The many sides of Malcolm X

Submitted by Matthew on 20 April, 2011 - 2:23 Author: Dan Katz
A life of reinvention: Malcolm X — book cover

Manning Marable, US academic and longstanding member of Democratic Socialists of America, died on 1 April, three days before the release of his book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Dan Katz looks at Marable’s account.


Malcolm X was gunned down by former comrades of the Nation of Islam (NoI) on 21 February 1965, aged 39.

When Malcolm died, his murder made headlines across the world. In the US he divided opinion sharply: for the majority he represented a threat of black violence and retribution; for a many black activists he was an intransigent, unbending opponent of white supremacy and advocate of black pride. Having been pushed out of the NoI a year previously, and beginning to turn his back on the NoI’s rigid black separatism, Malcolm X also died in a state of ideological flux. This political and religious uncertainty and development at the end of his life has allowed many competing organisations — from Trotskyist groups to orthodox Sunni Muslims — to attempt to claim Malcolm X’s legacy.

Manning Marable’s aim was to present a rounded picture of Malcolm’s life and his “reinventions” of himself. In particular, he argues that Malcolm’s image and legacy has been shaped (and distorted) by his widely-read autobiography, which was in fact written by Alex Haley (who was later to write the enormously popular TV series Roots). Marable argues that Haley — a Republican — had his own agenda, and had little interest in presenting a clear account of Malcolm’s views in the final year of his life. Haley wrote the concluding section of the autobiography after Malcolm’s death.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on 19 April 1925.

His father and mother, Earl and Louise, were militant supporters of Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey built a mass movement by appealing to the black workers and poor. His message was black pride, self-improvement and racial separation, seeing the struggle of black people in the US as being bound up with the fight against white colonialism in Africa. Garvey was also enthusiastically pro-capitalist.

The more conservative elements of Garvey’s programme built directly on the previous work of leaders like Booker T Washington, and represented a series of concessions to white racism and acceptance of it. However in the US another distinct tradition had emerged: integrationism. Among the black middle class this current was represented by W E B DuBois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This divide — between those that fought for equal rights for black people in the US, and those that effectively accepted the inevitability of white hostility and sought to escape the US — would remain the key to understanding Malcolm X’s political choices and development.

By the mid-40s Malcolm was drifting and became involved in petty crime and drug use.

His gang was rounded up after committing a series of robberies. In 1946 he got a long sentence, probably because his associates included white women. He began his sentence in the notorious Charlestown State prison.

According to Marable the version of Malcolm’s conversion to the NoI that appears in, for example, Spike Lee’s 1993 film of Malcolm’s life is inaccurate. Marable states that the pressure to join the sect came from family members. What the family found in the NoI sounded similar to their father’s Garveyite Christianity: a message of black separatism, self-reliance and a black god. Malcolm’s brother, Wilfred, later recalled: “We had already been indoctrinated with Marcus Garvey’s philosophy… they didn’t have to convince us we were black and should be proud…”

What is clear is that Malcolm converted to the strange black sect — whose beliefs included that the white race had been created by an evil black scientist called Yacub — and when he left jail, in August 1952, he gave more and more of his time to building the NoI.

At the end of 1953 the group’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, made Malcolm X, as he was now known, a minister and assigned him the task of building a temple in Boston. He proved to be a highly effective organiser and speaker, and in June 1954 he was assigned to build up Temple No. 7 in Harlem, New York. At this time the NoI had less than 1000 supporters, and Temple No. 7 was badly run with less than a few dozen members.

Malcolm found it difficult to make progress in Harlem. The area — the cultural and political centre of black America — was not receptive to the NoI’s anti-political message. The NoI opposed its members registering to vote or being involved in campaigning on political matters.

The Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955-6 pushed the civil rights movement demanding black equality to the centre of American politics. In fact the pressure for this political explosion had been building for some time (as detailed, for example, by Marable in his excellent Race, Reform and Rebellion) and produced a white backlash.

The NoI began to grow quickly. From 1953-5 its membership quadrupled to 6,000. And from 1956 to ’61 it expanded “tenfold to between 50 and 75 thousand,” now recruiting middle class black people and skilled workers as well as prisoners and the urban poor.

