Malcolm X: The road to revolution

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This month marks the 50th anniversary of the murder of Malcolm X. Antony Hamilton looks at his life and politics.

Malcolm X is one of the great icons of the Black Power movement. He inspired a generation to resist racism “by any means necessary”. His life was a battle of ideas in which he responded to institutional racism and segregation with tactics that evolved alongside the struggle for civil rights. Speaking in January 1965, a month before his murder, Malcolm X warned of impending social upheaval and global revolution:

“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice, and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation... It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.”

Malcolm’s ability to reach so many people is what defined him as a speaker, an activist and a revolutionary. His uncompromising fight for freedom and justice won him the respect of radicals across the world in an era defined by anti-colonial uprisings. But Malcolm wasn't born with revolutionary ideas or even a desire to change the world. He formed these ideas through his personal experience, and a movement which demanded real material change, democracy and equality.

Born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, he grew up in an atmosphere of racial violence. His parents, active in Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, were regularly targeted by racist mobs. After his father was found dead (most likely murdered by racists) Malcolm’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown. The young Malcolm was passed around various institutions before settling in Harlem, New York, with his older sister. By his early twenties he slipped into a life of petty crime and was jailed for robbery. It was in prison that he fell under the influence of the Nation of Islam. This experience shaped his ideas about racism and the nature of US society.

The Nation of Islam was a black separatist organisation, not connected to mainstream Islam, that believed white people were the product of a genetic experiment whose time on Earth was coming to an end. The task for black people was to separate themselves from white society and prepare for judgement day, building black businesses on the way. The Nation held huge appeal for people who were persecuted and marginalised. It operated a network of mosques and businesses that gave refuge and support to the victims of a racist system.

Malcolm X spent 14 years in the Nation of Islam. His fierce intelligence and sharp political mind meant that he rose to prominence in the organisation and in 1963 became its national minister. While Malcolm was making waves inside what he refers to as the “black Muslim movement” a bigger tide was beginning to turn inside US society. In June 1953 in Baton Rouge, a segregated city in the southern state of Louisiana, black civil rights activists organised a boycott of local bus companies that segregated black and white passengers. This action marked the beginning of small-scale campaigns against the racial discrimination laws known as Jim Crow.

Under Jim Crow black people in the South were carved out of politics and marginalised economically. They were denied jobs, housing and voting rights as well as being regularly attacked by lynch mobs of white racists if they “stepped out of line”. White power groups that fiercely opposed integration, such as the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), used violence to strike terror in the hearts of black people across the South.

Life for black people was better in the desegregated Northern states, where the Emancipation Proclamation had abolished slavery in 1863 and there was no formal segregation. Between 1910 and 1970 over 6.6 million black people abandoned the South for the promise of work and a life free from racist persecution in the industrialised North. However, when they reached the Northern cities they were greeted with de facto segregation into ghettos, and forced into degrading and exploitative jobs on lower wages than their white co-workers. Although there was no formal segregation as in the South, racism and racist violence was rife in the North.

In December 1955 Rosa Parks, a young black woman from Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus. Her action sparked a year-long boycott that launched the modest campaign against segregation into a national movement capable of mobilising millions of people. It was during the Montgomery bus boycott that Martin Luther King came to prominence as a civil rights leader. His standing as a local reverend granted him a level of respect and influence among the different layers of the black community that would shape the politics of the movement.

During the civil rights movement the Southern black churches, as well as ministers such as King, were to play a central role. They spoke from the pulpit quoting biblical passages of long suffering which resonated with people living under segregation. The Christian doctrine of “turning the other cheek”, as well as inspiration from freedom fighters such as Gandhi, influenced the strategy of non-violence. These non-violent tactics served as a means of widening the movement into the broadest terms as a more “legitimate” route to change.

The rejection of violence popularised the fight for civil rights across most of the South as black people facing the KKK, racist police and lynch mobs were given a safer avenue to protest against injustice, and a reduced threat of violent retaliation. The footage of peaceful black protesters facing cruel violence at the hands of the Southern cops would come to define bravery of the civil rights activists. The movement was characterised by small victories aimed at the long-term goal of changing the law. In 1964 the US Congress was forced to grant the Civil Rights Act. This formally outlawed racial discrimination and Jim Crow segregation, but failed to dent the everyday racism that blighted the lives of the majority of black people.

This impasse led to arguments over strategy. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the youth wing of the civil rights movement, became increasingly radical, leading to the formation of the Black Panther party, which advocated armed resistance to police racism. Despite the rise in the popular struggle for equal rights, the Nation of Islam ordered its members to eschew the movement as it was seen as a distraction from the end goal of a separate black society.

