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Malcolm X: Legacy of a revolutionary

February 18, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

LEE SUSTAR looks at Malcolm X and the relevance of his ideas 40 years after his assassination.

WHEN THE historic leaders of African American struggle are briefly acknowledged during Black History Month in February, schoolchildren get to hear a few quotations: Frederick Douglass' indictment of slavery, Rosa Parks' refusal to sit at the back of a segregated bus, Martin Luther King's dream of a non-racist U.S.

Malcolm X, however, is usually left mute. Seen, perhaps--in a photo in a textbook, a name on a street sign or community college, even as an image on a U.S. postage stamp. But very seldom heard.

"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.
-- Malcolm X, "The Ballot or the Bullet," April 3, 1964
It's not hard to understand why. "Every time you see a white man, think about the devil you're seeing!" Malcolm said when he was the leading spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist religious group headed by Elijah Muhammad with an estimated 100,000 members at its peak. "Think of how it was on your slave foreparents' bloody, sweaty backs that he built this empire that's today the richest of all nations--where his evil and greed cause him to be hated around the world!"

Just in case a student stumbles upon such quotes, a typical summary of Malcolm's life reassures us that he "broke with [the Nation of Islam], rejecting racial separatism" and "continued to speak out until his assassination on February 21, 1965, urging Blacks to take pride in their race and to take action to claim their civil and human rights."

This mild rendering of Malcolm's political development comes from a Web-based "diversity" calendar posted by the Los Alamos National Laboratory--birthplace of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Second World War, and the ongoing site of U.S. nuclear weapons development.

The Los Alamos officials, of course, omitted Malcolm's devastating summary of U.S. foreign policy: "I could see that America itself is a society where there is no brotherhood, and that this society is controlled primarily by racists and segregationists," Malcolm said in a speech shortly before he was murdered. And from Washington, D.C., they exercise the same forms of brutal oppression against dark-skinned people in South and North Vietnam, or in the Congo, or in Cuba, or in any other place on this earth where they're trying to exploit and oppress. This is a society whose government doesn't hesitate to inflict the most brutal form of punishment and oppression upon dark-skinned people all over the world."

Malcolm's politics did evolve after his break with the Nation of Islam--not into a safely mainstream civil rights leader, but into a revolutionary and an internationalist who forcefully confronted questions of imperialism and racism that remain before us today.

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BORN MALCOLM Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm's childhood was ravaged by racist violence.

His father was a Baptist minister and follower of the Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, who advocated independent Black economic development and emigration to Africa. The family later moved to Lansing, Mich., where their home was burned down by a white supremacist group.

A racist gang was also believed to be responsible for killing Malcolm's father by pushing him in front of a streetcar. Malcolm's mother became mentally ill under the strain of trying to raise eight children alone. Her children were sent to live in foster homes.

Malcolm did well in school, but was told by a teacher that his idea of being a lawyer was "no realistic goal for a nigger." He dropped out, moving to New York and later Boston, where he became a drug dealer and hustler.

That life ended with Malcolm's arrest and conviction on burglary charges in 1946. While in prison, his brother Reginald converted him to the Nation of Islam, also known as the Black Muslims. Like many Nation of Islam members, he used "X" to stand in for a name that was stolen during slavery.

Malcolm used the prison's library to complete his education. Once released in 1952, he quickly became the Nation's most effective organizer and best-known spokesperson.

The Nation's base was in Northern and Midwestern cities that had seen a massive expansion of the Black population during the economic boom of the Second World War. Crowded into ghettos, excluded from the best-paying jobs and forced to send their children to schools that were effectively as segregated as those in the South, African Americans in the North had many grievances, but few political outlets.

The McCarthyite anticommunist witch-hunts had marginalized the left and purged the labor movement of radicals. The emerging civil rights movement focused on dismantling legal segregation in the South, but had little to offer African American workers in the North.

The Nation partly filled this void by preaching Black self-reliance, bitterly denouncing racism in the North and advocating self-defense from racist violence.

Malcolm in particular harshly criticized civil rights leaders for their doctrine of nonviolent protest, and for ignoring the problems of Blacks in the North. "They front-paged what I felt about Northern white and Black Freedom Riders going South to 'demonstrate,'" he said. "I called it ridiculous; their own North ghettos, right at home, had enough rats and roaches to kill to keep all of the Freedom Riders busy...The North's liberals have been so long pointing accusing fingers at the South and getting away with it that they have fits when they are exposed as the world's worst hypocrites."

Malcolm derided the 1963 March on Washington as "the farce on Washington," and criticized Martin Luther King's advocacy of nonviolence.

Yet the Nation also failed to provide a real political alternative. It advocated a strict moral code regarding alcohol, drugs and sexuality and was admired for its anti-racist stance. But it abstained from the civil rights movement and politics generally--restrictions that Malcolm chafed against. "It could be heard increasingly in the Negro communities: 'Those Muslims talk tough, but they never do anything unless somebody bothers Muslims,'" he said later.

The tensions broke into the open after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, described by Malcolm as an example of the "chickens coming home to roost"--a reference to the violence used by the U.S. government at home and around the world. Elijah Muhammad used the incident to "silence" Malcolm for 90 days--which led to a permanent break.

