Mar 2, 2015
It was 50 years ago in February that Malcolm X was assassinated by a gunman while he was speaking in New York. Someone influenced by the Nation of Islam may have pulled the trigger, but it is certainly possible, as many believed at the time, that the U.S. state apparatus was involved in his murder. It had already tried – unsuccessfully – to marginalize Malcolm X because he was giving voice to what many in the black population had concluded and were acting upon in the streets: that to win their demands it was necessary to go beyond the turn-your-cheek tactics of the civil rights movement.
Born Malcolm Little, he had seen his father lynched. Like many others of his generation, as a teen he gained his first education in the streets, becoming involved in street crime like gambling and later burglary, for which he was convicted and sent to prison. While in prison, he read and learned from Elijah Muhammad’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, most importantly from Muhammad’s expression of the right of black people to defend themselves and be proud to be black.
When he got out of prison, Malcolm X joined the Nation of Islam. Over time, he built strong bases of support in several cities, particularly Harlem and Detroit.
He came into conflict with Elijah Muhammad, first because he took as a practical aim Muhammad’s call for self-defense. When he publicly described the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a case of “the chickens coming home to roost,” it set him apart from the road Elijah Muhammad was taking. Malcolm pointed to Kennedy’s assassination as a consequence of the violence carried out by the U.S. government. He made the connection between the violence here and the brutality carried out by the U.S. state around the world.
In doing so, Malcolm X went farther than Elijah Muhammad was ready to go, and when Muhammad attempted to silence him, Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam.
Following the break, Malcolm X continued to articulate what many in the black movement were thinking. He spoke of “the ballot or the bullet.” As his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, said recently, “America sat up and took notice as he articulated the searing reality that, if not granted the right to participate in the system, black citizens would have no recourse but to fight. The long-suppressed fury that was beginning to boil over in black communities lent credence to this warning. And when voting rights laws and practices changed, it was in no small part because of powerful white Americans’ fear of what could happen if they failed to act.”
Malcolm said, in effect, to the white power structure, “Either you give us what we need to have a decent life, or YOU won’t have it.”
In speaking today about the fight against police murders of young black men, his daughter said, “I imagine he would applaud the ‘Hands Up’ gesture for its sheer dramatic effect, but would also critique it as rank capitulation that ironically accommodates the very goal of police brutality – to intimidate and immobilize black citizens, forcing them into a defenseless posture if they hope to survive. He’d agree that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ indeed – but also note that the uniformed police officers who disagree are not likely to be persuaded by a hashtag.”
At the time of his death, Malcolm X had not yet come to articulate the goal that the black population, in order get what it needs has to get rid of capitalism – and tie that to the key position black workers hold in the American working class.
But Malcolm X left behind a legacy which touches all those fighting against the racism and violence of this society. There’s a famous passage from his speech The Ballot or the Bullet that well explains that legacy:
“Any time you demonstrate against segregation and a man has the audacity to put a police dog on you, kill that dog, kill him, I’m telling you, kill that dog. I say it, if they put me in jail tomorrow, kill that dog. Then you’ll put a stop to it. Now, if these white people in here don’t want to see that kind of action, get down and tell the mayor to tell the police department to pull the dogs in. That’s all you have to do. If you don’t do it, someone else will.
If you don’t take this kind of stand, your little children will grow up and look at you and think ‘shame.’ If you don’t take an uncompromising stand, I don’t mean go out and get violent; but at the same time you should never be nonviolent unless you run into some nonviolence. I’m nonviolent with those who are nonviolent with me. But when you drop that violence on me, then you’ve made me insane, and I’m not responsible for what I do. And that’s the way every Negro should get. Any time you know you’re within the law, within your legal rights, within your moral rights, in accord with justice, then die for what you believe in. But don’t die alone. Let your dying be reciprocal. This is what is meant by equality. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”