Malcolm X was the most eloquent spokesman of this rejection. Speaking to the 1959 TV documentary, the Hate That Hate Produced, he said: “When someone sticks a knife into my back nine inches and then pulls it out six inches they haven’t done me any favour. They should not have stabbed me in the first place… During slavery they inflicted the most extreme form of brutality against us to break our spirit, to break our will…after they did all this to us for 310 years, then they come up with some so-called Emancipation Proclamation… And today the white man actually runs around here thinking he is doing black people a favour.”

Malcolm was critical of the non-violent tactics, supporting the right of self-defence. He said, “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts a hand on you, send him to the cemetery…if we react to white racism with a violent reaction, to me that’s no black racism. If you come to put a rope around my neck and I hang you for it, to me that’s not racism. Yours is racism, but my reaction has nothing to do with racism.”

His militancy and his insistence that all white people were “devils” stood him aloof from the movement in its early years, but as a new generation of radicals began to break with the non-violent leadership he found a growing audience for his ideas. Malcolm was able to position himself as a radical voice in the campaign against police violence, slum landlords and businesses of the North, all well as the institutional racism in the south. In countless meetings and interviews he articulated the anger and alienation of black people.

As the movement began to generate sympathy and support among white people it opened up a debate about the nature of racism and who could be part in opposing it. With many young white activists being drawn into the movement it raised deep questions about the strategy of the Nation of Islam. The politics of separation were based on an understanding of oppression defined by power relations which saw all white people as the perpetrators of racism — whether it be racist comments on the street, white judges and police officers criminalising black people or abuse and violence from individuals or organised white power groups.

Although understandable, this position was based on a misunderstanding of who benefited from racism. White workers are tricked into a racist mentality that says they have more in common with their white bosses than their black co-workers. But capitalism rests on the exploitation of workers of all colours. Workers can shut down production and bring the bosses to their knees. However, it is also this class which is subjected to the largest ideological attack in order to break unity and maintain oppressive divisions.

Malcolm realised that many civil rights activists saw black Muslims as people who used radical rhetoric about resistance, but stood aside from the real struggle for black rights. By 1963 Malcolm began his break with the Nation. The final straw came when he defied the organisation’s leaders by commenting on the assassination of President John F Kennedy. Malcolm said that the “chickens had come home to roost, and that being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home never made me sad; they always made me glad”. His comment earned him a 90-day suspension from the Nation.

By March 1964 Malcolm announced his formal break with the Nation, and he threw himself into civil rights activity, determined to be on the most radical wing of it. He knew they had to go beyond mere legislation. He said, “I shall also tell them that what has been called the ‘Negro Revolution’ in the US is a deception practised upon them, because they have only to examine the failure of this so-called revolution to produce any positive results in the past year. I shall tell them what a real revolution means — the French Revolution, the American Revolution, Algeria to name a few. There can be no revolution without bloodshed, and it is nonsense to describe the civil rights movement in America as a revolution.”

His ideas were changing, and were to change further when he converted to Islam and undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca. The experience was to challenge his long-held belief about “white devils”. He said, “I was speaking with the Algerian ambassador who is extremely militant and is revolutionary in the true sense of the word…he was an African, but he was Algerian, and to all appearances he was a white man.” On this journey he met revolutionaries across Africa who had been fighting against colonialism under the banner of national liberation. He enjoyed the company of a new generation of political leaders, such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. It was during his visit to Algeria, which had just won its independence from France after a bitter war, that he began to come to terms with what he defined as revolution.

The national liberation movements that were developing across the world at the time were characterised by mass uprisings and guerrilla war, often under the leadership of the middle classes with the aim of establishing independence and the end of colonial rule. In all of these instances the need for a different society was evident by the scale of the uprisings. However, the systems the new independent states governed over hadn't fundamentally changed. This left Malcolm with an underdeveloped understanding of the state and what is necessary to take and maintain power.

Malcolm witnessed people from all social classes uniting in a common goal to fight against imperialism. This experience made it problematic to identify who has the potential to push through fundamental change, not just in Africa, but worldwide.

On his return to the US Malcolm set up the Organisation for Afro-American Unity, (OAAU), a pan-African organisation seeking to unite all people of African descent. In the last year of his life Malcolm regularly preached revolutionary practice and the need for a better world. It is precisely this which meant he was being watched very closely by the state. When he was in the Nation he was a marginal figure in the eyes of the US government; so long as he was preaching separation they allowed him to carry on without obstruction.

Tragically, Malcolm was murdered before he was able to further develop his ideas of revolution. The years following his murder would herald a series of revolutions and rebellions, which Malcolm had sensed were coming, including uprisings across the Northern ghettos. Martin Luther King, whose ideas were also beginning to change before his murder, called these riots “the language of the unheard”.

Malcolm X’s legacy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination is to recognise that the fight against racism must be a fight against the system that produces it.

For an interview with Saladin Ambar, author of Malcolm X at the Oxford Union click here.