By Any Means Necessary: The Life and Legacy of Malcolm X
by Manning Marable
Metro State College, Denver, Colorado, February 21, 1992
It's a real privilege to be with you today in marking the life of one of the most important single figures in African-American and indeed American political and social history. Brother Malcolm X is more than simply a name in a history text. He's more than simply the most articulate spokesperson for Black empowerment and for the humanity of African-American people in the mid-twentieth century. He represents a model not only for his time but for our time. So today I'd like to talk about the life, the ideas, and the legacy, the living spirit of Malcolm X not only for the 1950s and 1960s, but for our time
In the past four years, the militant figure of Malcolm X has been rediscovered in the United States. Signs of that rediscovery, that renaissance of interest in Malcolm X are everywhere. The leading Black nationalist and political radical of the 1960s, Malcolm's image and words have been popularized in films and music videos, in posters, poetry and political literature. Spike Lee's 1989 film Do The Right Thing depicted race relations in Brooklyn, New York today, but the film ends with a very poignant quotation from Brother Malcolm X. Students on university campuses are now wearing, as we see in the audience today, caps and t-shirts and other paraphernalia of Malcolm X and his uncompromising slogan: By Any Means Necessary.
You find in the college classrooms and dormitories portraits of Malcolm. There is now a planned film that has been produced and directed by Spike Lee that will be on the life and legacy of Malcolm that will be available at the end of this year. There is another film being done by PBS which will feature Malcolm X, beginning some time in March of 1993. For many African American communities and college campuses, there are now hundreds of public forums and cultural events on May 19 to commemorate Malcolm X's birthday. For the last two decades, a Malcolm X Day celebration has been held in mid-May in Washington, D.C. For the last seven or eight years, a group of "Sisters Who Remember Malcolm" have organized an observance for Brother Malcolm X in Philadelphia. In Harlem, African-American nationalist Preston Wilcox has created the Malcolm X lovers network. In Cleveland, Ohio, Omar Alibay and others have held a major series of events on Malcolm X's birthday. Black nationalist scholars and others have now begun to explore the life and legacy of Malcolm in a critical manner.
Why the interest in Malcolm X? Some of the answers to the question come from Ron Daniels, the former director of Jesse Jackson's national Rainbow Coalition, who explains the interest in Malcolm this way: "Malcolm X was an excruciating critic of America's system of virulent racism, oppression, domination and class exploitation of Africa and the Third World. His voice is claiming renewed expression in a new generation that finds the continuing reality of racism, poverty, violence and oppression for African people in America intolerable. Especially among young African Americans, there is an increased militancy to fight the power." Malcolm's living symbol, his fighting spirit, therefore has become symbolic of a new degree of militancy, commitment and empowerment within the African-American community.
Much of the acclaim around the figure of Malcolm X has assumed a kind of uncritically cultural character. There is a tendency to turn a dynamic, living activist into an abstract icon. This is something that we as activists have to discuss and take seriously. There's a real problem inside our movement and our community. The same tendency has already happened to a much greater degree with Martin Luther King, Jr. His ideological and political development frozen, as it were, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on that hot August afternoon in 1963 at the March on Washington, D.C. Half forgotten and deliberately obscured today, when we think about Martin, are the last five years of his life.
We praise and honor Martin Luther King, Jr. for his "I have a dream" speech. But how many people who marked Martin's birthday in January also recall that Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most trenchant critics against the Johnson Administration's pursuit of the war in Vietnam? How many people forget the fact that when Martin died he was organizing Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee? How many people forget that when Martin Luther King, Jr. died he was charting a program that is a precursor to Jesse's vision of the rainbow when Martin talked about the need for a poor people's march on Washington, D.C.? So there is a tendency, a regrettable tendency to turn our heroes into icons and to take away some of their legitimate activities that were part of their personal and political biography, to freeze them at a stage in their development. Let us not do the same thing to Brother Malcolm X.
