THE ORIGINAL X MAN
excerpted from his memoir
THE EDUCATION OF A BLACK RADICAL
By the spring of 1963, Malcolm X, the leader of the Black Muslim organization, was attracting increasing attention in the national media for his harsh critique of the American system. I followed his progress with eagerness and curiosity. There was no one else like him, no one with as much uncompromising belief in the power of the Negro. I saw Malcolm as the intellectual guru of Negro activism, offering a welcome and fresh ideology on the racial conflict. Even though I came from a movement of philosophical nonviolence, I felt Malcolm added a new energy to our ideology and to the era itself.
From the beginning of the sit-in movement, we had been brutally assaulted, had felt such harsh resistance, and had witnessed the continual repudiation by our white adversaries of the concepts of love and nonviolence. Yet, we did not abandon these concepts because we saw within the repudiation, the rejection, and the violent response a validation of the efficacy of those nonviolent strategies. Most of us had grown up with the terror of the 1950s—the lynchings, the sudden brutal attacks of whites against one lone Negro. As we moved deeper into the 1960s, we began, through organizations like CORE and SN CC, to take control of the violence, to orchestrate it, and to turn it against the violent people through planned assaults on the structure that allowed the violence. Rather than allow these clandestine terror attacks, we intentionally made ourselves objects of white anger, bringing it out in the open, exposing it to public view. Only through the manipulation of white violence could we prove, by glaring contrast to our own nonviolent action, how utterly wrong it was.
Not only did Malcolm take us to an entirely new level of protest and challenge, not only did he offer shockingly honest verbal commentary on white presumption, superiority, violence, and tyranny, but he also offered an intellectual premise for the formation of a separate Negro state, the only method he saw for Negroes to achieve economic and political power and autonomy as a people. While I didn’t feel I had to embrace the Muslim philosophy, and while at some level I feared its threat to the ultimate attainment of interracial harmony, I thought it was important that it was there. It was another weapon in our collective arsenal, and I did not feel it was incompatible with other approaches to achieving power and equality. The Muslims served as catalysts, encouraging other Negroes—Negroes who feared Muslim religious doctrine—to strike at the American social phenomenon that had created and nourished Muslim society: civil inequality. The Black Muslims showed us the disease in American society. I felt it was up to the student movement to center in on this disease and excise it. I did not join the Muslims because their theology seemed too structured, too strict, too disciplined, too demanding of the surrender of the individual. I did not incline to surrendering my individual autonomy, whether to CORE to SN CC, or to a religious movement. For his part, Malcolm seemed intelligent enough to appreciate the honesty and dedication of the young activists of CORE, SNCC, and even the NS M despite our different philosophical approaches to changing the racial climate in America. Ultimately, it was this intelligence, this ability to view one situation from many points of view, that made Malcolm such an effective leader. His multifaceted perspective was the source of his broad emotional appeal.
Born Malcolm Little, he had grown up in the ghettos of Detroit, learned the ways of street life, and ended up in prison. After periods as a pimp, a hustler, and a con man, Malcolm converted to the Black Muslim movement while in prison in 1947. By the early 1960s, he was chief lieutenant and heir apparent to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the group. Malcolm served as program coordinator, chief spokesman for the Black Muslim movement, and manager of the movement’s economic enterprises.
Over the Christmas holidays in 1962, I had realized that in order to make inroads in the thinking of students and members of the community, we had to have input from the cold, cruel, outside world—the world that extended beyond Worcester’s boundaries. By February 1963, I knew the protective, self satisfied shell that surrounded Worcester had to be cracked. And the best way to crack it, I decided, was to confront people by placing another viewpoint smack in the front of their eyes. If the viewpoint happened to come from the mouth of a famous person, all the better: perhaps their curiosity would keep them from running away.
Malcolm X was perfect. He was all over the newspapers and television. He was extremely controversial, irrepressibly opinionated, and very black. I called him in New York and was amazed when he picked up the phone. He was absolutely unpretentious, not the distant, cautious celebrity I had expected.
When I described WSM and the Worcester community, he responded with understanding and interest. Yes, he said without delay, he would be very interested in coming to Clark to speak. I hung up the phone, dazed and happy. How could I just pick up the phone and call Malcolm X? How could it be so simple?
