“You’re living at a time of revolution…people in power have misused it and now a better world has to be built.”
- Malcolm X
On 21 February 1965 Malcolm X was shot dead minutes before he was about to address a rally in Harlem, New York. As with the firebombing of his home a week earlier, the finger was automatically pointed at the Nation of Islam with whom Malcolm had split the previous year.
Threatened by his radical ideas and appeal to young blacks, the FBI had Malcolm X under surveillance. Speculation continues that the capitalist state itself used its own agents to eliminate their number one public enemy.
Of what there is no doubt is that after the murder the American state drew a huge sigh of relief. One of the most vocal, uncompromising opponents of their system had apparently been silenced. However history continues to show that revolutionary ideas can never be silenced.
The assassination of Malcolm X spawned the Black Panther Party. In Seize The Time, the story of the Black Panthers, Co-founder Bobby Seale tells us the tremendous effect the killing of Malcolm X had on him: “I got mad, I put my fist through a window. I told them all, I’ll make my own self into a Malcolm X, and if they want to kill me they’ll have to kill me…That a big change for me…Malcolm X had an impact on everybody like that”. The next year the Black Panther Party was formed. They represent the highest point in the civil rights movement that engulfed the US for over two decades. They took Malcolm’s message of self-defense for blacks and translated it into action. During the 1970s they became a focal point for young blacks wanting to fight back against the racist police and state in America. They inspired youth and blacks internationally with their preparedness to fight racism and police brutality. They too posed a threat to the American state. At one stage300 of their leaders were imprisoned on various trumped up charges. Many more were gunned down by police.
For many youth today – black and white – the life and ideas of Malcolm X a great inspiration. The X icon we see depicted on T-shirts, baseball caps etc. represents a lot more than merely a fashion accessory. It shows a layer of people groping for the ideas and strategy to take them forward. There’re few if any obvious leaders that young people today identify with. Internationally the leaders of the labor movement certainly have no attraction. Their “do nothing” policy does nothing but frustrate radical youth looking for away out of the conditions they are condemned to live in.
In the 1990s little has changed. The situation certainly hasn’t improved for most blacks in the US or Britain. Every social statistic from education to housing to employment finds blacks at the bottom of the heap. The rise of racism and fascism across Europe has resulted in blacks being brutalized and murdered. The public lynchings that were commonplace for decades in the US have not gone away, they have merely been replaced with less visible racist attacks and murders. In New York alone there were 1,110 “hate crimes” committed against blacks and Jews in 1992. There are over 300 white supremacy groups active in the United States. Against this background Malcolm’s message of fighting back “by any means necessary” is as relevant as ever.
Big business has jumped on the bandwagon of a man who wholeheartedly denounced their system. They attempt to sanitize his message and make a profit out of doing so! A mass industry has developed that expects to net over Â£63million in 1993 from the sale of X merchandise, including board games, crisps and air fresheners!
Eighty four percent of young black Americans consider Malcolm X their hero. However it is claimed that only one in four of those aged under 24 know what he actually stood for. Almost every black leader in America now attempts to claim the mantle of Malcolm – even those reformist leaders embroiled in the Democrat Party that Malcolm consistently condemned. Louis Farrakhan, current leader of the Nation of Islam, while quick to sing the praises of Malcolm X today, joined in denouncing him at the time of Malcolm’s split with the Nation. He wrote in the Nation’s main publication: “such a man as this is worthy of death.”
There is much debate over which direction Malcolm’s ideas were going in the last year of his life. Militant believes that his experiences and international outlook was leading him to understand that the system had to be overthrown. There is no doubt however that he was an internationalist and a revolutionary, who clearly perceived the rottenness of world capitalism.
Militant have produced this pamphlet to trace the life and ideas of Malcolm X and the civil rights movement and most importantly to explain their relevance today. His courageous stand must not be forgotten and his ideas must be built on. In the 1990s we must draw the same conclusions that Malcolm X and hundreds of other heroic blacks drew in the course of their struggle. Only a revolutionary fight to change society will truly lead to black liberation. But Militant goes further. We fight for a socialist society based on the needs of working-class people, black and white. We believe that only a society run democratically by ordinary people will end once and for all the racism and exploitation that is part and parcel of this capitalist system.
Andrea Enisuoh, 1993
The Early Years
“They called me the angriest Negro in America.”
- Malcolm X
Malcolm Little was born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. Malcolm was still very young when after threats from the Ku Klux Klan his family was forced to move to Omaha. He was only six years old when his father was savagely murdered by a local white supremacy group. The same group had earlier torched his family’s home.
At school he proved a promising pupil with the talents and enthusiasm that exist in all young people. Unfortunately, as with numerous other young blacks even today, the system was unable or unwilling to develop those talents and aspirations. Instead they were to be crushed. He was told by his teacher that his dream to become a lawyer was “unrealistic for a Nigger.”
