Reaching a dead end

February 24, 2015

In the third part of a feature on the revolutionary politics and enduring relevance of Malcolm X, Lee Sustar looks at the political divergence that led to Malcolm's ouster from the Nation of Islam. Click here to see all the stories in the series.

AS THE 1960s began, Malcolm X found himself navigating an increasing number of contradictions.

He was by far the most successful recruiter to the Nation of Islam (NOI), but his success galvanized rivals who maneuvered against him. His ties to nationalist and revolutionary governments in the Third World raised the specter of similar movement among African Americans, but the NOI's abstention from politics made it impossible for Malcolm to put this perspective in practice. And when the civil rights movement escalated in early 1960 after the lunch-counter sit-ins by Black students and the Freedom Rides by interracial groups of young people to desegregate interstate buses, Malcolm was on the sidelines with the NOI.

In fact, Malcolm often sounded as if he opposed the civil rights movement. A speech given at Harvard Law School in March 1961 was typical:

Token integration will not solve our problem. This is a false solution. A "token" solution. It is a hypocritical approach to the problem, a tricky scheme devised by you, and propagated by your Negro puppets, whom you yourself have appointed as our "leaders" and "spokesmen."

Integration is not good for either side. It will destroy your race, and your government knows it will also destroy ours, and the problem will still remain unsolved...

Do justice by your faithful ex-slaves. Give us some land of our own right here, some separate states, so we can separate ourselves from you, then everyone will be satisfied, and perhaps we will all be able to then live happily ever after, as your own Christian Bible says..."Every one under his own vine and fig tree."

Otherwise: all of you who are sitting here, your government, and your entire race will be destroyed and removed from this earth by Almighty God, Allah. I thank you.

Bayard Rustin (seated at left) and Malcolm X (standing) at a debate in 1960
Bayard Rustin (seated at left) and Malcolm X (standing) at a debate in 1960

MALCOLM'S CRITIQUE of the civil rights movement was fourfold. First, integration was impossible, both because of white racism and African Americans' need to be independent. Second, the movement was constrained by its alliance with Northern white Democrats who, Malcolm argued, were just as racist as "Dixiecrats" in the South. Third, the civil rights principle of nonviolence would leave African Americans defenseless against a violent racist backlash. Finally, the movement had too little to say to Blacks in the North who, despite the absence of Jim Crow, still faced segregation in housing and schools, systematic discrimination in employment, and constant police harassment and violence.

In fact, just as the civil rights movement was gathering strength, Malcolm was preparing to negotiate, in secret, with the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia in 1961. The following year, Elijah Muhammad invited the neo-Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell to appear at an NOI rally. When Muhammad was too ill to speak, Malcolm had to take his place. The logic of Muhammad's views was plain: there was common ground between the NOI and white supremacists in their efforts to create separate white and Black states.

According to his biographer, Manning Marable, Malcolm was increasingly uncomfortable with these overtures to white racists. He also couldn't fail to notice the intrigues and maneuvers at the center of the NOI's power structure. It became an open secret at NOI headquarters in Chicago that Elijah Muhammad, in violation of the organization's strict moral code, routinely had sexual relations with secretaries in his office, and fathered several children as a result.

At the same time, the NOI's growing financial success, due in large part to Malcolm's strenuous recruiting effort, concentrated power in the hands of few powerful officials. This clique saw Malcolm's popularity as a threat. Elijah Muhammad, too, wrote a letter to Malcolm, instructing him to keep his speeches away from politics and confine himself to Muhammad's stated views.

Malcolm tried to finesse the NOI's stated position of opposition to integration and its abstention from the civil right movement by claiming his legitimacy as a representative of the mass of African American workers and declaring that the Black movement had to go beyond civil rights.

In a 1962 speech at Yale Law School, Malcolm declared that integration was a project of the "Black bourgeoisie," who, he said, "have been educated to think as patriotic individualists, with no racial pride...who believe in, and look forward to, the future 'integrated, intermarried' society promised them by the Negro politicians...and therefore, this 'integration-minded' 3 million remain an active part of the white-controlled political parties."

Some 8 million African Americans, Malcolm said, "refused to vote or to take part in politics because they reject the Uncle Tom approach of the 'clergy-politician' leadership that has been handpicked for the American Negroes by the white man himself."

This, of course, was a rhetorical slight of hand. The majority of African Americans in the South couldn't vote because of various racist barriers, such as poll taxes and "literacy" tests. But Malcolm got away with it, both because he was a skilled orator and because he went on to raise class and economic issues that the mainstream civil rights movement hadn't yet confronted. His Yale speech continued:

Well, what about the millions of Black people who worked here in America as your slaves for over 300 years without one payday? What happened to their wages? Who collected the profits, or amassed the fortunes received from their free labor? Facing these unpleasant facts, surely you can easily see now how America became so rich so fast.