The WSM board of advisors was another matter. When I informed Reverend Handlan, the Episcopalian priest who was the chairman of our board, that I had arranged for Malcolm X to speak at Clark, he threatened to resign and to encourage the rest of the board to resign if I didn’t cancel the speech. “Malcolm X preaches nothing but hatred of whites, and that kind of thinking doesn’t do anyone any good,” he said firmly. “This organization should not be involved in sponsoring such filth on this campus.”
Unabashedly, I told him I couldn’t cancel the speech, and we decided to call a meeting to discuss the matter further. During the meeting, some members agreed with him, others with me. Finally, after a heated conversation, Reverend Handlan offered a compromise: “Okay, how about this? Malcolm X can speak on campus, but only in a debate forum, and only if the second speaker represents a peaceful, nonviolent point of view.”
“That sounds fine,” I agreed, relieved that we had come to an understanding. “I’ll see what I can do.”
I called Malcolm back and explained the problem.
“I would be glad to debate,” he explained evenly, “but only if the person I am debating is Martin Luther King. King is going around the country spreading misinformation and misleading Negroes. It’s time a few things were set straight. He knows I want to confront him, but he’s been avoiding me.” Malcolm’s voice was strained, almost angry.
I assured him I would do my best to set it up.
“Don’t worry. No matter what you do, it won’t matter. King won’t be on the same program with me. He’s scared of me.”
Nonetheless, for the sake of solidarity in WSM, I called the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. They told me Dr. King would not be available for such a debate and suggested I contact Bayard Rustin, an organizer with the Fellowship of Reconciliation in New York. Malcolm had been adamant that he would debate no one but King, so I called him again.
“Rustin is nothing but a flunky trailing after King’s coattails,” Malcolm said, his voice cold and hard. “He has nothing to say I want to hear. I don’t need some flunky to debate me—I’ll speak on my own.”
At this point, I was becoming concerned that Malcolm might lose interest because of all the wishy-washiness, so I went ahead and confirmed April 11 as the date he would come to Clark. I then called Rustin, and he agreed to come on April 29 and deliver a “response” to Malcolm’s position. If my board of advisors still didn’t like it, I figured I would just keep on fighting about it until they gave in. I had made my best efforts to please everyone, and it hadn’t worked. Nevertheless, I was determined one way or another to have Malcolm speak. Relations with Reverend Handlan were strained, but he did not resign. He stayed around, mumbling to himself and insisting that I, and all of Worcester, would come to regret my decision.
A month later, at seven o’clock on the morning of the speech, Malcolm called from a diner just outside Worcester. I gave him directions to my apartment.
When he and his Muslim aide arrived, Maureen and I were dressed and ready. “Do I look okay?” Maureen asked nervously.
“You look fine.” I was nervous, too. I had been so looking forward to Malcolm’s coming, but now that he was here, I had no idea what to expect. Would he refuse to ride in the car with Maureen? Would he be rude to her?
“I mean, do I look like a nice white person?” Her overemphasis of the “nice” made it sound like a bad word.
“I know you’re a nice person. You’re a wonderful person,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. “That’s all that matters.”
“But will he know that?”
“I don’t know. I hope so.” I didn’t know what to say. I had no idea what Malcolm would do.
“Oh, God, I hope so, too.”
We both jumped when we heard the knock at the door. I squeezed Maureen’s hand. “Okay?”
“Okay,” she said firmly.
I answered the door.
“Hello, D’Army. It’s so good to finally meet you.” His voice was cordial and almost soft, his face relaxed. He extended his hand.
“We’re honored you would take the time to come. Worcester may never be the same again.”
Malcolm chuckled. “I should hope not.” He and his aide stepped inside the apartment.
“Malcolm, this is Maureen Robinson. I’ve invited her to join us today.”
“Ah, how nice to meet you, Maureen. And you’re a student here also? His voice was serene. “Well, I hope you find the day’s activities educational,” he smiled.
“I’m sure I will,” she said, sounding braver than I thought she would.
“Well, we’ve got to be at the radio station at eleven thirty. Let’s go have breakfast and get you to your hotel,” I suggested, feeling like a tour guide in a daydream preparing to introduce Rasputin to the czar’s family. Even so, Malcolm seemed about as dangerous as a teddy bear.
