Notes on "Malcolm X: Witness for the Prosecution" by Peter Goldman

Overview:

When the focus of the Civil Rights Movement turned North in 1965, blacks discovered that the problems of urban slum dwellers proved far more impervious to attack than had the segregation and disenfranchisement of the South. Disillusionment with the movement’s goals of integration and its tactics of non-violent protest grew, especially among younger blacks. Skepticism about the worth of integrating into the mainstream of white America, increasing support for the use of violent tactics, and a surge of black nationalism unseen since Marcus Garvey's days began to dominate the rhetoric of the movement. In this context the fiery speeches of Malcolm X, a spokesman for a small, nationalist sect called the Nation of Islam, resonated through black America. At the height of his career, between 1962 and 1964, before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X stood as the direct antithesis to the nonviolent activism and faith in an integrated society that had been the hallmarks of Martin Luther King, Jr.

During his life Malcolm was dimly perceived as a racist and a demagogue. It has only been since his death that he can be seen more clearly for what he was: a revolutionary of the black soul who helped awaken a proud and assertive new black consciousness.

 

Malcolm's Life

In his Autobiography published after his murder in 1965, Malcolm described his life as a 'chronology of changes': his character went through a series of provisional identities which changed continuously. At the time of his death Malcolm was still in evolution.

Malcolm Little

Born in 1925, Malcolm was the son of a West Indian woman and a fiery black preacher devoted to the Baptist gospel and to the secular teachings of the nationalist Marcus Garvey.

Malcolm's family was harried out of Omaha, Nebraska by white vigilantes in reprisal for his father's outspokenness, their home in Lansing Michigan was burned, and ultimately Malcolm's father was murdered. His mother suffered a nervous breakdown, and the family disintegrated.

Malcolm was raised in a white foster home and quickly demonstrated his ability as a student by becoming the valedictorian of his middle school even though he was the only black in his class. When his teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, Malcolm said that he wanted to be a lawyer. His teacher responded that he should think realistically about becoming a carpenter.

Detroit Red

Malcolm dropped out of school after his 8th grade year, moved to Boston, and subsequently to Harlem, drifting from a serious of menial jobs into the zoot-suited, bop-gaited life of a street hustler. He dealt (and used) drugs, ran numbers, worked as a pimp, and burglarized homes and stores.

At that time Malcolm had conked his hair and tried as hard as he could 'to be white'. His career in crime ultimately landed him in prison where he served a ten year sentence. The sentence had been particularly harsh because the judge was outraged that one of his accomplices had been his white mistress.

Malcolm X

In prison Malcolm began his redemption by joining the debate team. He developed his vocabulary by copying words out of the dictionary and then using them in competition.

Malcolm was befriended by a member of the Nation of Islam, frequently referred to as the 'Black Muslims', and he came under the influence of the teachings of its leader, the Messenger Elijah Muhammad. He claimed that he had heard the word of God who had appeared to him in the form of a silk peddler named Wallace D. Fard in a Detroit ghetto in 1930. Fard had announced to Elijah that the apocalypse was at hand. Muhammad had been chosen as the messenger of this news to the thousands of black migrants who had resettled in Northern cities during the Great Migration.

Muhammad preached that whites were a bleached-out, blue-eyed mutant race created by a dissident black scientist named Yacub who had set whites loose to subjugate blacks for his satanic pleasure. This message might sound far-fetched, but it found ready believers among a people whose African heritage had been destroyed by white slavers, whose men and women had been reduced to chattel,who had been stripped of their culture, religion, even their names, and taught to speak a foreign tongue, worship a 'spook' Christian god, and call themselves 'Smith, Jones, Powell, Bunche and King’. Muhammad taught that blacks had been reduced from Africans to 'so-called American Negroes' wallowing in the white man's vices and obedient to the white man's unthreatening Negro leaders; the white man had, in sum, murdered them spiritually, emotionally and morally.

Malcolm embraced Muhammad's teaching in prison, and when he was released, he became a minister in his organization, quickly rising to become one of the sect's primary spokesmen. Even more effectively than Muhammad himself, Malcolm knew how to connect and communicate with ghetto blacks. He told an audience in 1963, "You don't catch hell because you're a Methodist or a Baptist. You don't catch hell because you're a Republican or a Democrat. You don't catch hell because you're a Mason or an Elk, and you sure don't catch hell because you're an American, because if you were an American you wouldn't catch no hell. You catch hell because you are a black man."

