“That whole thing about appealing to the moral conscience of America; America’s conscience is bankrupt. She lost all conscience a long time ago. Uncle Sam has no conscience. They don’t know what morals are. They don’t try and eliminate an evil because it’s evil, or because it’s illegal or because it’s immoral; they eliminate it only when it threatens their existence.”
“So you’re wasting your time appealing to the moral conscience of a bankrupt man like Uncle Sam. If he had a conscience, he’d straighten this thing out with no more pressure being put upon him…”
Those being the words of Malcolm X, the human-rights activist and one of the previous century’s primary cultural, political and social icons; and also one of the most divisive. There are of course numerous stirring, memorable, inspirational or provocative quotes that we attribute to him, being one of the most incisive, powerful orators in modern history. A divisive figure not just in America but even within the African-American civil rights community; though one whose power and influence is as strongly felt today as it was fifty years ago.
The shadow cast by Malcolm X, the spirit of the man, is seen to live on and be present in successive generations where social mobilisation and grass-roots responses to perceived persecution and injustice are occurring; his name and his numerous words of encouragement and empowerment were evoked, for example, among victims of matter-of-course police violence and their families as part of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, last year’s unrest, the numerous demonstrations and the attempt to bring longstanding grievances to the national and world stage. Yet he is often as much a subject for debate, division and differences of interpretation today as he was all those decades ago, and as can be witnessed in the slew of articles written about him in the last few days (and just as much too in some of the particularly aggressive, hateful comments posted in response).
Yesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. On February 21st 1965, Malcolm X, or El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when someone in the 400-person audience yelled “Nigger! Get your hand outta my pocket!” When El-Shabazz and his bodyguards tried to quell the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun, as two other men charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns.
Conspiracy theories of course abound regarding the true nature of Malcolm X’s death, just as they do with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John and Robert F. Kennedy. The sixties appeared to have been free-for-all decade when it came to US intelligence agencies and domestic assassinations; they seem to have been killing off political leaders and figureheads like there was no tomorrow. There is little doubt whatsoever for anyone who examines the wealth of evidence that both John F. Kennedy and his brother Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated by either the CIA or some other amalgam of US intelligence-community operatives. Although the conspiracy claims for the deaths of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X have been somewhat less emphasized in popular culture (as far as mainstream narrative goes) over the years, it seems highly likely that both of these enduring icons of the Civil Rights Movements and of African-American culture were the victims of much greater murder plots than the official narrative would have people believe.
There’s no doubt that the Nation of Islam, a highly questionable organisation at the best of times, hated Malcolm X and intended him harm (Louis Farakhan, for one thing, stated it out right and in the most undisguised terms); but it’s also very likely, as a number of researchers into the matter have always suggested, that elements of the Nation of Islam had been infiltrated by FBI informants or operatives (FBI ‘COINTELPRO’ tactics were known to create and exacerbate rifts among activists as a means of ineffectualising such movements), and that some manner of joint initiative may have been carried out to finish off the problem of Malcolm X once and for all. Although three members of America’s Nation of Islam were tried and found guilty for the killing, two of them maintained their innocence and decades of research has since cast doubt on the outcome of the case.
Tens of thousands of declassified pages documenting government surveillance, infiltration and disruption of black leaders and organizations, suggest the conclusions drawn by law-enforcement were contrived and entirely self-serving. Nothing new in that for anyone familiar with, for example, the Warren Commission Report and officialdom’s complete and utter unwillingness to investigate the murder of its own President. It is also highly likely that intelligence agencies continue to infiltrate and subvert activist organisations of all kinds today too.
In terms of the sixties, it’s been my view for a while that the reason particularly extreme measures were being taken domestically, particularly in terms of assassinations, was because that decade, more than any other, witnessed the generations that genuinely might’ve changed America and possibly even the world. There was a mass, multi-faceted movement of social, spiritual and political transformation occurring in America and the old-guard Conservatives and elites were in real danger of being swept away. This was the reason that everything from the hippy counter-culture movements and the utopian ‘flower power’ ideologies to the Civil Rights movement and the movements for African-American liberation were infiltrated and subverted by various means by government agencies and the reason too why at least four of the most powerful figures for change and progression all died violent deaths.
