“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice, and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation... It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.” – Malcolm X
Today makes it exactly 50years that Malcolm X was brutally killed as he prepared to address a session of the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) at the 400-person capacity-filled Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, New York. Till date, the conspiracy behind this dastardly assassination of one of this impressive revolutionary described as “our shining black prince” at his funeral is yet to be unravelled. But his exemplary life continues to inspire millions of young and old black people in particular and people of all races in general, across the world.
There are lessons to be learnt from his inspiring life and struggle, for activists today. The recent wave of #blacklivesmatter in the wake of killings of young black people across several cities in the United States, point at the fact that racism remains institutionalised in that supposed bastion of liberal democracy. It is equally instructive that on one hand the resident of White House in Washington is a black Obama. On the other hand, all the victims of racist attacks were from poor working class backgrounds.
This goes to underscore the intertwined nature of racist oppression and class exploitation. Rich black people who being part of the system see their interest as primarily to defend it were described by Malcolm X as the “house nigger” ever so concerned with the slave master’s health and wellbeing. The poor working wage-slave, unemployed youth, and urban poor were and still are the “field niggers” who can liberate themselves only by bringing the reign of the bosses, the slave-masters to an end “by the ballot or the bullet”. More often than not, we could argue, with both as tactics within the strategy of mass revolts; revolution from below.
The incisive life of Malcolm X underscores the “bundle of contradictions” we all are and how in working with and for the people to help bring about the poor’s self-emancipation we transform both such mass movements that we are part of and ourselves get transformed. It is thus to a brief presentation of this that we turn at this point, as we remember Malcolm X, and walk in the shining light of this exemplar.
The Life & Times of Malcolm Omowale X
Born Malcolm Little as the fourth out of seven children on May 19, 1925 at Omaha, Nebraska in the United States of North America, Brother Malcolm X faced the bitter destructiveness of white supremacists, and had his earliest Black Nationalist inspiration, through his father, Earl Little. Earl was a disciple of the maverick lodestone for black repatriation; Marcus Mossiah Auerilius Garvey.
Earl Little who was a Baptist minister, was also a local leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which Marcus Garvey established in 1914. He and his family suffered immensely as a result of this, from the hands of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the Black Legion which was a breakaway group from the murderous racist KKK. Despite relocating first to Wisconsin and later to Michigan, these two groups kept up a barrage of attacks against the Little family: burning their homes to the ground; killing three of Earl’s brothers who were also Black Nationalists, and; continually harassing Earl, his wife Louise as well as Malcolm and his siblings.
Eventually, Earl Little was murdered by white supremacists suspected to be members of the notorious Black Legion. The insurance companies declared that this obvious killing was suicide, using that as an excuse to short change Louise and the family regarding payments of the life insurance policy Earl had taken. The family went through hard times. Malcolm and his brothers had to hunt for game to feed the family, while the mother rented out the home’s garden area to raise money for other commodities. Eventually, when Brother Malcolm was just 13years old, Louise suffered a nervous breakdown and was remanded in the Kalamazoo State Hospital where she would be till Malcolm and his siblings could secure her release 24years later.
With this troubled background, it is not surprising that the young Malcolm turned to crime, to survive. Relocating to the ghetto of Harlem, he peddled dope, gambled, pimped, burgled and robbed. But even at this point in time, when Malcolm was yet to be fully radicalised as a Black Nationalist, the main targets of his crimes were wealthy white people. He did not want to make the hell that was living for poor black people worse, in his own desperate and criminal efforts to survive.
Malcolm eventually got arrested in 1946 when he went to a repair shop to pick an expensive broken down watch that he wanted to fix before selling, and was sentenced to jail for eight-to-ten years, for larceny and breaking and entry, at the Charlestown State Prison. Like many great men, imprisonment marked a turning point in his life.
While in prison, Malcolm developed an insatiable appetite for reading after meeting John Bembry, a self-educated intellectual, who was also a convict. This was also where he converted to Islam and became a member of the Nation of Islam in 1948. Reginald, one of his brothers who had become a member of the Nation, helped to convert him. Members of the Nation of Islam at this point in time were radical Black Nationalists. They rejected Christianity as the religion of the whites which had been used to enslave black men and women. This is not unlike Bishop Desmond Tutu’s anecdote that when whites came to Africa with the bible, they asked us to close our eyes to pray. But when we opened our eyes, we were holding the bible and they had our lands firmly in their hands. For many in the Nation, their turn to Islam was thus a mark of defiance.