After school Malcolm turned to a life of petty crime. He spent some time in state detention centers. In 1945 he was sentenced to 8-10 years in prison for burglary. There is little doubt that the severity of his sentence was provoked by the outrage of the jury after they were told that Malcolm had been assisted by his white mistress.
For the first 20 years of his life Malcolm experienced nothing but racism. It was those experiences that alienated him, firstly from whites, but also from the whole American system. It was later that he began to realize that the “American system” that failed to offer him any hope of a decent future was the capitalist system. Militant believes that the political consciousness of individuals is formed by their day-to-day experiences. It was Malcolm’s own conditions and accumulated experiences that eventually led him to the correct conclusion: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
During his first year in prison Malcolm expressed his frustration and despair in the only way he knew. He deliberately alienated himself, not only from prison guards but also other inmates.
Eventually he used his time to educate himself. He began classes in English and Latin and read so voraciously, even after lights out, that he permanently impaired his vision.
It was in prison that Malcolm eventually converted to the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim organization espousing separatism as the way forward for the black race. It was this radical religion, described to him as “the natural religion for the black man” that seemed to offer him a way out. Malcolm grasped it with his heart and soul.
The Nation of Islam (Black Muslims)
“Any time I have a religion that won’t let me fight for my people, I say to hell with that religion. That’s why I am a Muslim.”
- Malcolm X
The Nation of Islam was founded in 1931 by Wallace D Fard. He presented himself as a Muslim prophet and preached a message of “black redemption within Islam”. He claimed “the Asiatic Black Man” had been the original inhabitant of the earth. The white race had been given 6,000 years to rule and eventually whites and white Christianity would be destroyed. Elijah Muhammad, who became leader of the Nation after Fard disappeared, developed this. He claimed originally that the black race had inhabited the moon and that at one time the moon and earth were one. A black scientist, Yakub, supposedly caused an explosion that separated the two. The first people to inhabit the earth were members of a black tribe called Shabazz. While these theories seem, they are no more so than the Christian theory of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. However, white Christianity in all its permutations has been developed over centuries. It has been used to justify slavery, racism and imperialism. It is a religion that the ruling class needed and continue to uphold.
The attraction of the Nation of Islam to blacks was its apparent ability to voice the anger and discontent that existed in every black community. In terms of rhetoric they were amongst the strongest advocates of black pride but their separatist outlook and refusal to actively engage in the civil rights struggle left them spectating from the sidelines of the movement. They produced proud books on black history. Discarding their surnames as marks of their slave past, they replaced them with the suffix “X”. Converts had to follow a strict code of discipline – no pork, tobacco, alcohol, drugs or extra marital sex. Engagement in political activity with non-Muslims was not permitted. Until their demand for a separate state was met Muslims were to have no social, political or religious contact with whites. They demanded self-determination; an independent black state in America or a return to Africa.
As Marxists, Militant would argue that this policy is fundamentally flawed. We believe that the sustained division of the working class along racial lines will greatly weaken the potential of the struggle against capitalism. It can also aid the policy of the ruling class to keep divisions running through the class. It was to keep black and white workers divided that the ruling class created and nurtured organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.
While holding this position we do not arrogantly condemn blacks attracted to nationalist ideas. We would support the right to self-determination for any nation, but we also have a duty to point out that under the capitalist system this is unrealistic. We need only look to Zionism – the establishment of Israel on a capitalist basis – to illustrate the point Israel is no safe haven for Jews. It is an armed camp for US imperialism. The creation of a separate black state in America would pose even more difficulties. By the l960s, blacks did not make up the majority in any one state. Two in three blacks lived in the cities so for a black nation to be created, tens of millions of blacks and whites would have to be forcibly uprooted.
Black nationalism is not black racism. Of course, taken to ludicrous extremes, it can be thoroughly reactionary. Louis Farrakhan today uses Black Nationalism to try to justify black capitalism. Malcolm X as a leader of the Nation of Islam met with the Ku Klux Klan to discuss ways of ensuring separatism. However many ordinary blacks who conclude that there is no road out of this capitalist system turn to the ideas of separatism. The job of Marxists is not to dismiss blacks drawn to these conclusions but to show that struggle for a socialist revolution is the only true road to black liberation.
From having just a few hundred supporters initially, by the early 1960s the Black Muslims had 100,000 members. The liberation struggles sweeping Africa and Asia at the time undoubtedly affected blacks in the US. Racial pride was stimulated amongst the whole of the black population. It was on the tide of this new wave of confidence that the Nation of Islam was able to grow. Malcolm X was one of their foremost ministers; his oratory skills attracted a new section of youth towards the religion. Even the media and press hyped up the Black Muslims. A section of the ruling class recognized that they would eventually be forced to make concessions to the black masses of America. They deliberately portrayed the Nation as the nasty vicious side of the black movement, thus bolstering the respectable non-violent mainstream of Martin Luther King.
