I don’t remember learning about Malcolm X (a.k.a. El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) in school – not really. Not like I learned about such Great Americans as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and George Washington Carver, the inventor of peanut butter.
Seems things haven’t changed much: As the New York Daily News recently reported, teachers at a Queens elementary school forbade their (mostly black) students to write about the revolutionary black nationalist leader and thinker. Why? Because he was “violent” and “bad”.
So when Malcolm X is brought up (usually during the month of February), it’s only in opposition to King. In this story, Malcolm plays the part of the hateful (Muslim) radical, the unreasonable foil to King’s conciliatory (Christian) liberal.
Of course, any honest account of King’s thought must acknowledge that he grew to share many of Malcolm’s positions: King’s famous speech against the Vietnam War, “Beyond Vietnam” – given in 1967, shortly before his murder – is almost entirely ignored by the liberals and conservatives who now sing his praises. But the speech’s marked anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism indicate how the influence of principled ideological rivals like Malcolm X (as well as the reality of the civil rights struggle) kept pushing King further to the left, until the untimely end of his days.
King can be celebrated as a national hero by Americans of all political stripes because he’s been Santa Clausified, his radicalism whitewashed, his legacy reduced to something about a dream.
We don’t learn about Malcolm X because there’s nothing in the history of his thought that can be sanitized and rendered unthreatening to the white capitalist power structure. Contrary to a convenient interpretation, Malcolm’s hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) didn’t move him closer to advocating “integration” or reconciliation with whites – it only inspired him to link the struggle of blacks in the US with the struggles of colonized peoples the world over.
By the end of his life, King had come to see things more like Malcolm, but Malcolm had only come to see things more like himself.
49 years ago today, Malcolm X was assassinated, apparently by members of the Nation of Islam. In the half-century since his death, his analysis of white supremacy as a political and economic system – a dynamic system of exploitation and repression that would survive the end of legal apartheid – has been vindicated again and again.
A half-century ago, Malcolm was warning of the “black bourgeoisie” and the danger it posed to any serious agenda of racial justice. Now, the figurehead of the bourgeoisie is himself a black man. While the Great Recession’s biggest losers by far have been black Americans, blacks – historically, the most left-leaning ethnic demographic in the US – have never been more loath to criticize the US government and its role as the handmaiden of capital.
There’s a lot to read and watch if you want to learn more about this great leader of the left in his own eloquent, uncompromising words – but for now, I’ll leave you with this short excerpt, the continued relevance of which I think readers of this blog will appreciate as much as I do:
The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful than the conservative. The liberal is more hypocritical than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor; and by winning the friendship, allegiance, and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or tool in this political “football game” that is constantly raging between the white liberals and white conservatives.
Politically the American Negro is nothing but a football and the white liberals control this mentally dead ball through tricks of tokenism: false promises of integration and civil rights. In this profitable game of deceiving and exploiting the political politician of the American Negro, those white liberals have the willing cooperation of the Negro civil rights leaders. These “leaders” sell out our people for just a few crumbs of token recognition and token gains. These “leaders” are satisfied with token victories and token progress because they themselves are nothing but token leaders.