James H. Cone, Briggs Distinguished Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is the author of Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Orbis).
This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 23-30, pps. 1189-1195. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
All Americans owe Malcolm a great debt. He was not a racist, as many misguided observers have claimed. He was an uncompromising truth-teller whose love for his people empowered him to respect all human beings.
No one had a greater impact on the cultural consciousness of African-Americans during the second half of the 20th century than Malcolm X. More than anyone else he revolutionized the black mind, transforming docile Negroes and self-effacing colored people into proud blacks and self-confident African-Americans. Civil rights activists became Black Power militants and declared, “It’s nation time.” Preachers and religious scholars created a black theology and proclaimed God as liberator and Jesus Christ as black. College and university students demanded and won black studies. Poets, playwrights, musicians, painters and other artists created a new black aesthetics and ardently proclaimed that “black is beautiful.”
No area of the African-American community escaped Malcolm’s influence. The mainstream black leaders who dismissed him as a rabble-rouser today embrace his cultural philosophy and urge blacks to love themselves first before they even think about loving others. No one loved blacks more than Malcolm nor taught us more about ourselves. Before Malcolm most blacks wanted nothing to do with Africa. But he taught us that “you can’t hate the roots of the tree and not hate the tree; you can’t hate your origin and not end up hating yourself; you can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself.” A simple, profound truth; one that blacks needed (and still need) to hear. And no one said it as effectively as Malcolm X.
Who was Malcolm X? He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925. His father, J. Early Little, was a Baptist preacher and a dedicated organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. His mother, M. Louise Norton, also a Garveyite, was a West Indian from Grenada.
The Little family was driven out of Omaha by the Ku Klux Klan before Malcolm reached his first birthday. Another white hate group, called the Black Legion, burned down the Little’s house in Lansing, Michigan, during Malcolm’s childhood. Malcolm described the experience as “the nightmare in 1929.” Soon after, his father was killed, thrown under a street car by the Black Legionnaires, Malcolm reported in his Autobiography.
With no husband, without the proceeds of his life insurance policy (the company refused to pay) and faced with constant harassment by the state welfare officials, Louis Little, a very proud woman, broke down under the emotional and economic strain of caring for eight children during the Depression. The Little children became wards of the state. Six of them, including Malcolm, were placed in foster homes. Malcolm’s delinquent behavior eventually landed him in a detention home in Mason, Michigan, where be was allowed to attend junior high. He was the only black in his class. Although Malcolm was an outstanding student and extremely popular among his peers, he dropped out of school when his white eighth grade English teacher discouraged him from becoming a lawyer and suggested carpentry as a more “realistic goal for a nigger.”
From Michigan, Malcolm journeyed to Boston and then to New York where he became known as “Detroit Red.” He was involved in a life of crime—numbers, dope, con games of many kinds and thievery of all sorts, including armed robbery. Malcolm described himself as “one of the most depraved parasitical hustlers” in New York—”nervy and cunning enough to live by my wits, exploiting any prey that presented itself." A few months before he reached his 21st birthday, Malcolm was convicted and sentenced to eight to ten years in a Massachusetts prison for burglary.
In prison Malcolm’s life was transformed when he discovered (through the influence of an inmate) the liberating value of education and (through his family) the empowering message of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. Both gave him what he did not have: self-respect as a black person. For the first time since attending the Garvey meetings with his father, Malcolm was proud to be black and to learn about Africans who "built great empires and civilizations and cultures.”
Discovering knowledge through reading raised Malcolm’s consciousness. He found out that history had been “whitened” and blacks bad been left out. “It’s a crime,” Malcolm said, expressing his anger, “the lie that has been told to generations of blacks and whites. Little innocent black children born of parents who believed that their race had no history. Little black children seeing, before they could talk, that their parents considered themselves inferior. Innocent little black children growing up, living out their lives, dying of old age and all their lives ashamed of being black."
