the home that Malcolm and his wife Betty shared with other NOI families at a time when Malcolm was on the road. When police demanded to search the house without a warrant, Betty and the other women who were home at the time refused to allow them to enter. When someone dropped a bottle on the head of a police detective, another officer shot into the front door, and the cops stormed inside. Six people were arrested.

Malcolm returned home to New York immediately and launched the kind of campaign against the NYPD that would be familiar to activists in the Black Lives Matter movement today. He denounced the "Gestapo tactics of white police who control the Black belts" of the city and continued:

Where else and under what circumstances could you find situations where police can freely invade private homes, break down doors, threaten to beat pregnant women, and even try to shoot a 13-year-old girl...but right here in American Negro neighborhoods, where the 'occupying army' is in disguise as police officers?

The NOI then placed a silent picket line outside the police precinct that had carried out the raid.

MALCOLM'S FEARLESS response to racist police violence captured the imagination of many African Americans who would never consider joining the Muslims. As one youth told Black sociologist C. Eric Lincoln in 1962:

Man, I don't care what those [Nation] cats say out loud--that's just a hype they're putting down for the man (i.e., whites). Let me tell you--they've got some stuff for the man even the Mau Mau [the anti-colonial Kenyan rebels] didn't have! If he tries to crowd them like he's been used to doing to the rest of us all the time, they're going to lay it on him from here to Little Rock [Arkansas, the scene of racist violence against school desegregation].

Yet the contradiction was that the NOI had swung into action to defend a member, Johnson Hinton, as well as Betty and the other residents of her and Malcolm's home. But it had no program or practice for carrying out a general campaign of police violence, since that would violate Elijah Muhammad's strictures against participation in politics.

Even as the Southern civil rights struggle escalated, the NOI had little to say. Malcolm didn't attack specific campaigns such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott for their goal of desegregation, but the NOI's aim of racial separatism meant that the NOI did not see civil rights as a relevant goal.

Malcolm, following Elijah Muhammad, even believed that it might be possible to come to terms with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists in the South for a plan to economically and physically separate African Americans from the white majority in the region. To that end, Malcolm held a secret meeting with the Klan, for which he would later express deep shame and regret.

When confronted with the question of how the Southern civil rights movement could go forward, Malcolm often changed the subject, pointing to the North instead. As he put it in in the Autobiography:

They front-paged what I felt about Northern white and Black Freedom Riders going South to "demonstrate." I called it ridiculous. Their own Northern ghettos, right at home, had enough rats and roaches to kill to keep all of the Freedom Riders busy. 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 been for so long 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...

The white Southerner was always given his due by Mr. Muhammad. The white Southerner, you can say one thing--he is honest. He bares his teeth to the Black man; he tells the Black man, to his face, that Southern whites will never accept phony "integration."

But as the civil rights struggle intensified in the early 1960s, the NOI and Malcolm's approach would reach a dead end. Taking the African American struggle forward--let alone linking it to the cause of international movement of oppressed peoples and nations could only be achieved through political action and organization. But that was exactly what Elijah Muhammad would not tolerate.

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