Spike Lee's movie, Malcolm X, which was a product of the renewed attention paid to Malcolm X, spawned what has come to be a whole industry of people rushing to invest in products aimed at cashing in on the Malcolm X mystique. Then, there are all those politicians who, these days, are ready to sprinkle their speeches with a quote or two from Malcolm X or, in a daring mood, wear an "X" cap when they're out on a foray looking for votes. In a city like Detroit, with its majority black population and black political apparatus, the school board named the new school for the few privileged young black males, the Malcolm X Academy.
These days, almost 3 decades after his assassination, all sorts of people can bear his X.
But these were not the only people to have taken up Malcolm X. There are those others who identify with him: the unnamed ones in the streets of Los Angeles who told TV interviewers during the riots that they followed Malcolm X; the poor young people – mostly black, but also Hispanic, and even some white – who wear the X-cap as a stance of defiance to the society which has cast them aside. In today's social situation, where there is no popular mobilization, and has not been one for more than a generation, where there are no popular figures who speak publicly for resistance, Malcolm X has become a symbol speaking to the anger of a new generation of poor young people.
Malcolm X came from this same social background, that of the poor black masses; it was to them he spoke and with them that he identified.
He defined himself in a famous analogy he often used: that of the house slave and the field slave. (This version is from Message to the Grass Roots, an address given to a conference in Detroit just a few months before he left the Nation of Islam.)
To understand this, you have to go back to what the young brother here referred to as the house Negro and the field Negro back during slavery. There were two kinds of slaves, the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes – they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good because they ate his food – what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved the master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master's house – quicker than the master would. If the master said,We got a good house here,the house Negro would say,Yeah, we got a good house here.Whenever the master said "we," he said "we." That's how you can tell a house Negro.
If the master's house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house Negro would say,What's the matter, boss, we sick?We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than his master identified with himself. And if you came to the house Negro and said,Let's run away, let's escape, let's separate,the house Negro would look at you and say,Man, you crazy. What you mean, separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?That was that house Negro. In those days he was called a "house nigger." And that's what we call them today, because we've still got some house niggers running around here….
On that same plantation, there was the field Negro. The field Negroes – those were the masses. There were always more Negroes in the field than there were Negroes in the house. The Negro in the field caught hell. He ate leftovers. In the house they ate high up on the hog. The Negro in the field didn't get anything but what was left of the insides of the hog. They call it "chitt'lings" nowadays. In those days they called them what they were – guts. That's what you were – gut-eaters. And some of you are still gut-eaters.
The field Negro was beaten from morning to night; he lived in a shack, in a hut; he wore old, castoff clothes. He hated his master. I say he hated his master. He was intelligent. That house Negro loved his master, but that field Negro – remember, they were in the majority, they hated the master. When the house caught on fire, he didn't try to put it out; that field Negro prayed for a wind, for a breeze. When the master got sick, the field Negro prayed that he'd die. If someone came to the field Negro and said,Let's separate, let's run,he didn't sayWhere we going?He'd say,Any place is better than here.
You've got field Negroes in America today. I'm a field Negro. The masses are the field Negroes. When they see this man's house on fire, you don't hear the little Negroes talking aboutour government is in trouble.They say,The government is in trouble.Imagine a Negro:Our government!I even heard one sayour astronauts.They won't even let him near the plant – and "our astronauts"! "Our Navy" – that's a Negro that is out of his mind, a Negro that is out of his mind.
Malcolm X was undoubtedly the most powerful and militant popular speaker of his time. With his directness, the analogies he took from daily experience, the biting humor he utilized to confront his audience on their own hesitations and illusions, he found the way to speak to the poor black masses in a way that no one else had done. And he used his podium to become the most effective recruiter for the Nation of Islam.
Like others of his generation, he first came into contact with the Nation of Islam, headed by Elijah Muhammad, while in prison. Paroled from prison at the age of 27, he threw himself into recruitment activity, first in Detroit, where he was chiefly responsible for tripling the membership in Temple One in less than a year, then to Chicago, where he studied with Elijah Muhammad.