It was a conscious strategy of the Nation of Islam to target prisons as a recruitment ground. This can be traced back to 1942 when Elijah Muhammad and 62 of his followers were convicted of draft evasion (their religion does no tallow them to serve in the armed forces) and jailed for three years. While in prison Muhammad recognized the fertile ground that existed for any radical ideas amongst what was known as the black underclass. After the war much time and energy was devoted specifically to winning over prisoners.
But to many, the Black Muslims were rife with contradictions. It wasn’t enough for them to simply attack white society and preach black unity. In the early 1960s demonstrations, sit-ins and marches swept almost every state. At a time when militant blacks were involved in mass action the Nation were seen to be doing nothing. They would attack the strategy of the mainstream civil rights movement and yet offer no alternative struggle outside the confines of their own organization.
Malcolm X became a popular leader of the Nation. He threw himself into his work and into the black community. He was catapulted to fame in the press. Much more able than Elijah Muhammad to gauge the killings of young blacks, he became frustrated by the restraints of the organization. When he eventually split with them in 1964 he said: “If I harbored any personal disappointment whatsoever, it was that privately I was convinced that our Nation of Islam could be an even greater force in the black man’s overall struggle if we engaged in more action. It could be heard increasingly in the Negro communities ‘Those Muslims talk tough, but they never do anything.’” Although the eventual split was put down to “internal differences” there is no doubt that his desire to politically organize blacks in action was unimportant factor. At his first press conference after the split he still defended the Nation, Elijah Muhammad and their ‘back to Africa’ policy. But he did say: “separation back to Africa is a long term program and while it is yet to materialize 22 million of our people who are still here in America need better food, clothing, housing and jobs right now…Now that I have more independence of action, I intend to use a more flexible approach toward working with others to get a solution to this problem.”
The Civil Rights Movement
“The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is interrelated…racism, poverty, militarism and imperialism. Evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society.”
- Martin Luther King
“If George Washington didn’t get independence for this country non-violently…and you taught me to look upon heroes, then it’s time for you to realize – I have studied your books well.”
- Malcolm X
The tremendous Civil Rights movement of the 1950s, 60s and early 70s shook America to its very foundations. It was a movement that in one or another touched every black family in the US. Internationally throughout Africa, the Caribbean and even Europe blacks were imbued with a new confidence. It seemed on every continent a liberation struggle was taking place. America the ‘land of the free’ was no exception.
Jim Crow (Racial Segregation)
This was a struggle that had to be fought Blacks in America did not just face poverty, but a degrading, racist social system commonly known as Jim Crow (racial segregation). In the South rights to vote, organize, even to assemble were taken away from blacks. Segregated schools, transport, public toilets etc. condemned blacks to the worst conditions.
Jim Crow was not simply some nasty piece of legislation that evolved over the. It was a carefully worked out, carefully executed, social system devised by the ruling class. At times of economic crisis the ruling class often use racism to divide working people. It is also used to drive down wages and working conditions thus providing pools of cheap labor. Before World War Two in the South there were vast amounts of land and yet an enormous shortage of labor. Taking away the rights of blacks enabled the bosses to force them to work for pitifully low wages. After World War Two the mechanization of agriculture solved the bosses problem and blacks were literally driven off the land. There now existed, after the war, a labor shortage in the factories of the North. Migration of huge numbers of blacks to the North began. This continued through the 1950s and 1960s and created the black ghettos we see there today.
During World War Two over 3 million blacks registered for the army. Over 500,000 fought and many died “to defend democracy” in racially segregated units. Those that returned did so in the knowledge that things would never be the same again. Blacks came back wanting, expecting and prepared to fight for change.
1954 Supreme Court Ruling
There had often been struggles through the courts by blacks to end segregation, but before 1954 they had little effect. Now the ruling class realized there had to be change. Throughout Africa and Asia there were huge movements for independence, against military and economic domination by Imperialism. Colonial rule in its previous form was coming to an end. Imperialist America found itself having to negotiate with new, confident black governments. To uphold their position of influence the US had to try to convince these governments that they were the friends of blacks. They therefore looked to produce cosmetic changes at home.
This was the reason for the 1954 Supreme Court Ruling that deemed segregation in schools illegal. But rather than satisfy blacks in the US it led to them demanding more. Blacks demanded the right to vote and boldly went to register.
There was always strong resistance to the dismantling of Jim Crow. The Southern Democratic Party, made up of white small property owners was based on this racist system. While industrialization benefited big capitalist firms, the small property owners still needed to exploit blacks to make their profits.
