Emerging as a revolutionary

February 25, 2015

In the fourth part of a SocialistWorker.org feature on the revolutionary politics and enduring relevance of Malcolm X, Lee Sustar looks at Malcolm's break from the Nation of Islam and his move to the left. Click here to see all the stories in the series.

THE CIVIL Rights crisis of 1963 made it impossible for Malcolm X to bridge his stated faith in Nation of Islam (NOI) doctrine and his increasing attraction to the Black freedom movement.

As minister of the NOI's Mosque No. 7 in Harlem, Malcolm often managed to be on the scene for various protests and actions, even if he kept himself and other NOI members on the edges. And as a frequent speaker on college campuses around the U.S., Malcolm had regular contact with a young generation of activists that had built organizations such at the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

In between, he juggled increased responsibilities as the national minister of the NOI, a promotion awarded by NOI leader Elijah Muhammad in what was likely an effort to keep Malcolm tied to the organization's hierarchy as Muhammad dealt with the consequences of a growing sex scandal, which Malcolm initially agreed to keep secret.

By 1963, Malcolm was tailoring his speeches to different audiences. At an NOI event, he was likely to deliver the standard speech about Black nationalism and separate Black economic development, giving all credit to Elijah Muhammad. But in front of a college crowd, Malcolm would dutifully include praise for Muhammad, but was liable to launch into a far more expansive conception of the Black freedom movement, linking the struggle to anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles.

Malcolm X
Malcolm X

But a common thread in both speeches was his sharp attack on a "Black bourgeoisie" that, he said, was seeking integration for itself, while leaving the mass of African Americans behind.

WITH THE civil rights movement at a seeming impasse, Malcolm could score points against its leaders. Martin Luther King Jr.'s tactics of principled nonviolence, civil disobedience and a willingness to fill the jails to support a voter registration drive had failed in Albany, Ga., in 1961-62. There, a clever police chief, Laurie Pritchett, used "nonviolent" police tactics to avoid creating a crisis and national political backlash. Meanwhile, in Washington, the chance of meaningful civil rights legislation being passed remained remote--the Dixiecrat wing of the party could block any such measure.

Malcolm never failed to point out how distant any successes remained for the civil rights struggle. "If the money wasted on Freedom Rides had been spent to build up Negro business, some of our problems would be solved," Malcolm had said at California event in late 1962. "What good does it do us to make white lawyers rich, to make white court attendants rich?"

But in April 1963, Malcolm was forced to take account of a new, confrontational turn in the Southern movement: the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala., where the commissioner of public safety--that is, the police chief--was the notorious Theophilus Eugene Connor, known as "Bull." Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, an ally of King, had narrowly survived his home being bombed. The movement's protests in Birmingham, unlike those of Albany, would inevitably be confrontational.

And this time--after a campaign that showed the whole world the barbarism of Southern racism--the movement won a clear victory. First white business leaders and then the political establishment agreed to lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains and fitting rooms, as well as hire Black workers. Bull Connor lost his job when voters eliminated the public safety commissioner position.

But before all that, with the whole world watching as African American children were blown off their feet by high-pressure fire hoses and set upon by dogs, Malcolm was compelled to react. Journalist Peter Goldman, who had interviewed Malcolm several times and later wrote a book about him, recalled his reaction to Birmingham:

Malcolm clearly sensed the revulsion that Black people felt at the images of their people--helpless before Connor's billy-swinging white cops. But he mistook, or rather refused to acknowledge, the extent to which Birmingham enraged Black people as well--even up-North ghetto Blacks who had no immediate stake in a struggle for the right to drink Cokes at Woolworth's or to try on clothes in a department store.

The real meaning of Birmingham for Malcolm lay not in the mass-marching or the dime-store counters or even the civil rights bill, but in that one-night riot of the street people--a native uprising he read as an omen of the things to come. He was right in this, of course, but ordinary Black people, for whom victories were rare enough, did not want to be told just yet that they had been cheated by Birmingham; they wanted to savor it for while.