When we arrived at WTAG, a crowd of people milled around us, trying to get a good look at Malcolm. The station was located in the same building with the city’s two newspapers, which were owned by the conservative financier Robert Stoddard. The place was literally crawling with newspeople. We were big news in Worcester, an anxiously awaited event. Everyone wanted their piece of Malcolm X. Everyone wanted to prove him wrong. Julie Chase Fuller, who was going to conduct the interview, came out to meet us in the lobby. She chatted briefly with us as we walked through the hallways toward the broadcast studio. “Today has been an exceptionally busy day,” she told Malcolm. “There was a plane crash this morning, and more than a hundred people were killed. The phones have been ringing off the hook.”
He smiled. “Well, that’s just a few less white people we have to worry about,” he said pleasantly.
Julie stifled a gasp.
In the studio, the three of us sat around a central microphone. When a man in the control booth gave her a signal, Julie introduced Malcolm and me and explained how the Worcester Student Movement had arranged for Malcolm to come to town. Then she began her questions. “Are you a racist?” she asked, still seemingly unnerved by his earlier comment.
“No, I am not a racist,” he responded simply, his voice even and cool. “But I believe in the liberation of Negro people. I believe whites have done enough to destroy Negroes. Look around you. There is no room to make any more concessions to the white community, and I will not make any.”
“What about your philosophy of separatism? Why is your Muslim organization advocating separate states for Negroes?”
“The history of America is a history of separatism,” he said. “Muslim philosophy has grown out of a recognition that separation of the races is a reality built in by the white community. Negroes can no longer have any faith that whites will act honestly with them. To be safe and to grow without hindrance, Negroes need only to work among themselves in their own communities. If we could do that and could be allowed some small share of the wealth of the land, then we could prosper.”
“Don’t you consider yourself an American?”
“It would be foolish for me to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner,” he said slowly. “Sitting at the table doesn’t make me a diner any more than being here in America makes me an American.”
As the interview progressed, more and more people left their desks and gathered at the plate glass window to look in on our studio. They were all whites, and all of them probably disagreed, on principle, with what Malcolm X stood for. Most probably feared him. And yet they were drawn to him, captivated by his wit and by some undeniable authoritative quality that drew them in and made them listen.
Julie then directed a question at me. “Isn’t it true, D’Army, that many Negroes don’t agree with Malcolm X?”
I suddenly realized I was there only because she had hoped to set up a conflict between Malcolm and me. I hadn’t expected this. Basically, I thought, I don’t have any disagreements with him. I was impressed by his intellectualism, by his all-or-nothing approach, and by his ability to shock people and shake up the assumed order of their lives. The only part of his analysis that I felt did not make sense was the idea of a separate black nation. I thought it ridiculous to assert that we could form a separate nation of wealth, growth, and prosperity within the next several generations. I thought true racial integration was the only hope for broad Negro advancement. However, it didn’t make sense to engage him in a discussion about it because I was not going to convince him otherwise any more than he was going to convince me to stop dating Maureen. We would have to accept the territorial rights of the other, for the purpose of impact and for the purpose of progress.
“Yes,” I answered, drawing a deep breath. “Some Negroes do disagree with Malcolm X. His philosophy is new. It represents a break from what many of us are familiar with and have been taught to believe. But because some Negroes may disagree with Malcolm does not detract from the significance of his message. There are many other Negroes, myself included, who share at least some measure of agreement with him.”
“But don’t you think he is actually stirring up more trouble for Negroes and making things harder?”
“No, I don’t. Malcolm wants the best for all Negroes. He is just willing to fight harder than most people are to get it.”
As we left the studio, we met the editors of the Telegram and the Gazette standing out in the hall. They wanted an interview with Malcolm. When he agreed, we filed into the long conference room. That morning, the Telegram had run a story on Malcolm under the headline “Extremist Leader Speaks Here.” The article, carefully worded to avoid any overt commentary or editorial opinion on the man or the Black Muslims, stuck to more basic biographical information and history:
The Black Muslims are a group of Negro nationalists who claim Negro superiority and claim to follow the Islam religion. Their goals include: the formation of a united front of Black Men, racial separation, and economic self-sufficiency for American Negroes. They have adopted the Islam religion which has its roots in the East, and have repudiated Christianity as the White Man’s religion, which keeps the Negro under the white man’s yoke and retards his development. Its membership includes the young lower class Negro. Its regulations forbid intoxicating beverages, excessive eating, sexual immorality and laxity in morally binding temple regulation.