To sustain the Jim Crow system lynchings and murders became commonplace. Blacks who registered to vote were assassinated and any blacks that fought for their rights in any way were met with a reign of terror.
Lynchings became an integral part of the Jim Crow system. Far from being an aberration they became an American institution. Many people traveled for miles see the lynching of a black take place, with discounts introduced on the railroads for those traveling to a lynching. Rallies with Democratic Party speakers were held before some lynchings took place and photographs of the events were even taken and sold as souvenirs.
In 1955 things began to change. Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy from Chicago was visiting family in Mississippi. Coming from the North he was seen by Southern whites to have ideas above his station. The final straw came when he sweet-talked’ a white woman. For this “crime” he was beaten, shot through the head and his body mutilated. Yet this was not allowed to become just another lynching. His mother had his body shipped back to Chicago and demanded an open casket funeral so the whole world could see what America had done to her son. Over 250 000 people came to view the body. Jet magazine carried a picture of Emmett’s mutilated body that sent shockwaves through every black community. Meetings were called in every black ghetto. Demands for troops to be sent to Mississippi to protect blacks spread, not only through the North, but also through the South. Till’s mother demanded a meeting with President Eisenhower but this was refused. Instead the FBI was sent to investigate who was organizing the protests. A mock trial with an all white jury let the lynchers off scott free. Everywhere demands for action for demonstrations could be heard. The tide had begun to turn.
Against this background the mass movement began to evolve. In Montgomery, Alabama, action began. In December 1955 Rosa Parks, an activist in the National Association for the Advancement of Black people (NAACP), made her stand.
The bus system in Montgomery was totally segregated, with priority given to whites for the best seats. While 70% of the passengers were black they had to board at the backs of the buses. If all the white seats were taken then whites could demand that blacks gave up their seats. When a white demanded Rosa Parks’ seat she refused saying, she was tired from work and tired of giving in. For this she was arrested and fined $ 10. She along with E D Nixon, a black trade union organizer, decided it was time to fight back. They used her case to organize one-day boycott of the buses.
Through the churches, which were the backbone of the black community the campaign was organized. Ministers who were the traditionally accepted leaders of the black community were approached to lead the campaign. One of those that accepted was a new minister in town, Martin Luther King. He went on to become the most famous leader of the Civil Rights movement.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
The whole black community in the area rallied behind the boycott. As the boycott spiraled from one day to almost a year, its demands got bolder. While initially the campaign simply demanded sensitive treatment for blacks on buses, they soon realized they had to go the whole way and they demanded the end of segregation on buses.
Even with support from the whole community it was a long, hard struggle. A complex system of private cars had to be used to transport blacks. Martin Luther King put out a call for 100 station wagons to come to Montgomery to be used as free shuttle services. Some sympathetic whites even gave lifts to blacks. Even so many were forced to walk miles every day to get to work. But the resolve hardened each day. When asked by a reporter why she was walking, one middle aged black woman replied, “For me, my children and my grand children.”
The resolve of racist whites also hardened. The white Citizens council developed as the main organization against the boycott and grew massively during this period. Violence spiraled and during the campaign at least eight bombings took place. The Ku Klux Klan held highly visible, intimidatory rallies. Nevertheless six months into the boycott another began in Florida, forcing the bus company there out of business. Eleven months on the battle was won. Enormous pressure forced the desegregation of Montgomery buses and a small taste of what mass action could achieve left the black community hungry for much more.
After the Montgomery boycott Martin Luther King became greatly respected for his leadership qualities. However Malcolm X was quick to condemn his ideas of pacifism and non-violence as ideas that disarmed the black community. “You don’t have to criticize Reverend King, his actions criticize him. Any Negro who teaches other Negroes to turn the other cheek is disarming that Negro.”
Segregation in Schools
The late 1950s saw the famous Brown vs. Brown case that ruled against segregation in schools. But it would take a lot more than paper legislation to have any effective change.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957, came the first major confrontation to desegregate schools. Nine black teenagers were set to attend a school in Little Rock and the state Governor Orval Faubus, a Democrat, had initially been elected with the backing of groups like the NAACP and the trade union movement. But, once in office he soon shed his liberal image. Playing on the discontent that existed amongst whites to integration, he became a hardened segregationist. Refusing to enforce any law to integrate schools. Racist mobs rallied to physically stop the black teenagers getting to the school. Pressure forced President Eisenhower to act. He sent Federal troops to ensure passage for the blacks students. The fact that the state had been forced to intervene represented another victory for the black movement and greatly demoralized the racists.
Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides
Until the early 1960s the struggles of blacks against segregation had mainly consisted of local action. 1960 changed that and the movement rapidly spread from state to state with young people playing a key role.
