By Eljeer Hawkins
“The centerpiece of Malcolm’s political project was to internationalize the condition of Black peoples in the United States.” Sohail Daulatzai, Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America, p.36
This February 21 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the public assassination of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz known to all as Malcolm X. In the shadow of the nationwide revolt against endemic police violence, economic exploitation and social alienation the embryo of a new movement led by youth of color is upon us under the banner #Black Lives Matter. Gone for fifty years, Malcolm remains a towering figure in the pantheon of the 20th century revolutionaries that sought to end systems of oppression and degradation. This generation is engaged in a struggle to define and preserve their humanity in the face of cold blooded indifference to their suffering under capitalism and racism. Let’s examine the final 11 months of Malcolm’s life and legacy.
The Evolution of a Revolutionary
On March 8, 1964 following a ninety day exile turned to an indefinite suspension from the Nation of Islam (NOI) following his “chickens come home to roost” statement following the death of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Malcolm X decided to make an announcement that he was leaving the NOI and spiritual teacher Elijah Muhammad to fully engage in the struggle for civil and human rights at home and abroad. Malcolm would form Muslim Mosque Inc for NOI members who followed him to continue to practice of black American based Islam and in June developing the political arm that would allow him to fully participate in the civil rights movement; The Organization of Afro-American Unity on the model of The Organization of African Unity following the aftermath of the victories of the anti-colonial liberation struggles in the third world.
The development of Islam in the U.S. dates back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the growth of Islam during slavery, the rise of black nationalism in mid-1800s, the teachings of Edward Wilmot Blyden, the father of Pan-Africanism, as well as black urban Islamist sects like the Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America. With the decline of the Marcus Garvey movement and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which was the largest black led movement which Malcolm’s parents were active members. In the early 20th century the Garvey movement along with socialist and anarchist were crushed under the federal government’s Palmer raids, to which the notorious and future director of the FBI; J. Edgar Hoover was a young agent. The Garvey movement comprised of cultural nationalism and black capitalism, many former Graveyites became attracted to the Lost-Found Nation of Islam under the leadership of W.D. Fard and eventually, Elijah Poole, who would later become Elijah Muhammad.
The Nation of Islam spoke out against the hypocrisy of American democracy, capitalism, white supremacy, and the horrid conditions faced by black people since slavery. Drawing their membership from the urban black working class, poor, prison population and semi-employed, NOI preached and practiced a combination of cultural black nationalism and pro-capitalist ideals. NOI was a top-down leadership, including a paramilitary wing (The Fruit of Islam). Theologically, NOI preached that black people are the “chosen people” to be delivered from the evil of white supremacy and Jim Crow and a globally connection with people of color in Asia, Africa, Middle East and Latin America. The NOI distinct form of black American based Islam was not recognized by mainstream Sunni Islam. The NOI had a non-engagement policy concerning the most important social movement of the time, the civil rights movement. NOI and Elijah Muhammad feared a government attack on the organization, Elijah Muhammad was arrested in 1934 when he refused to transfer his children from the movement’s school, the University of Islam, to a public school. Tried in Detroit, he was found guilty of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and placed on six months’ probation. As the earth shaking events were taking place globally with revolutions, counter revolutions, rebellions and civil rights at home, Malcolm’s political and spiritual stirrings for a fuller engagement in the struggle was palpable. As the national spokesman of the NOI, Malcolm was politicizing the theology of Elijah Muhammad to the dismay and anger of the leadership of the NOI.
After splitting from the NOI, In April 1964 Malcolm began what would be two expansive trips internationally to Africa, Middle East and Europe. It had religious and political objectives, as Malcolm sought to complete the Hajj to Mecca and formally accept the teachings of Sunni Islam. Malcolm aimed to become a point of reference in the United States for Islam theologically and organizationally. Malcolm’s trips throughout the Middle East and Africa had a huge effect on his thinking on Islam. Malcolm believed spiritually and politically Islam could play a role in the liberation struggle against racism and white supremacy. Malcolm exclaims, “Our success in America will involve two circles, black nationalism and Islam… And Islam will link us spiritually to Africa, Arabia and Asia,” (Manning Marabel, Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, p.311-312.)