Malcolm pledged while in prison to use his intellectual resources to destroy black self-hate and to replace it with black self-esteem. He transformed his prison cell into a hall of learning where he educated himself about “the brainwashed condition of blacks” and the crimes which “the devil white man” had committed against them. He was so engrossed in his studies that he even forgot he was in prison. “In every free moment I had,” Malcolm reflected, “if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge.”
It was also in prison that Malcolm developed his debating skills. Debating, he said, was “like being on a battlefield —with intellectual and philosophical bullets.” He became so effective in public speaking that even his opponents had to acknowledge his talent. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other mainstream civil rights leaders refused to appear on the same platform with him. People who did debate him often regretted it. For Malcolm there was no place for moderation or disinterested objectivity when one’s freedom is at stake. “You can’t negotiate upon freedom,” he said. “You either fight for it or shut up.”
After his release from prison in 1952 Malcolm became a minister in the Nation of Islam and its most effective recruiter and apologist. In June 1954 Elijah Muhammad appointed Malcolm the head minister of the influential Temple Number 7 in Harlem. Speaking regularly in the Temple and at many street-corner rallies, Malcolm told Harlemites that "we are black first and everything else second.” "We are not Americans,” he said. “We are Africans who happen to be in America. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. That rock landed on us.”
Malcolm’s primary audience was the “little black people in the street,” the ones at the “bottom of the social heap.” His message was harsh and bitter, a “sharp truth” that “cuts” and “causes great pain.” “But if you can take the truth,” he assured Harlem blacks, “it will cure you and save you from an otherwise certain death.” Malcolm told them that they were “zombies , walking dead people,” who had been cut off from any knowledge of their past history. "We have been robbed deaf, dumb and blind to the true knowledge of ourselves.” We do not even know our names or our original language. We carry the slavemasters’ names and speak their language. We even accepted the slavemasters’ religion of Christianity, which teaches us that “black is a curse.” How can a people make others treat and respect them as human beings if they are culturally and spiritually dead?
After describing their zombie-like state, Malcolm commanded blacks to “wake up” to “their humanity, to their own worth, and to their cultural heritage.” He also told them to “clean up” themselves of drunkenness, profanity, drugs, crime and other moral failings. A resurrected, morally upright black people will be able to “stand up” and “do something for themselves instead of sitting around and waiting for white people to solve our problems and tell us we are free.”
Initially, Malcolm’s black nationalist message was very unpopular in the African-American community. The media (both white and black) portrayed him as a teacher of hate and a promoter of violence. It wasthe age of integration, and love and nonviolence were advocated as the only way to achieve it. Most blacks shared Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream that they would soon enter the mainstream of American society. They really believed that the majority of whites were genuinely sorry for what America had done to blacks and were now ready to right the wrongs and to treat blacks as human beings.
Malcolm did not share the optimism of the civil rights movement and thus found himself speaking to many unsympathetic audiences. He did not mind speaking against the dominant mood of the time as long as he knew that he was speaking the truth. He defined the Nation of Islam as “the religion of naked, undressed truth.” “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” was his favorite biblical passage. “If you are afraid to tell truth,” he railed at his audience, "you don’t deserve freedom.” With truth on his side, Malcolm relished the odds that were against him. His task was to wake up “dead Negroes” by revealing to them the truth about America and about themselves.
The enormity of this challenge motivated Malcolm to attack head on the philosophy of Martin King and the civil rights movement. He dismissed the charge that he was teaching hate: “It is the man who has made a slave out of you who is teaching hate.” He rejected integration: “An integrated cup of coffee is insufficient pay for 400 years of slave labor.” He denounced nonviolence as “the philosophy of a fool”: “There is no philosophy more befitting to the white man’s tactics for keeping his foot on the black man’s neck.” He ridiculed King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech: “While King was having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare.” He also rejected as inhuman King’s command to love the enemy: “It is not possible to love a man whose chief purpose in life is to humiliate you and still be considered a normal human being.”