I’m not suggesting necessarily that had those mere four individuals survived the story would’ve turned out completely differently, but their absences certainly helped ensure the survival and success of the elites and the Neo-Con establishment and its various political and social agendas, both at home and abroad (including the survival and growth of the CIA, the prolonging of the Vietnam War and the vast expansion of the military-industrial complex), partly because those deaths brought with them a loss of hope and conviction for a great many people and a sense that the struggles were futile. You can read or watch coverage from the era demonstrating how, for example, the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King created a sense of hopelessness for so many of those who had previously had great hope for the future, and how idealists in particular took such events as coffin-nails to their cause. There’s a television footage from the era I recently saw that showed the actress Lauren Bacall being interviewed in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s assassination and saying basically that the America she believed in was ‘finished’.
We are still very much living in the extended aftermath of that decade’s struggle, in which the idealists, particularly the young ones, lost and the elite establishment forces won. Americans are all still experiencing a world created in the interests and the vision of those victors. In my view of things, the assassination of Malcolm X is just as relevant in this context as the assassination of JFK.
This piece on the Black Agenda Report site looks into the claims in Roland Sheppard’s book Why the U.S. Government Assassinated Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Sheppard himself is one of the few remaining eye-witnesses to the assassination, which could be said to embue his analysis with a sense of particular authenticity and weight. Sheppard describes the unusual absence of security on the day of Malcolm X’s assassination, and he recounts his personal observations of what happened in the crucial moments. He tells of a second suspect apprehended that day by the New York Police, a man whose existence later disappeared from the official version of events (highly reminiscent of accounts of the Robert Kennedy assassination that followed a couple of years later). However, when Sheppard was interrogated at the Harlem Police Station, he saw this man walking freely into one of the offices and clearly recognised him as the assassin.
This site meanwhile provides a good resource on the assassination, having compiled an extensive collection of documents chronicling Malcolm X’s death. Included in this package are New York Police Department, FBI, prison, hospital, grand jury, and medical examiner records that have never previously been disclosed.
The question as to why the establishment would’ve wanted to assassinate him requires very little in the way of imagination: Malcolm X, like Martin Luther King, had the potential to galvanize and inspire revolution in America. There is nothing more threatening to the U.S corporate elite – government, military and mass media all as one – than the prospect of mass social mobilisation, unrest and ultimately revolution; that was true back then and it’s just as true now. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were both expanding the scope of their interests and intentions beyond their original philosophies and emerging as powerful advocates and mobilisers for a revolutionary shake-up of not just civil liberties but the entire American economic and political system. This was especially the case with Malcolm X who, in his final few years, was vastly expanding his initial struggle against American racism to include broader struggles against poverty and war. In 1962 he supported striking hospital workers in New York City, for example, while he was also the first significant leader in the United States to publicly oppose America’s war against Vietnam.
There was another very significant level to the threat Malcolm X posed, which was the increasingly foreign-based agenda he was pursuing; the U.S. Government (rightly) feared El-Shabbaz’s growing international stature and the political connections he was making in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In particular, El-Shabazz’s founding of the secular Organization of Afro-American Unity and his committed devotion to the ideal of Pan-Africanism (a devotion that would be shared by other, including visionary, figures; most importantly the late Muammar Gaddafi) set him out as a serious force who could, given time, make things happen; things that weren’t just contrary to the agenda of the ruling elites in America but, as with Gaddafi decades later, to the global elite too.
It’s no coincidence that Gadaffi too was eventually the victim of a targeted assassination plot. “Colonialism in Africa represents an extension of racial segregation and of the unjustifiable contempt in which Black races are help by white races. There is no justification for one man to feel superiority towards another because of the colour of his skin. Black races must fight to be rehabilitated,” said Muammar Gaddafi, though it sounds precisely like something Malcolm X would’ve said, because both were people, among others too, who understood that the ‘Third World’ was destined to remain in its abject condition because it was being deliberately kept in that condition by a global, corporate elite that functioned essentially like a macrocosm of South-African apartheid. And both understood that something needed to be done about it.