Politically, Malcolm aimed to bring the case of twenty-two million Afro-Americans who faced Jim Crow America of poverty, police violence and political disenfranchisement to a world stage like the work of Paul Robeson, Max Yergan, Alphaeus Hunton, Dr. W.E. B Dubois and countless others with trailblazing organizations like the Council of Africa Affairs (CAA) in the 1940s and early 50s.
Malcolm had to navigate through a world situation after World War II that witnessed a period of revolution and counter revolution. The revolutions in the colonial world like in China, Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba and the non-aligned movement that produced the influential Bandung Conference of 1955 had a profound effect on Malcolm’s political worldview. The anti-colonial revolutions punctuate the decline of European colonial power at home and abroad, the emergence of the United States as the pre-emanated capitalist super power and strengthening of social democracy and Stalinism in Eastern Europe provided the back drop to Malcom’s evolving ideas over the span of 11 months. At home the black freedom movement under the phase of the civil rights movement beginning in 1955 following the brutal murder of Emmitt Till and Rosie Parks defiant refusal to get up from a Montgomery bus seat ignited a powerful social movement against slavery by another name; Jim Crow.
President Harry Truman’s anti-communism Doctrine of 1947, senator Joe McCarthy witch hunts and Cold War liberalism at home and abroad had a devastating effect on the radical black freedom movement its leading left activists and radical leaders. As professor Penny M. Von Eschen writes in Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anti-colonialism, 1937-1957, “The embrace of Cold War American foreign policy by many African American liberals as well as U.S. government prosecution of activists such as Robeson and the CAA, fundamentally altered the terms of anti-colonialism and effectively severed the black American struggle for civil rights from the issues of anti-colonialism and racism abroad.” (p.3)
The rise of a reformist, liberal and church based leadership under organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) would led the civil rights movement with its non-violent civil disobedience tactics and struggle for political and social reforms from US big business and its two parties (Democrats and Republicans) during the post-WWII economic upswing became the dominate force in the freedom struggle. Due to militant social struggle by the movement, the liberal political and economic elite believed that capitalism could address poverty, racism and endemic oppression, Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration was forced to implement key social programs under the War on Poverty program and passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964 and Voting Rights 1965.
The work of Malcolm in this key year was a continuum of his third world analysis that developed during his time with NOI that dates back to the late 50s, epitomized by Malcolm’s meeting with Fidel Castro in Harlem in 1960. Malcolm highlighted the limitations of liberalism under Johnson which would become evident after the full involvement of the US imperialism in Vietnam economically and militarily, the role of the two-party system particularly the Democratic party as the dead-end and co-option of all social movements, entrenched white supremacy, American democracy’s hypocrisy in the face of the social explosions that gripped a number of cities like Harlem, violent repression of civil rights workers like the murder of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner in July. Malcolm sought to re-tie the threads of the struggle in the US for civil rights to an internationalist framework, anti-capitalists, anti-imperialist, uniting the most oppressed and youth in the third world and US, and total liberation from the power structure of daily oppression and exploitation. His campaign to take the US to the United Nations and charge it with crimes against Afro-Americans human rights was crucial to place the struggle on a world stage echoing the work of Roberson Dubious and William Paterson “We Charge Genocide” petition in 1951 to be presented to the U.N. The international ruling elite, U.S. governmental forces and NOI members wanted Malcolm dead because of his potential to organize, inspire and provide an alternative to racism and capitalism.
The Meaning of Malcolm X Today
At the end of his life Malcolm draw a deeper analysis of capitalism and white supremacy providing a blueprint for black power activist, organizations and generations to follow. Malcolm matters because the conditions that produced Malcolm still exist. The abject poverty, racism, high rates of unemployment, mass prison incarceration, police violence, layoffs and massive budget cuts, are a byproduct of a sick capitalist system based on delivering super profits for a small global ruling elite. These conditions are producing a new generation of revolutionaries who will be inspired by the shining example of Malcolm X like the youth in Ferguson and nationwide.