Malcolm X marks the spot
Actually, there were plenty of skeptics and cynics. And then there was Malcolm X, aka El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, who considered nonviolent civil disobedience an inadequate response to state brutality, and strongly believed that changes in the law would make little difference in a nation whose enforcement agencies all too often seemed determined to deny legal rights to citizens based on the color of their skin. There is a scene in the film Selma where Malcolm offers support to Coretta King while her husband is incarcerated. Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. were philosophically and strategically miles apart, with the former perceiving integrationists as “house negroes” whose tactics of turning the other cheek would ultimately only facilitate the entrenchment of white privilege.
Malcolm was changing, though. He remained a fervent black nationalist, but had by early 1965 abandoned the separatist aspirations and racist ideology he had espoused as a key figure in the cult known as Nation of Islam (NOI). His exposure to the Middle East had led to the realization that the NOI’s concept of Islam bore little resemblance to the faith as it was practiced elsewhere, not least in its conception of the white man as the “blue-eyed devil.” His disenchantment was reinforced by the knowledge that his mentor and the movement’s figurehead, Elijah Muhammad, had impregnated several of his young secretaries, including one of Malcolm’s former girlfriends.
He was also well aware that his estrangement from the NOI made him a marked man. Malcolm had spent much of 1964 traveling in the Middle East and Africa — making friends, influencing people, being feted in some places as a veritable state guest, and at the same time broadening his own mind. Toward the end of year, though, he found himself in an old English university town, in response to an invitation to participate in an Oxford Union debate, in defense of the proposition that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
By broad consent, it was among the most powerful orations delivered in that chamber. Malcolm’s side lost the debate, but he won over many admirers. Among them was the Union’s treasurer, Tariq Ali, who was in the chair on the night of the debate. In a subsequent discussion with Malcolm X, he argued that the Muslim identity did not count for much in countering repression in countries where Islam was the norm.
To his surprise, Malcolm responded: “It’s good to hear you talk like that. I’m beginning to ask myself the same questions.”
By then it wasn’t uncommon for Malcolm in his public perorations to distinguish between his faith and his politics; he was increasingly advising his followers that religion was a matter between individuals and their God, best consigned to the closet; the rights struggle was universal, based on neither race nor faith.
Malcolm had discovered the NOI a decade or so earlier, while serving time for petty crime; once out of jail, he rapidly became one of its leading lights, but his effectiveness as a recruiting sergeant always had something to do with violating the cult leader’s injunctions to steer clear of politics.
Malcolm was popularly designated the Prince of Hate, as opposed to the King of Love. He frequently noted that he preferred the outright segregationists among the whites to those whose liberal pretensions disguised their deep-seated racism. He believed that the struggle in the US should be for human rights instead of civil rights — and that it should be waged on the global stage, not least at the United Nations. Possibly one of the reasons Malcolm spent so much time abroad in 1964 was the realization that, sooner or later, he would be targeted for elimination. The final segment of Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography from 2011 reads like the chronicle of a death foretold. In Oxford in December that year, Tariq Ali recalls a late-night post-debate conversation with Malcolm, which he ended by expressing the hope that they would meet again before long. “He smiled,” Ali writes, “and, without any trace of emotion, said: ‘I don’t think so. By this time next year, I’ll be dead.’”
It didn’t take that long. Fifty years ago this week, on Feb. 21, 1965, as Malcolm, not yet 40 at the time, came to the podium to address a gathering at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, he was gunned down by an NOI execution squad. The extent to which the authorities, which had infiltrated both the NOI and the pair of organizations Malcolm formed, were aware of the plot remains unclear. Substantial segments of the FBI files on Malcolm are still not open to scrutiny.
By then, Malcolm had sparked the interest, and in some cases acquired the allegiance, of several activists disappointed by the glacial pace of change in the light of the King-led campaign. They included John Lewis, the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, who has represented Georgia in the House of Representatives since 1987; Rosa Parks, who had sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955; and Maya Angelou, who returned from self-exile in Ghana to join Malcolm’s Organization of African American Unity just days before he was assassinated.
Malcolm’s legacy was in various ways built upon by the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and specifically the Black Panthers, but his unfulfilled potential as a relatively mainstream leader has inevitably been consigned to the realm of speculation. One could say X marks the spot of a cruel void in American history, not least because Malcolm’s militancy has frequently been vindicated. Had he by some miracle lived to be 95, who can say he would have been surprised that one in three African American males get a taste of American justice, frequently in their youth, and that in 2015 it remains necessary to point out that black lives matter.
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