The Muslims offered blacks an alternative to the religious belief that the fallen state of their people was the result God's judgment. Despite their extreme rhetoric, the Muslims offered ghetto dwellers a way out of their situation through a disciplined and abstemious daily regimen and a business organization that sought independence from the white world. It was Malcolm's insight to exploit the uses of black rage as an organizing principle to expand this relatively small sect into a nationwide organization. When the mass media discovered Malcolm, he quickly became a star. He became a regular on talk shows, a lecturer on the university circuit, and a figure in the diplomatic lounge of the United Nations.

Malcolm's success and the militancy of his message made other leaders in the Nation of Islam both uneasy and jealous. Malcolm's disaffection with the Nation resulted from his discovery of the serial infidelities of his hero, the Rev. Elijah Muhammad. When Malcolm was silenced by the Nation, after cheering the assassination of John F. Kennedy as 'a case of the chickens coming home to roost', Malcolm broke with the Black Muslims in 1964.

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz

During the last year of his life, Malcolm traveled through Africa and the Middle East and remade himself once again. He took tutorials in orthodox Islam and made his way to Mecca for his hajj (the pilgrimage demanded of all devout Muslims). In Mecca he had a transforming exposure to the company of white Muslims with whom he experienced a leveling spiritual brotherhood that he had not thought possible. He described it as the most important experience of his life. When he returned to America, he no longer regarded the white man as a devil. Instead he regarded him as a fallible, all too human enemy. His world view had begun to shift. If he had lived, Malcolm hinted of a new philosophy based upon a blend of traditional orthodox Islam, African socialism, Third World anti-colonialism, and a doctrine of racial solidarity that came to be known after his death as "Black Power".

Malcolm's Legacy

Malcolm was a force for the liberation of black people, both by the example of his triumph over the degradation of his own young manhood and by the furious war he waged on the myths, manners and polite hypocrisies of race in America. Malcolm's primary goal was the decolonization of the black mind: the awakening of a proud, bold, demanding new consciousness of color and everything that color means in America. He meant to haunt us, to play on our fears, quicken our guilt and deflate our dreams that everything was getting better. And he did. He argued that we are a society decisively shaped by racism. The difference was that most of his contemporaries in the 1960’s held out hope that matters could be put right with enough conscience, good will and money. Malcolm did not.

He saw rage as a potential liberating force to retrieve blacks from the worst crime whites had inflicted upon them: teaching them to hate themselves. Malcolm himself had been dragged low by self-hatred; he had pimped and hustled and sniffed cocaine and had finally done time; he had pegged his pants, processed his hair, and pursued white women in what he considered to be an imitation of the master class. In a speech in 1964 he said, "We hated our head, we hated the shape of our nose-- we wanted one of the long dog-like noses, you know. Yeah, we hated the color of our skin. We hated the blood of Africa that was in our veins. And in hating our features and our skin and our blood, we had to end up hating ourselves."

The original sin in his eyes was the white man's for having severed the blacks from their past and reduced them to property, but he insisted that the responsibility for their salvation was their own. To Malcolm, this meant getting up out of the mud-- out from under the charity as well as the tyranny of white America. It meant renouncing integration, which was only a further denial of the worth of black people, renouncing non-violence, which was only a newer, subtler form of humiliation before the slave master. It meant embracing the African past, till then a source of shame; it meant identifying not with the white majority in America and the West but with the dark majority of the people of the world.

And it meant standing up to 'the man'. One of the worst humiliations of all, in Malcolm's eyes, was that paralytic silence, that head bobbing surrender that seemed to him to afflict so many blacks in the presence of whites. The ghetto had been cursing whitey for years in its own back streets, but seldom to his face. (That would be nuts!) Malcolm was the crazy man gone public: he would tell the white man to his face, in his own mass media, what ordinary blacks had been saying about him for years.

Malcolm vs. King

Malcolm and King were not so much opposites as halves in a yin-yang duality deep in the black soul. But there was too much unhappy history between the two men, too many irreconcilable differences of politics, principle and style.... King's politics was insistently multi-racial, Malcolm's insistently black; King's means were non-violent, which Malcolm considered beggarly; King's ends were assimilation, which Malcolm derided as a fantasy for all but a token few "acceptable" middle class blacks. The distance between them was the distance between utility and morality; between the street and the seminary; between the American reality and the American dream.

