Remembering Malcolm X 49 Years On

February 28, 2014

Remembering Malcolm X 49 Years On
by Ama Biney
Black Agenda Report
Tue, 02/25/2014

This article was previously published in Pambuzuka News [7].

How would Malcolm X respond to U.S. foreign policy, today? “The arrogance of imperial power has not changed since the death of Malcolm nor has its commitment to the military and prison complex of America that has grown exponentially.” Domestically, Malcolm could be counted on to remain “uncompromising in his verbal attacks on African American leaders who compromised the interests of the people.”

“Obama has continued to expand the military operations of AFRICOM in Africa and increased American troops and joint training exercises to many African countries.”

What would Malcolm X make of Barack Hussein Obama if he were alive today? It is clearly a rhetorical question, but it is posed in order that on the 49th anniversary of his assassination, reflection on what he stood for, believed in and worked towards during his short life span can be evaluated in the context of the relevance of his contribution to our current conditions.

It is also necessary to pose: Has the world fundamentally changed from almost 50 years ago when Malcolm was brutally assassinated on 21 February 1965? Have socio-economic conditions changed for the majority of African Americans today since he was slain? Lest we forget, the introduction of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that granted black people the same rights as white Americans was the outcome of a protracted struggle of African American people. That struggle involved tragic deaths of civil rights activists, lynchings, demonstrations, boycotts that were the consequence of collective struggles and organisation against the ideology of white supremacy rooted in the act of enslaving and subjugating African people on the land belonging to the original native Americans. The Voting Rights Act became effective in August 1965 – that is five months after the murder of Malcolm – and was also the product of the intense struggles of black people for political representation and determination.

Malcolm’s Beliefs

Malcolm was a revolutionary Pan-Africanist and internationalist. He believed in black people being involved in organization to rid themselves of all forms of oppression in order that they be in control of their reality. He said, soon after leaving the Nation of Islam (NOI):

“I am going to organise and head a new mosque in New York City, known as the Muslim Mosque, Inc. This gives us a religious base, and the spiritual force necessary to rid our people of the vices that destroy the moral fibre of our community. Our political philosophy will be Black Nationalism. Our economic and social philosophy will be Black Nationalism… The political philosophy of Black Nationalism means: we must control the politicians and politics of our community. …The economic philosophy of black nationalism is pure and simple. It only means that we should control the economy of our community. Why should white people be running all the stores in our community? Why should the economy of our community be in the hands of the white man?… The philosophy of Black Nationalism involves a re-education program of the black community in regards to economics. Our people have to be made to see that any time you take your dollar out of your community and spend it in a community where you don’t live, the community where you live will get poorer and poorer, and the community where you spend your money will get richer and richer. Then you wonder why where you live is always a ghetto or a slum area.” [1]

Whilst his contemporary, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was advocating “civil rights” for African Americans, Malcolm advanced the struggle to one of “human rights” and internationalized the issue to the chagrin of the American government. Again, in his own words he argued:

“… we need new friends, we need new allies. We need to expand the civil rights struggle to a higher level – to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out on your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil rights struggle. Civil rights comes within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin-American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States.” [2] He urged African Americans to take their struggle for human rights to the level of the United Nations where he said “our African brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Asian brothers can throw their weight on our side, and where 800 million Chinamen are sitting there waiting to throw their weight on our side.” [3]

From the Local to the International

Malcolm was an internationalist in his vision and practice. He urged African Americans not to limit their vision to their locality and to connect themselves to wider struggles going on in the world. Again, to cite him at some length, he said to a crowd of African Americans:
“The purpose of our meeting tonight, as was announced, was to show the relationship between the struggle that is going on the African continent and the struggle that’s going on among the Afro-Americans here in this country. I, for one, would like to impress, especially upon those who call themselves leaders, the importance of realizing the direct connection between the struggle of the Afro-American in this country and the struggle of our people all over the world. As long as we think – as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth a couple of Sunday’s ago – that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out. Not until you start realizing your connection with the Congo. We have to realize what part of our struggle has in the overall world struggle. Secondly, we need allies; and as long as you and I think we can only get allies from the Bronx, or allies, you know, from up on the Grand Concourse, I mean where you don’t live; as long as you and I think that’s the only source or area from which we can get allies, our source of allies is limited. But when we realize how large this earth is and how many different people there are on it, and how closely they resemble us, then we turn to them for some sort of help or aid or to form alliances, then we’ll make a little faster progress.” [4]

The task of African Americans and people of African descent in Europe and Britain remains to connect the specificity of their struggles and issues with those of other struggling people, be it in Africa or Latin America or Asia. As capitalism and imperialism are global in their scope, resistance to these forces of oppression must also be global.