In 1950, Malcolm started addressing himself as Malcolm X, saying that: "For me, my 'X' replaced the white slave master name of 'Little' which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears." This was similar to Fela’s dropping the slaver’s name of Ransome for Anikulapo some two decades after this.
Two years later, Malcolm X was paroled. Immediately he stepped out of jail, he commenced a life dedicated to struggle for poor black people’s emancipation. In this struggle for freedom, he persevered to his last breath.
Due to his astounding capacity to organise and his powerful speaking ability, Elijah Mohammed who was the leader of the Nation of Islam made Malcolm X a Minister. He served in this capacity across several Temples of the group. His most spectacular success at helping to build the Nation was when he served as Minister of Temple Number 7 in Harlem. Within 12 years Malcolm X’s sterling role resulted in the growth of the Nation of Islam’s membership from just 4,000 to over 40,000 persons! He was always on the road or delivering lectures or organising other Black Nationalist programmes on behalf of the Nation.
It was during one of such lectures that he met Betty Sanders in 1955. They got married in January 1958 and had six beautiful daughters. His family faced an avalanche of harassments and attacks including death threats and the burning down of their home. Unfortunately, this was not only from white supremacists.
Malcolm X’s rising popularity, sincerity and unalloyed commitment to the cause of revolutionary struggle made Elijah Mohammed very uncomfortable. Despite his rhetoric, Mohammed was not averse to some compromises with the system as reflected in his consolation of the American state when President John Kennedy was assassinated, which Malcolm X described as “the chickens coming home to roost”. He also did not walk his talk. Contrary to the strict moral code of the Nation, he had been sleeping with his secretaries, many of whom bore him children.
With this situation, Malcolm X had to break with the Nation of Islam at the beginning of 1964. In his last year on earth, Elijah Mohammed and his followers hounded Malcolm X and his family as much, if not worse than white supremacist groups did. But did this not slowdown Malcolm X who rather redoubled his commitment to winning respect, self-pride and liberation for oppressed black people “by any means necessary”.
After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X established the Organization of Afro-African Unity (OAAU) based on a Pan-Africanist ideology. This was just a year after independent states in Africa had formed the Organization of African Unity (OAU) at Addis-Ababa. OAU recognised Malcolm X’s OAAU inviting Brother Malcolm as the leader of the organization to the 2nd OAU summit at Cairo in 1964.
He was in Africa twice, in 1959 and 1964, visiting several countries each time. On both occasions, he was in Nigeria. During his second visit to the country which was widely covered in the electronic and print media, Brother Malcolm X was given a Yoruba name, “Omowale” (trans: “the child comes home”) after delivering a lecture at the University of Ibadan. He described this as the greatest honour ever bestowed on him: to at last have a truly African name!
Alas! Just months after this, on February 21, 1964, Brother Malcolm Olawale X was gunned down in cold blood with 21 gunshot wounds on his chest, left shoulder, arms and legs as well as buckshot wounds from the shaved-off shot gun with which the first salvo of death was rained on this great revolutionary who never ceased to walk his talk.
While the exact circumstances surrounding the planning and execution of his assassination still remain shrouded in mystery, a few things are clear. First, the hand of the Nation of Islam can be seen in it. The three identified gunmen; Talmadge Hayer now known as Mujahid Halim (who was beaten to pulp before the police arrived by angry OAAU members), Muhammad Abdul Aziz (Butler), Norman 3X and Thomas 15X Johnson, were all members of the group. They were tried and jailed. But they have all been paroled, the first three in 1987 and Hayer in 2010. Second, the government of the United States is equally not innocent. Malcolm X was a threat to the stability of the capitalist system as a whole with his revolutionary message of mass action and self-defence. And quite interestingly, it was subsequently revealed that John Ali who was the National Secretary of the Nation of Islam at the time and who played a significant role in driving a wedge between Malcolm X and Elijah Mohammed had been an FBI agent all along!