He was sent to help establish the first Nation of Islam temples in both Boston and Philadelphia. Within the year, he was sent to Harlem, which was to become his base and provide him his permanent platform. While building the Nation of Islam in Harlem, Malcolm X also went back and forth to Springfield Massachusetts and Hartford Connecticut, where he helped establish new temples. He began to travel further, for example, to Atlanta, Georgia, or Los Angeles, doing the same thing.
It was during these first few years that Malcolm X, based on the success of his recruitment activity and his popularity as a speaker, became de facto Elijah Muhammad's chief minister and public spokesman for the Nation of Islam. His influence grew apace with that of the Nation of Islam.
By 1960, according to C. Eric Lincoln, there were 69 temples or missions in 27 states, compared to the nine which existed – most of them in Illinois and Michigan – when Malcolm X was sent to Boston in 1953. In his Autobiography, Malcolm X gave the following membership figures: the Nation of Islam, which had started in the ghetto of Detroit in the 1930s, had grown to about 400 members by 1952; by the early 1960s, it had about 40,000 members. (The Nation of Islam itself always refused to reveal anything about its membership, but other observers confirm figures of about the same magnitude.) In any case, during the 11 years of his activity as the main organizer for the Nation of Islam, the Nation had a growth which was monumental, all the more so since to enter the Nation of Islam was not simply to walk through an open door. Membership required a person to go through a period of work, study and testing, as well as to accept the strict rules of conduct which the Nation maintained.
The goal of the Nation of Islam, at least abstractly, had always been to establish a separate black nation, perhaps in Africa, but more commonly in some part of the territory of the United States, although it never did anything to realize this goal, not even at the level that Marcus Garvey did. Its practical activity was directed toward establishing Muslim-owned small businesses, as a way of providing jobs to members of the Nation and some immediate resources for the Nation, and Muslim-run schools, as a way of educating its youth. Much of its ideology was defined in a mythical version, fantastic like the myths of all religions.
These aspects of the Nation of Islam defined it as fundamentally reactionary. And today, it – or rather its two main offshoots – stand on the same political ground it so long denounced, that is, support for the Democratic Party or for individual Democrats.
But during the years of the 1950s and early 1960s, there was another aspect to the Nation of Islam. During the years when a part of the poor black masses were becoming radicalized, the Nation of Islam appeared as the only organization which spoke to that growing radicalism.
The Nation of Islam denounced white society in the harshest tones. When Elijah Muhammad spoke of Yacub and the 6,000 year-reign of the "blue-eyed devil" about to come to an end, he may have been replacing the theological fantasies of the Christian preachers with another theological fantasy, but his fantasy had the advantage for people suffering under oppression, not only to indict the oppressor, but also to predict his end.
Malcolm X, over the years, may have evolved his own style of expression, but he took his uncompromising stance toward white society from the Nation of Islam of that period. While still speaking for the Nation in 1963, Malcolm X responded to the question put to him,
Do you hate the white man?:
We don't even think about him. How can anybody ask us do we hate the man who kidnapped us four hundred years ago, brought us here and stripped us of our history, stripped us of our culture, stripped us of our language, stripped us of everything that you could use today to prove that you were ever part of the human family, brought you down to the level of an animal, sold you from plantation to plantation like a sack of wheat, sold you like a sack of potatoes, sold you like a horse and a cow, and then hung you up from one end of the country to the other, and then you ask me do I hate him? Why, your question is worthless.— The Black Revolution, a speech given at Adam Clayton Powell's Abyssinian Baptist Church
It was with such a stance that Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam had reached people like Malcolm X himself, and that Malcolm X subsequently tapped the anger of a whole layer of the poor black population, an anger which the traditional civil rights organizations only tried to mollify.
Of course, over the years, Malcolm X's ideas evolved. And he may have expressed his denunciation in a more precise way, with certain qualifications. For example, in a speech given in April of 1964, after he left the Muslims, Malcolm X had this to say:
All of us have suffered here, in this country, political oppression at the hands of the white man, economic exploitation at the hands of the white man, and social degradation at the hands of the white man.