Less than a year before his murder, Malcolm X met with Che Guevara and the Cuban delegation to the UN in New York (December 1964). He had also been invited by Ahmed Ben Bella, the leader of the Algerian Revolution, to participate along with Guevara and other ‘independence movement leaders’ at a conference in Bandung beginning March 3rd 1965; a conference he wouldn’t live to attend (it may also be worth nothing that Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella was assassinated just four months after Malcolm X). Curiously, he had also arranged for the issue of human rights violations against African-Americans to be discussed on March 12th 1965 by the International Court of Justice at the Hague; another event he wouldn’t live to attend. His assassination in New York on February 20th quite simply killed off this problem.
For the United States to have been taken to the Hague by one of its own oppressed citizens and to have its treatment of a large section of its population investigated by international authorities would’ve been unthinkable – it would’ve done enormous damage to the country and its international image and may have characterised America on the world stage in the same category as Apartheid South Africa.
The US government would’ve been as unwilling to let that unfold as the Israeli government presently is to let the Palestinian case in the ICC go ahead.
A lesser-publicised example of Malcolm X’s growing international stature and ambitions is highlighted in this piece in The Guardian detailing his 1965 visit to Smethwick in Birmingham (England), regarded at the time to be the most colour-conscious, perhaps the most racist, place in Britain. Its Conservative MP, Peter Griffiths, had been elected in the previous year’s general election on the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
“I have come,” Malcolm X told reporters as he posed for pictures in Marshall Street, “because I am disturbed by reports that coloured people in Smethwick are being treated badly. I have heard they are being treated as the Jews were under Hitler.” When English reporters asked him what should be done; “I would not wait for the fascist elements in Smethwick to erect gas ovens,” he answered in typically direct form. That was Malcolm X all the way; he didn’t do niceties, didn’t do politics, but simply spoke to the point, and like Gaddafi in the UN or like Jesus and the Pharisees, he said what needed to be said whether it was comfortable for people to hear it or not.
The point is that he had quickly become not only a major domestic threat within America but a cause for potential international embarrassment and controversy too. In this piece, Brice Smith writes; ‘It is no coincidence that Martin and Malcolm were killed when they were. Both men were killed within one year of making a profound extension of their goals and their personal ideologies – Dr. King’s civil-rights views led him to openly oppose the war in Vietnam; Malcolm X’s increased focus on human rights discredited the American government in favor of the United Nations and the World Court.’
The same article goes on to note, ‘Malcolm’s human-rights visit to Africa and the Near-East had turned him into a much greater threat to the United States government than he had previously been considered. After the meeting of the Organization of African Unity, at which he was the only American speaker allowed to be heard, the US State Department and Justice Department began investigating his activities much more closely, particularly at the insistence of CIA director Richard Helms who instructed his agents to do everything they could do to monitor the activities of Malcolm X. Malcolm X was also then mysteriously poisoned during his trip to Egypt and barely left the country alive.’
As is well attested, the attempts on Malcolm X’s life were already palpable prior to the assassination itself. For one thing, his home was also fire-bombed. The perpetrator was never identified and the police actually blamed Malcolm himself and claimed he firebombed his own house to make it look as if he was being targeted by someone (!). In all likelihood, as many who’ve studied the events leading up to the assassination suggest, this was simply an earlier attempt on his life that had failed, with the possible poisoning in Egypt having also been evidence of a plot. It was also evident from writings and the testimony of those close to him that he was fully aware of this plot against him and expecting more assassination attempts; the iconic photo of him holding a firearm at a draped window has often been used by his haters to paint him as a lifelong extremist and advocate of violence, but in actual fact would more accurately be perceived as an image of a man permanently on-guard to defend himself against assassination.
There is a misconception even now among many (particularly white) people not well-versed in the subject that Malcolm X was a total militant throughout his life, who hated white people or was utterly unwilling to compromise. This wasn’t actually the case, and in fact one of the most interesting things about Malcolm X was the subtle evolution in his thinking; an evolving attitude and world-view that he himself openly admitted to and which is well explored by his biographers. His more militant “black supremacist” (as his many critics labelled it, primarily in order to paint him as a dangerous threat to the white majority) stance appeared to have been fading by his final years of life as various experiences, particularly his time in Africa and his pilgrimage to Mecca and conversion to Sunni Islam, tempered his originally militant attitude and made him more inclined towards reconciliation.
This recent article in the The Telegraph touches upon this theme somewhat, focusing on his famous life-changing experience; ‘He went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and was struck by the racial harmony among Muslims: “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.”
