On February 21, 1965, a flustered Malcolm X positioned himself before a crowd in New York City’s Audubon Ballroom. While he wore his characteristic stone-cold countenance, a debilitating fear was gnawing at his conscience. The Nation of Islam, the organization he attributed to his intellectual rebirth, was now among his greatest public enemies. His pilgrimage to Mecca exposed him to “racial brotherhood” in the Arab world, compelling him to reject the uncompromising doctrine of Elijah Muhammad and craft a more nuanced approach to black nationalism. Formerly secure and comfortable in the ideological legions of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was now philisophically directionless and facing threats from all directions. Black vans and mysterious figures monitored his every move. Firebombs had shattered the windows of his home, destroying his belongings and displacing his family. The white media forcefully beat their drums of war, shoving cameras and lights and microphones in his face, demanding answers about his ever-shifting paradigm. His world was under siege. And on that afternoon in the winter of 1965, as Malcolm X motioned to further articulate developments in his creed, shots ripped through the air, sending the civil rights colossus tumbling to the floor.
The news triggered international fervor. Malcolm X’s bloodied body adorned the front page of The New York Times, and while the European press expressed mild interest, African and Asian papers published flowing eulogies. One Beijing outlet lauded him as a martyr in the grander struggle against Western imperialism, while countless African journalists celebrated him as the greatest advocate for pan-African solidarity since W.E.B. Du Bois. These perceptions persist in the Third World today; however, in the West, and particularly in the United States, whites remain unkeen to examine his philosophy, even when granted the half-century that rehabilitated the images of other civil rights titans, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A third of American whites hold no opinion of Malcolm X, while a plurality — 41% — remembers him unfavorably, leaving 29% who appreciate his impact today. This contrasts dramatically with African Americans, two-thirds of whom perceive Malcolm X in a positive light, while an additional 27% responded to surveys indifferently, with the remaining 6% remembering him negatively.
While it’s easy to attribute the polarization of these opinions to American racism — and, to a certain degree, white skepticism towards Malcolm X undoubtedly does involve an element of racial agitation — there are a myriad of genuine reasons to find the man objectionable. His autobiography is replete with anti-Semitic diatribes and glaring sexist remarks, with the Jew presented as taxing the black man physically and the woman as doing so emotionally. Furthermore, Malcolm X infamously found himself in a tenuous alliance with George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party, even if he only did so under the auspices of Elijah Muhammad, who felt the two groups held similar goals (the separation of races and the dismantling of the “Jewish” bourgeoisie) and could benefit from alignment. Although, to Malcolm X’s credit, once exiled from the NOI, he threatened Rockwell with “physical retaliation” if the Nazis chose to target Dr. King.
But these are secondary to the prevailing memory of Malcolm X. We remember a man uninterested in standards of political decorum; a man who, when told that 130 white people died in a plane crash, remarked that it was a miracle of God; a man who, upon hearing the news of the Kennedy assassination, infamously quipped that “the chickens were coming to roost,” meaning the President reaped what he had sowed; a man who denounced the incrementalism of Dr. King and demanded immediate racial justice, often to the chagrin of those interested in lofty notions of civility.
This exaltation of civility partially frames modern perceptions of Malcolm X; we turn our noses at his brashness and his callous insensitivity. But I contend that our focus on his militance is misguided. Indeed, even a focus on his message would be misguided, as it is too inconsistent and too capricious to cohesively parse. While writing his autobiography, Malcolm joked to Alex Haley, the book’s co-author, that they ought to publish it before his philosophy changed so radically that he would feel compelled to scrap the project altogether. Instead, we should examine how his fiery personality enhanced the civil rights movement.
To achieve this, we must look to his life and, principally, consider who he was. His personal history is characterized by three cardinal identities: Malcolm Little, Malcolm X, and El-Hajj Malik Shabazz. These can be thought of as the stages of his ideological evolution, starting with the tragedy of Malcolm Little and ending with the crescendoed climax of Malik Shabazz.
