Why Malcolm X Matters


In January 1961, while Malcolm X was still a member and zealot of the murderous racist cult, The Nation of Islam, he and another NOI minister, Jeremiah X, travelled to Atlanta, Georgia on the behest of the Nation’s then leader, Elijah Muhammad, to discuss with the Ku Klux Klan’s representatives the areas of common interest between the two segregationist groups. Malcolm X’s disdain for the task was unsurprising – his father’s murderers were likely members of one of the Klan’s offshoots, a vigilante gang born out of the Great Depression called the Black Legion – and Malcolm worked hard to cover up his involvement in the meeting. However, the heavily redacted files that the FBI have released recorded the substance of the caucus: they had met to arrange the sale of land from the Klan to the Nation of Islam in order to totally segregate the South but this wasn’t all; Malcolm explained to the Klan members the complete control that Elijah Muhammad exercised over his followers and insisted that the Klan clean its own house and assassinate the white “traitors who assisted integration leaders”. Malcolm X also shared with the Klan his theory that the “Jew is behind the integration movement, using the negro as a tool”.

Malcolm spoke frequently on the subject of Jews, and despite his angry rejections of the charge of anti-Semitism (he would claim in speeches to be anti-exploitation – the exploiters just happened to be Jewish) he had perhaps the defining characteristic of the anti-Semite, a real fetish for conspiracy. When George Orwell’s lung complaint forced him to retreat to the drier climes of Morocco he wrote in his essay Marrakech of the thirteen thousand Jews of the city, all living in the space of a few acres:

You hear the usual dark rumours about the Jews, not only from the Arabs but from the poorer Europeans.

‘Yes, mon vieux, they took my job away from me and gave it to a Jew. The Jews! They’re the real rulers of this country, you know. They’ve got all the money. They control the banks, finance — everything.’

‘But,’ I said, ‘isn’t it a fact that the average Jew is a labourer working for about a penny an hour?’

‘Ah, that’s only for show! They’re all money-lenders really. They’re cunning, the Jews.’

The awful thing about a stereotype isn’t so much that they are always without truth (were your faculty to prejudge the people walking towards you at night to become impaired, you would not be long for this world) – the penny pinching Jew arises from the Middle Ages when Christianity prescribed against money lending for interest, just as Islamic law does now, and so Jews were the only people who could engage in the enormously important practice of offering loans – more worrisome is what Orwell’s story demonstrates, that they are entirely ineradicable. A thousand years on from the seed of this prejudice, and in the face of a squalid Jewish ghetto, people still couldn’t quite shake the idea that the Jews must secretly be the organ grinders. This was Malcolm’s tumour, even after he had left the Nation of Islam behind and became a fierce advocate of racial equality, he writes in the Autobiography (as dictated to Alex Haley):

I mean, you can’t even say ‘Jew’ without him accusing you of anti-Semitism. I don’t care what a Jew is professionally, doctor, merchant, housewife, , student, or whatever – first he, or she, thinks like a Jew… I know that America’s five and a half million Jews look at it very practically, whether they know it or not: that all of the bigotry and hate focused upon the black man keeps off the Jew a lot of the heat that would be on him otherwise.

And this in a chapter where he is denying prejudice against Jews! As he became more progressive he became much more tolerant and frequently claimed solidarity with the Jewish people but in his later speeches, just every now and then, there will be a barb about how “the Jews didn’t participate in the Freedom Rides” (untrue although Malcolm had certainly opposed them ) or “the American Negroes especially have been manoeuvred into doing more crying for the Jews than they do for themselves.”

For what we now know of Malcolm X, Malcolm Little, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz – raises the most important question that can be asked of him. For all of his beautifully flame-throwing oratory and the incredible work he accomplished for the advancement of civil rights (it was Malcolm, after all, who initiated the movement to internationalise the plight of American black people and proposed to take on the US in the UN for crimes against human rather than civil rights), can the intellectual inheritance of a man who committed the crimes he committed, in his complicity with suborning the murder of white integrationists, be respected? Manning Marable, the Marxist historian (who made Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention his life work and then died the week of its publication) and Malcolm X’s least hagiographic biographer – it is Marable who first uncovered that Malcolm likely worked as a prostitute and had a relationship with a white man named Paul Lennon who could apparently be brought to climax by having talcum powder sprinkled over his bare body – closes his acknowledgements with this tribute:

I am deeply grateful to the real Malcolm X, the man behind the myth, who courageously challenged and transformed himself, seeking to achieve a vision of the world without racism. Without erasing his mistakes and contradictions, Malcolm embodies a definitive yardstick by which all other Americans who aspire to the mantle of leadership should be measured.