Part of the difficulty in refocusing the actual political contributions, legacy and evolution of Malcolm X and relating Brother Malcolm to contemporary struggles is the confusion generated by much of the literature written about him since 1965. There is a massive and very eclectic body of contemporary and historical writing about Martin Luther King, Jr. Progressive historian Clayborn Carson, author of the excellent study of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is currently in the process of organizing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s personal archives at Stanford University. King was also a frequent contributor to periodicals. He had authored several books before his death. By contrast, the great bulk of primary literature on Malcolm X is extremely fragmented. Only a portion of the literally thousands of speeches and interviews and public statements he gave in his life have been reproduced and printed. Many people have asked me over the last five years that I've been working on Brother Malcolm, "How did you go about reconstructing his life and trying to develop a perspective on what he did politically day by day?" The answer is in part, the difficulty in working on Malcolm is because there is no consolidated archive of Malcolm X. Indeed, it is not surprising that very few progressive people of color will find financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to reconstruct their life and legacy. We even talk with historians who receive federal support for a Booker T. Washington project, a project that focuses on the life and legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson. There's a plethora of funds for the reconstruction of a life of someone who was a mainstream leader, or even an African-American leader whose development can be distorted in a way so that you lop off the more radical aspects of his or her development.
So with Martin Luther King, Jr. He's acceptable up until the time that he gives the "I have a dream" speech. But the last two years of his life, let's forget about that. But with Malcolm, you can't forget about any of his development. [applause] So what I found was that the best single source, the best single repository of material on Malcolm X was actually accumulated by the FBI. We have over 2,200 pages of documents, letters. I want you to understand, for the conservatives in the audience, that how would you feel if you wrote a letter, sealed it and put it into an envelope and mailed it, and somebody at the Post Office intercepted it, transcribed or xeroxed your letter, and mailed it on without your permission or knowledge? Without a court order or warrant? That's what they did to Malcolm X. We have dozens of speeches that have never been published or printed by Malcolm X that the FBI recorded. We've checked out their transcripts with those speeches that were recorded by the activists who were with Malcolm. Theirs are better. They had better equipment. The sad thing is that you paid for it.
Reconstructing the life of an activist, as we go over the FBI material, as we look at the legacy, allows us to see some of the damage that has been done and the deliberate efforts to minimize the legacy of Malcolm X. Some authors who popularized Malcolm X but wanted to freeze his development at a certain stage of his life have argued that his ideology really doesn't advance beyond his relationship with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. This interpretation ignores the fact that Black nationalism is not a monolithic political ideology but a spectrum of cultural, economic and political positions which are grounded in the dynamics of Black resistance to race and class domination in the United States and indeed throughout the African Diaspora. The basis of African-American nationalism is the national identity and collective consciousness and experience of people of African descent in the United States, a consciousness of nationality which is at odds with the mainstream culture, ideology, society and political values which are held by this system. The roots of this alternative national consciousness that we describe as Black nationalism were established, the foundations of them, during slavery, under very difficult conditions, where African Americans were able to construct their own world view, their own sense of family, their own culture, and their own rituals of dignity and pride in who they were as human beings.
In summary, Black nationalism as a political and social tradition would include certain characteristics. First, the advocacy of Black cultural pride and the integrity of the group, which implicitly rejects racial integration. Secondly, an identification with the image of Africa which includes the advocacy by many of immigration or at least extensive contacts between Africans abroad and at home. There must be an interaction, Black nationalists would advocate, between African Americans, people of African descent in the Caribbean, and Africans on the continent of Africa itself. Third, Black nationalism means the construction of all-Black social institutions such as self-help agencies, schools, and religious organizations and support for group economic advancement, such as Black cooperatives, Buy Black campaigns, and efforts to promote capital formation within the African American community. Finally, Black nationalism has also meant historically political independence from the white dominated political system and support for the creation of all-Black political organizations and protest formations.
Black nationalism has a very rich tradition and heritage in the Black freedom struggle. If one opens a book on the history of Black people in the United States, there is a great deal of information about integrationism, about the tradition--which is still a viable tradition--of the NAACP, of the Urban League, of civil rights organizations. But what we miss is the truth about the Black experience. The truth about the Black experience is, as Du Bois once put it, that people of African descent in this country are indeed Americans in the sense that we were born here, in the sense that we fight for full democracy and civil rights here, in the sense that we fight against any barrier that defines us as second class human beings. In that sense, yes, we are indeed involved in a fight for civil rights and social justice. But we are also people of African descent. We are also people who have a cultural, aesthetic, social and political connection with the broader African world. What Malcolm stood for was that tradition of Black nationalism, and anyone who interprets Malcolm and says that he repudiated that tradition, anyone who says that Malcolm turned his back on Black nationalism toward the end of his life, that is incorrect, wrong, not supported by the evidence. Malcolm X was a Black nationalist first, last and always. That was the legacy of Malcolm.