THE MASS of African Americans were savoring the Birmingham victory--but they were also looking for ways to join the struggle themselves. The idea of a national march on Washington began to circulate.

Kennedy had followed the Birmingham protests with a nationally televised speech promising a civil rights bill. A march, the argument went, would create pressure on Congress to pass it. Perhaps the sit-ins and civil disobedience tactics used in the Deep South could light a fire in the nation's capital and bring about real change.

Bayard Rustin, the moderate socialist who was Malcolm's rival and friend, proposed turning the sentiment into a plan--modeled on the protest march proposed by Black labor leader A. Philip Randolph back in 1941 to demand jobs for African Americans. That march was cancelled when the movement won some of its demands. Now, 22 years later, Rustin and Randolph became the center of the organizing, pulling in labor leaders, churches and all the civil rights organizations.

The White House alarmed by the prospect of 100,000 or more African Americans surging through the streets of the capital, first tried to intimidate civil rights leaders from organizing the march, but then did their best to keep it within acceptable political bounds.

To Malcolm, all this was a vindication of his attacks on the civil rights leadership and the Negro bourgeoisie, as he liked to call it. The March on Washington was the "Farce on Washington," he said.

But he went to Washington anyway, to make his views known, his presence felt and to gauge the mood of the 200,000 people, overwhelmingly African Americans, who showed up. According to historian Taylor Branch, Malcolm was in the same hotel when the young SNCC leader John Lewis was told to tone down his speech. He omitted, among other things, this passage: "In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration's civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late. There's not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality."

Also cut was this:

The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The nonviolent revolution is saying, "We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the president, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure, that could and would assure us a victory.

When word reached Malcolm in the hotel lobby that Lewis had been subjected to censorship, with King making the demand himself, the NOI leader must have felt vindicated. In fact, Lewis' attempt to broadcast a more radical message was symptomatic of a mood among young activists squeezed between local repression in the Southern communities where they organized and the vague promises of action from the White House.

The paradox of the March on Washington was that while it confirmed mass support for the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King's political and moral authority, it also encouraged the left wing of the movement to try to build a base for a more militant agenda. With Dixiecrats dominating the Senate, Kennedy's legislation was stalled. The bloody clash in Birmingham and the mass march, it seemed, had taken the movement no further.

THAT WAS the context for a political battle that developed in organizing a conference held in Detroit in 1963 that was intended to launch a Northern organization modeled on King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A breakaway group consisting of NOI members, socialists and rivals of King's from the National Baptist Convention organized their own Grassroots Conference.

Malcolm was a featured speaker. In his November 10, 1963 speech, he mounted his biggest attack to date on King and the civil rights leadership in a speech that became known as "Message to the Grassroots."

Leaving aside NOI dogma, Malcolm began with an appeal for Black unity, citing the Bandung conference of non-aligned nations. He then made the case for revolution. There was a difference, Malcolm declared, between what had become popularly called the "Negro revolution" and a Black revolution. Real revolutions--the American, the French, the Russian--all involved a bloodshed in a struggle for land, he said.

He continued:

How are you going to be nonviolent in Mississippi, as violent as you were in Korea? How can you justify being nonviolent in Mississippi and Alabama, when your churches are being bombed, and your little girls are being murdered, and at the same time, you're going to get violent with Hitler, and Tojo, and somebody else that you don't even know?

If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it's wrong to be violent defending Black women and Black children and Black babies and Black men, then it's wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.

The civil rights leadership, Malcolm argued, far from advancing the struggle, was a hindrance--or worse.

