By Bernard E. Harcourt
“Revisiting these Black radical voices of the twentieth century [Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.], we retrain ourselves to glean, in the calamitous and contentious discord of the present, both the profound scale of the long-deferred reconstruction ahead and the ‘audacious faith,’ in King’s words, that ordinary people like us would be up to the task.
— Brandon Terry, “What Dignity Demands” (2021)
There is a prophetic quality to the final writings and sayings of brilliant magnetic thinkers whose time on this earth ended prematurely, at the very prime of their lives. We tend to hang on to their every last word, looking for clues as to where their brilliance would have led them—and us. We strive to unearth one more final speech, one final thought to help us decipher a path forward. That surely affected our reading, at our last seminar Revolution 9/13, of the work of Hans-Jürgen Krahl, the charismatic leader of the German SDS movement who died in an automobile accident at the young age of 27. We read every word, every action, as if it might give us insight into a promising road not taken by the Frankfurt School. The same undoubtedly shapes our reading of the visionary Malcolm X, tragically assassinated at the young age of 39.
At the very moment he was soaring to new heights, freed from his earlier attachments to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was murdered on February 21, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom and pronounced dead at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. It had only been eleven months since he had publicly split from the Nation of Islam, March 8, 1964. The combination of his untimely death at 39 and the short eleven-month period of total independence, as well as his many premonitions of death, accentuates the prophetic character of his thought during the last year of his life.
Many scholars and readers of Malcolm X imagine where he might have led us. Brandon Terry starts there in his first of two brilliant essays published in the New York Review of Books under the title “Malcolm’s Ministry”: “At the end of his remarkable, improbable life, Malcolm X was on the cusp of a reinvention that might have been even more significant than his conversion in prison from criminal predation to religious piety.” As Terry reminds us, Manning Marable too (whom we discussed with Kendall Thomas at Revolution 6/13), in his remarkable Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Malcolm X, also imagined where the path might lead. Marable “lamented that Malcolm’s murder in February 1965 prevented his full evolution toward a ‘gentle humanism and antiracism’ that ‘could have become a platform for a new kind of radical, global ethnic politics.’”
There is always a danger of projecting futures onto captivating thinkers like Malcolm X. Their lost potential gives a lot of room for interpretation, sometimes for invention. That’s a mixed blessing. There’s the danger, of course, but also an opportunity. An opportunity to reread them in a more motivated way. For those of us who care deeply about the present—and the future—that’s an opportunity to seize now.
Revolutionary Worldly Philosopher
In terms of our guiding question in this 13/13 series—namely, how does the revolutionary aspect of Malcolm X’s life affect his critique and praxis?—one answer, I think, is apparent.
The fact that Malcolm X was a revolutionary, deeply engaged in critical praxis, fundamentally shaped his thought, and did so in a manner radically different than academic critical thinkers.
Malcolm X placed himself at the center of what he called a “Black revolution.” He argued that the only way to realize that ambition was to internationalize the fight and turn it into a struggle for “human rights.” He said that the minority status of African-Americans in the United States undermines the possibility of true social transformation, so that, instead, the struggle needed to be waged at a global level, where Africans and Asians and other persons of color represent the majority of the world’s population. He also believed, in part from his conversations with revolutionary figures in Africa and Asia during his trips abroad, that the struggle had to be led in the name of human rights, which were of international concern, and not civil rights, which were a domestic issue. By elevating the struggle to the level of international human rights, Malcolm X argued, it would be possible to leverage the power and alliances of foreign leaders and the United Nations in the domestic fight for equality and racial justice.
There is a way in which his turn to a human rights paradigm, his opposition to strict non-violence, his embrace of a Black internationalism were all directly linked and the product of his engagement in revolutionary praxis. He was not simply theorizing questions of human rights. He was not tracing genealogies of rights. He was not engaged, really, in a critique of rights. He was trying to figure out, strategically, how to deploy rights in a more effective manner. And notice, he was not engaged in “praxis” as opposed to “strategy” or “tactics.” His was an integrated form of praxis-strategy-tactic—which may be necessary for critique and praxis: not to get caught up or distracted by possible distinctions between praxis and strategy and tactics, but to think copiously of praxis-strategy-tactics in order to formulate a program for action.
