America's Black Shining Prince

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Mike Davis pays tribute to Malcolm X, killed forty years ago

Forty years ago, in the winter of 1964-65, I was one of the teenage kids working in the New York City national office of Students for a Democratic Society. Most of my friends in the office were working 16-hour days to organise the first march on Washington DC (17 April 1965) to protest against Lyndon Johnson's escalation of US intervention, especially his brutal bombing campaign against North Vietnam.

My assignment, however, was to organise a sit-in demonstration (19 March 1965) at the huge Chase Manhattan Bank skyscraper in lower Manhattan. Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when South African police murdered scores of unarmed protesters, Chase Manhattan led a consortium of international banks that gave loans to Pretoria and stabilised its international credit. In our eyes, the Rockefeller-controlled bank was a chief partner in apartheid and we hoped to use the demonstration to publicise Wall Street's myriad investments in racism, both in South Africa and the American South.

Our chief ally was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Their New York organiser was Betita Martinez, the celebrated Chicana writer, who became the sit-in's tactical planner.

We also received terrific support from Africans in New York, including exiled members of the African National Congress as well as the younger staff members of the Tanzanian mission to the United Nations. One of the latter - the first 'real' revolutionary that I had ever met - was in contact with Malcolm X and his new Organisation of African-American Unity.

In early 1964 the charismatic Black Muslim leader had left the Nation of Islam with the goal of building a revolutionary organisation that would link the struggles of US people of colour to global anti-colonial and national liberation movements. After his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X had praised the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, and was actively engaged in strategic discussions with Marxists as well as with militant Muslims and Third World nationalists. My Tanzanian friend hoped to arrange a meeting between Malcolm and the SDS staff. The prospect filled us with awe. 'Do you know who Malcolm X is?' my Tanzanian comrade asked me one day while we were walking through Harlem. I dumbly shook my head. 'He is your American Lenin.'

Two weeks after this conversation (21 February 1965), our Lenin was dead, shot down while addressing a rally at Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom. He was only 39 years old. Malcolm's assassins were henchmen of the Nation of Islam, but historians and activists have never ceased debating the sinister roles of the FBI and the New York police, both of which, we now know, were insidiously inflaming divisions within black nationalist ranks.

In the meantime the grief in Harlem and throughout Black America was truly inconsolable. At Malcolm's funeral his close friend, the actor Ossie Davis, famously eulogised 'our own black shining prince'. 'What we place in the ground,' Davis told mourners, 'is no more now a man - but a seed - which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us.'

Davis, a beloved progressive figure in his own right, died last month, having spent four decades defending the legacy of Malcolm X against both vilification and commercialisation. We are used to the periodic murder of our prophets, dissidents and revolutionists, but Malcolm X's death has left the largest hole in American history. As John Simon writes in the February issue of the independent Marxist journal Monthly Review, Malcolm X was 'arguably the most dangerous figure in this country's history to confront its ruling class'.

The 'danger' that Malcolm X embodied - and which kept J Edgar Hoover awake at night - was the threat of transforming a reformist civil rights movement into a radical liberation movement that saw itself as part of a global uprising.

There was much contemporary white hysteria about Malcolm's denunciation of dogmatic non-violence in favour of armed self-defence, but he simply gave eloquent voice to the attitude of most working class African-Americans, who spurned turning the other cheek to murderous vigilantes.

More radical was Malcolm's rejection of a parochial 'civil rights' strategy that relied upon federal courts and the national Democratic Party in favour of an internationalist 'human rights' strategy that allied the black revolt in America to a tricontinental revolution against European and US hegemony.

Malcolm X - a brilliant thinker whose ideas were rapidly evolving in dialogue with other liberation fighters - was the principal relay between this global revolutionary dialectic and the most oppressed sectors of the American population. Murdered just six months before the great August 1965 ghetto uprising in Los Angeles, he was the only national political figure who commanded the universal admiration of youth in Northern ghettoes. And he had long been the passionate advocate of black unity with insurgent Native Americans, Latinos and Asians.

Malcolm X was cut down, not simply in his prime, but in the very process of profound political reorientation, on the eve of his greatest leadership. His assassination, like that of Rosa Luxemburg in 1919, shifted the rails of history.

If he had lived, Malcolm X, almost certainly, would have quickly galvanised African-American opposition to the genocidal war in Indochina, perhaps, as many black radicals believe, in alliance with a left-moving Martin Luther King.

If he had lived, the volcanic ghetto uprisings of 1965 to 1968 might have attained truly 'dangerous' organisation and ideological direction. The FBI, in turn, might have found it more difficult to spread the venom of jealousy and disunity among black revolutionaries.

These 'what ifs' haunt radicals of my generation, for whom Malcolm X was the symbol of the alternative history that we tried, but failed, to create. For younger generations, however, the 'seeds' of Malcolm's life continue to bear gloriously intransigent and subversive fruit.

An archive of Malcolm X's most famous speeches and interviews is available at www.brothermalcolm.net.