Now in speaking like this, it doesn't mean that we're anti-white, but it does mean we're anti-exploitation, we're anti-degradation, we're anti-oppression. And if the white man doesn't want us to be anti-him, let him stop oppressing and exploiting and degrading us.— The Ballot or the Bullet
But, qualification or no, he was not more ready to make himself acceptable to American society. For example, in that same speech, he declared:
No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 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.
From its beginnings, the Nation of Islam had insisted that black people had not only the human right, but also the moral duty to defend themselves and their community. And they spoke of taking reprisals as a legitimate form of defense against those cowards who would attack unarmed black people. Elijah Muhammad was quoted in 1960 by the Chicago American, a black newspaper, as saying:
We must take things into our own hands. We must return to the Mosaic law of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. What does it matter if 10 million of us die. There will be 7 million of us left, and they will enjoy justice and freedom.
Confronted by the vicious and organized attack from racists in and out of government, the leaders of the civil rights organizations advised the black masses to use methods of "passive resistance," aimed at touching the moral conscience of the white population. Malcolm X, like the Nation of Islam, ridiculed the bankruptcy of this counsel. For example, in 1963, Malcolm X answered the question,
What does Mr. X think about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King?:
I think that any black man who goes among so-called Negroes today who are being brutalized, spit upon in the worst fashion imaginable, and teaches those Negroes to turn the other cheek, to suffer peacefully, or love their enemy is a traitor to the Negro. Everybody on this earth has the right to defend himself. Everybody on this earth who defends himself is respected. Now the only people who are encouraged to love their enemy is the American Negro. The only people who are encouraged to adopt this old passive resistance or wait-until-you-change-your-mind-and-then-let-me philosophy is the American Negro. And any man that propagates that kind of doctrine among Negroes is a traitor to those people.— The Old Negro and the New Negro
The Nation of Islam had, from an early point, established self-defense squads to protect its own activities and its own members, the FOI (Fruit of Islam). In general, the police did not touch activities organized by the Nation of Islam, and gave their temples a wide berth. This fact was noticed in black communities which had long suffered under the arbitrary and vicious use of force by racist police departments. The FOI reinforced the sense that Malcolm's speeches gave: the Nation of Islam would not be pushed around.
Malcolm X won widespread respect from people in Harlem as the result of incidents in which the FOI of Temple Seven confronted the police. For example, in 1957, Malcolm X took the FOI from Temple Seven to the police precinct holding a Muslim who had been beaten by a cop on the street. The Muslim militants, who numbered about 50, brought behind them crowds of people, numbering in the thousands. They went from precinct to hospital and back to precinct, with the aim of freeing the prisoner and getting him medical attention. Rumors began to float through Harlem that there would be rioting if the man died. According to an account in the Amsterdam News, Harlem's newspaper, Malcolm X was quoted as telling the police, when he was called in and questioned about the rumors:
We do not look for trouble. In fact, we are taught to steer clear of trouble. We do not carry knives or guns. But we are also taught that when one finds something that is worthwhile getting into trouble about, he should be ready to die, then and there, for that particular thing.
In 1960, Malcolm X took a squad of more than 50 men into the corridors of a New York City court which was hearing a case against two Muslims who had been charged with assaulting policemen who entered their homes without a warrant. 400 more were outside the court building, standing across the street in military order. According to an account in the Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch, a black newspaper then associated with the Nation of Islam, they were,
silent, well-disciplined, ominous. When the two Muslims were found not guilty, the Muslim forces dispersed.
According to Malcolm's account, as well as that of other Muslims who subsequently left the Nation of Islam, events in Los Angeles in 1962 brought the Nation to a kind of watershed. Although, there had already been signs to the contrary, up until the events in Los Angeles, black people in and out of the Nation of Islam had believed that the Nation would not allow an attack on itself to go unanswered. But in April of 1962, Los Angeles cops raided and shot up the Los Angeles temple, killing the secretary of the temple, and wounding 7 other Muslims. The seven wounded men and seven others were placed under arrest and later tried. The Muslims in Los Angeles congregated at the temple; and not only Muslims, people from the neighborhood came there also. Muslims from all over the country streamed into Los Angeles or phoned, saying they were ready to come. But not only did the Nation not organize any kind of response to this aggression; Malcolm X was eventually sent out to Los Angeles to demobilize the Nation's militants, ordering them to do nothing, to wait on Allah to give them vengeance.