Malcolm Little, the son of a Baptist preacher, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, a city marred by racial tension. From an early age, he was imbued with a sense that white America was endlessly cruel; his childhood home was burned by marauding white supremacists and his father was (probably) killed in an act of racial terrorism. As a boy, Little demonstrated a tremendous talent for rhetoric and hoped to employ his eloquence and wit in the field of law, but his ambitions were stifled by public school teachers who felt that nonwhites could mop the floors of courtrooms but not practice law in them.
After his mother suffered from a mental breakdown, he moved to live with his aunt in Boston. He managed to get a shoe-shining job at a downtown ballroom, and amidst the rapturous parties that enlivened the building every night, he received his first taste of hedonism. Drugs, alcohol, and sex entered his life, but the proximity to his aunt largely kept him in check.
That is, until he moved to Harlem, where he was engulfed by New York City’s criminal underbelly.
Illicit enterprises abound, Malcolm found himself involved in drug dealing, racketeering, and pimping. His drugs grew harder and his bearings on reality weaker. Days and nights blended together in a drug-induced frenzy. Paranoia robbed him of peace. In his autobiography, he wrote that in the nadir of this period, he had a working vocabulary of no more than 200 words. He had no ambitions beyond staying alive, and was reduced to an animalistic condition, wringing every last ounce of dopamine from his drug-riddled brain while aimlessly and thoughtlessly fulfilling his criminal obligations. Each day carried the possibility of violent death.
With threats growing closer and more tangible, he decided to seek refuge in Boston. To supplant the income lost from his New York enterprises, he organized a small crime syndicate dedicated to robbing the houses of wealthy whites in the Boston area.
And then the gig was up.
After a local shop-owner identified Malcolm’s watch as stolen, Boston police connected him to the string of burglaries affecting wealthy neighborhoods and apprehended him. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in a corrective facility.
Removed from the debased cycle of violence and gangsterism that had derailed his life, Malcolm awoke from his narcotic-induced stupor. Visits to the prison library rekindled the love for literature and language that inflamed his heart in his youth. In his autobiography, he describes the painful process of re-learning to read and write, and the rapturous sense of liberation that accompanied his re-learning. He rediscovered his passion for rhetoric by participating on the prison debate team. He read obsessively, dissecting everything from Milton to Kant to Nietzche. Just as Frederick Douglass could not orchestrate his physical liberation without intellectual liberation, Malcolm Little could not conceive of a life beyond the ghetto without first elevating himself via literacy.
Most importantly, however, he indulged in history books. He opened his eyes to the plight of his race, drawing parallels between the profound horrors of chattel slavery and the modern destitution of his friends in Harlem. He began to perceive the poverty and violence ravaging African-American neighborhoods as an extension of slavery’s grevious scars. It was for this reason that Malcolm Little erased his last name, preferring to go by Malcolm X; he believed that “Little” was a name imposed on his family by a white rapist and thus refused to bear it.
While in prison, he became acquainted with the infamous Black Muslims. Initially, he eyed their budding movement with suspicion, but soon found himself entranced by their message of black empowerment. Incensed by the country that killed his father, drove his mother to insanity, suppressed his ambitions, and consigned him to a life of abject depravity in America’s criminal underbelly, Malcolm was particularly receptive to the Black Muslims’ revolutionary paradigm.
He began writing to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, as the Black Muslims styled themselves. Muhammad took an interest in the young convert, and they arranged a meeting after Malcolm was granted parole in 1952. Enchanted by his magnetic personality, Muhammad soon assigned him ministerial duties at various mosques. As Malcolm X writes in his autobiography, this afforded him an outlet to employ his rhetorical talents, and his fiery orations soon caught the attention of national media.
Thus began Malcolm X’s meteoric rise to national stardom. Universities extended speaking invitations to him. Intellectuals requested debates. News outlets attempted to arrange interviews. White Americans recoiled at his heated denunciations of the “white devil” and the litany of shocking statements attributed to him, but they couldn’t quite get enough of his impassioned spirit.
For about a decade, Malcolm X acted as the NOI’s chief spokesperson. In the early 1960s, however, the upper ranks of the organization began to fracture. A philosophical rift opened between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, and Muhammad grew anxious that Malcolm’s galvanizing popularity threatened his leadership. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, Malcolm received universal condemnation for callously remarking that the President had it coming, and Muhammad, eager to protect himself against a potential coup, barred Malcolm from speaking on behalf of the NOI.