As the article goes on to note, ‘Nowadays we’ve been trained by media portrayals to see Islam as politically radicalising and divisive. But it helped transform Malcolm from a black leader who preached separation into a proponent of the hope that African-Americans could advance as part of a broader coalition with oppressed people – something closer to a socialist.’ By June 8th 1964 when Mike Wallace interviewed Malcolm X, he had by this time denounced all discrimination or advocacy of ‘separation’ between white and black, saying: “I am not a racist. I am against every form of racism and segregation – every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of color,” he said.
Those who wish to continue to demonise or ridicule Malcolm X for various reasons repeatedly quote him from pre-1964, though the reality is his more aggressive views were fading after Mecca. More to the point, to vilify him based even on some of those pre-1964 statements is to miss the point that he was part of an oppressed, humiliated and generally maltreated minority in American society and that he was someone striving to both speak for that minority and to envision some possible path to dignity and rights in an age when it wasn’t being afforded. Entirely the product of his life experiences and inevitably hardened by them, what else *but* militant could anyone in his position be if they were going to look at and speak about the situation honestly? “I see America through the eyes of the victim,” he once said. “I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
When Malcolm X is discussed, you’ll still get comments like this one, posted by a reader of this recent Newsweek article; “Malcolm X was a horrible person, he thought violence was the answer and taking things was how to do it. I’m just glad he died how he lived.” The problem with a sentiment like that is that (assuming it comes from a mainstream white American, particularly someone living decades removed from the time) it is devoid of any understanding of the time, context and conditions that coloured everything someone like Malcolm X said or did. It’s the view of someone who permanently belongs to a class of people that has never been the persecuted or humiliated section of society, but the class of people that, throughout the world, has always held the power and always called the shots.
If anyone chose to view him as ‘racist’ or to take exception to that perceived racism (and it’s remarkable than anyone in 2015 would still think that, even if people at the time were), they’ve surely failed to bear in mind (or sympathize with) the rampant, ingrained racism towards the African-American community from the mainstream white community and from Conservative America, which was determined to keep the Black community ‘in its place’ as second-class citizens; worse than just second-class citizens, but second-class citizens descended from people forcibly brought over in large numbers purely to be slaves.
The ‘racism’ of someone like Malcolm X, if it could be called that, was a comparatively low-level (and entirely justified) reaction to the overt, age-old, institutionalized, regulated and ongoing racism being enacted upon African-Americans from the state-level downward; a militant attitude was the least that should’ve been expected and, if anything, had been long overdue.
This being in a time where, among other less overt symptoms of presumed and ardent white superiority, the KKK was highly active and vocal. As Malcolm X himself once said, ‘extremism’ for the cause of liberty was always justified. Those afraid of the status quo changing invariably are those who benefit from The Way Things Are and are therefore inclined to vilify the downtrodden for having the gall to demand better treatment. For example, this letter sent to George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party in 1965, could be called ‘extremist’ or it could be called perfectly reasonable given the context. “If your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans who are only attempting to enjoy their rights as free human beings, that you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who are not hand-cuffed by the disarming philosophy of nonviolence and who believe in asserting our right of self-defense — by any means necessary.”
‘By any means necessary’ is, for that matter, the phrase most associated with El-Shabbaz. Part of the fascination and long-lasting allure with Malcolm X’s statements and speeches is just how uncompromising he was at most times. He didn’t try to play the game, didn’t try to win the favor or sympathy of the establishment or of mainstream America and didn’t see any dignity in trying to make his views more palatable to the very institutions of his oppression. He spoke plain truth as he saw it, albeit very eloquently. Another public figure of the same generation who can be said to have done the same was Muhammad Ali, but Ali was often used as a source of entertainment by the mainstream media, whereas Malcolm X never lent himself to that kind of ‘in-joke’ banter, performance or deliberate blunting of his message. He rather famously labeled Martin Luther King Jr a “chump” and other civil rights leaders as “stooges” of the white establishment. He called the 1963 March on Washington “the farce on Washington” and said he didn’t understand why so many black people were excited about a demonstration “run by whites in front of a statue of a president who has been dead for a hundred years and who didn’t like us when he was alive”.