At first, Malcolm continued to accept the overall framework of the Nation of Islam. But a trip to Africa and the Middle East accelerated Malcolm's transformation--religiously, into an orthodox Sunni Muslim; and politically, into a revolutionary who re-conceptualized what had been called the "Negro freedom struggle" as a Black liberation movement bound up with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles worldwide.

Just days before his death, Malcolm told a group of Columbia University students that it was "incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as purely an American problem. Rather, we are seeing today a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter."

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MALCOLM BECAME an anti-imperialist during the heroic period of Third World nationalism. The Non-Aligned Movement of developing countries was projecting a political line independent of the "First World" dominated by Washington, and the nominally socialist "Second World" ruled by Moscow.

In 1964, Malcolm met with several heads of state who had been leaders in anti-imperialist and nationalist movements--Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Julius Nyere of Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Sekou Touré of Guinea Conakry.

In one of his last speeches, he described how imperialism had changed its methods, with the old colonial powers in Asia replaced by the U.S. "They switched from the old, open colonial, imperialistic approach to the benevolent approach," he said. "They came up with some benevolent colonialism, philanthropic colonialism, humanitarianism, or dollarism."

Malcolm was killed well before the newly independent countries he saw as models--like Algeria, Ghana or Egypt--degenerated into military dictatorships.

Nevertheless, Malcolm's experience abroad led him to question his previous political framework. "So I had to do a lot of thinking and reappraising of my definition of Black nationalism," he said in an interview with Young Socialist magazine. Malcolm stopped using this term to describe himself. He also spoke out in favor of "women's freedom," a break from the Nation of Islam's conservative views.

Some have claimed that Malcolm had effectively become a socialist by the time he was cut down. While he did appear at forums organized by the Socialist Workers Party and linked capitalism to racism--"show me a capitalist, and I'll show you a racist," he liked to say--the fact is that Malcolm's new politics hadn't crystallized yet. He still rejected the idea of political unity between Black and white workers, arguing that "there can be no workers' solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity" among Blacks.

Malcolm's continued emphasis on racial solidarity led to an ambiguity in his attitude towards Black politicians. Although he viewed nearly all of the small number of Black elected officials of his day as co-opted, he believed that Blacks should step up efforts to elect independent political leaders. This was to be a task of the group he founded, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm also frequently pointed out that Black votes held the balance of power in presidential contests between the Republicans and Democrats--implying that Black voters should play political kingmaker.

At the same time, however, he hammered the Democratic Party at every opportunity, showing how the Northern Democrats were beholden to the racist "Dixecrats" who remained in office because of segregation. "Put the Democrats first, and they'll put you last," he said.

Upon returning from his travels abroad, Malcolm established closer contacts with the Southern struggle, appearing in Selma, Ala., and meeting with representatives of civil rights groups to try to formulate a common strategy.

Malcolm was murdered before his new approach could bear fruit. Ultimately, three members of the Nation of Islam went to prison for the killing, although questions about the possible role of undercover police have lingered for years. Current Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan--who had declared Malcolm "worthy of death" in a newspaper article weeks before his murder--apologized for the Nation's role many years later.

The Democratic Party's liberal establishment was relieved by the assassination. "Malcolm X had the ingredients for leadership, but his ruthless and fanatical belief in violence not only set him apart from the responsible leaders of the civil rights movement and the overwhelming majority of Blacks, it also marked him for notoriety and a violent end," stated a New York Times editorial. "Yesterday, someone came out of the darkness that he spawned and killed him."

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WHILE IT'S impossible to briefly summarize Malcolm X's legacy, three elements stand out: an uncompromising opposition to racism and imperialism, a determination to expose the façade of U.S. democracy, and a commitment to the revolutionary transformation of society.

Malcolm thus blazed a trail for the rise of Black revolutionary organizations such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers--and the revival of the far left generally in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Since Malcolm's day, an African American political establishment within the Democratic Party has altered the surface of the U.S. electoral system--but not its domination by big business. And although affirmative action has helped African Americans counteract discrimination--and opened doors for Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons and government officials like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice--progress for the Black working class majority remains severely limited.

For example, as Barbara Miner pointed out in a recent article in The Progressive, unemployment rates for Black men in 2002 was 50 percent or higher in Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit, and nearly as high in New York. Add to this picture deteriorating schools, residential segregation, racist police violence, rising social inequality and the occupation of Iraq, and Malcolm's condemnation of U.S. racism and imperialism is \as relevant today as it was four decades ago.

So are his calls to action. "[In] my opinion, the young generation of whites, Blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you're living in a time of revolution, a time when there's got to be change," Malcolm told a group of British students in 1964. "People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change, and a better world has to be built, and the only way it's going to be built is with extreme methods. I, for one, will join in with anyone--I don't care what color you are--as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth."

Listen to Malcolm X

RECORDINGS OF several of Malcolm X's speeches are available on the Web at Listen to Malcolm's powerful speaking style--and the audiences' enthusiastic response.

Malcolm's words can also be found in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks, By Any Means Necessary and February 1965: The Final Speeches. Other important material can be found in George Breitman's The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary.

Finally, Spike Lee's 1992 film Malcolm X has just been released on DVD, featuring Denzel Washington's moving portrayal of Malcolm's life.

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