“We are seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.” — Malcolm X
Behind the Split
Malcolm’s eventual split with the Nation of Islam was finally provoked by the death of John F Kennedy. Unlike the leaders of the mainstream movement Malcolm had never sown illusions in Kennedy or the big business Democrat Party. Kennedy had come to government on the back of the Civil Rights movement. In 1960 when he closely beat Richard Nixon he had received 68% of the black vote. But like US President Clinton today, he soon ditched many of his election promises. For this, Malcolm rightly denounced him: “Kennedy ran on a platform as a white liberal three years ago and said all he had to do was take out his fountain pen put his name on some paper and our problem could be solved. He was three years in office before he found where his fountain pen was…and the problem isn’t solved yet.” It was therefore true to form for Malcolm to refuse to be silent after Kennedy’s death. Elijah Muhammad ordered his members not to publicly comment on the issue. Yet when quizzed by the press Malcolm said simply “The chickens have come home to roost. Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” An outraged Muhammad suspended Malcolm for ninety days. During that period Malcolm was not to speak publicly on behalf of the Nation. After the 90 days the suspension was not lifted, it had in reality become an expulsion. This was not a real surprise to Malcolm and reflected the growing differences between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad. On March 8, 1964, Malcolm formally announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam to build a new organization.
It was clear that Malcolm and Muhammad had begun to differ on the question of how to struggle long before the split. In 1962, the Los Angeles Police, in a highly provocative attack, gunned down seven black Muslims. Sixteen were arrested and charged with “criminal assault against the police.”
Malcolm was shipped to LA to deal with the case. He automatically recognized the huge potential that existed to unite Muslims and non-Muslims in a campaign against police brutality. Mass meetings were organized immediately. Media coverage raised the awareness of the campaign. Material was produced that aimed to cross religious divides. Leaflets pointed out that “It was a Muslim mosque this time; next it will be the Protestant church, the Catholic cathedral, the Jewish synagogue.” But Malcolm’s plans to launch a massive, nation-wide campaign were eventually vetoed by the leadership. It was quickly becoming clear that Malcolm represented the militant tendency within the organization. Elijah Muhammad’s conservative tendencies were holding things back. In a statement after the split, Malcolm made it clear where he now stood. Talking about the new organization he was to launch he said, “It’s going to be different now, I’m going to join in the fight wherever Negroes ask for my help. And I suspect my activities will be on a greater and more intensive scale than in the past.”
Malcolm did not want to be left on the sidelines of the great revolutionary struggle that was sweeping the U.S. But the Black Muslims abstentionist message of “boycott the civil rights struggle; have nothing to do with the white man and his society” made it inevitable that unless he broke with them, he would be left on the sidelines. The break came at the height of the civil rights movement when Malcolm X realized he had to take part in the struggle.
A week before his assassination Malcolm X publicly revealed that the leaders of the Black Muslims had been colluding with the Ku Klux Klan and Rockwell, the leader of the U.S. Nazi Party. They had looked to give Elijah Muhammed financial aid. In return Muhammed was to continue churning out the separatist message and at the same time keep the heat off racist organizations. This graphically shows how Black Nationalism could play into the hands of the racists. In the course of struggle Malcolm X was forced to question whether Black Nationalism was the correct philosophy. He did not break with the idea of blacks organizing separately, but he recognized that using the term Black Nationalist was setting him apart from “true revolutionaries dedicated to overturning the system of exploitation that exists on this earth.” He said, “Can we sum up the solution to the problems confronting our people as Black Nationalism? If you notice, I haven’t been using that expression for several months now.”
Muslim Mosque Inc.
Malcolm’s new organization, the Muslim Mosque Inc. aimed to organize in action both Muslims and non-Muslims. While he was still a committed black nationalist, his aim being the return of blacks to Africa, he saw this as a long way off. He wanted the Muslim Mosque Inc., working alongside other civil rights groups, to spearhead a campaign for decent housing, education, jobs, etc. He correctly saw the crucial importance that youth would play in any radical organization, saying, “Our accent will be on the youth. We need new ideas, new methods, new approaches. We are completely disenchanted with the old, adult established politicians. We want some new, more militant faces.”
He also began to develop his ideas on self-defense for black communities. “Concerning nonviolence: It is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of racial attacks.” He called for blacks to exercise their legal right to own a shotgun or rifle. Where the state refused to intervene in communities under attack, he said those communities should form rifle clubs. “We should be peaceful, law abiding – but the time has come for the American Negro to fight back in self-defense whenever and wherever he is being unjustly or unlawfully attacked. If the government thinks I am wrong for saying this, then let the government start doing its job.”