Malcolm X’s human rights advocacy may be a perfect entry point to distinguish the revolutionary worldly philosopher from the academic critical theorist. Malcolm X was not developing a concept of the right to have rights. He wasn’t engaged in armchair theorizing about how a human rights paradigm might displace more radical revolutionary ambitions. He was advocating a strategic, rhetorical move in order to place the domestic American struggle onto the international scene and create the opportunity for international alliances.
Malcolm X was explicit about this from the beginning, from the moment he split off from the Nation of Islam. As he explained on April 8, 1964—just a month after the split—in a speech on “The Black Revolution”: “once [the struggle] is expanded beyond the level of civil rights to the level of human rights, it opens the door for all of our brothers and sisters in Africa and Asia, who have their independence, to come to our rescue.” He continued to elaborate this theme to the end—at least, to the week of his untimely death. It is present in one of his last speeches, on February 16, 1965, in Rochester, “Not just an American problem, but a world problem,” where he concludes: “For as long as you call it ‘civil rights’ your only allies can be the people in the next community, many of whom are responsible for your grievance. But when you call it ‘human rights’ it becomes international. And then you can take your troubles […] before the world. And anybody anywhere on this earth can become your ally.”
Malcolm X turned to internationalism as a strategic way to tap into the broader resistance to imperialism, colonialism, and racial oppression in Africa and Asia. The struggle needed to be elevated, Malcolm X argued, precisely because the whole world is more non-white than it is white. This way of thinking, I would argue, was deeply marked by the privilege of praxis.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King
As Brandon Terry underscores, it has always been difficult to read Malcolm X outside of his relationship to Martin Luther King. That has created lots of issues for our interpretation of both thinkers.
In part, Malcolm X made it so. He took aim at King and the non-violent civil rights movement. You can hear it clearly from the get go. In his first press conference after the split, on March 12, 1964, Malcom X stated “concerning nonviolence: it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.” You can almost hear, in anticipation, the Black Panthers: “we should form rifle clubs that can be used to defend our lives and our property in times of emergency.” A month later, Malcolm X positioned himself in binary opposition to King. Discussing the “Black Revolution” on April 8, 1964, Malcolm X says:
Revolutions are never fought by turning the other cheek. Revolutions are never based upon love-your-enemy and pray-for-those-who-spitefully-use-you. And revolutions are never waged singing “We Shall Overcome.” Revolutions are based upon bloodshed.
At the same time, in Malcolm X’s later speeches, there is a distinct call for unity, for getting beyond internal divisions, especially upon his return from Africa and the Middle East. His conversations with Nkrumah and Nyerere and others had, in his words, “broadened” his understanding. “I’m not here tonight to talk about some of these movements that are clashing with each other,” he’d say on February 18, 1965. “I’m here to talk about the problem that’s in front of all of us.”
As Brandon Terry suggests, Malcolm X’s relationship to Martin Luther King has been constructed along the lines of several dialectics—between violence and nonviolence, “separation and integration,” “hate and love,” “resentment and reconciliation,” “the street and the church,” “masculinity and effeminacy.”
Inescapably, there’s a lot of work being done with those dichotomies. There is a lot of work being done in the effort to polarize or to reconcile the two men.
Some like to minimize the difference in order to radicalize Martin Luther King—or at least, reverse the liberal effort to mainstream King. The strategy here is to show that King’s thought became more anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, especially in 1967 when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam or militated with workers. Part of the effort here is to bring King closer to Malcolm X in order to resist the tendency to sanitize him; part of the effort is to unite people. As Brandon Terry notes, Americans have often been divided along the lines of King versus Malcolm X. The effort to reconcile points toward greater unity in the struggle for racial justice.
On the other side, some try to push apart the two extremes in order not only to sanitize King, but also to demonize forms of more radical resistance, by portraying Malcolm X in as bad a light as possible to impugn, for instance, the Black Panther Party and other forms of more open resistance.
At the extreme, there is the blatant “divide and conquer” strategy implemented by the FBI and COINTELPRO, the Counter Intelligence Program—a strategy of driving wedges in Black communities.