The article also included a policy statement I had issued to clarify WSM’s position on Malcolm:
The constitution of the Worcester Student Movement mandates its members to work for the creation of a greater awareness and under standing of present social problems and to work towards the removal of social inequities. Our decision to present Malcolm X was in full realization of the duty imposed by our Constitution. . . . It should not be interpreted as an affirmation or a rejection of the Black Muslim Movement and/or its principles. To find that there are a number of students on this campus who are completely unaware of the existence of this Movement is alarming, to say the least. The actual membership of the Muslim Movement in this country numbers well over 200,000 with potential sympathizers running into the millions. That this organization poses a severe threat to the questionable peace and tranquility that exists between the black and white races of this country is a fact which cannot be denied. This group has made more inroads into the Northern Negro population than all other civil rights groups combined. The Black Muslim Movement cannot and must not be ignored.
As we filed into the long, narrow conference room, I couldn’t wait to hear what these white men, these leaders of the community, really wanted to say. Would they be angry and defensive? Would they lash out? Would he?
“We are very interested in understanding your vision for Negro America,” one of the men began.
“Well, it’s not complicated,” Malcolm explained. “I want no more and no less than what white Americans enjoy. I want a chance for my children to grow up, and to acquire wealth, and the good things in life. I want opportunities to be open to them. I don’t want them to be hindered their whole lives by their race and background. Whites cannot fairly believe that some special effort shouldn’t be required to aid Negroes. Certainly not if they recognize the strong history of denial and harsh discrimination which blacks have been subjected to in this land.”
“Do you hate whites? You seem to preach hate.”
“I do not hate any man. I hate the selfishness, the ego, the venom in the white man that keeps you from treating us fairly, that would have us remain second-class citizens in a white society.”
“I do not understand the practicality of forming a separate Negro nation.”
“There are 20 million Negroes in the United States. We are already a nation within a nation, but you do not recognize us. The Negro nation is a child struggling to be born. If the mother tries to prevent the child from being born, both the mother and the child will die.”
Patiently, Malcolm answered their questions for over an hour. Ultimately, he tamed the white newspapermen. He made pussycats out of them because he gave them logical, direct answers. He was a careful, unemotional speaker, and he didn’t shoot from the hip. He played their game better than they did, all the while smiling and listening and speaking his mind.
As the meeting was winding down, one of the editors asked Malcolm about the tie clasp he was wearing that was made in the shape of a fish.
“Well, I’m a fisherman,” he said, as he smiled and fingered the clasp. “And when I go out fishing, and I want to catch something, I usually do.” Malcolm chuckled a little, and the editors, clearly hooked at this point, chuckled right along with him.
At five o’clock that evening, I picked Malcolm up at the hotel and took him to a small French restaurant for a dinner with several members of WSM, local townspeople, and faculty members. Once again he was amiable and chatty with the group, most of whom were white. He never confronted anyone and never raised his voice, but he never appeared fake or contrived either. When the waiter came to take our order, Malcolm told him he was not eating, that he would just have coffee. He explained that it was a Muslim practice to eat only one meal a day because eating too much could dull the mind and senses. “I draw from the discipline it takes to maintain this eating pattern,” he explained to the table of uncomprehending faces.
When someone asked him if he wanted cream and sugar, Malcolm asked for sugar but no cream. “I take my coffee black,” he said smiling. “If you put cream in it, you weaken it.” He said it so pleasantly that no one took offense.
As we were leaving the restaurant, the wife of our campus advisor, Mordecai Rubin, came up to me. “My, he’s such a wonderful man,” she said, her face glowing. “I’m so glad you asked him to come. He’s just marvelous and, you know, I never dreamed he would be so attractive.”
The speech was scheduled to begin at eight thirty. When we arrived at Atwood Hall at eight thirty-five or so, the auditorium was filled. I was pleased to see a healthy representation of Negroes, some of whom, I found out later, had come from as far away as New Haven and Boston. Several conservatively dressed Muslims stood at the entrance selling copies of the tabloid paper Muhammad Speaks for twenty cents a copy. Conspicuous and scattered throughout the auditorium were extra security and police guards we had hired for the occasion after receiving threats of some sort of violent demonstration against the Black Muslims. The feeling in the hall was undeniably tense, but as I scanned the crowd, I convinced myself that the threats had been unfounded.
As Malcolm and I headed down the aisle, he turned to me: “Now you tell people that it wasn’t my fault that we’re late. I was here on time. It’s you all’s fault that you didn’t get me here to this program when you were supposed to.”
