90th Birthday Tribute: Lessons From the Legacy of Malcolm X

90th Birthday Tribute: Lessons From the Legacy of Malcolm X

45 years after his assassination the national question and the oppression of Muslims remained major issues of struggle

by Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

Editor’s Note: This article written in 2010 is now being reprinted in honor of the 90th anniversary of the birth of Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik el-Shabazz).

February 21, 2010 represented the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, El Hajj Malik Shabazz, in New York City at the Audubon Ballroom. Malcolm was beginning his address to a mass meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) when several men opened fire on him with shotguns and pistols.

At the time the corporate media framed the threats, attacks and assassination of Malcolm X as a feud between the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad and former members of the organization who were led by Malcolm X. Yet it has been well documented that the membersip of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X were all under FBI and local police surveillance. The FBI wanted to cause a rift between Malcolm X and the members of Elijah Muhammad’s family in order to weaken the impact of this organization on developments within the broader African-American struggle.

Malcolm X’s assassination came at a critical period during the African-American political movement of the 1960s. The Nation of Islam’s newspaper, the Muhammad Speaks, had done a superb job in covering developments within the civil rights movement between 1961-1963, but had remained largely aloof from the direct action efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and other organizations.

The program of the NOI called for the creation of a separate state for African-Americans in the United States or in Africa. The organization felt that based on the legacy of racism and national oppression it would be impossible for blacks and whites to be integrated into the same society on an equal basis.

After the April 1962 police attack on the NOI mosque in Los Angeles, that resulted in the murder of one of their members Ronald Stokes, and the wounding of several others, Malcolm X wanted to engage in broader political efforts to seek justice in the case, which was deemed justifiable by the city authorities. Differences between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad over the character of the NOI’s response to the murder of Ronald Stokes, coupled with the burgeoning mass movement for civil rights, increased tensions inside the organization.

When the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, which left four African-American girls dead, Malcolm X’s statements became even more militant in response to this act of racist terrorism and the failure of the Kennedy administration to take effective action in support of civil rights. Consequently, when Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 and Malcolm later made comments at the Manhattan Center on December 1 that his death was a case of the “chickens coming home to roost,” he was silenced by Elijah Muhammad and would eventually leave the organization by March 1964.

Despite Malcolm’s departure from the NOI, he formed two other organizations, the Muslim Mosque, Inc., a Sunni Islamic organization, and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a pan-africanist group patterned on the Organization of African Unity in an effort to build a united front in the United States in solidarity with the struggle for independence and unity on the continent of Africa.

Malcolm X: A Transformative Figure in African-American History

Building on the legacy of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X as a leader within the Nation of Islam, emerged during the 1950s as a militant spokesperson for urbanized African-Americans in the United States. Born to Garveyite activist parents, Earl and Louise Little in 1925, Malcolm exposure to nationalist and pan-africanist thought began at a very early age.

As one of seven children in the Little family, Malcolm stated in his autobiography that Earl, a Baptist minister, often carried him to the mass meetings he attended during the depression years of the 1930s. His father Earl was originally from Georgia and his mother Louise, had been born in the Caribbean nation of Grenada. (The Autobiography of Malcolm X)

Earl and Louise originally met at a Universal Negro Improvement Association-African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) conference, the organization founded by Marcus Garvey, in 1919 in Montreal. Louise and Earl were leading members of the UNIA-ACL. Louise’s articles were often published in the Garveyite newspaper the Negro World.

Despite the economic crisis facing the United States at the time, Malcolm’s family were a close unit and remained self-reliant. The nationalist mood and self-pride exhibited by this family caused tremendous hostility among racist whites in Nebraska where Malcolm was born. Malcolm and other family members believed that Earl Little was murdered by white racists in 1931 in Mason, Michigan, near the state capital of Lansing.

As a result of the social pressure and economic isolation from the white power structure in the area around Lansing, Michigan, these factors precipitated a nervous breakdown for Louise Little. Her eventual commitment to a state mental hospital and the break up of the family by the welfare department had a tremendous impact on the Little children.

During his primary school years Malcolm exhibited intellectual capabilities and talents. He dreamed of being a lawyer but was discouraged by a racist teacher who told him that he had to be realistice because he was black. By 1941, Malcolm had relocated in Boston to stay with his older sister, Ella Collins, the daughter of Earl Little from a previous marriage.

Malcolm worked in menial jobs in pool halls and on transport trains during World War II. He eventually drifted into criminality and drug abuse that resulted in his arrest and sentencing to prison for burglary in 1946.

While in prison he was influenced by an older inmate to read and develop his mind. He then set out to learn as much as possible and to participate in the prison debating teams.

Malcolm soon accepted the teachings of the Nation of Islam at the aegis of his brothers who had entered the organization prior to him. When he was paroled in 1952, he immediately began to work as an organizer for the Nation of Islam under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad.