All this suggests, naturally, that any purported neutral, objective, or scholarly reading of the relationship between King and Malcolm X can be instrumentalized and is almost, by definition, political. Taking position here, I would argue, is a political act, especially today.
Prison Abolition Today
Brandon Terry emphasizes Malcolm X’s unique position with regard to the prison, policing, and the debate surrounding abolition today. By contrast to many other Black leaders and thinkers who were incarcerated (whether King himself, or Angela Davis or others) on what we would consider to be political grounds, Malcolm X was in prison for what we call “street crime.” His journey took him from street-level drug dealing and property offenses to conversion in prison to Islam. As Brandon demonstrates, this is significant along a number of dimensions.
First, it puts Malcolm X in direct conversation on the question of mobilizing the most disadvantaged in society, those who are system impacted. Malcolm X not only had first-hand experience of the prison, but a genuine aspiration to bring the most marginalized and disadvantaged persons in society—what Marxists refer to as the “lumpenproletariat”—into the struggle for racial justice. Malcolm X’s work is also most likely to speak to those in prison. As Terry emphasizes in his article “Malcolm’s Ministry,” one of Malcolm X’s great strengths is the ability to mobilize “the political and moral agency of the most marginalized.”
Second, it puts Malcolm X in direct conversation with prison abolition today. By contrast to many other critical thinkers, Malcom X developed a critique of the prison that speaks directly to abolitionist debates. In fact, in his February 16, 1965, speech and elsewhere, Malcolm X anticipated the current debate over “Black criminality.” He talked about how the media distorts “the statistics” to “make it appear that the role of crime in the Black community is higher than it is anywhere else.” Malcolm X says:
What does this do? This message is a very skillful message used by racists to make the whites who aren’t racists think that the rate of crime in the Black community is so high. This keeps the Black community in the image of a criminal. It makes it appear that anyone in the Black community is a criminal. And as soon as this impression is given, then it makes it possible, or paves the way to set up a police-type state in the Black community… And the whites go along with it. Because they think that everybody over there’s a criminal anyway. This is what—the press does this.
This is skill. This skill is called—this is a science that’s called “image making.” They hold you in check through this science of imagery. They even make you look down upon yourself, by giving you a bad image of yourself.
In Malcolm X’s writings, and in his life experiences, there are several pillars that can serve to bolster the abolitionist argument today.
Third, it also challenges too simple a focus on the state. Terry cautions us to think as well about the potential skids of community organizations. Terry writes:
One of the great contributions of [Les] Payne’s work is that it may spur us, as we debate the principles and prospects for police and prison “abolition,” to take seriously the sociological underpinnings of the NOI’s fall. The state is not the only organized executor of violence, and illegitimate claims on the right to kill or punish would not disappear with prisons or the police. Though abolitionists have convincingly argued that self-professed “liberals” have permitted the cruelty of mass incarceration to become normalized, a reimagined model of public safety must take account of the ways in which the organizations best disposed to seize the powers of “community control” have been responsible for other forms of violence and abuse.
One other important aspect to explore here would be the relationship between the revolutionary aspect of Malcolm X and possible tension with some of the more contemporary versions of abolition that emphasize harm-reduction. I think there is a real tension here and that it is crucial to not simply sweep it under the rug. I agree with Joy James here that it is essential that we not “airbrush” these kinds of tensions. James suggests that “alliances between abolitionists and revolutionaries” are “essential for intellectual and political development,” but “destabilized by the airbrushing of revolutionary struggles.” That seems right to me and it militates in favor of a more open conversation about these tensions. In part, we will return to them when we discuss abolition feminism with Sarah Haley at Revolution 13/13 on June 1, 2022.
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In both his essays, Brandon Terry describes Malcolm X as, among other things, populist. In “Malcolm’s Ministry,” Terry writes that “Malcolm tried, speech by speech, to cobble together a political philosophy for Black militants out of revolutionary Black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, anti-imperialism, and a populist critique of Black elites.” In “What Dignity Demands,” Terry refers to “Malcolm’s populist appeals to the ‘downtrodden masses’ left behind by civil rights legislation.”
I look forward to exploring this theme, and others, with Brandon Terry at our seminar on April 20, 2022.
Welcome to Revolution 10/13!