It began with the sit-in movement. A new generation inspired by the movements already taking place in the US and internationally, decided they too should get involved. They would enter lunch bars and demand to be served and when they were refused they would literally sit-in! The invasion of the bar meant that its owners lost money. Eventually the police would be called and the youth, predominantly students, would be arrested. Many were beaten. Every time a group was arrested another group would come to take their place. Thousands were arrested and many were expelled from school but the sit-ins continued.
Then came the Freedom Rides where black and white students would board buses and travel through the Southern states. These actions were taken to force the integration of buses that had already been passed in law. Many of the freedom riders were beaten and brutalized by racist mobs. But still the Freedom Rides continued.
It became clear to the youth that they needed their own organization to discuss the strategies and actions they needed to take. They were invited by Martin Luther King to form the youth wing of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization that although had a strong pacifist thread, supported direct acts of disobedience. But this offer was rejected and instead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed. While still defending the tactic of non- violence, this was for them a tactic not a principle.
Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King evolved as the most important leader of the Civil Rights Movement. His principles of pacifism were the dominant feature of the movement for a long period. But once youth entered the scene of battle it was much harder for him to hold this line. Faced with beatings, lynching and petrol bombings, the idea of non-violence somehow did not ring true. Figures like Malcolm X with his message of militant action, became a much more attractive focus for young blacks. Malcolm totally rejected the idea of turning the other cheek and he advocated black people defending themselves “…by any means necessary. If someone puts a hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”
While King believed that mass peaceful protests would convince the government to implement reforms Malcolm X soon became one of the most vocal opponents of King’s strategy for the movement After the famous 250,000 strong 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his well remembered “I have a Dream,” speech, Malcolm X was later to comment “While they’re dreaming, our people are living a nightmare.” Malcolm was not alone in criticizing aspects of King’s leadership. He was effectively voicing the thoughts of many younger activists. Anne Mood who was at the Washington demonstration recalled: “I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers to discover we had dreamers instead of a leader leading us. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton, Mississippi, we never had time to sleep much less to dream.”
After King was presented with the Nobel peace Prize Malcolm again used the opportunity to highlight their different approaches. “He got the Peace Prize, we got the problem. I don’t want the white man giving me medals. If I’m following a general and he’s leading me into battle, and the enemy tends to give him rewards or awards. I get suspicious of him, especially if he gets a peace award before the war is over.”
However even Martin Luther King was to talk of revolution towards the end of his life. In 1967 he commented “For the last 2 years we have been a reform movement…But after Selma and the Voting rights Bill (1965) we moved into a new era which must be an era of revolution. What good does it do a man to have integrated lunch counters if he can’t buy a hamburger?” This was too much for the ruling class. King started supporting marches of striking workers and was gunned down as he prepared to march with refuse workers in Memphis.
The Last Year
“We are seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.”
- Malcolm X
Behind the Split
Malcolm’s eventual split with the Nation of Islam was finally provoked by the death of John F Kennedy. Unlike the leaders of the mainstream movement Malcolm had never sown illusions in Kennedy or the big business Democrat Party. Kennedy had come to government on the back of the Civil Rights movement. In 1960 when he closely beat Richard Nixon he had received 68% of the black vote. But like US President Clinton today, he soon ditched many of his election promises. For this Malcolm rightly denounced him: “Kennedy ran on a platform as a white liberal three years ago and said all he had to do was take out his fountain pen put his name on some paper and our problem could be solved. He was three years in office before he found where his fountain pen was…and the problem isn’t solved yet”. It was therefore true to form for Malcolm to refuse to be silent after Kennedy’s death. Elijah Muhammad ordered his members not to publicly comment on the issue. Yet when quizzed by the press Malcolm said simply “The chickens have come home to roost. Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” An outraged Muhammad suspended Malcolm for ninety days. During that period Malcolm was not to speak publicly on behalf of the Nation. After the 90 days the suspension was not lifted, it had in reality become an expulsion. This was not a real surprise to Malcolm and reflected the growing differences between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad. On March 8 1964 Malcolm formally announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam to build a new organization.
It was clear that Malcolm and Muhammad had begun to differ on the question of how to struggle long before the split. In 1962 the Los Angeles Police, in a highly provocative attack, gunned down seven black Muslims. Sixteen were arrested and charged with “criminal assault against the police.”
Malcolm was shipped to LA to deal with the case. He automatically recognized the huge potential that existed to unite Muslims and non-Muslims in a campaign against police brutality. Mass meetings were organized immediately. Media coverage raised the awareness of the campaign. Material was produced that aimed to cross religious divides leaflets pointed out that “It was a Muslim mosque this time; next it will be the Protestant church, the Catholic cathedral, the Jewish synagogue.” But Malcolm’s plans to launch a massive nation-wide campaign were eventually vetoed by the leadership. It was quickly becoming clear that Malcolm represented the militant tendency within the organization. Elijah Muhammad’s conservative tendencies were holding things back. In a statement after the split Malcolm made it clear where he now stood. Talking about the new organization he was to launch he said: “It’s going to be different now, I’m going to join in the fight wherever Negroes ask for my help and I suspect my activities will be on a greater and more intensive scale than in the past.”