How will 20 million so-called Negroes today receive a "just compensation"? We have hundreds of years' "back pay" that is long overdue, and must be paid sooner or later...or is there to be no such thing as justice for your faithful ex-slaves?

IF MALCOLM could score points with his audience by asking such hard questions, he himself struggled to come up with an answer when he was asked: What's your alternative?

It was one thing to point to the ideal of a separate Black homeland in the U.S. or in Africa in the mid-1950s--a time when the left had been decimated by McCarthyism, organized labor was moving to the right, and the Southern civil rights movement was scattered in various locales. It was another matter to abstain when the civil rights struggle revived on a mass scale in the early 1960s.

What did the NOI--and Malcolm--have to say when African American students were beaten and arrested for sitting in to desegregate lunch counters? Were the interracial Freedom Riders--who were viciously beaten by the Klan and police--wrong to take up that struggle?

The more his popularity grew, the more Malcolm felt compelled to engage with the civil rights movement on such issues. His first debate saw him face off with Bayard Rustin, a veteran activist who had been a revolutionary socialist before shifting to the right to more moderate social democratic politics. Although he had been a key adviser to Martin Luther King in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, Rustin, as a "red" and a gay man, remained an outsider to the civil rights movement. Having spent his life in labor and radical circles, Rustin was among the first of the civil rights leaders to recognize Malcolm's appeal.

The two men first debated in a radio station studio on the eve of the 1960 elections. Rustin got Malcolm to admit that the NOI had no practical program to advance Black freedom, other than move to a separate area within the U.S. "Isn't there an inconsistency in your economic position?" Rustin asked. "Where are they going to move to? When Moses took his people into the desert, he had a pretty clear idea of where he was going."

Malcolm and Rustin became friends but remained political rivals. By the time they debated again in 1962, Malcolm avoided the trap of seeming as if he were abstaining from the struggle. But as Manning Marable points out in his biography, Malcolm won the second debate in front of a largely white audience by stressing the importance of institutional racism and downplaying separatism.

Robert Brookins Gore, a Black writer for the Village Voice, reported on the debate:

There is no question in my mind but that [Rustin] presented the saner attitude, yet the amazing thing was how eloquently Malcolm X stated the problems which Negroes have confronted for so many years. The biggest difficulty about listening to him--especially for a Negro--is that he wraps the problem up so neatly that one is almost carried on into his faulty conclusions by the wealth of emotions he evokes.

Malcolm also debated James Farmer, the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, who, like Rustin, challenged Malcolm to come up with a program for the movement: "We need to have it spelled out: Is it a separate Negro society in each city? As a Harlem [or] a South Side Chicago?" At one point, Malcolm resorted to pointing out that Farmer was married to a white woman.

As Marable points out, Malcolm had in fact been drawn into some practical struggles, quietly becoming involved with longtime Black labor leader A. Philip Randolph and other prominent activists in what was known as the "Emergency Committee" in Harlem to deal with local conditions.

BUT MALCOLM'S next attempt to build alliances came in response to a tragedy: The April 1962 police shooting of seven unarmed NOI members at the Los Angeles mosque, which left one of them--a close friend of Malcolm's--dead. Malcolm's initial response was to organize the NOI's Fruit of Islam security squad to carry out retribution against the LAPD, but Elijah Muhammad nixed the idea.

Malcolm's next step was to try to organize a coalition of local organizations that were opposed to police violence. The funeral for the slain NOI member, Ronald Stokes, showed the potential--more than 2,000 people attended. A few days later, Malcolm spoke at an anti-police brutality rally attended by several organizations, including the socialist left. "You're brutalized because you're Black," Malcolm said. "And when they lay a club on the side of your head, they do not ask your religion. You're Black--that's enough." However, Elijah Muhammad ordered him to stop any further efforts.

A further attempt to campaign around police violence as a national issue fizzled after Malcolm, while speaking in Los Angeles, hailed the crash of a jetliner in France carrying many white passengers from Atlanta as "a very beautiful thing"--God's retribution for the police attack on the NOI, he said. Civil rights leaders, who had long chafed at Malcolm's harsh criticism, pounced. Martin Luther King stated that "the hatred expressed towards whites by Malcolm X [was not] shared by the vast majority of Negroes in the United States." Malcolm was forced to keep a low profile for weeks afterward.

At the same time, the NOI was moving to protect itself from critics in the civil rights movement. In mid-1962, Elijah Muhammad gave a major speech in which he argued that until the separate Black homeland was established, African Americans should be able to have equal justice under the law and equal employment opportunities. But it was a limited concession. The civil rights movement was growing in number, and its youth wing, led by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was beginning to develop a more radical critique of U.S. society itself.