It’s easy to ascertain why the US establishment found him so threatening. Here, after all, was a Black American of enormous intellect and tremendous oratorical power, someone who could’ve – at one point – inspired major revolution, major upheaval against the Conservative white majority and could’ve substantially mobilised the oppressed. The “The Ballot or the Bullet” alone – in which he advised African-Americans to exercise their right to vote wisely but added that if the government continued to prevent African Americans from attaining full equality, it might be necessary for them to take up arms – would’ve sent alarm bells ringing all through the Conservative establishment, just as much as John F. Kennedy’s ‘secret societies’ speech or his threat to dismantle the CIA sent alarm bells throughout America’s leviathan intelligence community.
And the fact was that Malcolm X’s growing power to inspire debate and reach a broader diversity of minds on an international scale was making him an even bigger problem. On his way home to the US from Africa, Malcolm X stopped in Paris where he spoke at the Salle de la Mutualité, and a week later, on November 30th 1964, he flew to the UK and on December 3rd took part in a now famous debate at the Oxford Union Society under the motion of “Extremism in the Defense of Liberty is No Vice; Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is No Virtue”. British interest in the debate was so high that it was televised nationally by the BBC. It demonstrates again the extraordinary clarity of sentiment and power of expression that Malcolm X possessed; even those who didn’t agree with him couldn’t dismiss or ignore him.
That Oxford Union speech is one of the must-watch orations of the last hundred years. Whatever else we may or may not say about him, he also remains one of the greatest, most relevant orators of the twentieth century.
What’s also especially extraordinary to me is how much of what Malcolm X said resonates today and has relevance to today’s issues and struggles; for someone who died fifty years ago, his voice has a substantial echo long after his lifetime. This, for example, was what he said about the toxic relationship between the police and parts of the Black community, in the same Mike Wallace interview as quoted above; “They think they are living in a police state and they become hostile toward the policemen. They think that the policeman is there to be against them rather than to protect them. And these thoughts, these frustrations, these apparitions, automatically are sufficient to make these Negroes begin to form means and ways to protect themselves in case the police themselves get too far out of line.” It’s an analysis that sounds like it could’ve been spoken weeks or months ago in reaction to the Ferguson shooting or other similar incidents; which also essentially indicates how little has changed in race relations in fifty years, despite some perhaps naively thinking otherwise.
Were he still around now, he would no doubt have a great deal to say; not just as a major figure in African-American politics and civil rights, but as an international figure, a cardinal proponent of Pan-Africanism and Third World struggles, and as a convert to mainstream Sunni Islam. I can’t help but wonder what he would have been saying, in regard to, for example, the Ferguson shooting or the Eric Garner incident in America. What he would make of Barak Obama’s presidency. What he would’ve had to say about US foreign policy in regard to Iraq, for example, or the much talked about ‘Clash of Civilisations’ many believe is occurring and post-9/11 climate in general. Or about the state of Pan-Africanism today and particularly the criminal NATO murder of Muammar Gaddafi and wrecking of Libya in relation to that goal of African unity and progression.
What we can know for certain is that he wouldn’t have been silent on these and other major matters of our time. He would’ve had far too much to say, these passed fifty years (had he lived), and far too much to do, and it becomes obvious all over again that had he not been killed in 1965 he would’ve nevertheless been killed some time after; quite simply because he was too dangerous to be left alive. The Kennedy’s were ultimately too dangerous to be left alive too, but Malcolm X was more dangerous than both of them simply because he was unwilling to compromise with the establishment or the system even a little bit, wasn’t willing to play the long game, wasn’t white, wasn’t Christian and didn’t have an ideology that could’ve been blunted or assimilated into the broader systems of social, cultural and political control.
As for those who balked at his perceived aggression and militancy and favoured the more peaceful, conciliatory approach of Martin Luther King, the irony is that Dr King ended up being assassinated just as Malcolm X was; demonstrating that Dr King’s more peaceful, non-threatening approach to the cause didn’t afford him any more respect or safety from the establishment as his more militant counterpart was afforded. ‘Playing nice’, in other words, didn’t spare MLK the same fate as Malcolm X. As far as those with their fingers on the trigger were concerned (if we assume government agencies’ involvement), there was no difference between Malcolm X and MLK: both were dangerous forces for social change and both were necessary to do away with.
Meanwhile the struggle that was briefly waged in the sixties by the various forces for social and political change against the elite corporate/political establishment was lost. America is owned and run by the latter.