He rose swiftly through the ranks of the NOI to become the minister in Boston and later New York during the mid-to-late 1950s. After gaining national exposure through public speaking and media coverage, the press once again set out to discredit another fearless spokesperson for the African-American masses.

Like the Garvey movement, Malcolm X created a newspaper for the Muslim organization, the Muhammad Speaks, which proved to be a powerful vehicle for the transmission of its ideas to the general public. In addition, his radio and television interviews and debates drew national attention from both the African-American masses as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law-enforcement agencies in the United States.

By 1963, Malcolm X’s speeches had become more decisively political and secular. He began to de-emphasize certain aspects of the Black Muslim theology of Elijah Muhammad. At a mass rally held during a grassroots organizers’ conference in Detroit in November 1963, his remarks reflected his developing world outlook.

In this address that was recorded and issued under the title “Message to the Grassroots”, Malcolm X said that “The same man that was colonizing our people in Kenya was colonizing our people in Congo. The same one in the Congo was colonizing our people in South Africa, and in Southern Rhodesia, and in Burma and in India, and in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan. They realized all over the world where the dark man was being oppressed, he was being oppressed by the white man; where the dark man was being exploited, he was being exploited by the white man.” (Malcolm X Speaks, 1965)

In March 1964, Malcolm announced the formation of a rival orthodox Muslim Mosque and arranged to make Hajj in April to Saudi Arabia in order to authenticate himself as a Sunni Islamic believer. When he returned to the U.S. in May 1964, he then established a political group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) whose objectives were decisively revolutionary nationalist and pan-africanist in orientation.

In July 1964, Malcolm departed again for Africa and the Middle East to engage in further study, analysis and research and to establish deeper contacts between the OAAU and other revolutionary movements in the so-called Third World. Although many writers have placed emphasis on his conversion to Sunni Islam, Malcolm never lessened his commitment to the revolutionary transformation of the United States and the world.

Malcolm spent the bulk of his time between July and November of 1964 in various revolutionary and progressive states in Africa, including Egypt, Ghana, Algeria, Tanzania and Guinea. He developed close political relations with Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, Gamal Abdel Nassar of Egypt and Abdul Rahman Mohamed Babu, a leading government official and marxist theoretician from Tanzania.

It was Malcolm’s connections with Babu that resulted in a meeting with Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara during his visit to the United Nations in late 1964. Malcolm took a keen interest in Cuba’s pending intervention in Congo during 1965.

Malcolm had been one of the most outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy towards Congo during 1964, when the Johnson administration had intervened to halt the advances of the revolutionary forces fighting against the western-backed forces that had overthrown and assassinated Patrice Lumumba in 1960-61. His public statements became more anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist in character and many believed that had he lived, Malcolm would have advanced socialism as a political objective.

Malcolm X also visited England and France during late 1964 and early 1965. In England he made alliances with organizations within the black and Islamic communities. In France, he embarked upon efforts to form alliances with expatriate Africans and Caribbean nationals residing in Paris. A few days prior to his assassination he was denied admission to France without explanation by the government or the Johnson administration.

During this period Malcolm began to emphasize the central role of women in the national liberation process. In an interview in Paris he told the public that “One thing I became aware of in my traveling recently through Africa and the Middle East, in every country you go to, usually the degree of progress can never be separated from the woman. If you’re in a country that’s progressive, the woman is progressive. If you’re in a country that reflects the consciousness toward the importance of education, it’s because the woman is aware of the imprtance of education.”

Malcolm continued on this point saying “But in every backward country you’ll find the women are backward, and in every country where education is not stressed it’s because the women don’t have education. So one of the things I became thoroughly convinced of in my recent travels is the importance of giving freedom to the woman, giving her education, and giving her the incentive to get out there and put that same spirit and understanding in her children. And I frankly am proud of the contributions that our women have made in the struggle for freedom and I’m one person who’s for giving them all the leeway possible because they’ve made a greater contribution than many of us men.” (By Any Means Necessary, p. 179, 1970)

Malcolm X’s Secure Position Within African-American History

Despite the efforts of the corporate media to distort his legacy and international image since his assassination on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X has been immortalized by many writers and commentators on African-American affairs. According to journalist M.S. Handler “No man in our time aroused fear and hatred in the white man as did Malcolm, because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price–a man unreservedly committed to the cause of liberating the black man in American society, rather than integrating the black man into that society.” (El Hajj Malik Shabazz, Documentary Film)

During the later years since his martyrdom Malcolm has gained a secure position within the collective consciousness of Africans, oppressed peoples and workers world-wide. His image proliferates the urban areas of America and his name and spirit is often evoked in relation to the uncompromising character of the African-American struggle for total liberation from national oppression and economic exploitation.

Consequently, the efforts of the mass media, the national intelligence services of the United States and the capitalist class in general, who have sought to either obscure or coop his message, have failed due to the efforts of the political heirs of Malcolm X who have continued to maintain the integrity and principled character of his legacy.

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