Malcolm did not want to be left on the sidelines of the great revolutionary struggle that was sweeping America. But the Black Muslims abstentionist message of “boycott the civil rights struggle, have nothing to do with the white man and his society” made it inevitable that unless he broke with them he would be left on the sidelines. The break came at the height of the civil rights movement, when Malcolm X realized he had to take part in the struggle.
A week before his assassination Malcolm X publicly revealed that the leaders of the Black Muslims had been colluding with the Ku Klux Klan and Rockwell, the leader of the US Nazi Party. They had looked to giving Elijah Muhammed financial aid. In return he was to continue churning out the separatist message and at the same time keep the heat off racist organizations. This graphically shows how Black Nationalism could play into the hands of the racists. In the course of struggle Malcolm X was forced to question whether Black Nationalism was the correct philosophy. He did not break with the idea of blacks organizing separately but he recognized using the term Black Nationalist was setting him apart from “true revolutionaries dedicated to overturning the system of exploitation that exists on this earth.” he said, “Can we sum up the solution to the problems confronting our people as Black Nationalism? If you notice, I haven’t been using that expression for several months now.”
Muslim Mosque Inc.
Malcolm’s new organization, the Muslim Mosque Inc. aimed to organize in action both Muslims and non-Muslims. While he was still a committed black nationalist, his aim being the return of Blacks to Africa, he saw this as a long way off. He wanted the Muslim Mosque Inc., working alongside other civil rights groups to spearhead a campaign for decent housing, education, jobs etc. He correctly saw the crucial importance that youth would play in any radical organization saying “Our accent will be on the youth. We need new ideas, new methods, new approaches. We are completely disenchanted with the old, adult established politicians. We want some new, more militant faces.”
He also began to develop his ideas on self-defense for black communities. “Concerning nonviolence: It is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of racial attacks.” He called for blacks to take up their legal right to own a shotgun or rifle. Where the state refused to intervene in communities under attack he said those communities should form rifle clubs. “We should be peaceful, law abiding – but the time has come for the American Negro to fight back in self-defense whenever and wherever he is being unjustly or unlawfully attacked. If the Government thinks I am wrong for saying this then let the government start doing it’s job.”
However from it’s inception the Muslim Mosque Inc received little funding or support from established civil rights groups. The SNCC refused to enter into any sort of working alliance. The media also refused to portray the new direction that Malcolm was moving in. In his own words he was “caught in a trap”. He wanted to build an all-black organization “whose ultimate objective was to help create a society in which there could exist honest white-black brotherhood.” Perhaps the leaders of the Civil Rights movement recognized just what a threat Malcolm’s new leftward direction posed. He was now more than just an angry black man. He was beginning to work out tactics and strategies that would mobilize blacks into action. Now more than ever he posed a threat to the leadership of the civil rights movement He was evolving into a revolutionary and challenging not just racism, but the whole of the capitalist system.
Malcolm spent just 50 weeks apart from the Nation of Islam before he was assassinated. But even in that brief time his political thinking changed dramatically. He spent over half this time abroad touring Africa and the Middle East. This was biggest factor to change his way of thinking. “They say travel broadens your scope,” he said “and recently I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of it. While I was traveling I noticed that most of the countries that have recently emerged into independence have turned away from the so-called capitalistic system in the direction of socialism.” “Most of the countries that were colonial powers were capitalist countries…You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
Initially he still rejected the idea of black and white workers uniting against oppression. “They’ll never do it with working-class whites. The history is that working-class whites have been just as much against not only working Negroes but all Negroes period. I think one of the mistakes Negroes make is this worker solidarity thing. There’s no such thing -it didn’t even work in Russia.” But history tells another story. Blacks, in struggles against racial oppression, have always looked to unite with other oppressed groups. During the great slave revolts of the past, black slaves formed strong alliances with Native American Indians. During the Civil War, alliances were formed with northern trade unionists and in 1880, black and white small farmers came together to form the Populist movement to defend their common interests.
Again after visits abroad Malcolm’s position on this began to change. “In my recent travels into the African countries and others, it was impressed upon me the importance of having a working unity among all peoples, black as well as white. But the only way that this is going to be brought about is that the black ones have to be in unity first.” He went on to say: “We will work with anyone, with any group, no matter what their color is, as long as they are genuinely interested in taking the type of steps necessary to bring an end to the injustices that black people in this country are inflicted by.”
