The 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, one of the greatest leaders of the Black liberation movement of the 1960s, was marked on February 21.
Russian revolutionary VI Lenin once wrote: “During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander.
“After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them … while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance…”
Lenin’s observation, inspired by the treatment in his day of 19th century socialists like Karl Marx, applies to the way the United States ruling class has sought to turn figures like Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X into harmless icons after their deaths.
The ruling class certainly heaped “the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander” on Malcolm X in his own day.
The day after he was killed, the New York Times editorialised: “He was a case history, as well as an extraordinary and twisted man, turning many true gifts to evil purpose…”
The NYT even implied he was responsible for his own death, writing: “His ruthless and fanatical belief in violence … marked him for fame, and for a violent end.”
And that was the “respectable” NYT. The gutter press was worse.
But in the decades since, the NYT and other ruling class voices have sought to “canonise” Malcolm. Roads, schools and other institutions have been named after him. The government even issued a postage stamp in his honour.
They have sought, at the same time, to blunt and vulgarise his revolutionary message. Liberals, both Black and white, seek to portray him as a pro-capitalist liberal like themselves.
Since the protests in Ferguson that erupted over a police killing last August, a new generation of young Black leaders has emerged who seek to recapture the real legacy of figures like King and Malcolm.
This was seen in this year’s celebrations of King’s birthday. The new generation transformed the day with militant actions, a far cry from the staid pro-establishment events of recent years.
Malcolm first rose to prominence as a leader of the Nation of Islam, popularly known as the Black Muslims. He joined them in the late 1940s while in jail for burglary, adopting the surname “X” to emphasise the fact that slave owners removed his ancestors’ real names.
Out of jail in 1952, Malcolm, a brilliant public speaker, became the group’s highest profile spokesperson. Originally a relatively small religious sect, Malcolm's organisational drive and uncompromising attacks on racism helped transform it into a powerful organisation.
The group was more than just a religious sect. It was a movement that inspired a new generation of Blacks in the 1950s and '60s with its message of militant Black nationalism. This especially struck a chord in the Blacks ghettos of the North, with the civil rights movement centred on the apartheid (legal segregation) South.
Malcolm broke with the Nation in 1963 and began a new course going beyond his earlier teachings. But there were central aspects of Malcolm's stances that he held on to until his death. These included:
• Blacks cannot get their freedom except by fighting for it;
• The racist US government will not voluntarily grant freedom;
• A liberal, gradualist approach will not win equality;
• The Black misleaders, largely tied to the Democratic Party, must be exposed and opposed;
• Blacks must rely on themselves and control their own struggle, determining their own strategy, tactics and leaders;
• Blacks have the right to armed self-defence against racist violence.
This last position has led the ruling class to widely slander Malcolm as an advocate of violence. He stood for the exact opposite — to defeat racist violence with self-defence.
In 1963, the centre of Black struggle began to shift to the northern ghettos, where the message of Black nationalism found a ready audience, and Blacks were taking to the streets.
Shortly before the historic 1963 March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs — one of the high points of the Southern struggle — there was a march as big or bigger in Detroit, a centre of Black nationalism.
It was in this context that tensions arose in the Nation of Islam. The Black Muslims' uncompromising militancy helped push other Black groups to the left. But they also refused to take part in the struggle, merely commentating from the sidelines.
Among younger members of the Nation, there was a desire to join the battle — to move from propaganda to action. Malcolm reflected this desire, which was at odds with the perspective of the Nation's spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad.
With the growth of militancy and mass action in the Black community, the two main tendencies in the Black Muslims had different views on how to respond to the masses knocking on the doors of their mosques.
When Malcolm X broke with Muhammad, he turned his attention to the broad Black struggle.
So began a new stage in Malcolm’s life — his all-too-brief last year, during which his views advanced by leaps and bounds. He travelled to Africa, the Middle East and Europe, and met revolutionaries from many countries and races. He discovered that, unlike the Nation's view that white people were “devils”, true Islam views all races alike.
Repudiating racism in all its forms, he resolved to judge people and movements on the basis of their deeds, not skin colour.
Malcolm set about building a new movement of Blacks on a basis of fighting their shared oppression, not religious views, even though he remained a Muslim.
This new group was called the Organization of African American Unity (OAAU). The name was taken from the Organization of African Unity, reflecting his identification with the anti-colonial revolutions in full swing in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Retaining his Black nationalism, Malcolm moved beyond it to an internationalist stance. This identification with the struggle of all the oppressed could be found in some of his last speeches while in the Nation, but became sharper in his last year.
In his speech to the Oxford University Union, Malcolm X concluded: "And I, for one, will join in with anyone — I don't care what colour you are — as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth."
The government was alarmed by his campaign to win international support to bring the US to trial at the United Nations for its racist oppression.
At the same time, Malcolm's denunciation of US imperialism became stronger.
He denounced the US role in murdering socialist anti-colonial revolutionary Patrice Lumumba in Congo, the war in Vietnam and attacks against the Cuban and Chinese revolutions. He sought to place the Black struggle in the US in the worldwide upsurge of oppressed peoples.
Malcolm’s thinking also developed towards anti-capitalism and socialism. He emphasised that, in the countries he visited that were recently freed from colonialism, they tended to turn away from capitalism and towards socialism.
Another sign was his deepening relation to the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance, groups I was an activist member of at the time.
The SWP, under the influence of the positions taken by the Communist International in Lenin’s time, recognised that Blacks in the US suffered under a form of national oppression.
The SWP embraced the new upsurge of Black nationalism in the early 1960s. In its 1963 convention, the SWP said that Black Nationalism and socialism “are not only compatible but complimentary forces, that should be welded closely in thought and action”.
The SWP took note of the militant speeches by Malcolm X when he was still in the Nation. The SWP newspaper, The Militant, covered these speeches positively, often reprinting Malcolm’s own words.
This was in sharp contrast to the Communist Party and other left groups, who denounced Malcolm and Black nationalism. Malcolm took note of all of this and praised The Militant, urging people to read it.
Shortly after Malcolm broke with the Nation, in April 1964, he spoke at a large Militant Labor Forum, organised by the SWP, on the topic of “The Black Revolution”.
In the speech, he strongly opposed Blacks supporting the Democratic Party, a theme he developed throughout his last year. He warned against the trap of supporting the “fox” — the Democrats — out of revulsion for the Republican “wolf”.
He spoke again at the Forum in May, saying of US capitalism: “It’s impossible for a chicken to produce a duck egg … The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-America…
“And if ever a chicken did produce a duck egg, I’m quite sure you would say it was certainly a revolutionary chicken!”
In January 1965, Malcolm again spoke at the Militant Labor Forum, after which I asked for an interview for the Young Socialist newspaper, which I edited. He agreed, and YSA leader Jack Barnes and myself spoke with him just weeks before he was killed.
We asked him about his view of the global struggle between capitalism and socialism, to which he said: “It is impossible for capitalism to survive.”
A few years later, before he too was assassinated in 1968, King began to draw the same anti-capitalist conclusions. From different starting points, these two giants began to converge.
[Barry Sheppard is a former leader of the SWP and YSA, and author of the two volume book The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988 the first of which discusses the mass Black radicalisation in the 1960s and Malcom X's role. It is published by Resistance Books. You can read Malcolm X in his own words in collections of his speeches published by Pathfinder Press.]