It's clear that this lack of action began to undercut the reputation the Nation of Islam had built for itself among the poor masses. For some months, Malcolm X seems to have felt himself somewhat cut off from the more militant parts of the Nation of Islam itself, many of whom were quitting in the summer of 1962.
For a whole period, the Nation of Islam, simply on the basis of its uncompromising stance, had attracted the most radicalized section of the black population. Now, as that population became still more radicalized, the Nation of Islam began to retreat back into its religious side, and to make its first obvious compromise with American society.
When John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963, Malcolm X responded to a question about the assassination, by referring to the recent murder of Medgar Evers by racists in Mississippi and U.S. involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Viet Nam. He added,
Being an old farm boy myself, I was never sad to see chickens coming home to roost. By contrast, the Nation of Islam, according to Hakim A. Jamal, ran a headline in Muhammad Speaks, "Muslims Mourn the Death of Our President". It also publicly disciplined Malcolm X, ordering him to keep silent for 90 days.
Whatever differences had been evolving inside the Nation, this brought them in the open. In March of 1964, when it became obvious that Malcolm X was not to be reinstated, he announced the formation of The Muslim Mosque Inc. In May of 1964, he announced the formation of a non-religious organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
The Nation of Islam had always talked about the fact that a good part of the wealth of American society had been stolen from the labor of black people, and it demanded a fair share for the black population. And it often threatened God's vengeance on American society if these demands weren't met.
For example, Malcolm X, in his last speech while still inside the Nation, explained:
If we are part of America, then part of what she is worth belongs to us. We will take our share and depart, then this white country can have peace. What is her net worth? Give us our share in gold and silver and let us depart and go back to our homeland in peace.
We want no integration with this wicked race that enslaved us. We want complete separation from this race of devils. But we should not be expected to leave America and go back to our homeland empty-handed. After four hundred years of slave labor, we must have some back pay coming, a bill owed to us that must be collected.
If the government of White America truly repents of its sins against our people, and atones by giving us our true share, only then can America save herself!
But if America waits for Almighty God himself to step in and force her into a just settlement, God will take this entire continent away from her; and she will cease to exist as a nation. Her own Christian Scriptures warn her that when God comes He can give theentire Kingdom to whomsoever He will… which only means that the God of Justice on Judgment Day can give this entire continent to whomsoever He wills!
White America, wake up and take heed, before it is too late!— God's Judgment of White America
Once outside the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X made more practical this idea that it was force which white society understood and respected:
Uncle Sam has no conscience. They don't know what morals are. They don't try and eliminate an evil because it's evil, or because it's illegal, or because it's immoral; they eliminate it only when it threatens their existence. (The Ballot or the Bullet, April 1964).
In the spring of 1964, the bourgeois news media in New York were running lurid accounts about something they dubbed the "Blood Brothers". This was supposedly a gang of young black men in Harlem who had been organized by ex-members of the Nation of Islam to attack cops, or more generally any whites. In reality, this propaganda barrage was the build-up to the organized attack New York City cops were then preparing to carry out against the people of Harlem in June of that same year. The police were looking for ways to stop the angry agitation among black high school youth which had developed during the spring of 1964, after white cops openly gunned down a number of black people on the streets, including a 15-year-old student on the front steps of his high school.
Malcolm X's response to all the talk about the Blood Brothers opposed him to almost every other black leader around, the best of whom said the media were lying, that the "Blood Brothers" didn't exist; the worst of whom reproached these "Blood Brothers", if they did exist. Malcolm had this to say:
So the question is, if they don't exist, should they exist? Not do they exist, should they exist? Do they have a right to exist? And since when must a man deny the existence of his blood brother? It's like denying his family.