I promised him I would take the blame in my introduction, and I did. Then Malcolm stepped to the podium. There is no sufficient way to describe his captivating energy, no way to describe how I felt, sitting just feet from him, as he spoke with his rare and riveting eloquence. I hoped, selfishly, that some part of that energy might bounce around the room and come back through me. I hoped I might suddenly discover what made him so strong. Malcolm’s speech was a cry for the liberation of Negro Americans. From the moment he opened his mouth, he was completely transformed. The cloak of reserve he wrapped around himself throughout the day vanished as he became fiery and unrelenting. His voice carried all the threat, the intimidation, and the anger that had given him, throughout white America, his nightmarish reputation. Yet, the largely white audience sat in their seats as if hypnotized while he spoke, in no uncertain terms, about the contradictions of American society, about the degradation and destruction Negroes had experienced, and about the cruel, exploitative traditions of white America. The crowd seemed not to move or even breathe, but to hang on his every word. I noticed members of the Black Muslims sitting and standing throughout the auditorium. The armed police and security guards nervously scanned the hall, their heads continually turning from side to side. It was a tense, highly theatrical scene, and it was such an about-face from the informal dinner of less than thirty minutes before that I actually began to wonder, idiotically, which Malcolm was more real. I wondered if he perceived himself as playing a role. Then, he went on to talk about his disgust with the preachers of nonviolence. He singled out Dr. King and others and accused them of misleading Negro America, of being leeches and twentieth-century Uncle Toms, charlatans who spoke only for a minority of Negroes and who sought to make their people permanent slaves to the white man’s ego. I was shocked by the overt harshness of his attack, but his strong words captured my attention. As if the words themselves had picked me up by the scruff of the neck and shaken me, I was being forced to listen.
“I am not a theorist of nonviolence,” he said. “I believe that there comes a point when you fight fire with fire, and we are at that point. The only way Negroes can survive with any dignity is if we stand prepared to fight back. We cannot wait for the white man to change. He has proven he will not change. I cannot condemn white men who refuse to hire Negroes because I believe Negroes should finance their own businesses and hire their own kind of people. The Negro is sleeping—socially, morally, and economically. We must be taught to wake up and see what time it is. Muslims are against welfare programs because they lead to laziness and dependency in Negroes. Our members are taught to stand on their own two feet.” He said that Negroes do not want integration; they want complete separation. “The only properties Negroes own in this country are their churches. We have failed to invest in job-producing industries and to participate in the economic life of the nation. I can promise you that our divorce will result in a property settlement. Moses led the Jewish slaves out of Egypt, but they carried with them a lot of Egyptian gold and silver.” He said his group chose the Muslim faith because it is the only religion not based on race. Many in the audience booed when he said, “You have to be white to be a good Christian.”
In his closing statements, he said: “The time is up for the oppressor. The end of time has come for whiteism and colonialism. The white man is on the way out. Not us, but God Himself is against him. We want to separate ourselves from him and get on God’s side. We are not anti-white, anti-integration, or anti-you, but we are pro-God. The motto of the Black Muslims is Wake Up, Clean Up, and Stand Up. We have reached the stage where we no longer think you are capable of treating us right. You do not have it in your hearts. We are turning to God.” Then he opened up the floor for questions.
“How can you support violence as a way to make progress?” one white student asked.
“I know violence is the only way to make change. And I know this because I know the history of America is a violent history. There is a tradition of Americans in war and peace to respond violently to anything they don’t like. There are hundreds of times where white Americans have responded brutally when Negroes have been peaceful and nonviolent. And it continues this day. Fear and violence. That is what the white man understands.” He went on to talk about the white man’s response to Hitler and to Japan in World War II. He said that Kennedy did not threaten to stage a nonviolent protest when Soviet ships came into Cuba carrying missiles; he threatened to start a nuclear war.
The student who had raised the question stood in the center of the auditorium, uneasily shifting his weight. Then Malcolm began talking about the degradation of Negro women throughout American history, about the use and abuse of female slaves. “You all have trampled on our women too long,” he said, pointing a sharp finger across the silent hall and glaring at the white questioner. “And we’ve been so nice and nonviolent. But let me tell you, brother, if you mess with our women, I’ll cut your throat.”
A female student stood and asked what contribution students could make to the Negro struggle for freedom.