However, the NoI was essentially parasitic on the upheaval among black Americans. Its appeal to a minority lay in its passivity and pessimism. It used the white supremacists who fought to maintain the racist system of Jim Crow segregation that existed in the southern states to illustrate its message that black people would never be granted equal rights. Advances were denied, and leaders like Martin Luther King were denounced as “Uncle Toms”.

The NoI’s stand led it to some strange political alliances. In the 1920s Marcus Garvey had met the leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Edward Young Clarke, reasoning that as they both opposed racial intermarriage and favoured the separation of the races, they had common ground. The NoI repeated Garvey’s craziness — for similar reasons — by inviting American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell to its rallies. In 1962, in front of 12 000 NoI members Rockwell declared, “You know we call you niggers. But wouldn’t you rather be confronted by honest white men who tell you to your face what others say behind your back?” The NoI presented Rockwell as the authentic voice of white America.

During the massive growth of the NoI Malcolm X was its public face, speaking regularly at NoI rallies, as well as on university campuses and to the media.

As a consequence he came under political pressure from the mainstream civil rights movement, occasionally openly bending towards the need for black people to participate in the ongoing struggle. This was one factor behind Malcolm’s expulsion from the NoI at the end of 1963/start of 1964.

However, there were other factors too. The NoI tithed its membership and made money from investments, and selling its newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. As a result, Elijah Muhammad and his family became very well off, living in luxury. Malcolm also became aware that Elijah Muhammad was a sexual predator, who had fathered children with a number of young women, while enforcing a conservative sexual code on his followers.

Malcolm — famous across the US and beyond — was living with his young family on modest NoI funding and appeared as a threat to those around Elijah Muhammad at his Chicago headquarters. At the end of 1963, in the aftermath of the assassination of president J F Kennedy, Malcolm commented that Kennedy’s killing was an instance of “chickens coming home to roost,” something that, “never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” Malcolm was denounced in the press and the NoI leadership used the incident to freeze Malcolm out of the organisation.

Malcolm took a small number out of the NoI and formed a new Islamic organisation Muslim Mosque Incorporated (MMI). He then took two long trips abroad which helped to alter his worldview.

First, he visited Mecca, where he was sponsored by the Saudi authorities, and adopted a more orthodox form of Islam. Bound up with this religious shift was a political one: he had discovered that there were many perfectly good Muslims who were white, which brought him flatly up against the NoI idea that all white people were “devils”.

Second, he toured many newly-independent African states. He began to place more emphasis on the black struggle in the US as a part of a global anti-racist, anti-colonial fight. He praised the Cuban state and, worse, the development of a Chinese nuclear bomb.

Back in the US he founded the secular Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) as an American compliment to the recently formed Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The OAAU had a vague platform and its immediate political emphasis was to bring charges against the US’s treatment of black Americans to the United Nations.

At the end of his life he began to pose the question of fighting racism in a way that contrasted radically to the NoI: “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”

The words “by any means necessary” have often been read as a call to arms (they were that, at least in the sense of advocating the right to self-defence) but “by any means” had also come to mean political activity. And just as important was the fact that Malcolm X was now situating the struggle within the framework of a general fight for human equality.

However, Malcolm’s new political movement was hampered at every turn by a campaign of harassment and violence by the NoI. The future leader of the NoI, Louis Farrakhan (then Louis X) stated than Malcolm was “worthy of death”.

The NoI was an authoritarian sect which had a powerful paramilitary wing, the Fruit of Islam (FoI). Ironically, although Malcolm and the NoI had a reputation as an organisation willing to meet racist and police violence with their own, mostly the FoI was used against NoI members or dissidents. The FoI regularly beat — and occasionally killed — those NoI members who had crossed the organisation.

On Sunday 21 February a group of five NoI members shot and killed Malcolm in front of his wife, Betty, and children at a rally at the Audubon Ballroom. It was a tragic, stupid killing.

During the last phase of his life Malcolm spoke at a number of meetings organised by the US Trotskyist group, the Socialist Workers Party (no relation to the British SWP), who believed that Malcolm’s ideas were “growing over” towards Marxism. In fact Malcolm would have needed a sharp, conscious break with black nationalism and a general ill-defined “anti-imperialism” to come over to Marxism.

If he had developed in a “straight line” he would have found himself with a lot in common with the Black Panthers — founded in 1966.

Malcolm X remains an important, even iconic, figure. He was a brave, dedicated and honest opponent of racism and injustice. That is how we should remember him.

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