The Life and legacy of Malcolm X

50 years since the assassination of the black revolutionary

Hugh Caffrey

February 21 marks 50 years since the assassination of the black revolutionary activist Malcolm X. As the United States is shaken by mass protests in hundreds of cities against police racism and violence, and a new ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement emerges, Malcolm X ideas are attracting renewed interest. Evolving from black nationalism to anti-capitalism and towards socialism, he remains an inspiration to all who challenge the racist capitalist system.

Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) experienced racism from birth. Forced by racists to move home, Malcolm was still young when white supremacists murdered his father. Insurance companies refused to pay out, “claiming my father had committed suicide… how could my father bash himself in the head, and then get down across the streetcar tracks to be run over?”

Malcolm X was often top of his class. But the racist system failed him, drove his mother to a breakdown and hospital, and broke up his family. Malcolm wanted to be a lawyer. His school-teacher replied, “A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a nigger… Why don’t you plan on carpentry?”

Poverty-stricken, alienated, and angry without answers, Malcolm drifted from shoe-shining to train porter, to petty crime, drug addiction and jail. While imprisoned, he converted to the Nation of Islam (NOI).

Malcolm X-2

“The true knowledge of the black man”

The Nation of Islam was founded in 1931, preaching black pride and separatism – and quickly finding fertile soil among Afro-American convicts. Malcolm X described: “Here is a black man caged behind bars, probably for years, put there by the white man.

“Usually the convict comes from among those bottom-of-the-pile Negroes, the Negroes who through their entire lives have been kicked about, treated like children – Negroes who have never met one white man who didn’t either take something from them or do something to them… ‘The white man is the devil’ is a perfect echo of that black convict’s lifelong experience.”

“I felt Allah would be more inclined to help those who helped themselves”

Leaving prison, Malcolm X threw himself into building the Nation of Islam. He quickly became a leading minister: founding temples and the Nation’s newspaper; addressing meetings; raging against America’s racist history; articulating anger instinctively felt by oppressed Afro-Americans. The NOI swelled to 100,000 followers by the early 1960s.

Civil rights movement

America’s mass civil rights movement which erupted in the mid-1950s, with protests like those of Rosa Parks (who refused to move from a ‘whites only’ bus seat), grew to involve in millions of black Americans demanding change. In Africa and Asia, revolutions swept away colonial rule. Revolutionary events combined with police brutality to spur on a mass movement.

“Those Muslims talk tough, but they never do anything”

Civil rights leaders attempted to tie the movement to lobbying Democrat politicians. Malcolm X correctly attacked this: “Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lilypad park pools, with gospels and guitars and ‘I Have a Dream’ speeches? And the black masses in America were – and still are – having a nightmare.”

This criticism was directed against civil rights leader Martin Luther King. King later moved to the left, arguing for working-class unity and supporting strikers. This was not long before he too was murdered (4 April 1968).

The LAPD (Los Angeles police) attacked a Nation of Islam temple in 1962, killing a leading activist. Malcolm X began a defence campaign, holding mass meetings. He supported a New York trade union boycott against a company refusing to employ black workers.

“The chickens coming home to roost”

But this contradicted the conservative NOI leaders, who took a sectarian line of “non-engagement” towards the civil rights movement and offered no practical alternative. Moves were underway to undermine Malcolm X, sanctioned by NOI leader Elijah Muhammad.

President John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 meant NOI ministers were immediately ordered to say nothing. Malcolm X was not to be silenced. “… it was, as I saw it, a case of ‘the chickens coming home to roost’. I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenceless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, finally had struck down this country’s Chief of State.”

The NOI moved swiftly on this pretext. Meeting with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X was told “I’ll have to silence you for the next ninety days – so that the Muslims everywhere can be disassociated from [your] blunder.”

Soon after this senior NOI members began to talk about killing Malcolm X.

“A working unity among all peoples”

Fifty weeks separate Malcolm X’s split with the Nation of Islam, and his murder which was orchestrated by the US state. Visiting Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage, in Africa discussing with independence movement leaders, Malcolm’s ideas underwent a profound transformation. He met many non-Black “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.”

Malcolm X launched a new organisation, ‘Muslim Mosque Inc’, to “…embrace all faiths of black men, and it would carry into practice what the Nation of Islam had only preached”.

“This was a move that people had waited for. Numerous people said… they wanted to join me… Muslims wrote from other cities that they would join me, their remarks being generally along the lines that ‘Islam is too inactive’… ‘The Nation is moving too slow’”.

After his international travels, Malcolm X wanted to develop links between the ‘Muslim Mosque Inc’ and Muslims across the world. His ideas continued to move towards those of working-class unity and socialism.

From challenging racism with religion, to challenging capitalism with unity of the oppressed, Malcolm X stated: “I 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.”

This represented a real threat. Within weeks Malcolm was dead, assassinated by the state with NOI involvement.

Malcolm X’s ideas have long been distorted. He has been falsely accused of being a “black racist”. The Nation of Islam claims him as their own. Yet shortly before Malcolm was killed, current NOI leader Louis Farrakhan said, “a man such as this is worthy only of death”.

Some see Malcolm as a Muslim preacher. He filled his faith with the social struggle for liberation – beginning to reach out to all Afro-Americans, and then working-class whites, for unity against racism and poverty.

Five decades later a whole race-relations industry has been built up. The most glaring racism has perhaps been shoved under the carpet, but the police are institutionally racist. Harassment and poverty remain and have worsened during the recent economic crisis. Capitalist parties like the US Democrats have nothing to offer. As Malcolm said, “With these choices, I felt the American black man only had to choose which one to be eaten by, the ‘liberal’ fox or the ‘conservative’ wolf – because both of them would eat him.”

Malcolm’s murder enraged a generation to rise up and fight. One million Afro-Americans considered themselves revolutionary. The Black Panther Party, founded in 1966, organised community defence against racists and police, and drew some socialist conclusions.

Panther leader Bobby Seale summed it up: “We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian internationalism.”

Socialist Action stands in the best traditions of mass struggle and self-defence, for working-class unity of all races, religions, and countries.

This is a slightly edited version of an article that first appeared in 2005 in The Socialist, newspaper of the CWI in England and Wales.