Saturday, January 15, 2011

By Any Means Necessary: The Importance of Malcolm X

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Here, I discuss the impact of Malcolm X on the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights crusade.

Even with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the frustrations of watching Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent campaign against segregation and racism so frequently encounter murderous violence from powerful Southern whites led many African Americans to question King’s tactics and to embrace the concept of self-defense. The leader of this alternative approach to black resistance was a man born Malcolm Little, who would later achieve international fame as Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X.

In his bestselling book "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" (1965), Malcolm described his father, Baptist preacher Earl Little, and his mother M. Louise Norton, as dedicated followers of Marcus Garvey, the controversial founder of the United Negro Improvement Association. In the early 1920s, Garvey contended that black people in the Western Hemisphere could achieve political freedom only by returning to the African homeland. Until an independent “Empire of Africa” was created, Garvey said, blacks should struggle to attain complete separation from whites, creating their own “homeland” within the United States.

Emphasizing black pride, Garvey said that African Americans had been misled about the accomplishments of their people and should study their African past. African Americans should only do business with members of their own race, he said, and if attacked they should fight back, returning blow for blow. Earl Little became a preacher, carrying Garvey’s message to blacks in Nebraska when Ku Klux Klan nightriders appeared at the Little home and warned the family to leave Omaha.

Less than two years after Malcolm was born, the family resettled in Lansing, Michigan. According to the autobiography, a white hate group called The Black Legion, angered by Earl Little’s activism, set fire to the family home in late 1929. Earl Little built a new home outside East Lansing but died on September 28, 1931, after being hit by a streetcar. Malcolm X later described his father’s death as an assassination. Louise Little suffered a breakdown eight years later, and Michigan courts divided the eight Little children among several foster families.

In spite of making high grades through his eighth year of public school, Malcolm said he became bitter and rebellious when a previously supportive white English teacher asked him what he wanted to do for a living. When Malcolm said he wanted to become a lawyer, the teacher told him “that’s no realistic goal for a nigger” and advised him to become a carpenter. Disillusioned, he became a petty criminal before spending time in a detention home. Malcolm’s problems prompted his move in 1941 to Boston, where he lived with his half-sister Ella. He soon drifted to the fringes of Boston’s underworld, where he remade himself as “Detroit Red,” a zoot-suited con artist, dope dealer, burglar and pimp. He was arrested in February 1946 and given a seven-year sentence on several felony charges including illegal breaking and entering.

Surprisingly, his arrest gave Malcolm an opportunity for self-education, with the future minister copying by hand a dictionary word for word and voraciously reading at the prison library. At this time, his brothers Philbert and Reginald exposed him to the teachings of the Nation of Islam (NOI), a religious sect founded around 1930 in Detroit and led by Elijah Muhammad. According to the NOI, whites were an inherently evil race created in ancient times by a sinister black scientist named Yacub. As whites achieved political dominance, the world became innately evil, rendering political reform futile. On judgment day the NOI deity, Allah, would destroy whites and save the black race.

Until then, blacks should win the favor of Allah by surrendering vices such as alcohol, avoiding impure foods such as pork, and educating themselves about the past achievements of the black race. NOI members were taught to not vote or participate in politics in any way. Rather than integrate into a racist white society, blacks should embrace complete segregation from white society and dedicate themselves to establishing a financially and politically independent black homeland.

Upon his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm replaced his last name with an “X” to represent the African family name lost under slavery. He soon rose as a full-time NOI minister and distinguished himself as Elijah Muhammad’s most effective recruiter and spokesman. An imposing figure, standing about six feet, five inches, with a lanky physique, light skin, closely cropped reddish hair and grayish eyes which peered intensely through horn-rimmed glasses, Malcolm mixed fiery words with politeness and charm.

Malcolm X first gained national exposure with a July 1959 New York broadcast, “The Hate That Hate Produced,” in which journalist Mike Wallace interviewed the emerging African American leader on WNDT-TV. His inflammatory statements would make him the frequent subject of headlines for the rest of his life. When asked how blacks should achieve freedom, he said, “by any means necessary.” He denounced middle-class black leaders as “Uncle Toms” and labeled Martin Luther King, Jr. a “chump” for advocating integration, declaring that “an integrated cup of coffee was insufficient pay for 400 years of slave labor.” Malcolm also ridiculed King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, insisting that independence, not integration, represented the only true path to African American freedom.

By 1964, Malcolm X was outranked only by Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater as the most sought-after speaker on college campuses. With Malcolm’s evangelism, the NOI grew from a few hundred adherents to 100,000 or more members by the early 1960s. Many within the NOI, including future leader Louis Farrakhan, grew jealous of Malcolm’s successes. Meanwhile, Malcolm grew frustrated by the NOI’s refusal to participate in politics and the civil rights struggle while men like King directly challenged white authority.

Malcolm later wrote that he became disillusioned with the Rev. Elijah Muhammad after learning that the chief NOI minister had affairs with several secretaries and fathered six illegitimate children. Malcolm also became outraged at what he saw as financial improprieties by church officials. In December 1963, when Malcolm described the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a case of “chickens coming home to roost,” Muhammad, for all his rhetoric about black assertiveness and self-defense, feared a white backlash and suspended Malcolm from his ministry for ninety days.

On March 8, 1964, Malcolm publicly severed his ties with the Nation of Islam. By this point, he had become knowledgeable about orthodox Islam and came to see the variant led by Elijah Muhammad as heretical. Malcolm sought closer ties with King, stating that both men sought black freedom. Plunging into mainstream politics, he now urged his followers to register to vote and to fight to make voting rights a reality in the South. He founded both Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which sought to make the rights of black Americans an international issue.

Taking the required Muslim hajj to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Malcolm for the first time encountered Muslims of all races experiencing spiritual brotherhood. He wrote that he no longer saw all whites as devils but would only hold individual whites accountable for their actions. Malcolm embraced the Sunni branch of Islam and adopted a new name, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Back in New York, Malcolm campaigned for a United Nations hearing on the suppression of black human rights in the United States. Malcolm began receiving death threats from his former colleagues in the NOI. Unknown assailants firebombed his New York home, which had been rewarded to him by the NOI for his ministerial work, on February 14, 1965. Just four days later, the NOI evicted him from the residence. On February 21, Talmadge Hayer repeatedly shot Malcolm at the start of his speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York. A grand jury indicted Hayer, Norman 3X Butler, and Thomas 15X Johnson, all members of the NOI, for Malcolm’s murder. On the day after the assassination, Elijah Muhammad denied involvement with the assassination.

Malcolm’s influence increased after his death with the publication of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," co-written by Alex Haley, who would gain fame himself in the 1970s as the author of "Roots." With black poverty and unemployment still high even after passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, and with white racism and anti-black violence still a threat to African Americans, many black readers thought that the outrage in Malcolm’s words rang true. Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) increasingly came under the posthumous influence of Malcolm and radicalized, even throwing white members out of the group in the name of black independence.

Director Spike Lee’s 1992 film biography "Malcolm X" sparked a renaissance of interest in Malcolm’s career and the growth of a merchandising empire that included caps inscribed with the letter “X.” Rap recordings in the late twentieth century sampled his speeches, and his face haunted many videos. In popular culture, Malcolm X remains a divisive figure, an anti-hero in his guise as the street-smart hustler who rejected inter-racial cooperation as unrealistic and a hero as the self-educated minister who redeemed himself from an intellectual ghetto.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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