It is crucial to note that there was always an internal ideological split and tension within this Black nationalist tradition that I've just outlined for you. There were always, from back to the mid-nineteenth century, conservative Black nationalists who tended to emphasize certain kinds of political positions, such as strict racial separatism, a distrust of dialogue or alliances with progressive white formations. They emphasized African cultural values and supported frequently private economic market mechanisms for group advancement. In other words, they advocated a kind of Black capitalism. These were the more conservative Black nationalists. There was also a more radical Black nationalist tradition. The revolutionary Black nationalists were inclined to be very critical of capitalism and said that capitalism, as an economic system coming out of Europe, an economic system becoming ensconced in the United States and its tentacles through corporate America going across the world, strangled the possibility of Black liberation and Black development. They tended to be very critical of capitalism.
Secondly, more revolutionary Black nationalists tended to advocate a more radical version of pan-Africanism. They said, yes, we are an African people and we can unite culturally with our sisters and brothers abroad, but we should also unite politically with them in overthrowing imperialism, overthrowing Western colonialism. So they interpreted Black nationalism in a more radical way. Both are parts of Black nationalism, but they are two different kinds of subtraditions without one overall movement.
Finally, radical Black nationalists recognized that institutional racism has evolved in direct conjunction with the development and maturation of capitalism in the Western hemisphere over the last four centuries, that it provides the ideological and cultural justification for the continued exploitation and oppression of Black people wherever they may be. So therefore the revolutionary nationalists said it is not enough to fight against racism. You also had to denounce capitalism as well.
Now that I've given you this background to Black nationalism, we understand the tradition and the tensions within that tradition between conservative and more revolutionary Black nationalism, now let's discuss the evolution of Malcolm X. Malcolm's trajectory will begin to become clear to you.
The Nation of Islam was the dominant Black nationalist formation during the period after the Garvey Black nationalist movement of the 1920s through the Black power insurgence of the 1960s. So to begin talking about Malcolm we've got to talk about the Nation of Islam. Born in Detroit's African American neighborhoods during the Great Depression, this creator and first prophet was an obscure salesman. The Honorable D.W. Fard, after preaching for four years an ideology which was a mixture of Sunni Islam and Black nationalism, succeeded in recruiting to his cause about 8,000 converts by the middle of the 1930s. He established the Fruit of Islam, a paramilitary organization, the Muslim Girls Training Class, a school specifically for women members of the nation, and the University of Islam. After Fard's disappearance or death, his chief lieutenant, Elijah Muhammad, became the leader of this religious and Black nationalist movement. During the 1930s a number of people in the movement fought for leadership with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. So Elijah Muhammad moved his organization and the basis of his support from Detroit to Chicago by the early 1940s.
At this point an event took place that greatly accelerated the development of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad was convicted and imprisoned unjustly during World War II for resisting the draft. While he was a federal prison in a federal penitentiary, Elijah Muhammad looked around him and began to realize that African-American churches, the NAACP, the Urban League, the other civil rights organizations, made no efforts to recruit the most oppressed, most victimized of all African-American people: the Black prisoners. So it was Elijah Muhammad in his genius who recognized that there was no program to recruit and transform the most depressed of his race, those who were addicted to narcotics, pimps, convicts, young delinquents, prostitutes, the permanently unemployed and the undereducated. During the postwar period, the Nation of Islam began to focus on the most oppressed African-American group. The results were astonishing.
By 1960, the nation's membership was between 65,000 to 100,000 nationwide. During Elijah Muhammad's tight discipline and his pro-Black nationalist creed, thousands of people addicted to drugs quit their dependence on narcotics. People who had been depressed, people outside of jobs, people outside of hope found a sense of humanity, a sense of human dignity by joining the Nation of Islam. Over three fourths of the nation's members by 1960 were young African Americans between the ages of eighteen to thirty five. Members donated a significant portion of their personal income, as much as one third of their annual income, to the nation, which was used to construct Islamic schools, temples, and businesses. In Chicago alone, by 1960 the Nation of Islam owned one half million dollars worth of real estate. The nation's expansion during the 1950s was also largely attributable to Elijah Muhammad's recruitment of a most gifted and very charismatic spokesperson named Malcolm Little.