Even on the issue black nationalism, Malcolm’s thoughts began to change. “I used to define Black Nationalism as the idea that the black man should control the economy of his community, the politics of the community and so forth. But when I was in Africa in May, in Ghana, I was speaking with the Algerian ambassador who is extremely militant and is a revolutionary in the truest sense of the word…When I told him my political, social and economic philosophy was black nationalism, he asked me where did that leave him? Because he was white. He was an African but he was Algerian and to all appearances, a white man. And I said I define my objective as the victory of Black Nationalism – where did that leave him? Where does that leave revolutionaries in Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and Mauritania? So he showed me where I was alienating people who were true revolutionaries, dedicated to overthrowing the system of exploitation that exists on this earth by any means necessary. So I had to do a lot of thinking and reappraising of my definition of Black Nationalism. Can we sum up the solution to the problems confronting our people as Black Nationalism? And if you noticed I haven’t been using the expression for several months. But I would still be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of black people in this country.”
Organization of Afro American Unity (OAAU)
In June 1964 Malcolm announced the formation of the Organization of Afro American Unity. Self Defense of Afro Americans was an important feature in the program of this organization.
A voter registration drive was launched in the black community to make “every unregistered voter an independent voter.” This in no way detracted from his position that the two capitalist parties of America: The Republican Party and the Democrat Party should in no way be supported by black people.
The OAAU launched a petition to be presented to the United Nations Human Right Commission, calling for the prosecution of the US government for their crimes against Afro Americans. While this may have been an effective propaganda campaign, that was all it could ever be. The United Nations has never and will never be an international upholder of justice. Rather it plays the role of a cover for US interests. We need only look at its role today in the Gulf war with the UN’s refusal to lift a finger against Israel despite that government’s treatment of Palestinians. Its role has never been to protect the rights of small countries or oppressed minorities.
If anyone was clear what a threat to the system he posed then Malcolm himself knew. He experienced weekly diatribes against him in the Nation of Islam newspaper, the firebombing of his home, FBI surveillance. He himself said, “Anything I do today, I regard as urgent. No man is given but so much to accomplish whatever his life’s work…l am only facing facts when I know that any moment of any day, or any night, could bring me death.” Malcolm X was assassinated before he was able to effectively translate his new ideas into action. He was buried at the age of 40 but as the next chapter shows, his ideas lived on.
The Black Panther Party
“Working class people of all colors must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class. Let me emphasize again – we believe our fight is a class struggle not a race struggle.”
- Bobby Seale, co-founder Black Panther Party
The death of Malcolm X spawned a new, determined layer of black youth. Having tried and tested the strategy of peaceful, non-violence they had found it wanting. They were now prepared for a different kind of action.
The Black Panther Party formed in 1966, drew much inspiration from the ideas of Malcolm X. They rejected pacifism and reformism in favor of militant action and self-defense against racists. They were the logical development of the struggle onto a higher level.
From their formation in Oakland, California, support grew rapidly for the Black Panthers. Their uncompromising Ten-point program called for full employment, decent housing and education for blacks. They demanded that blacks should be exempted from military service because they did not want to defend the American racist government. Most popular of all was their demand for an end to police brutality. Many young blacks, sick of daily harassment from the police were attracted to the Panthers, not only their program but their ability to organize a fight on these issues. Yet the Black Panthers went further, they recognized that to effectively change things they had to fight for an end to capitalism and for the establishment of a socialist society.
They are most famous for exercising their legal right to carry guns. This they used to patrol their communities and monitor the actions of the police.
They also established free food, clothing and Medicare programs for the poor. Much of this was financed by money they demanded off local business. They campaigned for democratic control of the police, for blacks to register as voters and called for a 30-hour week, without loss of pay to create more jobs from the unemployed.
All over America Panther chapters were formed. Panthers drafted into the army during the Vietnam War formed groups there. Panther caucuses were also set up within trade unions.
The state was terrified of the potential for the Panthers to gain mass support. White youth were in rebellion against the Vietnam War. Forty five percent of blacks fighting in Vietnam said they would be prepared to take up arms to secure justice at home.
The government replied to the movement, on the one hand, with concessions to the mass of blacks but they also meted out vicious repression to the most militant black leaders. At one stage, out of a leadership of 1000 three hundred of these were awaiting trial. Thirty-nine Panthers were gunned down in the street by the police.
Prisons became a fertile place where Panther members would recruit and educate other blacks. George Jackson, a young black, was won to the Panthers in this way. When he was eighteen he was convicted of robbery. After poor legal advice he had pleaded guilty expecting a sentence of one year or less. He was sentenced to one year to life imprisonment. Technically the parole board should determine when a prisoner on this sentence could be released. Racist violence was commonplace in the prisons. Any black that fought back would lose their parole. This happened to Jackson year after year.