I think one of the mistakes that our people make – they're too quick to apologize for something that might exist that the power structure finds deplorable or finds difficult to digest. And without even realizing it, sometimes we try and prove it doesn't exist. And if it doesn't, sometimes it should. I am one person who believes that anything the black man in this country needs to get his freedom right now, that thing should exist....
Any occupied territory is a police state; and this is what Harlem is. Harlem is a police state; the police in Harlem, their presence is like occupation forces, like an occupying army. They're not in Harlem to protect us; they're not in Harlem to look out for our welfare; they're in Harlem to protect the interests of the businessmen who don't even live there.
The same conditions that prevailed in Algeria that forced the people, the noble people of Algeria, to resort eventually to the terrorist-type tactics that were necessary to get the monkey off their backs, those same conditions prevail today in America in every Negro community....
Nowadays, our people don't care who the oppressor is; whether he has a sheet or whether he has on a uniform, he's in the same category.
You will find that there is a growing tendency among us, among our people, to do whatever is necessary to bring this to a halt.... I'm not here to apologize for the existence of any blood brothers. I'm not here to minimize the factors that hint toward their existence. I'm here to say that if they don't exist, it's a miracle.”— The Harlem 'Hate Gang' Scare, a speech to the SWP Militant Labor Forum
Over and over during 1964, Malcolm X was ready to threaten American society, or its government, with violence. For example, in April of that year:
Lyndon B. Johnson is the head of the Democratic Party. If he's for civil rights, let him go into the Senate next week and declare himself. Let him go in there right now and declare himself. Let him go in there and denounce the Southern branch of his party. Let him go in there right now and take a moral stand – right now, not later. Tell him, don't wait until election time. If he waits too long, brothers and sisters, he will be responsible for letting a condition develop in this country which will create a climate that will bring seeds up out of the ground with vegetation on the end of them looking like something these people never dreamed of. In 1964, it's the ballot or the bullet.— The Ballot or the Bullet
Two months later:
We have to create a situation that will explode this world skyhigh unless we are heard from when we ask for some kind of recognition as human beings. This is all we want – to be a human being. If we can't be recognized and respected as a human being, we have to create a situation where no human being will enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
If you're not for that, you're not for freedom. It means you don't even want to be a human being. You don't want to pay the price that is necessary….
Brothers, the price is death, really. The price to make others respect your human rights is death. You have to be ready to die or you have to be ready to take the lives of others. This is what old Patrick Henry meant when he said liberty or death. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, or kill me. Treat me like a man, or kill me. This is what you have to say. Respect me, or put me to death. But when you start to put me to death, we're both going to die together. You have to say that.
This is not violence. This is intelligence.— The Second OAAU Rally
Malcolm X had come to view force as a valid weapon, and the threat of using it as a club to be held over a recalcitrant society to convince it to redeem its crimes against the black population. In the last year of his life, he made it clear that he was ready to bring down American society, if that was what it took for black people to escape oppression.
But behind this idea lay another one: that is, that American society, that is capitalist society, could reform itself, at least if it were pushed hard enough.
Racial oppression may guarantee that black people suffer disproportionately the ills caused by the functioning of capitalism: poverty, unemployment, and repression. But it is because society is divided into classes, and profit is made off of the exploitation of labor, that there is unemployment and poverty. It is because society is divided into classes, and the capitalist class steals from the labor of the vast majority of society, that there is repression and violence. Racism makes the violence of the state apparatus more arbitrary and vicious, but it does not create it. The black population is overwhelmingly working class, and for that reason cannot escape the ills which capitalist society puts on the working class, unless capitalist society itself is overturned.
At the same time, the very fact that black workers are a disproportionately large part of the American proletariat gives, and gave, them particular possibilities for leading the American working class to overturn capitalist society.
These were questions Malcolm X never really went into.
In his last year, Malcolm X sometimes implied that capitalism will be overturned.
For example, in May of 1964, he said:
You'll see terrorism that will terrify you and if you don't think you'll see it you're trying to blind yourself to the historic development of everything that's taking place on this earth today. You'll see other things.