Malcolm Little was converted to the Nation of Islam while he was imprisoned. He had been a petty hustler, a criminal in Boston and New York's ghettos. Leaving prison in 1952, Malcolm Little was renamed Malcolm X, the X symbolically repudiating the white man's name which he had carried. Elijah Muhammad carefully nurtured Malcolm X's career into the organization's hierarchy. By 1955 Malcolm had become the minister of Harlem's Temple No. 7. He increasingly in the late 1950s began to travel throughout the country, an articulate spokesperson and orator as Aaron was to Moses in a sense, delivering what he believed to be the truth to liberate his people. Political leaders began to relate to the Nation of Islam, recognizing that Elijah Muhammad's absolute control over so many thousands and thousands of potential voters represented an important political power block. So Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the most prominent Black elected official during this period, attended a leadership conference staged by Malcolm X in Harlem in 1960. Fidel Castro the same year met with Malcolm for private political discussions.
Simultaneously, unknown fully to Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, the Federal Bureau of Investigation made the decision to thoroughly infiltrate the Nation of Islam. They had already had agents in the organization since the 1940s. But what is very clear is that as the nation began to grow, to assume a great deal of leadership, not just over 100,000 people but over several million African Americans who looked to the nation with respect, that is when the FBI made the decision to infiltrate in a very sophisticated manner. The Nation of Islam's temples were wire tapped illegally. No court orders. The FBI doesn't worry about legality. The Nation of Islam's members began to be watched. Their taxes began to be looked at.
Malcolm's letters in 1955 and 1956 were seized in the mail, transcribed and sent on by the FBI. This is all illegal. By 1960 the surveillance on Malcolm began to accelerate dramatically. So you had a number of agents who were specifically charged in various headquarters to follow and document the movements and statements of Malcolm X. As the Nation of Islam prospered, white liberals and Black integrationists became fearful of the movement's stunning success in attracting working class African Americans and low income people. Scholars studied the nation and drew parallels, they said, between the Nation of Islam and the rise of fascism in Europe. White sociologist described the nation as "the hate that hate produced," a racial cult similar to "Hitler and the white citizens' councils of the South." A Black sociologist and writer, C. Eric Lincoln, in Black Muslims in America, expressed the concern that "the Black Muslims virulent attacks on the white man might threaten the security of the white majority and lead those in power to tighten the barriers which already divide America."
Civil rights leaders began to speak out against the Nation of Islam. In August 1959, Roy Wilkins, then the head of the NAACP, declared that the Nation of Islam had a "white hate doctrine which was as dangerous as any group of white racists." The Nation of Islam clearly "furnishes ammunition for the use of white supremacists." James Farmer of CORE denounced the Nation as "utterly impractical and dangerous." Farmer argued, "after the Black culture was taken from us during slavery, we had to adopt to the culture here." So Farmer reasoned, by rejecting integration, the Muslims were aiding and abetting the dynamic of racial segregation.
But with a sure grasp of African-American history, Malcolm X responded to Farmer this way: "We who are Muslims, followers of Elijah Muhammad, do not think that an integrated cup of coffee is sufficient payment for 310 years of slave labor in America." [applause] Malcolm understood that there was something fundamentally flawed with the philosophy of liberal integrationism if being an integrationist meant that you wanted to integrate with the mainstream. If the mainstream was racism, capitalist exploitation, all kinds of ideologies which were backward and antihuman, why would you want to integrate with a sewer? This is what Malcolm argued. [applause] Malcolm argued that it is not a case of dark mankind wanting either integration or separation. It is a case of wanting freedom, justice and equality. It is not integration that most Negros in America want, it is human dignity. That accounts for Malcolm X's meteoric rise in popularity among millions of African-American people, most of whom were not members of the Nation of Islam, most of whom did not hear him preach in the temples of the Nation, but heard him in other venues outside of the dynamics of his religious organization.
