Subject: [SocialistWorker.org] The rise of the Black Muslims
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Comment: Lee Sustar
======== THE RISE OF THE BLACK MUSLIMS =======================================
Lee Sustar looks at the roots of the organization that produced Malcolm X.
January 11, 2013
WHENEVER THE Nation of Islam or its leader Louis Farrakhan is covered in the
mainstream media, they are dismissed as "reverse racists." By
sensationalizing the Nation's anti-white stance and highlighting examples of
Farrakhan's anti-Semitic statements, the media has tried to discredit the
Nation's overall argument that the U.S. is racist to the core.
Socialists have criticisms of Farrakhan and the Nation, not only against
anti-Semitism, but the organization's program of Black economic
self-sufficiency, which would only benefit a minority of African Americans.
But we understand that the appeal of the Muslims' ideas of Black superiority
has nothing in common with white racism. Nationalism is a defensive reaction
to the blatant segregation forced upon Blacks.
The left failed to grasp this when the Black Muslims, as the Nation is
commonly called, first gained national attention in the late 1950s. The
Nation's theory of Black superiority and its hostility towards "white devils"
led many socialists to accept the media's argument that Nation members were
reverse racist. Thus, the left, still reeling from the anti-Communist
McCarthy witch-hunts, isolated itself from Blacks influenced by the Nation.
In fact, the Black Muslims represented one of the few political alternatives
to Northern Blacks, at a time when most Black political organizations
concentrated on legal assaults against Jim Crow in the South. At the same
time, trade union leaders effectively sided with employers in keeping Blacks
in the lowest-paid and least-skilled jobs.
So while the civil rights struggle against Southern segregation laws captured
media attention, the Black majority in the North encountered conditions
almost as brutal. By 1960, the differential between Black and white
unemployment had reached two to one, where it remains to this day. Throughout
the 1950s--a time of general economic expansion--less than half the Black
working class held full-time jobs year round. Although formal segregation
laws did not exist in the North, Black workers nevertheless lived in
segregated neighborhoods in declining central cities.
In such conditions, the Black Muslims flourished. What had begun in Detroit
as a religious sect in the early 1930s grew, under the leadership of Elijah
Muhammad and organizer Malcolm X, into a movement of an estimated 100,000
members by 1961. Muhammad 's apocalyptic vision of a Black-white
confrontation, articulated by Malcolm, influenced hundreds of thousands more
who were not necessarily prepared to join the organization. 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].
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UNABLE TO refute Malcolm X's searing criticism of racism in America,
politicians and the media tried to dismiss the Black Muslims as cranks,
focusing on Elijah Muhammad's claim to be the messenger of Allah, and the
strict, almost militaristic discipline that came with membership in the
But as the Nation grew, the government's attitude hardened, and the media's
charges of "Black racism" grew more shrill. Even though the organization
abstained from most civil rights struggles and did not confront the
authorities, it was seen as a serious threat.
The authorities' fears were justified. Even though the Nation declined after
Malcolm X was forced from the organization and assassinated in the mid-1960s,
its ideas of Black self-defense and separatism were adopted by millions in
what became the Black Power movement. In fact, Farrakhan's program in later
years was mild compared to the demands of the radical Black nationalists in
the late 1960s.
Unfortunately, many on the left of the 1960s repeated the mistake they had
made earlier. Rather than starting from the position that Black and white
unity must be built on Black workers' terms, some radical organizations
blamed Black nationalists for splitting the movement--a charge no different
than the complaint of liberals about the "racism" of Black nationalism.
Radical nationalists like the Black Panthers and other radical nationalists
were more isolated when they were hit by government repression.
Whatever criticisms socialists have of Black nationalists, the first priority
is to defend them from racist attack, even in the case of aggressively
anti-white organizations such as the Black Muslims. Accepting the idea of
"Black racism" plays into the hands of the real racists--a ruling class that
benefits from the exploitation of workers and the oppression of Blacks.
/A version of this article first appeared in the March 1987 issue of/
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The History of Black America  One of Socialist Worker's earliest features
was a monthly series on the history of the African American struggle in the
U.S., from slavery to the present day.All articles in this series 
Previous: The legacy of Martin Luther King  Next: The politics of Malcolm
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