“Whites who are sincere don’t accomplish anything by joining Negro organizations and making them integrated,” he said. “Whites who are sincere should organize among themselves and figure out some strategy to break down prejudice that exists in white communities. They can function more effectively and more intelligently in the white communities themselves. And this has never been done.”
He declined to say how many Negroes were members of the Black Muslims, what section of the United States they wanted for their new nation, and how much land they wanted. One moment he was relaxed and smiling, and the next moment he was cold-blooded and deadly determined. Throughout the hour-long program, the audience was spellbound.
Later, at the reception in the lounge of a men’s dorm, blacks and whites discussed and debated racial issues—sometimes heatedly, sometimes angrily, but with surprising sincerity and passion. Through all of this, Malcolm, with all his charm returned, answered questions with an eerie, smiling calm. That reception provided a forum for what was probably the most thoughtful, honest exchange that had occurred between blacks and whites in that area of the country in many years, if ever. And Malcolm X, the white man’s consummate enemy, the same man who just minutes earlier had threatened to cut a white student’s throat, stood at the center of it.
It was an eye-opening experience for me in more ways than one. Though I had agreed with many aspects of Malcolm’s analysis before I met him, I had no idea of the complexity of his understanding of human nature and emotion or of his ability to manipulate it. You can hate white attitudes, I realized through watching Malcolm, and not be antiwhite. He unqualifiedly hated what whites represented, but that did not mean he had to hate you personally just because you were white. He had a real hostility and venom not only toward white arrogance but also toward white unfairness. He would stand toe to toe with any white and bitterly contest that territory, especially if they presumed it had nothing to do with them, wasn’t their fault, and wasn’t their problem. On the other hand, Malcolm knew—as I know and as anyone who is fair-minded knows—that color doesn’t ultimately determine character. It doesn’t determine it for whites any more than it does for blacks. So, while he could use a broad brush to attack white people, he understood there were some whites who were just as much the victims of the society as black people were. Just as he expected blacks to overcome their victimization, Malcolm could have a great deal of respect for a white person who recognized and attempted to overcome a situation weighted against him or her. Moreover, that respect would stay with him, even though he might mount the podium and give the most vitriolic, antiwhite-sounding speech.
This seemingly split-personality approach came, I think, from Malcolm’s realization that he was speaking to two audiences. First and foremost, he spoke to blacks. Undoubtedly, he tried a form of shock treatment: to unflinchingly analyze racism, to tell it like it is, and then to embolden blacks to overcome it. Obviously, he thought the most effective way to do that was to give white people hell and to talk to them and about them in a manner seldom if ever heard at that time in this country. Such blatant language and such a raw display of power provided many blacks with a rare spiritual uplift and a strong “right-on” attitude. But Malcolm was intelligent enough to realize that white people weren’t going to disappear. When all the emotions calmed, there was still the tough job of quiet diplomacy that had to go on between blacks and whites. For this reason, he had become an excellent diplomat. He could talk to whites, listen to them, even answer their questions. He could be polite, gentle. and solicitous. And he could calmly make his position plain to them without yielding one inch.
The day he had started at seven in the morning wasn’t over until after midnight, when we finally left the reception and walked across the street to my apartment. We chatted a little about the day, and Malcolm said he was very pleased about the way things had gone. I told him I was amazed at how his energy and patience never seemed to waver.
“Practice,” he said, “is everything.”
I wrote him a check for seventy-five dollars, which is what we had agreed on to cover his expenses. He made a phone call, thanked me for inviting him, and then went downstairs, where his aide was waiting to drive him back to New York.
On April 15, the Worcester Telegram ran an editorial titled “The Message of Malcolm X”:
|Malcolm X, the fluent young Negro who brought the message of the Black Muslims to Clark University the other night, talked mostly pernicious nonsense. His dream of an independent Negro state, freed of all relationship to the white United States, is a chimera. His indictment of the collective white man for subjugating and demoralizing the collective Negro is a neurotic syndrome. His arrogant dismissal of Christianity as a “white man’s religion,” and his claims of superiority for his version of the Moslem faith are psychopathic rubbish. Nevertheless, Malcolm X has a message for all Americans, white and Negro. For the fact is that his mood of bitter alienation from American life is shared, at least in part, by unknown numbers of American Negroes disillusioned by their slow acceptance into the American mainstream.|
There is too much truth in Malcolm X’s assertion that the American Negro does not have a fair shake in this county, and that the fault lies mostly with the white community. There is too much truth in his charge that many doors are closed to Negroes, even those well qualified. There is too much truth in his statement that the Negro who runs afoul of the law is treated differently than the white in a similar situation.