When Martin Luther King failed to desegregate Albany, Georgia, the civil rights struggle in America reached its low point. King became bankrupt, almost, as a leader. Plus, even financially, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was in financial trouble; plus it was in trouble, period, with the people when they failed to desegregate Albany, Georgia. Other Negro civil-rights leaders of so-called national stature became fallen idols. As they became fallen idols, began to lose their prestige and influence, local Negro leaders began to stir up the masses....This was never done by these Negroes, whom you recognize, of national stature. They controlled you, but they never incited you or excited you. They controlled you; they contained you; they kept you on the plantation.

The March on Washington, Malcolm argued, was a product of this local activism. National civil rights leaders had scrambled to put themselves at the head of the movement, first with the help of white liberals with money, then the unions, and ultimately President Kennedy himself:

They didn't integrate it; they infiltrated it. They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. They ceased to be angry. They ceased to be hot. They ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all...

They controlled it so tight--they told those Negroes what time to hit town, how to come, where to stop, what signs to carry, what song to sing, what speech they could make, and what speech they couldn't make; and then told them to get out of town by sundown. And every one of those Toms was out of town by sundown. Now I know you don't like my saying this. But I can back it up.

Malcolm's speech showed that he had reached the limits of his ability to express himself politically within the framework of the NOI. His calls for Black separatism no longer conformed to the Marcus Garvey-type pro-capitalist perspective promoted by Elijah Muhammad.

Instead, the African American struggle, to succeed, would have to become a revolutionary movement, modeled on the great revolutions of the past, and in alliance with nonwhite peoples struggle against colonialism and imperialism around the world. Certainly, Malcolm's politics remained within a Black nationalist framework. But this was a revolutionary nationalism quite unlike that espoused by the NOI.

The speech also showed, however, that Malcolm badly misunderstood the dynamics of the March on Washington.

His observation that sentiment for the march had bubbled up from below was correct, and it was also true that the liberal establishment had scrambled--with partial success--to limit the politics of the event. But his denunciation of the event as a sellout was completely wrong. The March on Washington marked the moment when the civil rights struggle had undeniably asserted itself as a mass movement, not only in the South but nationally.

Further, the scale of this unprecedented event put enormous pressure on the White House and Congress. It was a key link in the chain of events that ultimately forced Washington to enact a fundamental reform--the dismantling of legal segregation that had remained in place a century after slavery had ended. Moreover, the march also voiced the economic demands for the working class African Americans in the North that Malcolm aimed to speak for.

Whatever the political shortcomings of the march, it was a world away from the NOI's acceptance of segregation and its efforts to build relationship with the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. Moreover, Malcolm's denunciations of King and the march couldn't change the fact that the civil rights leadership had helped build the largest African American social movement in decades--and Malcolm himself was a bystander.

MALCOLM WAS straining at the limitations of his relationship with the NOI, but there is little indication that he was considering a break at this point.

As his biographer Manning Marable points out, in November 1963, Malcolm was assigned to do a major speech in New York in place of Elijah Muhammad, who was ill. Shortly before the event, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Muhammad, concerned that Malcolm might make one of his regular attacks on the Kennedy administration, gave instructions not to take up the issue.

In his prepared speech, Malcolm complied. He delivered a talk that balanced between the NOI's religious beliefs and the themes he'd taken up in "Message to the Grassroots," avoiding mention of the Kennedy assassination. But when the question was put to him directly, he pointed to U.S. violence around the world, and described the assassination as an example of "the chickens coming home to roost," adding, "Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they've always made me glad."

When Malcolm's statement was published in the New York Times, Elijah Muhammad not only disavowed the comments, but ordered Malcolm to undertake a period of silence. Malcolm's rivals--the NOI's top security chief, key administrators and a couple of Elijah's sons--spread rumors about Malcolm across the organization. Within a matter of weeks, it became clear he would not be allowed to resume his responsibilities.

Malcolm struggled what to make of this turn of events. Despite his growing interest in orthodox Sunni Islam, Malcolm continued to view Elijah Muhammad as his spiritual leader. But by early 1964, he was definitely free of the NOI's political constraints. The next year--his last--would see even more dramatic developments as Malcolm further explored the politics of revolution.

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