Malcolm was wounded by his outlaw reputation in the press, particularly after he left the Nation of Islam with its anti-white certitudes and entered on the extraordinary personal transformations of the last months of his life. He hoped to come into "a new regard by the public", but he remained in print and on camera a cartoon Black Muslim inciting an otherwise pacific black underclass to insurrection. Malcolm came to understand that he shared the blame for this with the media. He had discovered how to make white America jump, how close the specter of the black revenge lies to the surface of white American consciousness-- and having discovered it, he could rarely resist its pleasures.... His talk of guns-- and the attendant suggestion of violence-- took an inflated priority that he was stuck with and obliged to defend for the rest of his life.

His dalliance with the politics of armed struggle never progressed beyond rhetoric, but he understood the uses of verbal violence as an outlet for black America's helpless fury and as an instrument of assault on white America's unbudging resistance... He spoke regularly of riot and revolution and of the necessity for 'reciprocal bloodshed' against the one-way flow then running in the South.... Malcolm's objective in these flights of rhetoric was the liberation of the invisible man from his invisibility. He forced white America to "make them see that we are the enemy." He saw no way to make white power move except through violence-- or as he put pointedly added, "a real threat of it". Yet even then, the violence in his rhetoric had less to do with guns than with manhood. "I don't believe we're going to overcome by singing," he said at a Harlem rally in 1964. "If you're going to get yourself a .45 and start singing 'We Shall Overcome', I'm with you..." .He saw nonviolence as degrading and beggarly-- the rough equivalent, as he once said, of the sheep reminding the wolf that it was time for dinner. In his "Message to the Grassroots" recorded in 1963 he reminded his black audience that all revolutions-- the American, the French, the Russian, the Chinese, the Mau-Mau-- have spilled blood. "The only kind of revolution that is non-violent is the Negro revolution. The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theatre, a desegregated park, and a desegregated toilet. You can sit down next to the white folks-- on the toilet." No, he went on, revolution was bloody and destructive, not polite and non-violent and psalm-singing and trusting in the conscience of its enemy.

After his pilgrimage to Mecca and his electrifying exposure to the color-blind democracy of the hajj, Malcolm's rhetoric changed. In the final months of his life his politics were transformed as certainly and as radically as his theology. He did not fall in love with white people. He continued to argue that the racial climate in America remained poisoned against black people-- irremediably poisoned short of the mass conversion of white America to Islam. All he conceded was the humanity of white people-- an admission that seemed for him and to us to be revolutionary.

Where was he headed? "I have no idea. I can capsulize how I feel-- I'm for the freedom of the 22 million African-Americans by any means necessary. By any means necessary. I'm for a society in which our people are recognized and respected as human beings, and I believe we have the right to resort to any means necessary to bring that about."

On the two long journeys to the Middle East and to Africa and in his regular rounds at the UN, he made it his first priority to 'internationalize' the struggle-- to form an alliance of interest and soul between black Americans and the nonwhite world... His international politics ebbed and flowed between pan-Africanism-- the unity of black people everywhere around their color and common origin in Africa-- and a wider identification with the entire Third World from Cuba to Vietnam against the colonialist and capitalist white West.

What Malcolm wanted most, though, was to reassert himself as a Muslim. He really wanted to compete with Elijah Muhammad. The Sunni Mosque he sought would give him an unencumbered pulpit for the first time-- a theater in which to assert his claim to recognition as an authentic man of God and as a legitimate political leader.

That recognition reached him only posthumously. The radical young went into the 1960's as King's children and came out Malcolm's. Only after the disaffection of young blacks with the Civil Rights movement did Malcolm's beatification begin. His key ideas endured:

  • the stresses on the beauty and the worth of blackness,
  • the racism endemic in American society;
  • the legitimacy of defending oneself by any means including violence;
  • the irrelevance of integration for the black poor
  • and the self-loathing implied in begging for it;
  • the futility of appeals to conscience in the conscience-less;
  • the necessity of connecting with Africa and the African past;
  • the central importance of confronting power with power, not supplication;
  • the recognition that the separation of the races was not a program but a fact.
Malcolm's bequest was a style of thought: it came to us beginning in the summer of 1966 codified under a new name-- Black Power-- and the sayings of Minister Malcolm became the orthodoxies of a black generation. His legacy was his example, his bearing, his affirmation of blackness-- his understanding that one is paralyzed for just as long as one believes one cannot move.