What accounts for his attractiveness? First, it is difficult for historians, for me and us today, to capture the vibrant essence of Malcolm X, his earthy and human character, his position as a revolutionary teacher for a whole generation of young Black militants, his total love for the dispossessed. Part of the greatness that he assumes as a social figure in history is derived from his own oppressed, sordid, personal evolution. It is an example of the worst of us becoming the best of us.
What accounts for his influence? His rhetoric, more than Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, was almost hypnotic among Black audiences. As the key spokesman for the Nation of Islam, Malcolm preached a militant message which changed and challenged the lives of millions of poor and oppressed African-American people. In the typical sermon, Malcolm might speak words such as these: "My beautiful Black brothers and sisters, look at your skins. We're all Black to the white man, but we're a thousand and one different colors. Turn around. Look at each other. During slavery it was rare one of our Black grandmothers who escaped the white rapist slavemaster. That rapist slavemaster who emasculated the Black man with threats, with fear until even today the Black lives with fear of the white man in his heart. Think of it! Think of the Black slave man filled with fear and dread hearing the screams of his wife, his mother, his daughter being taken in the barn, in the kitchen, in the bushes, and you were too filled with fear of the rapist to do anything about it. Every white man in America, when he looks into the Black man's eyes, should fall on his knees and say, `I'm sorry, I'm sorry, my kind has committed history's greatest crime against your kind. Will you give me a change to atone?' But do you, brothers and sisters, expect the white man to do that? No, you do not. You know better. Every time you see this person think about what you are seeing. Think about how it was on your slave foremothers' and foreparents' bloody, sweaty backs that he built this empire that's today the richest of the nations on the earth, whereas his evil and his greed cause him to be hated around the world."
Malcolm X would speak this way. Hundreds and hundreds of times to small and large groups, in the cities and in the rural areas. He would speak for hours on end, working with people, talking with people, talking with individual families and children. Malcolm said he would become so choked up after the hours of work every day that "sometimes I would walk in the streets until late into the night. I would speak to no one for hours, thinking to myself about what terrible things had been done to our people here in the United States."
Malcolm's evolution accelerates by 1962 and 1963 for several reasons. First, by 1962 Malcolm's personal prominence begins to create tensions and organizational rivalries inside of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm began to speak out less on religious issues and increasingly started to assert himself on contemporary political issues. We've tracked his speeches very carefully, and it is very true that there is a shift in the speeches he gives and in the content of his analysis between 1960 to 1963. The Islamic newspaper he had founded, Muhammad Speaks, was ordered to print less and less about Malcolm. We have charted this, too. In 1962 there are virtually no articles published on Malcolm X. By 1963, nothing. He is the main spokesperson of this organization, and the Nation of Islam's newspaper carries not a word about him. This is well before he leaves the Nation. So clearly, something is occurring inside of the organization. Muhammad's tight authoritarianism prohibited Malcolm and other more activist oriented ministers from becoming more involved in African-American political struggles.
Finally, two events force Malcolm to make a fundamental decision about his relationship with the Nation of Islam. On July 3, 1963, two former secretaries of Elijah Muhammad filed paternity suits against him, claiming that the sixty-seven year-old patriarch had fathered their four children. Any other Muslim member of the Nation of Islam would have been promptly expelled for the crime of adultery. Yet Muhammad maintained his high post even after admitting to Malcolm personally and to other members and leaders of the Nation that the charges were true. Malcolm interviewed the two women. He learned that Muhammad had described him privately as "a dangerous threat to his own position." It cut Malcolm in the heart like a knife.
When President Kennedy was assassinated, Malcolm commented to the press that his death was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost, that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless Black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, had finally struck down this country's Chief of State." If one takes the whole quote in context, it makes a great deal of sense. The chickens had come home to roost. That's what Oliver Stone would say. That's what Malcolm X had said. Yet the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad used this statement, which was only common sense, as a pretext for neutralizing their chief spokesperson. Malcolm was ordered into silence for ninety days, not allowed to teach in his own mosque nor speak with the media. Returning to New York, upon his meeting with Elijah Muhammad in Chicago, Malcolm X was shattered to discover that the word had been given on the street to several Muslims to assassinate him.