Several months later, Malcolm left the organization by his own volition. Seeking religious solace, he opted to embark on the Hajj, which would prove to challenge many of Malcolm’s preconceived notions about race and religion. Principally, he was embarassed to learn that the Nation of Islam was little more than an imitation of Islam — a revolutionary doctrine which simply styled itself along Islamic lines. Moreover, he was floored by the respect with which Arab whites treated him, and the absence of the word “Negro” (or any equivalent) from their vocabulary. This communicated to him that the white race is not inherently damned. When he returned, he donned a beard and asked to be addressed as El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz, thus initiating the third and final act of his life.
These closing chapters of his story would perhaps be the most turbulent. In the months before his assassination, he found himself opposed to the positions he unyieldingly advocated in the Nation of Islam. Endeavoring to shift the tone of black nationalism, he qualified many of his older statements, writing, for instance, that whites could assist with the civil rights movement, so long as they didn’t commandeer African-American-led campaigns. He had formerly disparaged figures like Dr. King, who he felt were simply sycophants of the white man. In particular, he was critical of King’s 1963 March on Washington, as it was organized with the assistance of white labor unions.
With everything considered, I contend that the substance of Malcolm X’s language is unimportant. While he produced a multitude of memorable quotes throughout his political career, they are best viewed in isolation; for, in retrospect, his statements are far too varied and inconsistent to composite into a cohesive philosophy. It is better to interpret him as a spokesperson for those disaffected people languishing in American ghettos. He was one of the few civil rights titans without formal education, which enabled him to communicate more intimately with the poor. He was able to channel the frustrations of Harlem — as well as other poor African American communities — and prevail as a champion of those souls deprived of the intellectual tools to uplift themselves from their sorry condition. Consequently, his incivility is unimportant; as he writes in his autobiography, his brashness served to disrupt the complacency of white America and draw attention to the downtrodden minorities on which American prosperity rests. He writes that it is cruel to deprive someone of their humanity and then watch with contempt as they thrash and writhe in a desperate attempt to regain some semblance of dignity.
Thus, to the 71% of American whites who remember Malcolm X unfavorably, I emphasize the importance of considering the roots of his anger. In historical retrospect, we should not interpret his talk of white devil-hood literally, as it was a metaphor for the racist status quo which substantially grieved the broader community of African Americans. As Dr. King said of Malcolm X following his assassination:
“I think Malcolm X did serve a role. I think he played a role in pointing out the problem — calling attention to it — but his great problem was an inability to emerge with a solution. He had slogans that were catchy and that people listened to, but I don’t think he ever pointed out the solution to the problem.”
The spectacle of his personality added a revolutionary tinge to the civil rights movement, which was bridled by the civic, reform-oriented approach of Dr. King. Malcolm X kindled critical conversations Dr. King may have been too apprehensive to initiate, and Dr. King worked to effect change within the democratic framework Malcolm X so vehemently denounced. Furthermore, Malcolm X’s rapport with the urban poor animated their interest in change, reinforcing the push against the white supremacist polities once prevalent in the United States.
Today, Malcolm X occupies something of a mythological position. His personhood has been reduced to a nebulous collection of statements broadly concerned with ideas of liberation and fierce independence — of bold self-reliance and bullish self-assertion. He adorns t-shirts and a Nicki Minaj album cover; his figure punctuates political memes on Facebook and his contextless quotes pepper Twitter. But he is so much more than a tacky cultural trinket. He tilled the ground from which the fertile seeds of modern America sprung. He was the fountainhead of an intellectual movement — a re-evaluation of the black self — which moulded Barack Obama in his youth; similarly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grew up in a New York City still reeling from his electric pulse. While his body may have perished, his spirit continues to vitalize contemporary conversations on civil rights. He taught a generation of minority Americans to respect themselves and to embrace their collective selfhood. And that, principally, should inform our memory of Malcolm X.
Categories: Domestic Affairs