History: The political legacy of Malcolm X

50 years after his assassination

“The centerpiece of Malcolm’s political project was to internationalize the condition of Black peoples in the United States.” Sohail Daulatzai, Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America

21st February marks the fiftieth anniversary of the public assassination of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, known to all as ’Malcolm X’. In the shadow of the nationwide revolt against endemic police violence, economic exploitation and social alienation, the embryo of a new movement led by youth of color is upon us under the banner #Black Lives Matter. Gone for fifty years, Malcolm remains a towering figure in the pantheon of the 20th century revolutionaries that sought to end systems of oppression and degradation. This generation is engaged in a struggle to define and preserve their humanity in the face of cold blooded indifference to their suffering under capitalism and racism. Let’s examine the final 11 months of Malcolm’s life and legacy.

The Evolution of a Revolutionary

On March 8, 1964, following a ninety day exile turned to an indefinite suspension from the Nation of Islam (NOI), following his “chickens come home to roost” statement following the death of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Malcolm X decided to make an announcement that he was leaving behind the NOI and spiritual teacher Elijah Muhammad to fully engage in the struggle for civil and human rights at home and abroad. Malcolm would form Muslim Mosque Inc for NOI members who followed him, to continue to practice black American-based Islam and in June developing the political arm that would allow him to fully participate in the civil rights movement; The Organization of Afro-American Unity, based on the model of The Organization of African Unity that was created in the aftermath of the victories of the anti-colonial liberation struggles in the ’third world’.

The development of Islam in the U.S. dates back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the growth of Islam during slavery, the rise of black nationalism in mid-1800s, the teachings of Edward Wilmot Blyden, the father of Pan-Africanism, as well as the influence of black urban Islamist sects, like the Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America. Islam also grew with the decline of the Marcus Garvey movement and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which was the largest black-led movement, of which Malcolm’s parents were active members. In the early 20th century, the Garvey movement, along with socialist and anarchist activists, were oppressed by the federal government’s Palmer raids, of which the notorious and future director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was a young agent. The Garvey movement was comprised of cultural nationalism and black capitalism and many former Graveyites became attracted to the Lost-Found Nation of Islam under the leadership of W.D. Fard and eventually, Elijah Poole, who would later become Elijah Muhammad.

The Nation of Islam spoke out against the hypocrisy of American democracy, capitalism, white supremacy, and the horrid conditions faced by black people since slavery. Drawing their membership from the urban black working class, the poor, prison populations and the semi-employed, NOI preached and practiced a combination of cultural black nationalism and pro-capitalist ideals. NOI was a top-down leadership, including a paramilitary wing (The Fruit of Islam). Theologically, NOI preached that black people are the “chosen people” to be delivered from the evil of white supremacy and Jim Crow and for a global connection with people of color in Asia, Africa, Middle East and Latin America. The NOI was a distinct form of black American-based Islam and was not recognized by mainstream Sunni Islam. The NOI had a non-engagement policy concerning the most important social movement of the time, the civil rights movement. The NOI and Elijah Muhammad feared a government attack on the organization. Elijah Muhammad was arrested in 1934 when he refused to transfer his children from the movement’s school, the University of Islam, to a public school. Tried in Detroit, he was found guilty of contributing to the ’delinquency of a minor’ and placed on six months’ probation.

As the earth shaking events were taking place globally with revolutions, counter revolutions, rebellions and civil rights at home, Malcolm’s political and spiritual stirrings for a fuller engagement in the struggle was palpable. As the national spokesman of the NOI, Malcolm was politicizing the theology of Elijah Muhammad to the dismay and anger of the leadership of the NOI.

After splitting from the NOI, in April 1964, Malcolm began what would be two expansive trips internationally to Africa, Middle East and Europe. It had religious and political objectives, as Malcolm sought to complete the Hajj to Mecca and formally accept the teachings of Sunni Islam. Malcolm aimed to become a point of reference in the United States for Islam theologically and organizationally. Malcolm’s trips throughout the Middle East and Africa had a huge effect on his thinking on Islam. Malcolm believed spiritually and politically Islam could play a role in the liberation struggle against racism and white supremacy. Malcolm exclaimed, “Our success in America will involve two circles, black nationalism and Islam… And Islam will link us spiritually to Africa, Arabia and Asia,” (Manning Marabel, Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, p.311-312.)

Politically, Malcolm aimed to bring the case of twenty-two million Afro-Americans who faced Jim Crow America of poverty, police violence and political disenfranchisement, to a world stage, as had the likes of Paul Robeson, Max Yergan, Alphaeus Hunton, Dr. W.E. B Dubois and countless others and trailblazing organizations like the Council of Africa Affairs (CAA) in the 1940s and early 50s.