Along with pressures to respond to the civil rights movement came a growing urgency to deal with stepped-up police harassment of the NOI, both in New York City and in Rochester, N.Y., where cops stormed the local mosque, arresting more than a dozen members.

As Marable notes, Malcolm responded again by reaching out to the broader movement. An NOI flyer declared: "America has become a police-state for 20 million Negroes. We must let [Rochester's NOI members] know they are not alone. We must let them know that the whole Dark World is with them."

But even as Malcolm tested the NOI's ban on political activism, he found himself forced to deal with Elijah Muhammad's sex scandal, as well as thuggishness and corruption within the NOI. Concluding that the accusations against Muhammad were true, and appalled at the sketchy financial dealings and physical intimidation used by the NOI hierarchy, Malcolm cast about for a solution. Meanwhile, his growing prominence led to engagement with orthodox Sunni Muslims, who challenged the NOI's claims to uphold Islam.

MALCOLM WAS in flux--but he was still in heavy demand as a speaker and had to come up with something to say. As 1963 began, he tentatively explored a new political message, while still formally stating his allegiance to Elijah Muhammad. In a January 1963 speech, Malcolm held out the possibility that integration might just be achievable if carried out on a voluntary basis:

If someone holds a gun on a white man and makes him embrace me--put his hand, arm, around me, this isn't love nor is it brotherhood. What they are doing is forcing the white man to be a hypocrite, to practice hypocrisy. But if that white man will put his arm around me willingly, voluntarily, of his own volition, then that's love, that's brotherhood, that's a solution to the problem.

The point was easy to miss, as it was surrounded by a rather lurid denunciations of the Black middle class: "You have taken a man who is Black on the outside and made him white on the inside...And therefore, whenever you say, this is ours, he thinks he's white, the same as you, so what's yours he thinks is also his. Even right on down to your woman."

The speech was studded with references to Elijah Muhammad and emphatic calls for separatist Black economic development. But it was nevertheless a departure from the all-whites-are-devils line.

Most of the speech, in fact, targeted the Black middle class, who, according to Malcolm, had been trained--but not educated--by society to become the most vociferous defenders of the system against criticisms from militant African Americans. These "20th century Uncle Toms," Malcolm said, were the modern equivalent of the "house Negro" who identified with the slave owners. But now, he continued, there was "another kind of Black man on the scene":

We don't think as Americans any more, but as a Black man. With the mind of a Black man, we look beyond America. And we look beyond the interests of the white man. The thinking of this new type of Negro is broad. It's more international. This integrationist always thinks in terms of an American. But you find the masses of Black people today think in terms of Black. And this Black thinking enables them to see beyond the confines of America. And they look all over the world. They look at the happenings in the international context.

By this little integrationist Negro thinking locally, by his thinking and desires being confined to America, he's limited. He's the underdog. He's a minority. But the masses of Black people who have been exposed to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, their thinking is more international. They look on this earth and they see that the majority of the people on this earth are dark. And by seeing that the majority of the people on this earth are dark, they don't regard themselves as a minority in America, but rather they regard themselves as part of that vast, dark majority.

So therefore, when you run into that type of Black man, he doesn't speak as an underdog. He doesn't speak like you outnumber him, or he doesn't speak like there's any harm that you can do to him. He speaks as one who outnumbers you. He sees that the dark world outnumbers the white world. That the odds have turned today and are in his favor, are on his side.

He sees that the people of this earth are on his side. That time is on his side. That history is on his side. And most important of all, he sees that God is on his side toward getting him some kind of solution that's immediate, and that's lasting, and that is no way connected or concerned or stems from the goodwill or good conscience in any way, shape, whatsoever of the man who created--who committed the crime and created the problem in the first place.

The speech was full of contradictions. As usual, having disdained the goal of integration, he was silent about the day-to-day fights of the civil rights movement. However, Malcolm never used the phrase "white devil," once the staple of NOI rhetoric. Instead, he aimed his fire at the Black middle class--something at odds with Elijah Muhammad's determination to cultivate that strata for his economic development schemes.

Yet Malcolm also emphatically called for "separation" as an alternative to segregation, citing New York City's Chinatown as a model, even though such a vision for Black economic development would only highlight the class differences that he'd explored in his speech. He forcefully called for Black pride, placing the African American struggle in the context of a movement of the world's nonwhite peoples, but offered no practical ideas about an internationalist strategy.

Over the rest of the year 1963, a pivotal moment in the struggle of the civil rights movement would bring the unresolved issues in Malcolm's political views to a head.

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