As revolutionary socialists the leaders of the Black Panthers looked to other revolutionary leaders for guidance. They looked to Mao-Tse-Tung in China and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Although both had successfully carried through revolutions the vital missing ingredient in both cases was a working class leadership and workers democracy. The main mistake of the Panthers was not to clearly recognize the crucial role of the organized working class, both black and white in the struggle for socialism. The Panthers needed to organize black workers and appeal to white workers to form a united struggle to change society. Genuine Marxism would have advised the Panthers to win over the workers not by them robbing the rich to feed and defend the poor but by agitating for working people to take action to defend and feed themselves – by strikes and mass protests which would have given them the confidence of their own strength. This would prepare the movement for the greater confrontations with the ruling class that would inevitably be necessary to change society. In Revolutionary Suicide, Huey Newton, one of the founders of the Party said, “we were looked upon as an ad-hoc military group, acting outside the community fabric and too radical to be part of it. We saw ourselves as the revolutionary vanguard and did not fully understand that only the people can create the revolution. And hence the people did not follow our lead in picking up the gun.”
We believe nevertheless that the Black Panthers represented a great step forward in the movement against racial oppression.
Some try to claim that the Panthers stood for black separatism. This is totally incorrect In Seize the Time, Bobby Seale, the other founder of the Black Panthers stressed, “We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.”
They recognized that the working class could not afford to let racial or national prejudices divide them. Speaking about black separatists within the movement Bobby Seale said: “Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses. We need unity to defeat the boss class – every strike shows that. All of us are laboring class people…in our view it is a class struggle between the massive proletarian working class and the small minority ruling class. Working class people of all colors must unite against the exploitative ruling class.”
There is no doubt that the potential of the Panthers organizing terrified the American state. J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, declared them the number one threat to the internal security of the US. The state tried to stamp them out in any way they could. Yet even now the message of the Black panthers can be heard. Internationally from the Middle East to the Caribbean to Britain; groups carrying their name have been formed. From Malcolm X to the Black Panthers to the present day the ideas of struggle and of socialist revolution live on.
Conclusion – Change the System
“The system cannot produce freedom for the Afro American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system period. ”
- Malcolm X
Governments, press and media would have us believe that much has improved for blacks since the days of the civil rights movement. Yet the illusion they try to create flies in the face of reality. Yes there maybe more black MPs, mayors and businessmen, but facts show that for the vast majority of black people nothing has fundamentally changed.
The scenes of wealth and happiness we see portrayed on television in The Cosby are a world apart from the average black family in the United States. Of the urban underclass in America 59% are black. The average white household is 32 times more wealthy than the average black household. One in three of the black population lives below the poverty line.
In Britain the unemployment rate amongst blacks is twice that of whites. While making up just 4.4% of the population blacks make up over 20% of the prisoners on remand.
These figures show that the few black “high flyers” have become totally removed from the reality of life for black people.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, violent protests swept over 100 cities in America, 146 people were killed in riots that shook the government In response to the racial upheavals of the time the Kerner Commission was set up by President Johnson to investigate the causes. It drew the conclusion: “Our nation is moving towards two separate societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal,” (with the likelihood of more and more blacks) “extending support to extremists who advocate civil disruption.” The ruling class realized that unless reforms were carried out, revolutionary upheavals would develop. The Commission concluded that it would be unrealistic to try to abolish the ghettos i.e. poverty. Instead it recommended a strategy to take “substantial numbers of Negroes into the society outside the ghettos.” Black tokenism followed and a practice that in essence amounted to a policy of liberation one at a time. For some this was of benefit. The number of black businesses rose 50% in the six years after 1970. But for most blacks things stayed the same. America, the richest, most powerful country in the world was unable to solve the problems facing ordinary African Americans.
After the upheavals of the early 1980s in Britain – Moss Side, Toxteth, London, Bristol – the ruling class tried a similar strategy here. To take the heat out of the struggle black leaders were drawn into the Government sponsored Race Relations Industry. Thousands of documents were written about meaningless equal opportunity programs and a small minority of blacks has well paid jobs within this industry. Many in effect have turned their back on the struggle. But for most blacks nothing has changed.
This system, capitalism, has miserably failed as far as black people are concerned. Also for white workers and youth this system has nothing to offer. Every major black struggle against racial oppression has been forced to draw the conclusion that unity against class oppression is imperative.
The anti-slavery movements, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton all traveled down the road of believing black liberation could be achieved under capitalism. They were however forced to conclude the need for revolution and class unity.
Militant calls on all people, black-and white who want to fight racism to join us. But our battle will not stop at challenging the evils of racism. This entire system has to be changed. We fight for a socialist society that would eradicate racism, oppression and exploitation once and for all. Join with the Militant in the campaign for socialism internationally.