Feb 15, 2016
On February 21, 1965, 51 years ago, Malcolm X – Malik el-Shabazz – was assassinated.
Malcolm X defined himself in a famous analogy he often used: that of the house slave and the field slave.
“The house Negroes – they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good because they ate his food – what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved the master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master’s house – quicker than the master would....
That house Negro loved his master, but that field Negro – remember, they were in the majority, they hated the master. When the house caught on fire, he didn’t try to put it out; that field Negro prayed for a wind, for a breeze. When the master got sick, the field Negro prayed that he’d die. If someone came to the field Negro and said, ‘Let’s separate, let’s run,’ he didn’t say ‘Where we going?’ He’d say, ‘Any place is better than here’.”
You’ve got field Negroes in America today. I’m a field Negro. The masses are the field Negroes. When they see this man’s house on fire, you don’t hear the little Negroes talking about ‘our government is in trouble.’ They say, ‘The government is in trouble.’ Imagine a Negro: ‘Our government’! I even heard one say ‘our astronauts.’ They won’t even let him near the plant – and ‘our astronauts’! ‘Our Navy’ – that’s a Negro that is out of his mind, a Negro that is out of his mind.”
Malcolm X was undoubtedly the most powerful and militant speaker of his time. With his directness, the analogies he took from daily experience, the biting humor he utilized to confront his audience on their own hesitations and illusions, he found the way to speak to the poor black masses in a way that no one else had done. And he used his podium to become the most effective recruiter for the Nation of Islam.
Like others of his generation, he first came into contact with the Nation of Islam, headed by Elijah Muhammad, while in prison. Paroled from prison at the age of 27, he threw himself into recruitment activity, first in Detroit, where he was chiefly responsible for tripling the membership in Temple One in less than a year, then to Chicago, where he studied with Elijah Muhammad. He built up temples in Boston and Philadelphia and then moved to Harlem.
During the 11 years of his activity as the most well-known organizer for the Nation of Islam, the Nation had a monumental growth. Remember, it was not enough to walk through an open door to enter the Nation of Islam. A person who wanted to join went through a period of work, study and testing, and he or she had to accept the strict rules of conduct that the Nation maintained.
During the years of the 1950s and early 1960s, when a part of the poor black masses were becoming radicalized, the Nation of Islam appeared as the only organization which spoke to that growing radicalism.
The Nation of Islam denounced white society in the harshest tones. Elijah Muhammad spoke of the 6,000 year reign of the “blue-eyed devil” about to come to an end.
Over the years, Malcolm X’s ideas evolved, but he was not more ready to make himself acceptable to American society:
“No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver – no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
When John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963, Malcolm X responded to a question about the assassination, by referring to the recent murder of Medgar Evers by racists in Mississippi and U.S. involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Viet Nam. He added, “Being an old farm boy myself, I was never sad to see chickens coming home to roost.” The Nation of Islam publicly disciplined Malcolm X, ordering him to keep silent for 90 days.
Whatever differences had been evolving inside the Nation, this brought them in the open. In March of 1964, when it became obvious that Malcolm X was not to be reinstated, he announced the formation of The Muslim Mosque Inc. In May of 1964, he announced the formation of a non-religious organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
In the spring of 1964, the bourgeois news media in New York ran lurid accounts about the so-called “Blood Brothers.” Supposedly, a gang of young black men in Harlem had organized themselves to attack cops and, more generally, whites.
In contradiction to almost every other black leader, Malcolm said this:
“So the question is, if the Blood Brothers don’t exist, should they exist? Not do they exist, should they exist? Do they have a right to exist? And since when must a man deny the existence of his blood brother? It’s like denying his family.
I think one of the mistakes that our people make – we’re too quick to apologize for something that might exist that the power structure finds deplorable or finds difficult to digest. And without even realizing it, sometimes we try and prove it doesn’t exist. But if it doesn’t, sometimes it should. I am one person who believes that anything the black man in this country needs to get his freedom right now, that thing should exist.”
By 1964 Malcolm X had come to view force as a valid weapon, and the threat of using it as a club held over white society to convince it to redeem its crimes against the black population. He sometimes said that it was not “white society” per se, but capitalist society. In the last year of his life, he made it clear that he was ready to bring down this society, if that was what it took for black people to escape oppression.
But what he did not say was that the very circumstance of capitalist class society made it necessary for black people to overturn it in order to escape oppression.
The biggest burst of radicalization of the black masses came after Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965. In the summer of that same year came the first massive rebellion, the one in the Watts section of Los Angeles; in 1966, it was Cleveland and Chicago; in 1967, Detroit and Newark, and dozens of cities and towns stretching out from these two, as well as Cincinnati and Dayton Ohio; in April 1968, hundreds of cities across the country went up in flames when Martin Luther King was assassinated.
By 1967 and ‘68, many ordinary black people called themselves revolutionaries. And the call for “black power” was heard everywhere. This was not yet the revolution, but it indicated at least that social revolution might have come out of those circumstances, depending on how the consciousness of the black masses evolved, that is, in part, on what goals were given to them by leaders they trusted.
If Malcolm X had lived, would he have come to the point that he would have given the goal of overturning capitalist society to the black masses?
No one can say. He already had gone through some important changes in his thinking. But he would have had to make an even sharper change, and moreover in the heat of the struggle.
We’ll never know, but we do know that no recognized leaders organized the black masses fundamentally on the basis of their class. And there was no important organization of the left that made a working class revolution seem possible.
All that remains to be done, building on the legacy that Malcolm X and many others, for example, Eugene Debs, left behind.