As much as it seems impossible to believe that a mind like Malcolm’s could have remained the asset of a gang of thugs and racists like the Nation of Islam, it is difficult to know what precisely changed Malcolm and made him abandon cults and tribalism in favour of pluralism and internationalism. He shifted from being the slave of Elijah Muhammad to being a powerfully independent voice, founding his own Islamic organisation, Muslim Mosque Inc., and then when he found that to be far too parochial an institution to accomplish anything in the arena of racial equality, he formed the secular organisation the Organisation of African American Unity. He frequently addressed the Socialist Workers Party but remained critical of socialism as being as well equipped for racial oppression as capitalism. This shift towards secularism and socialism is usually attributed to his betrayal at the hands of Elijah Muhammad, who excommunicated Malcolm’s brother for adultery and made Malcolm vow never speak to him again (Malcolm later saw his brother roaming the streets, turned insane by his family’s betrayal) and was later to discovered to have impregnated a stable of secretaries one of whom was quite likely Malcolm’s first love. How lucky and unlucky we are that cult leaders will unfailingly discredit their divinity with their depredations upon young female members!

Malcolm’s Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, certainly profoundly shook Malcolm’s belief that integration couldn’t work but what is often ignored is his debates with Bayard Rustin. Bayard Rustin was, along with A. Phillip Randolph, one of the fathers of the 1960s Civil Rights Movements and was heavily involved in strengthening Martin Luther King’s leadership. Rustin was also a homosexual and one-time communist and was therefore expelled from the NAACP by its leader, Roy Wilkins. It was Rustin who tore apart the usually unremitting arguments of Malcolm, showing him at once that segregation was a reactionary and doomed project that by Malcolm’s own actions he did not support and that integration was the only option. Malcolm had aggressively mocked The March on Washington for the fact that it had been done with the permission of the Kennedy administration and therefore just a white man’s distraction from the struggle (he rather unimaginatively labelled it ‘The Farce on Washington'; as he stealthily joined in the protest which he had decried he was embarrassed to spot Rustin who, with the quarter of a million demonstrators around him shouted out, “why don’t you tell them this is just a picnic!”


One of the most interesting things about Malcolm X is that the speed at which his views progressed, his premature death at the hands of Nation of Islam assassins, and the power of his oratory have left his legacy unclear and thus claimed by everybody. Civil rights activists, socialists, secularists, black supremacists, the Hip-Hop movement in the 1990s, liberals, conservatives, the government of the Ayatollah Khomeini, al-Qaida and John Walker Lindh (the American defector to the Taliban, whose religious advisor declares him to be the ‘new Malcolm X’) are amongst those who claim to be his ideological successors. Perhaps the most dishonest representation of Malcolm X is that offered up by Hollywood in the form of Spike Lee’s film based far too heavily on the Autobiography and is expurgated of the issue of Malcolm’s association with the KKK and presents Malcolm’s life as a redemption from his years spent as a drug dealer and hustler as though this were what he had to atone for rather than his possible complicity in the murder of civil rights activists. It is difficult to imagine a project less ‘Malcolm X-like’ than this assiduous evasion of true controversy.

Malcolm’s vast and contradictory range of pretender successors prove that his great magnetism mustn’t be much to do with any particular views he held, although social conservatives must be as warmed by his commitment to family values and the prohibition of drugs and alcohol as revolutionary socialists are by his advocacy of international struggle. No, Malcolm’s charm was his tireless commitment to struggle and argument; in many ways he continues in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist author and orator of the nineteenth century. Like Malcolm, Douglass was infuriated by those who argued for the emancipation of black Americans but were unwilling to commit to any form of action. In Douglass’s greatest speech What to the American Negro is the Fourth of July? addressed to a white ladies abolitionist group who had received several orders more they bargained for when they asked him to speak to commemorate the birth of the nation, he spoke:

You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct… It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