Lessons for Activists in Today’s World of Crises & Revolts
Malcolm X’s great life holds so many lessons for us in our struggle for self-emancipation and the building of a new world on the ashes of the current degenerate and anti-poor people capitalist system that has thrown humankind and planet earth into a state of perennial crises.
The first is that, we must always persevere. “Freedom cometh by struggle” as an a luta song goes. The fight for a better world is not a sprint; it is a series of marathons. Virtually all rights we take for granted today were won because activists spurred the masses in ages past to wage relentless class war against the ruling class who always want to hold us back. Few recall that the “civil rights movement” emerged during Malcolm X’s generation because of segregation and the denial of blacks of the right to vote. But the American state did not grant the limited demands of this movement simply because they were made. They realised that holding back on these was a contributory factor in the radicalisation of the movement as well, by revolutionary forces represented by Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, Students Non-Violent Coordinating Council, Congress for Racial Equality, etc.
Second is the need for us persistently seek knowledge for “knowledge is power”. Malcolm X could play the role history foisted on him, precisely because he had started to become a reading man. We cannot be great leaders as activists, if we are not great readers. The quest for knowledge can be partly satiated through reading, to a great extent. But the biggest university in the world is that of life. We must continue to learn to know from our triumphs and our defeats, our joys and our travails. In this lies great strength. The guardians of the capitalist system realise this. They thus have no problem with citizens increasing knowledge so long as this is within the context they define. You see this in the curricular of schools where pupils are taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America and Mungo Park discovered River Niger as if human beings were not living in these supposedly “discovered” places before the oyinbo man came. We need to expand our counter-systemic knowledge. It is through such that we can rise above ideological incorporation.
Third, we can always grow beyond the limitations of our past, no matter how bad this has been. Malcolm Little became a criminal, even if this was due to the constraints of hardships. He was never ashamed of admitting this, as the past of Malcolm X, because he rose above this to the heroic heights of commitment to the noble cause of struggle for a more just world based on the self-emancipation of exploited and oppressed people, particularly for him and justly so, African-Americans.
Fourth, it is not enough to espouse our belief that the world should and could be better, with social justice and equality being the norm. We must organise on the basis of this belief, and propagate our ideology to larger circles of those enchained by the system, economically, politically and socio-culturally. The struggle for freedom is one that can be won only when we win millions enter the arena of political struggle to break their chains and win a new world, establishing a global socialist order.
Fifth, we must never lose sight of the multi-faceted nature of the forces that the poor working people are confronting. These include the state (governments, armies, police, prisons, courts etc and the international order of imperialism (manifested in the so-called “international community” politically and in the levers of international production and trade, economically). Essentially though, these different facets are all apparatus, mechanisms and structures of the bosses, the modern slave-masters i.e. capitalist overlords. The intertwined local, national and global nature of the system and its apparatus equally underscores the necessarily intertwined local, national and global nature of the revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of capitalist slavery.
Further, as the hand of the Nation of Islam in the killing of Malcolm X shows us, there will equally always be enemies within. These are those Judases that the bosses will always use to try defeat the revolution from inside it. The assassinations of Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Thomas Sankara amongst others too numerous to count, follow the same trend. Eternal vigilance thus becomes a price the revolutionary movement must pay for its liberty.
Sixth and finally, we must never lose sight of the critical importance of revolutionary self-defence as Brother Malcolm X always stressed. It is true that despite his commitment to self-defence he was still killed. But if not for that, he could have been killed even much earlier. But beyond self-defence in the personal sense, Malcolm X’s message captured the need for the revolution to defend itself if it is not to be smashed before its consummation. To overthrow the capitalist system, the working masses’ uprising must include self-defence militias and our triumph must result in the disbanding of specialised bands of armed men (the army, police, etc) and their replacement with the armed people. Inkling of this can be garnered in the emergence of the Civilain JTF in the north east.
As we remember Malcolm X, 50 years after his assassination, we must redouble our efforts in fighting against our exploiters and oppressors, irrespective of the colours of their skins. Another world is indeed possible and it will emerge through our revolutionary struggle ideologically, politically and organisationally. The working people united and determined cannot be defeated.
Long live Malcolm X!
Long live the Revolution!!
We shall overcome!!!