As long as Malcolm stayed in the Black Muslim movement he was not entirely free to speak his own mind. He had to represent Elijah Muhammad, the sole and absolute authority in the Nation of Islam. But in December 1963 Malcolm disobeyed Muhammad and described President Kennedy’s assassination as an instance of the “chickens coming home to roost.” Muhammad rebuked him and used the incident as an opportunity to silence his star pupil—first for 90 days and then indefinitely. Malcolm
soon realized that much more was involved in his silence than what he had said about the Kennedy assassination. Jealousy and envy in Muhammad’s family circle were the primary motives behind his silencing, and this meant the ban would never be lifted.
For the sake of black people who needed to hear the message of black selfworth he was so adept in proclaiming, Malcolm reluctantly declared his independence in March 1964. His break with the Black Muslim movement was an important turning point. He was now free to develop his own philosophy of the black freedom struggle.
Malcolm, however, had already begun to show independent thinking in his great “Message to the Grass Roots” speech, given in Detroit three weeks before his silencing. In that speech he endorsed black nationalism as his political philosophy, thereby separating himself not only from the civil rights movement but, more important, from Muhammad, who had defined the Nation as strictly religious and apolitical. Malcolm contrasted “the black revolution” with “the Negro revolution.” The black revolution, he said, is “worldwide,” and it is “bloody,” “hostile” and “knows no compromise.” But the so called Negro revolution is not even a revolution. Malcolm mocked it: “The only revolution in which the goal is loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. It’s the only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated public park, a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks on the toilet.” He smiled as the audience broke into hearty laughter at this.
After his break with Muhammad, Malcolm developed more fully his cultural and political black nationalist philosophy in a speech titled, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” In urging blacks to exercise their constitutional right to vote, he made a move toward King and the civil rights movement. Later he became more explicit: “Dr. King wants the same thing I want—freedom.” Malcolm wanted to join the civil rights movement in order to expand it into a human rights movement, thereby internationalizing the black freedom struggle, making it more radical and more militant.
During his period of independence from the Nation of Islam nothing influenced Malcolm more than his travels abroad. He visited countries in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, where he explained the black struggle for justice in the U.S. and linked it with liberation struggles throughout the world. “You can’t understand what is going on in Mississippi if you don’t know what is going on in the Congo,” he told Harlem blacks. “They are both the same. The same interests are at stake.”
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was shot down by assassins as he started to speak to a crowd of 400 blacks at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. He was only 39.
Although dead for nearly 27 years, Malcolm’s influence in the African-American community is much greater today than during his lifetime. His most far-reaching impact was among the masses of African-Americans in the ghettos of American cities. He told them, as James Baldwin observed, that "they should be proud of being black and God knows they should be. This is a very important thing to hear in a country that assures you that you should be ashamed of it.” Saying what Malcolm meant to her, a Harlemite said: "He taught me that I was more than a Little Black Sambo or kinky hair or nigger."
There is a resurgence of interest in Malcolm in every segment of the African-American community, especially among those who were not yet born when he died. His name, words and face adorn T-shirts, buttons and the cover of rap records. His writings, books about him and tapes of his speeches are sold by street vendors, at cultural festivals and in bookstores. Wherever black people gather to talk about their struggle for justice, the ghost of Malcolm’s presence is there, reminding us of the strengths and weaknesses of our past and present efforts. The more we reflect on the meaning of Malcolm’s life and message the more we realize the greatness of his legacy.
Malcolm was a cultural revolutionary, an artist of the spoken word. Maya Angelou aptly called him “a charismatic speaker who could play an audience as great musicians play instruments. ” Peter Bailey said he was a “Master Teacher.” Alfred Duckett called him "our sage and our saint.” In his eulogy Ossie Davis bestowed upon Malcolm the title: “Our Shining Black Prince.” For me, Malcolm was a cultural prophet of blackness. African-Americans who are proud to be black should thank Malcolm for creating the cultural space that lets us claim our African heritage.
All Americans owe Malcolm a great debt. He was not a racist, as many misguided observers have claimed. He was an uncompromising truth-teller whose love for his people empowered him to respect all human beings. “I am for truth,” he said, “no matter who tells it. I am for justice no matter who is for or against it. I am a human being first and foremost, and as such I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”