In this beautiful and terrible elemental imagery it is easy to see the echo of Douglass in Malcolm’s distrust of whites who claimed solidarity with his movement but balked at proposals of his such as the formation of rifle clubs by black people to protect themselves against racist terrorist groups or, to take a more extreme example, his proposition that the murder of Ronald Stokes by the Los Angeles Police Department in tandem with a corrupt judiciary who acquitted the officers of all charges, constituted an act of war against black people and made the police legitimate targets. Douglass’s exhaustion with those whites, including Abraham Lincoln whom he met twice, whom he perceived to be soft pedalling on the issue of emancipation , pushed him into a friendship with John Brown, a white protestant who declared war on the South six years before Lincoln did and together with his sons attacked slave owners and liberated slaves across Kansas. When Malcolm X was asked whether he would allow white people to join the OAAU he replied “well if John Brown were alive, we might accept him.”

What is often seen as Malcolm’s defining speech, at the founding rally of the OAAU, reaches its crescendo with:

We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.

‘Any means necessary’ is certainly a dangerous concept and not one that Malcolm can have been said to have truly advocated. He spoke in favour of armed revolution, taking the same line as John Brown, but never once called for indiscriminate violence (this is one of the ways that we can be sure that the al-Qaida claim to Malcolm X is fraudulent). Nevertheless this speech raises that which is central to the Malcolm X question: is armed struggle against an oppressor justified? There is a line to be drawn somewhere for most people, arbitrary or not, as it seems obvious to most that the Jewish resistance groups in the nineteen-forties, the Peshmerga, the Free Syrian Army and the ANC, to take a few examples, took the right line in declaring war upon their governments; but doesn’t the stomach rebel at the thought of condoning the killing of policemen in the United States, even in the hot summer of sixty-four? Malcolm never appeared to relish violence and certainly never advocated it for its own sake but we can see in his speeches such as The Ballot or Bullet’ that he used the rhetoric of armed resistance to chilling effect. His thoughts on struggle and conflict are perhaps best illustrated by his repudiation of  Mohandas Gandhi, whom the entire civil rights movement had taken to be its inspiration; Malcolm, of course, would not stand for it:

I believe that it is a crime for anyone to teach a person who is being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself. If this is what the Christian-Gandhian philosophy teaches then it is criminal—a criminal philosophy.

This obviously also speaks to the question of violent resistance in cases whether political measures have failed to rein in a tyrannical and persecuting state power. Gandhi in his open letter “To Every Briton” wrote: ” If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered.” Even this is marginally more resistance than he advised that the German Jews put up when he instructed them to commit mass suicide rather than resist their murderers. With Gandhi’s Kool-Aid pacifism, simultaneously murderous and suicidal, dominating political thought – it is unsurprising that the rhetoric of violent revolution had its appeal. But Malcolm’s war on America never happened and he never marshalled any forces in that direction, for reasons that were probably as pragmatic as they were moral given that he couldn’t have hoped for anything other than a bloodbath; but, his simple argument that the crimes against American black people, the descendants of people who were once property, were so great as to justify armed insurrection must count amongst the most the brilliant and the most terrifying arguments of the Civil Rights Movement.

The preceding line to the one in Douglass’s speech that I have already given is this:

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke.

Malcolm could reach the nation’s ear and administered all of the above in torrents not streams (along with convincing argument, it might as well be added). The outrage at Malcolm’s bitter analysis of JFK’s assassination as ‘the chickens coming home to roost’ from the foul and tepid approach to ending the culture of murdering civil rights activists, was so great that even the Nation of Islam turned his back on him over it.

It is precisely this that makes Malcolm X worth remembering: for a man who had taken everything short of a noose that white racism had to offer and had ended up a depraved, drug-addicted pimp, prostitute and thief (and then managed the herculean task of further debasing himself by his pimping for the Nation of Islam); all that it took was a prison education, a refusal to adhere to anybody’s party line, and an insatiable appetite for argument, to ultimate choose the ballot over the bullet and help define and internationalise the largest movement against racism to have ever occurred. This is a legacy worth talking about and arguing over, especially but not exclusively with those who seek to annex his reputation to the cause of black supremacy or jihad (Ayman al-Zawahiri has quoted Malcolm more than once in his jeering dispatches to the US, accusing Obama of being ‘house Negro’). Malcolm’s analyses of race, war, poverty, capitalism, socialism, women’s rights are too important to only be chewed over with dull fascists and, in the spirit of Malcolm: we need not agree anyway.


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