However, from its inception, the Muslim Mosque Inc. received little funding or support from established civil rights groups. The SNCC refused to enter into any sort of working alliance. The media also refused to portray the new direction that Malcolm was moving in. In his own words he was “caught in a trap.” He wanted to build an all-black organization “whose ultimate objective was to help create a society in which there could exist honest white-black brotherhood.” Perhaps the leaders of the Civil Rights movement recognized just what a threat Malcolm’s new leftward direction posed. He was now more than just an angry, black man. He was beginning to work out tactics and strategies that would mobilize blacks into action. Now, more than ever, he posed a threat to the leadership of the civil rights movement. Malcolm X was evolving into a revolutionary; he was challenging not just racism, but the whole of the capitalist system.
Malcolm spent just 50 weeks apart from the Nation of Islam before he was assassinated. But even in that brief time, his political thinking changed dramatically. He spent over half this time abroad touring Africa and the Middle East. This was the biggest factor that changed his way of thinking. “They say travel broadens your scope,” he said, “and recently I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of it. While I was traveling I noticed that most of the countries that have recently emerged into independence have turned away from the so-called capitalistic system in the direction of socialism… Most of the countries that were colonial powers were capitalist countries… You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
Initially, he still rejected the idea of black and white workers uniting against oppression. “They’ll never do it with working-class whites. The history is that working-class whites have been just as much against not only working Negroes but all Negroes period. I think one of the mistakes Negroes make is this worker solidarity thing. There’s no such thing -it didn’t even work in Russia.” But history tells another story. Blacks, in struggles against racial oppression, have always looked to unite with other oppressed groups. During the great slave revolts of the past, black slaves formed strong alliances with Native American Indians. During the Civil War, alliances were formed with northern trade unionists and in 1880, black and white small farmers came together to form the Populist movement to defend their common interests.
Again, after visits abroad, Malcolm’s position on this began to change. “In my recent travels into the African countries and others, it was impressed upon me the importance of having a working unity among all peoples, black as well as white. But the only way that this is going to be brought about is that the black ones have to be in unity first.” He went on to say: “We will work with anyone, with any group, no matter what their color is, as long as they are genuinely interested in taking the type of steps necessary to bring an end to the injustices that black people in this country are inflicted by.”
Even on the issue black nationalism, Malcolm’s thoughts began to change:
“I used to define Black Nationalism as the idea that the black man should control the economy of his community, the politics of the community and so forth. But when I was in Africa in May, in Ghana, I was speaking with the Algerian ambassador who is extremely militant and is a revolutionary in the truest sense of the word…When I told him my political, social and economic philosophy was black nationalism, he asked me where did that leave him? Because he was white. He was an African but he was Algerian and to all appearances, a white man. And I said I define my objective as the victory of Black Nationalism – where did that leave him? Where does that leave revolutionaries in Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and Mauritania? So he showed me where I was alienating people who were true revolutionaries, dedicated to overthrowing the system of exploitation that exists on this earth by any means necessary. So I had to do a lot of thinking and reappraising of my definition of Black Nationalism. Can we sum up the solution to the problems confronting our people as Black Nationalism? And if you noticed I haven’t been using the expression for several months. But I would still be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of black people in this country.”
Organization of Afro American Unity (OAAU)
In June, 1964, Malcolm announced the formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Self Defense of Afro-Americans was an important feature in the program of this organization.
A voter registration drive was launched in the black community to make “every unregistered voter an independent voter.” This in no way detracted from his position that the two capitalist parties, the Republican and Democratic Parties, should in no way be supported by black people.
The OAAU launched a petition to be presented to the United Nations Human Right Commission, calling for the prosecution of the U.S. government for their crimes against Afro-Americans. While this may have been an effective propaganda campaign, that was all it could ever be. The United Nations has never and will never be an international upholder of justice. Rather it provides a “humanitarian” cover for U.S. imperial interests. We need only look at its role today in the Persian Gulf war; with the UN’s refusal to lift a finger against Israel despite Israeli persecution of Palestinians. The UN’s role has never been to protect the rights of small countries or oppressed minorities.
If anyone was clear what a threat to the system he posed, it was Malcolm himself. He experienced weekly diatribes against him in the Nation of Islam newspaper, the firebombing of his home, and FBI surveillance. He himself said, “Anything I do today, I regard as urgent. No man is given but so much to accomplish whatever his life’s work… I am only facing facts when I know that any moment of any day, or any night, could bring me death.” Malcolm X was assassinated before he was able to effectively translate his new ideas into action. He was buried at the age of 40 but as the next chapter shows, his ideas lived on.