Today’s growing movements face questions about social transformation: How can we end racism? How to end exploitation? These perennial questions are hardly new, but Malcolm X’s approach remains largely buried.
The occasion of Malcolm’s 90th birthday on May 19 seems a fitting time to recover his legacy from under a pile of distortions. He might have been still a living elder had he not been killed. His legacy, properly understood, remains powerful.
Manning Marable’s book, the most recent, best-known biography of Malcolm was disappointing. Titled “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” failed to treat Malcolm X’s role as a revolutionary in the upheavals of the 1960’s, instead looking at him as a man capable of radically recreating his own image. It was a version of Malcolm fitting for the media-dominated age in which we live: substance doesn’t count, only appearance.
One of Malcolm’s greatest strengths was his capacity for change. Always putting forth his best understanding, forcefully and persuasively, he was able to change his views as he learned more and as things changed. But he never altered his basic stance as a revolutionary, only his understanding of how best to pursue his aim of ending this rotten system. These are basic characteristics of a revolutionary, not just personal attributes, qualities we much need today.
Malcolm played a central role in the revolutionary upheavals of 1960’s America. We need to reassess Malcolm’s role to understand better our situation today and how to proceed.
Uncompromising about the miserable conditions in which African Americans lived, Malcolm excoriated the US. “American democracy is American hypocrisy,” was his catchphrase, unleashing a critique of the whole of America’s culture of self-congratulation. He exposed the system of lies at the root of America’s self justification and opened the way for historians like Gerald Horne to boldly reframe US history as that of a “slave-owners’ republic.”
Like the American Indian Movement, Malcolm disdained integration into a society that was killing its people.
In 1964 he derided the 1963 March on Washington. Manipulated by big donations from the rulers, it derailed the growing revolutionary upheaval, turning it into a “farce on Washington.”
His analysis of reformism was vivid and incisive. Asked by a reporter if the Voting Rights Act was progress, Malcolm said “no.” Stunned, the reporter asked for more. Malcolm explained, “If a man puts a knife in your back 9 inches and pulls it out 6 inches, that’s not progress.”
Malcolm’s critique had enormous impact, leading to a revolutionary turn in the movement. It contributed to the formation of the Black Panther Party, the political awakening of countless other revolutionaries, and it affected Martin Luther King himself.
Two years after Malcolm’s 1965 assassination by persons still unknown and unindicted, Martin Luther King declared support for world revolution in his officially downplayed speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.
King sought to end the “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and economic exploitation.” He embraced the world revolution saying, “(I)f we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” He also said “our country is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
One year to the day after this speech, King was assassinated in circumstances similar to those in which Malcolm was killed. Some believe the timing of King’s murder was a signal sent by the government, a signal telling people to steer clear of the revolutionary road. If so, it was a signal well understood, and rebuffed, by African American people. King’s murder was followed by uprisings in 110 cities, the largest upheaval in the US since the Civil War, an upheaval that threatened to overwhelm the entire order. This great rebellion is generally called “riots” and dismissed. It was a belated recognition of the influence of Malcolm X, who taught that revolution in the US was necessary and possible.
It’s a legacy we would do well to ponder today.