By March 1964 it was apparent that the Nation of Islam after the period of ninety days of waiting had no desire to reinstate Malcolm X under any conditions of submission. So Malcolm made a basic decision. He left the Nation of Islam. He announced the creation of a new organization on March 8, 1964, Muslim Mosque, Inc. Malcolm informed the press that he was now prepared to concentrate on local civil rights actions in the South and "elsewhere and shall do so because every campaign for specific objectives can only heighten the political consciousness of the Negroes and intensify their identification against white society."
Malcolm had less than one year to live, but during this year he lived at least twenty years. Malcolm was attempting to develop a revolutionary perspective rooted in the tradition of Black nationalism, an organization based primarily in New York. During these years, Malcolm restructured many of his older ideas into a clearly uncompromising program which was both antiracist and anticapitalist. Like W.E.B. Du Bois before him, Malcolm and the OAAU planned to submit a list of human rights violations and acts of genocide against the United States. In other words, they said, the question of fighting against racism is not one of simply appealing to those who have acted in a criminal way against you in their courts of law. As Malcolm put it, "you take the criminal to court." You use the United Nations as the forum to raise questions of human rights inside the United States. Malcolm broke with the logic of political reformism. He criticized African Americans for endorsing Lyndon Johnson's 1964 presidential candidacy. He predicted with grim accuracy that the Johnson Administration would stop far short of providing a meaningful economic and social program which would benefit the masses of African-American people. Criticizing the Negro middle classes commitment to private enterprise, Malcolm also had learned on his trip to Africa that Black revolutionaries abroad had broken with their commitment to corporate capitalism and defined the economics of liberation with the term "socialism."
Malcolm said: "You can't have racism without capitalism. If you find antiracists, usually they're socialists or their political philosophy is that of socialism." The OAAU developed a program that would build the resistance movement in the United States, the election of Black candidates to public office, voter registration drives, promoting rent strikes to create better housing conditions for African Americans, the building of all-Black community schools, the creation of cultural centers, the initiation of Black committees for community and neighborhood self defense against racist attacks.
By early 1965, Malcolm began to realize that his older Messianic vision of an inevitable race war was also incorrect. Listen carefully to the way he argued this. Malcolm insisted that America "is the first country that may actually have a bloodless revolution." What would depend upon a bloodless revolution? It depended on the ability of African-American people to develop a strategy of fundamental economic and political and social change and to act in concert with other elements of the oppressed in this country. Malcolm began to see that there was a linkage between racial oppression and class exploitation which was fundamental. He began to attract supporters from all across the civil rights movement, people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in the organization called the Congress of Racial Equality, even inside of the NAACP began to attend Malcolm X's speeches. He traveled south to work with the members of SNCC, to Selma, Alabama. He spoke at Tuskegee Institute. He began to become a voice for the most progressive African Americans involved in the freedom struggle throughout the United States.
Most Black nationalists today who look back at Malcolm X with pride see the legacy of Malcolm but must not make the mistake we have made around Martin Luther King, Jr. We must assume the mantle of Malcolm X by understanding his evolution over time and seeing how his wisdom and insight into the problem of racial inequality in this country became far more specific, clearer and much more analytical by the end of his life. The best way that we can document this development is through one single speech. It was in Selma, Alabama, only weeks before Malcolm was killed that he gave perhaps his greatest address. He gives his "I am a field Negro speech," his most effective presentation of the class contradictions within the African- American community and the necessity for the masses of African-American people to recognize the necessity for uncompromising radical struggle.
Here he observed critically, "there were in Black history two kinds of Negroes. There was the old house Negro and the old field Negro. The house Negro always looked out for his master. When the field Negroes got too much out of line, he held them back in check. He put them back on the plantation. If the master got hurt, he'd say, `What's the matter, boss? We sick?' However, there were the field Negroes who lived in the huts, who had nothing to lose. They wore the worst kind of clothes. They ate the worst food. They caught hell. They felt the sting of the lash. And they hated this land." After this historical analysis of slavery and the class divisions in the African-American community that go all the way back in our people's development in this country, Malcolm observed that a progressive and revolutionary position on Black liberation had to make a choice. Just like there were two traditions in Black nationalist--a conservative tradition that said, don't get involved in political struggle, for Elijah Muhammad said that if there is police brutality we should not mobilize against it publicly--Malcolm said there is another alternative, one that says, yes, we are indeed Black nationalists, we must struggle to empower our people by any means necessary.