Why will you see them? Because people will realize that it's impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg – even though they both belong to the same family of fowl. A chicken just doesn't have it within its system to produce a duck egg. It can't do it. It can only produce according to what that particular system was constructed to produce. The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system, period. It's impossible for this system as it stands to produce freedom right now for the black man in this country.
And if ever a chicken did produce a duck egg, I'm certain you would say it was certainly a revolutionary chicken.— The Harlem Hate Gang Scare
And he sometimes used the words capitalism or colonialism or socialism or revolution in his speeches, or in response to questions.
But in general, Malcolm X still spoke and acted as though the black masses could end racial oppression within the framework of capitalist society. When he spoke of ending racial oppression, he spoke in terms of the black population gaining its fair share vis-a-vis the white population. But he ignored the "unfair shares" produced in capitalist society by capitalism's drive for profit and the exploitation of one class by another.
At the Founding Rally of the OAAU, in June of 1964, Malcolm X presented The Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives of the OAAU. At the end he capsulized this document by saying,
In essence it only means we want one thing. We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.
What he did not say was that the very circumstance of capitalist class society made it necessary that it be overturned, for black people to escape oppression. He did not give the black masses the aim of overthrowing the American bourgeoisie, nor of setting up a classless society.
The biggest burst of radicalization of the black masses came after Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965. In the summer of that same year came the first massive rebellion, the one in the Watts section of Los Angeles; in 1966, it was Cleveland and Chicago; in 1967, Detroit and Newark, and dozens of cities and towns stretching out from these two, as well as Cincinnati and Dayton Ohio; in April 1968, hundreds of cities across the country went up in flames when Martin Luther King was assassinated.
By 1967 and '68, many ordinary black people called themselves revolutionaries. And the call for "black power" was heard everywhere. This was not yet the revolution, of course, but it indicated at least that social revolution might have come out of those circumstances, depending on how the consciousness of the black masses evolved, that is, in part, on what goals were given to them by leaders they trusted.
If Malcolm X had lived, would he have come to the point that he could have given the goal of overturning capitalist society to the black masses?
Of course, no one can say for sure. He already had gone through some important changes in his thinking. But he would have had to have made an even sharper change, and moreover in the heat of the struggle.
In any case, those who followed him did not ever position themselves on the ground of class. People like H. Rap Brown, George Jackson, the Black Panthers were ready to stand up to the state apparatus of American capitalism, but they stayed on the ground of fighting in a radical fashion for reform, the same point where Malcolm X was when he was killed.
There were no recognized leaders who organized the black masses fundamentally on the basis of their class. There was no one who gave them, as one of their goals, the task of bringing white workers into a struggle behind them. There was no one who gave them the aim of leading the whole working class in the fight to overturn capitalist society and create a new classless society. There was no proletarian revolutionary organization with a base in the black masses or, more generally even, the working class.
Of course, for Malcolm X and those who came after him, it was difficult to develop a proletarian and communist consciousness when there was no political force already existing in the working class, showing what was possible. The left, such as it was, did not offer a proof. With no one demonstrating another perspective, it would have been exceedingly difficult for the radical black leaders like Malcolm X to take themselves in this direction in isolation.
Those who did address the black masses stayed within the framework of radical reform. The goals they gave to that vast mobilization led the massive struggle of the black masses in the 1960s into a dead end.
American capitalism did give a certain number of things to the black population – for a period in any case – and even some things, which it has not yet taken back; for example, the ending of official, legal segregation, and the Jim Crow laws associated with it. But a reform of American capitalism could not get rid of racial oppression because, to do so, capitalism would have had to agree to give up unemployment, poverty and super-exploitation for a large strata of the working class. But that is tantamount to capitalism's reforming itself out of existence.
There was no reason in the 1960s to believe that capitalism would get rid of itself. Today, looking back on the experience of that whole vast movement, there is even less reason to imagine such a thing.
This article first appeared in Class Struggle, a magazine linked to The Spark newspaper.