Malcolm had to navigate through a new situation after World War II that witnessed a period of revolution and counter-revolution. The revolutions in the colonial world, as in China, Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba, the murder of the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, in 1961, and the non-aligned movement that produced the influential Bandung Conference in 1955, had a profound effect on Malcolm’s political worldview. The anti-colonial revolutions punctuated the decline of European colonial power, at home and abroad, and the emergence of the United States as the pre-emanated capitalist super power. At the same time, there was a strengthening of social democracy in the West and of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe.

This provided the backdrop to Malcom’s evolving ideas over the span of 11 months. At home, the black freedom movement, during the phase of the civil rights movement beginning in 1955, following the brutal murder of Emmitt Till and Rosie Parks’ defiant refusal to get up from a Montgomery bus seat, ignited a powerful social movement against slavery by another name – Jim Crow.

President Harry Truman’s anti-communism doctrine of 1947, senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts and Cold War liberalism had a devastating effect on the radical black freedom movement, its leading left activists and radical leaders. As professor Penny M. Von Eschen writes in Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anti-colonialism, 1937-1957, “The embrace of Cold War American foreign policy by many African American liberals as well as U.S. government prosecution of activists such as Robeson and the CAA, fundamentally altered the terms of anti-colonialism and effectively severed the black American struggle for civil rights from the issues of anti-colonialism and racism abroad.” (p.3)

This period saw the rise of reformist, liberal and church-based leaderships, under organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC). They led the civil rights movement, with non-violent, civil disobedience tactics and by struggling for political and social reforms from US big business and its two parties (Democrats and Republicans). During the post-WWII economic upswing they became the dominate force in the freedom struggle. The liberal political and economic elite believed that capitalism could address poverty, racism and endemic oppression. Bu it was due to mass struggles that Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration was forced to implement key social programmes under the War on Poverty banner and teh passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964 and Voting Rights 1965.

The work of Malcolm in this key year was a continuum of his ’third world’ analysis developed during his time with the NOI, dating back to the late 50s, and epitomized by Malcolm’s meeting with Fidel Castro in Harlem in 1960. Malcolm highlighted the limitations of liberalism, economically and militarily under Johnson, which would become evident after the full involvement of US imperialism in Vietnam.He exposed the role of the two-party system, particularly condemning the Democratic Party as a dead-end and co-opter of social movements and of entrenched white supremacy. Malcolm lambasted American democracy’s hypocrisy in the face of the social explosions that gripped cities like Harlem and the violent repression of civil rights workers, like the murder of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael "Mickey" Schwerner.

Malcolm’s advocacy of the right to armed self-defense in the face of racist, vigilante and state-sponsored violence against black communities provided a counter-balance to the non-violent ideology and tactics advanced by Dr. King and civil rights leadership. Malcolm’s call for such tactics was a continuation of the work of former North Carolina NAACP leader Robert F. Williams. Defence was a tactic utilized by black community members and activists, like the Deacons for Defense. Malcolmn’s analysis of the terror inflicted on black workers and youth throughout Jim Crow U.S, laid the basis for the development of the Black Panther Party and black power activists.

Malcolm sought to re-tie the threads of the struggle in the US for civil rights to an internationalist framework, uniting anti-capitalists, anti-imperialists, the most oppressed and youth of the ’third world’ and the US, in order to struggle for full liberation from the power structure of daily oppression and exploitation.

His campaign to take the US to the United Nations and charge it with crimes against Afro-Americans human rights was crucial to place the struggle on a world stage and echoed the work of Robeson, Dubois and William Paterson. The ’We Charge Genocide’ petition, 1951, was to be presented to the UN. The international ruling elite, U.S. governmental forces and NOI members wanted Malcolm dead because of his potential to organize, inspire and provide an alternative to racism and capitalism.

The Meaning of Malcolm X today

At the end of his life, Malcolm draw a deeper analysis of capitalism and white supremacy, providing a path for black power activists, organizations and generations to follow. Malcolm matters because the conditions that produced Malcolm still exist. The abject poverty, racism, high rates of unemployment, mass prison incarceration, police violence, layoffs and massive budget cuts are a byproduct of a sick capitalist system based on delivering super profits for a small global ruling elite. These conditions are producing a new generation of revolutionaries who will be inspired by the shining example of Malcolm X, like the youth in Ferguson and nationwide.

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February 2015