On the 95th anniversary of Malcolm X’s birth, Alyssa Cassata looks at his radical life and ideas which continues to inspire millions today
By 1965, Malcolm X had caught international attention through his work in the Nation of Islam and, following the split from Elijah Muhammad, organisations he founded such as Muslim Mosque Inc. and the non-religious Organisation of Afro-American Unity. Following his rise to national prominence, Malcolm X was under heavy surveillance by the NYPD and the FBI, he was also repeatedly vilified by the press as a dangerous man. To them, it must have seemed so, as he and the crowds he amassed, posed a threat to the parasitic system that they vociferously upheld. Malcolm X remains a controversial figure and is often misrepresented but was an undeniably influential activist in the civil rights movement and the ideas he represented continue to be important today.
As the son of Reverend Earl Little, who organised and advocated for Marcus Garvey’s U.N.I.A, Malcolm and his family were subject to numerous attacks from the KKK, who burned down their home when Malcolm was just 4 years old. By the time he was 6, his father had suffered a violent death that was ruled a “streetcar accident” but was more likely an attack for which justice was never achieved. Following his father’s death, his mother was forced to provide for the family but was often dismissed when employers realised who she was and that she was the widow of Earl Little. Rather than support the family during this period, welfare workers further tore them apart, attempting to smear his mother as insane. In his autobiography, he recalls that they were “vicious as vultures” and “had no feelings, understanding, compassion or respect” (p.97) for her. The state further intervened to actively break the family apart, sending Malcolm to another family and his mother to the Kalamazoo State Mental Hospital by the time he was 13.
When he reached 18, he moved to Harlem and two years later after being caught by the police for a string of robberies, he was sentenced to 8-10 years in prison. While incarcerated, Malcolm began to read and his brothers Philbert and Reginald sent him letters about their conversion to the Nation of Islam, calling it the “natural religion for the black man” (p.248). He eventually began writing to Elijah Muhammad, it was in his conversion to the Nation of Islam that he abandoned the name of his grandfather’s former slaveowner “Little” and became Malcolm X. After being released from prison, he became increasingly important within the Nation of Islam, from being an assistant minister of temple no. 1 in Detroit to establishing temple no. 11 in Boston and expanding Philadelphia’s temple no. 12.
Being radical, outspoken and an incredible orator, Malcolm quickly rose to national prominence, especially in 1957 when he drew a crowd of almost 4000 protestors after the police had brutally beaten Reece Poe and a Nation of Islam member, Johnson Hinton, who had interrupted the scene to help Poe. Following the altercation, police took Hinton to a station without medical attention for the injuries. The protest resulted in the police releasing Hinton on bail the next morning and the NOI taking him to a hospital in Harlem. Malcolm’s ability to draw such a large number of people and his control of the crowd clearly disturbed the police, who put him under surveillance and began to infiltrate the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm later broke with the NOI as a result of tensions building between himself and Elijah Muhammad through a culmination of instances such as Elijah Muhammad’s refusal to retaliate after the LAPD had raided a Mosque, paralysing one man and killing another. The police faced no charges for the unprovoked attack. However, it was in March 1964 that Malcolm publicly broke with the Nation of Islam after being silenced for 90 days for a comment he made about the assassination of Kennedy.
Following his break with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm shifted sharply to the left. He began to work with leaders of the civil rights movement such as Martin Luther King, who he had previously criticised, and founded the Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organisation of Afro-American Unity as part of focusing his efforts on systemic change and international solidarity.
During what became the last year of his life, he performed Hajj and visited several countries in Africa where he spoke on radio and television as well as meeting officials, 3 of which offered him positions in their respective governments. He was also one of the first prominent African-American activists to meet with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. It was during these trips that he was challenged on some of his notions around black nationalism and was inspired by the anti-colonial liberation movements and African socialism.
He recognised the strength of collective struggle and international solidarity, and he once stated “no matter how much recognition whites show toward me, as far as I’m concerned, as long as that same respect and recognition is not shown to every one of our people in this country, it doesn’t exist for me” and saw the struggle of African-Americans as intrinsically linked with the independence struggles taking place across the world as a collective fight for equality.
He developed his understanding of the parasitic nature of capitalism which he saw racism as endemic to and rooted in. At a rally in Harlem he said “you can’t have capitalism without racism” and at another event he specified that “you can’t operate a capitalistic system unless you are vulturistic”. The turn towards anti-capitalism in his politics marked a broader shift towards recognising the need for a revolution in order to truly achieve an equal society. Furthermore, on the 18th February 1965, in a speech he made at Columbia University, he stated “we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter”.
It was at this time when he was at his most radical that at the age of 39, on February 21st, 1965, Malcolm X was shot 21 times in the Audubon Ballroom where he was addressing the Organisation of Afro-American Unity. While the attack seems to have been carried out by members of the Nation of Islam, there is evidence to support the idea that the FBI and NYPD were involved in his assassination.
Shortly before his murder, Malcolm predicted that 1965 “will probably be the longest, hottest, bloodiest summer since the beginning of the black revolution”, and he wasn’t wrong. From 1965 to 1968 there was a serious intensification of the black struggle with hundreds of uprisings and riots springing up across the US and the birth of the Black Power movement. In October 1966, The Black Panther Party was formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. They took direct inspiration from Malcolm X and it was probably the closest organisational embodiment of his politics at the time of his death.
Malcolm X was a man that was not afraid of being wrong, as a result, the ideas he advocated evolved over time. Despite attacks in the press defaming his character, his commitment to justice was clear. When asked how he wanted to be remembered, he said “I want to be remembered as someone who was sincere. Even if I made mistakes, they were made in sincerity”. His unequivocal support for international struggles and undeniable dedication to honesty and achieving justice remain inspirational to millions today.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was named one of the 10 most influential non-fiction books of the 20th Century and provides unmatched insight into his life and how different events shaped his anti-imperialist, anti-racist politics that he is celebrated for today.
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Alyssa Cassata is a socialist, activist and history student
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