So Malcolm said, "I am a field Negro. If I can't live in the house as a human being, I'm praying for that house to blow down, I'm praying for a strong wind to come along." [applause] "If the master don't treat me right and he's sick, I'll tell the doctor to go the other way. But if we are all of us going to live as human beings, then I am for a society in which human beings can practice brother and sisterhood." If one analyzes the late Malcolm X, you see a deepening of a radical and revolutionary vision. He moves away from the blatant sexism of Islam in his later development. He recognizes from his experiences in Africa that all progressive nationalist movements have recognized the fundamental equality of women of color. [applause]
Malcolm says this in December 1964: "It's noticeable that in the Third World societies, where they have put women in the closet and discouraged her from getting sufficient education and don't give her the incentive by allowing her maximum participation in whatever area of the society in which she's qualified, they kill her incentive and kill her spirits." Malcolm realized by the end of his life, and again you've got to understand that that development was cut short by his assassination, but Malcolm begins to recognize at the end of his life that it's not just racism and not just corporate capitalism. There are other forms of domination that must be addressed by people who really believe in full democracy and equality, and that means struggling against women's oppression. Malcolm begins to realize this.
Finally, there are many sad attempts to minimize the life and legacy of Malcolm. These will be unsuccessful, because Malcolm's influence only grows with time since his assassination. When Malcolm was killed, Third World newspapers hailed Malcolm as "the militant and most popular African-American anti-segregationist leader." People began to realize the truth of Malcolm and what he stood for, both politically and spiritually, to a whole generation of people.
Ossie Davis said at Malcolm X's funeral, "Many of you will ask why Harlem finds to honor this stormy, controversial and bold young captain. We will smile. They will say, 'He is one of hate. A fanatic, a racist!' We will answer, 'Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to what he said? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance?' For if you did know him the way we did, you would understand." Malcolm, as Davis put it, was "our shining Black manhood. This was the meaning to his people. In honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. We will know him them for what he was and is, a prince, our own shining Black prince, who didn't hesitate to die because he loved us so."
Today we would only modify Ossie Davis's insight with one modification: that Malcolm was not simply our manhood, he was our humanity. For men and women alike. Malcolm represented the best within ourselves. He represented courage and the search for truth and freedom and dignity for African-American woman and men. Malcolm was courageous enough to say, yes, I made mistakes. Yes, I was wrong at certain times. And yes, I have learned that the search for truth means many false paths. But the courage of leadership and the price of vision is in admitting and overcoming those weaknesses. Malcolm's greatness is found not in placing him as a frozen icon on a mantlepiece. Malcolm's greatness is found in realizing a simple, basic truth: that Malcolm is great because we as African-American people are great. That the greatness in Malcolm is the greatness in ourselves. [applause] That when young boys and girls look at Malcolm on a mantlepiece, high above them, far beyond reach, they cannot reach or obtain what he achieved. Bring Malcolm down to the people. Honor Malcolm by honoring ourselves, our capacity for struggle, our search for truth and human dignity. Not that Malcolm was right in everything. If Malcolm were here, he'd say, "Don't freeze me and turn me into a statue! Understand me as a person who struggled for dignity, who fought for freedom, and who died trying to live in a way that could bring honor to ourselves."
We need to understand that Malcolm's greatness, his courage and dignity are best served by living his creed, by living his legacy, by challenging the power, by fighting for freedom, by linking up with oppressed people, no matter where they may be, by fighting all systems of domination and exploitation, whatever their names are. In this way we not only honor the life and legacy of Malcolm X, we honor the best democratic and liberationist traditions in ourselves.
Thank you. [prolonged applause]
Copyright (c) 1992-1999 Manning Marable. All Rights Reserved.
Manning Marable is professor of history at Columbia University, where he also directs the Institute for Research in African American Studies, and one of the country's most distinguished political scientists and authors. He is the author of The Crisis of Color and Democracy and Black Liberation in Conservative America and a noted Malcolm X scholar. His syndicated column "Along the Color Line" appears in over 250 newspapers and journals nationally and internationally.