An appreciation of Malcolm X

Posted February 21, 2009

“Sisters, brothers, guests, friends and we’d be fooling ourselves if there are no enemies here…” Today, February 21, I’ve been thinking (even more than usual) how history might have developed if Malcolm X was not gunned down exactly forty-three years ago. Recognizing Ella Baker’s truism that strong people don’t need strong leaders, it’s also fair to say that Malcolm was exactly the kind of extraordinary leader who strengthened people to become leaders – arming them with ideas and personifying a dignity that gave confidence to the most militant and radical forces of the Black freedom movement.

Malcolm X: Ballot or the Bullet

Aside from his skills as a speaker, Malcolm X was an accomplished organizer and dealt with ideas in a way that was both challenging and accessible. In the last years of his life, the organizing and theoretical ideas of Malcolm X became more and more important following his break with the Nation of Islam (NOI.) He later described his experience in the NOI as a mental straightjacket, so his search for analysis and organization to advance the struggle for Black power – and also to link this struggle with a broader human rights movement and with the liberation movements then breaking the chains of colonialism – was its most open-minded and creative is particularly important.

Last week I listened to one of his better known lectures: The Ballot or the Bullet for the first time in years. Delivered in April 1964 as a “coming out,” a month after following his break/expulsion from the Nation, the speech begins to elaborate themes that he would develop until his untimely death.

At this point, his philosophy remained heavily Black Nationalist in solidarity with what was then called the Third World and now is often called the Global South. The spread of nuclear weapons meant that the United States, in its desire to be world’s policeman, could not use its most dangerous club – and would face guerrilla warfare: “When two or three different countries have atomic bombs, nobody can use them, so it means that the white man today is without a weapon. If you want some action, you gotta come on down to Earth. And there’s more black people on Earth than there are white people on Earth.” [Black people, in this case, meaning all Third World people.] This, a decade before the US military was defeated in Vietnam – in fact, years before most people in the United States even knew where Vietnam was.

Along with difficulties abroad, Malcolm recognized the domestic dangers to the empire: the presence of 22 million Black people inside its borders that faced oppression and who were beginning to move. But, two factors prevented this force from maximum impact. The first was political captivity within the Democratic Party – in fact, then the “Dixiecrat” party of the Southern segregationists united with northern liberals and organized labor. However, the key voting bloc was that of African Americans, almost completely united, yet tied to a party that represented interests contrary to their own.

As an aside, I should note that I can hear arguments both for an against drawing from Malcolm X on strategy for the multiracial Left. From the “for” side, which happens to be mine, African-American leftists should be paid serious attention by all and not limited to “African-American issues” or pointing out the hypocrisies of American democracy, but recognized as among the most serious radical thinkers this country has produced. On the other hand, I do realize Malcolm X has a particular legacy within the Black freedom struggle (Ossie Davis’ eulogy called him “our Black prince”) and I’m wary of appropriating that or using Malcolm to back my own ideas – in the way that you’ll sometimes see overwhelmingly white peace groups at antiwar demonstrations with MLK quotes, but never see those same folks addressing other issues of concern to MLK. Malcolm X was a complex person and I’m only dealing with a few ideas here.

By Any Means Necessary

Having said that, I believe the most important new thinking in “Ballot or the Bullet” was a break with the sectarianism of the Nation, of his past, which he realized prevented the concerted mass action needed for real progress. In fact, this is where the speech begins. Malcolm describes the activities of his newly formed Muslim Mosque, Inc. He would remain a Muslim, linked to the religious beliefs that animated his political thinking and activity, but would seek organizational alliances with all others based on a program of common action: I’m not here to argue or discuss anything that we differ about, because it’s time for us to submerge our differences and realize that it is best for us to first see that we have the same problem, a common problem, a problem that will make you catch hell whether you’re a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist.

Exactly what form his Organization of African-American Unity would take, what basis of political unity it might have had, and where it might have led mass struggles are left in the realm of “what ifs.” I think that the honest efforts Malcolm was making to sketch out answers to these during his last year contain great lessons for revolutionaries today. The economic, social, and political crisis will not automatically generate mass struggles, struggles that do emerge will not automatically challenge the fundamental roots of the crisis, nor will they automatically form alliances for the strength needed to win even their immediate goals. It’s time to put our sectarian pasts behind us and begin thinking past individual organizations and towards united fronts.