Malcolm X was born in the early twentieth century US, went to prison, joined the Nation of Islam, talked to a lot of people about how Black Americans deserve civil rights, went to Mecca, converted to Sunni Islam, inspired a lot more people to convert to Islam, wrote a touching autobiography, “calmed down,” and then was assassinated. This brief and disjointed account contains nearly all of the facts about Malcolm X’s life that most American Muslims are willing to talk about. We often ask each other to honor him and uphold him as a model for the social activist Muslim, and when asked what he did that was so honorable or activist, bring up a vague combination of adherence to some strict moral code (whether Sunni orthodoxy or that of the Nation) and willingness to speak about the suffering of Black Americans under a Jim Crow society. At worst, jummuah khatibs only bring Malcolm up as someone who “converted many people to Islam.” Such accounts of his life and character are true, but omit a crucial detail without which everything seems incoherent and incomplete: his politics. Most of the American Muslims who bring up Malcom’s legacy are either unfamiliar with his politics or willingly exclude it, for most would indeed reject Malcolm’s full legacy as an “extremist” deviation. To better know and love Malcolm X today is to practice a politics more radical than the most “progressive” Muslims we know, so it’s time to better know and love him.
Malcolm X was not a liberal. That is to say, contrary to what many may think, he was not at all satisfied with the liberal “civil rights” project of allowing Black Americans to be “listened to” when the US state decides its imperialist and capitalist policies. In his words from his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” (1964):
“It’s time for you and me to stop sitting in this country, letting some cracker senators, Northern crackers and Southern crackers, sit there in Washington, D.C., and come to a conclusion in their mind that you and I are supposed to have civil rights. There’s no white man going to tell me anything about my rights. Brothers and sisters, always remember, if it doesn’t take senators and congressmen and presidential proclamations to give freedom to the white man, it is not necessary for legislation or proclamation or Supreme Court decisions to give freedom to the black man. You let that white man know, if this is a country of freedom, let it be a country of freedom; and if it’s not a country of freedom, change it.”
Rather than nonviolently asking for civil rights, Malcolm X advocated for the forceful self-determination of Black Americans. From the same speech:
“And at that time, if we see fit then to form a black nationalist party, we’ll form a black nationalist party. If it’s necessary to form a black nationalist army, we’ll form a black nationalist army. It’ll be the ballot or the bullet. It’ll be liberty or it’ll be death.”
Malcolm X totally rejected the US electoral system as a legitimate procedure for allowing Black American interests to be represented:
“It isn’t a president who can help or hurt; it is the system. And this system is not only ruling us in America, it is ruling the world. Nowadays, when a man is running for president of the United States, he is not running for president of the United States alone; he has to be acceptable to other areas of the world where American influence rules.
If Johnson had been running all by himself, he would not have been acceptable to anyone. The only thing that made him acceptable to the world was that the shrewd capitalists, the shrewd imperialists, knew that the only way people would run toward the fox would be if you showed them a wolf. So they created a ghastly alternative. And it had the whole world — including people who call themselves Marxists — hoping that Johnson would beat Goldwater.
I have to say this: Those who claim to be enemies of the system were on their hands and knees waiting for Johnson to get elected — because he is supposed to be a man of peace. And at that moment he had troops invading the Congo and South Vietnam! He even has troops in areas where other imperialists have already withdrawn. Peace Corps to Nigeria, mercenaries to the Congo!” (From Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements)
This is not exactly the Malcolm X that CAIR upholds as it undergoes its voter registration efforts.
It is furthermore crucial to destroy the idea, widespread among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that Malcolm X “calmed down” or became “less radical” as he got older. This deceptively implies that Malcolm X ultimately rejected all of his previous major positions, from the necessity of community armed self-defense to the rejection of the legitimacy of the US electoral system to the support for global violent socialist movements. This is utterly false. Of course Malcolm, like any intellectual blessed with the time to do so, refines and further develops their previous thought. For example, Malcolm later considered some white people to be potential social and political companions when before he did not. As he states recounts in his autobiography:
“The next day I was in my car driving along the freeway when at a red light another car pulled alongside. A white woman was driving and on the passenger’s side, next to me, was a white man. “Malcolm X!” he called out – and when I looked, he stuck his hand out of his car, across at me, grinning. “Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?” Imagine that! Just as the traffic light turned green, I told him, “I don’t mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?” (p.370)
This is a very far cry from considering the government or its police force to be a force worth obeying.
Malcolm X’s assassination on February 21, 1965, then, was motivated by the same liberal hatred of any figure that poses a violent threat to American bourgeois interests; this very hatred motivate so many American Muslims today to call for the death of Bashar al-Assad today, as they have recently called for the death of Muammar Gaddafi. All of these men have been called bloodthirsty and have been rejected with preference for US violence and political and economic domination of the Black American, Libyan and Syrian people respectively. Perhaps the only things that prevent American Muslims today from condoning Malcolm’s assassination is his outspoken adherence to Sunni Islam and the fact that his political supporters must be faced here in the US itself, rather than ridiculed and ignored like the supporters of Gaddafi and Assad in faraway Libya and Syria. The assassination of Malcolm X, remember, is generally believed to be the outcome of tensions between him and the Nation of Islam which he left. Perhaps more important that the theological differences between Malcolm and the NOI were the political differences that made Malcolm out to be especially dangerous and traitorous to the NOI. After an LAPD raid of the Nation’s Temple Number 27 led to police shooting seven Nation members and killing one. Malcolm X wanted NOI members to violently retaliate against the police, but Louis X (now Farrakhan), leading the NOI, denied Malcolm. Malcolm also once noted that the assassination of John Kennedy was an example of “chickens coming home to roost,” while criticizing the assassinations of Patrice Lumumba and Medgar Evers as other chickens coming home to roost. The NOI meanwhile sent a message of condolence to the Kennedy family and banned Malcolm from public speaking for 90 days. Whose side of these political differences would American Muslims today take? When Malcolm’s own assassination came to pass, whose political outlook do American Muslims today agree with more: that of the assassins, or the assassinated?
Responsibility for the whitewashing of Malcolm X can be, though not entirely, placed on the shoulders of “community leaders” and mainstream American Muslim political entities like CAIR, MAS, and ICNA, who distort and recuperate him into a liberal and obedient narrative of cooperation with the state as the only legitimate political action. Although these individuals and organizations have a very direct effect on the lives and ideology of American Muslims, they only play a small part in the overall project of recuperation that capitalism’s ideological apparatuses carry out today. Bourgeois news agencies today often run articles that whitewash Malcolm’s legacy, such as in the BBC and in Al-Jazeera. Malcolm X is in fact just one of many targets of whitewashing by bourgeois media, part of the larger project to paint the progress of history as one consisting of good liberals against backwards conservatives and overzealous radicals. Malcolm is joined in this circle of victims by figures such as Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Antonio Gramsci, and in an interesting way, the younger Angela Davis.
To take inspiration from Malcolm X in a way that actually benefits the oppressed people of the world, we must stop recommending to each other the Autobiography without also recommending Malcolm X Speaks. As inspiring as the story of his spiritual transformation is for readers worldwide, this is far from sufficient in understanding his thought and relevance. The vast majority of his works available to read are his political speeches, such as the aforementioned “Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements” as well as “Malcolm X on Afro-American History” and “By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter by Malcolm X.” We must arm ourselves with knowledge of the ideas that made Malcolm so dangerous and beloved and if any Muslim pretends again that Brother Malcolm was a devout Muslim who just wanted people to “stand up for themselves” (which can mean anything from violent revolution to voting Hillary depending on who is asked), we must set the record straight.