The Black Muslim movement is a warning that Negro patience is not inexhaustible. The rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Constitution cannot be denied to the Negro forever if he is expected to remain a loyal American Citizen. The Black Muslim Message of bitterness preached here by Malcolm X is a blueprint for disaster. Fortunately, most American Negroes so far are rejecting this counsel of extremism. But there is no guarantee that they will reject it permanently if their real grievances are not met without undue procrastination. Malcolm’s observations and analyses are as valid today as they were in 1963, with the exception of his strategies of racial separatism.
But Malcolm himself, by the time of his death in 1965, had moved decisively away from the separatist philosophy upheld by the Muslims. By March 1964, he had officially broken with the Black Muslims in order to organize a new movement with an emphasis on black nationalism and the conversion of the Negro population from nonviolence to active self-defense against white supremacists in all parts of the country. He said then that he would cooperate with grassroots civil rights activities wherever Negroes asked for his help because he believed every campaign for specific objectives heightened the political identification against white racism and their commitment to overcome it.
In a March 9 New York Times article titled
“Malcolm X Splits with Muhammad,” he wrote:
|There is no use deceiving ourselves, good education, housing and jobs are imperatives for the Negroes, and I shall support them in their fight to win these objectives, but I shall tell the Negroes that while these are necessary, they cannot solve the main Negro problem. I shall also tell them that what has been called the Negro Revolution in the United States is a deception practiced 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.|
Malcolm’s developing black nationalist philosophies—philosophies of strong cultural identification, of determined group action, of political and economical realignment, and uncompromising force for self-protection— were sources of argument among black leadership for the rest of the decade. The “white man, move over” attitude threatened the old order of Negro leaders, the business and professional class and ministers, while at the same time seriously questioning the leadership of liberal whites in the struggle
against discrimination. It helped destroy the old stereotypes of the shiftless Negro and the Uncle Tom and brought to the surface not only a fiery racial pride but a widespread hatred for white domination. Disciplined to almost puritanical excess by the tenets of the Muslims, articulate, shrewd, and dynamic, Malcolm, even to his detractors, was an undeniably positive symbol for the New Negro: he was the young, dynamic, self-motivated Negro who no longer felt innately inferior to the white man. He embodied an assertive, uncompromising spirit, a spirit he insisted he knew the black masses shared. The philosophies central to the rising black nationalism of the late 1960s and to Malcolm X’s agenda during the last year of his life are certainly valid for any attack on black political, social, and economic inequity today. Ironically, they are probably more out of place today than they were in 1963, a consequence of what I think of as our philosophical neutering; we have not grown to full equality. And when we fail to grow with changing times, our position actually regresses. I believe that we have actually lost focus, momentum, pride, and belief in ourselves. We have lost that aching anger and drive for equality that brought us to confrontation in the 1960s. We have done the unthinkable: we have compromised.
Although Malcolm’s philosophy may appear more alien today than it did in 1963, his analyses are just as relevant in terms of the development, position, and condition of blacks vis-à-vis wealth and power in the United States. With a singular exception here or there, blacks are still sitting at the foot of the table getting the crumbs the white man drops. He still dominates the economy. He still largely dominates our government. Black people are still divided. We still have selfish and compromised leadership that thrives amidst our division. We still suffer from self-hatred and self-doubt. We still turn against ourselves with killings and muggings and shooting, acting like hoodlums and thugs—all the things Malcolm addressed. While poverty and the racial divide are still vast, Malcolm’s clarion voice is gone. It should not be forgotten.
|Memphis Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey was the founder the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. One of the first Black Radical Civil Rights student activists in the 1960s, he was expelled from Southern University in Baton Rouge for refusing to give up his right to protest. He was rewarded with a scholarship to Clark University in Worsester, MA., where as one of the leaders of Student movement there he befriended and influenced (among others) the path of local townie Abbie Hoffman, and invited Malcolm X to be a guest speaker at the University. After graduating from Yale University Law School he served as a Radical City Councilman in Berkeley, CA, during the height of the Free Speech Movement. He was also author of Mine Eyes Have Seen: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’ Final Journey.|