The other organization Malcolm also founded on leaving the NOI was the secular, Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). He said: “…one of our greatest desires here at the OAAU meetings is to try and broaden the scope and even the reading habits of most of our people, who need their scope broadened and their reading habits also broadened today.”

“We have to realize what part of our struggle has in the overall world struggle.”

Broadening the reading habits of people of African descent is necessary for they are confronted with information overload as well as dumbing down. This overload has become more complex with the proliferation of ‘fast food’ news that fails to feed the mind in the same way as fast food fails to nourish the body. Instead “fast food” news titillates and misinforms ordinary people for it is often short on deeper analysis. Constant subliminal advertising messages also fuels consumerism; the fetishtization and desire for things perpetuates the capitalist system.

In our current world with a plethora of capitalist and imperialist media outfits, seeking informative and analytical news necessitates one goes out of one’s way to find alternative and radical media that provides a counter narrative to the constant untruths and distortions of the mainstream media. It requires commitment to seeking truth, otherwise one becomes victim to the imperialist and capitalist press and their untruths. Malcolm put it beautifully when he said: “We are living in a time when image-making has become a science. Someone can create a certain image and then use that image to twist your mind and lead you right up a blind path.” [5]

A People Must Understand Their History

Another, lesson we can learn from Malcolm was his insistence that people of African descent (and also continental Africans) should constantly seek to understand their history. He once said in a speech to black people:

“I don’t think any of you will deny the fact that it is impossible to understand the present or prepare for the future unless we have some knowledge of the past. And the thing that has kept most of us – that is, the Afro-Americans – almost crippled in this society has been our complete lack of knowledge concerning the past. The number one thing that makes us differ from other people is our lack of knowledge concerning the past.” [6]

Malcolm considered that educating oneself about African history was fundamental to one’s identity and as he pointed out: “If we don’t go into the past and find out how we got this way, we will think that we were always this way. And if you think that you were always in the condition that you’re in right now, it’s impossible for you to have too much confidence in yourself, you become worthless, almost nothing.” [7] However, as Malcolm eloquently argued, knowledge of past achievements, contributions to human development, will tell a people that if they achieved such things in the past, they can achieve them again in the future. Again, to cite Malcolm directly, he said:

“I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degree, the way a college confers a status symbol upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America. Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, ‘What’s your alma mater?’ I told him, ‘Books.’ You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man.”

African youth world-wide should heed Malcolm’s words in studying and reading. Those young men and women languishing in prison and in youth offending institutions in the US and UK should find inspiration in Malcolm’s life in that it was in prison that Malcolm educated himself and had the time to literally read the dictionary from A to Z during his seven years incarceration.

One Step Forward and Two Steps Backwards

One development that disturbingly remains unchanged since the assassination of Malcolm has been the incarceration of people of colour in the US as well as racist killings of people of African descent. Currently in the US there are approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated from 1980 to 2008. [8] According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), “Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners.” Furthermore, African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.” According to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in the US, every 28 hours a black person is killed. [9] The journalist Margaret Kimberley points out that modern day lynching of African Americans continues and of late in the US, ‘there has been a spate of killings and assaults on black people committed by white people whose actions are obviously based on race hatred.’ [10] She argues “Stand Your Ground laws ought to be called Right to Kill for White People laws because that is precisely what they are. Self-defense means nothing when a black person asserts that right.” [11]

A second development that has remained since the murder of Malcolm is the internalized self-hatred among some Africans and people of African descent. Malcolm was absolutely clear on the need for African Americans to reconnect with Africa and he was committed to efforts to erase the negative images of Africa and for people of African descent to embrace a positive African identity. Again to cite him at some length, he said to a crowd of African Americans the following:

“Now what effect does the struggle over Africa have on us? Why should the black man in America concern himself since he’s been away from the African continent for three or four hundred years? Why should we concern ourselves? What impact does what happens to them have upon us? Number one, you have to realize that up until 1959 Africa was dominated by the colonial powers. Having complete control over Africa, the colonial powers of Europe projected the image of Africa negatively. They always project Africa in a negative light: jungle savages, cannibals, nothing civilized. Why then naturally it was so negative to you and me, and you and I began to hate it. We didn’t want anybody telling us anything about Africa, much less calling us Africans. In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it. Because you can’t hate the roots of a tree, and not hate the tree. You can’t hate your origin and not end up hating yourself…. they very skillfully make you and me hate your African identity, our African characteristics. You know yourself that we have been a people who hated our African characteristics. We hated our heads, we hated the shape of our nose, we wanted one of those long dog-like noses, you know; we hated the colour of our skin, hated the blood of Africa that was in our veins. And in hating our features and our skin and our blood, why, we had to end up hating ourselves… Our color became to us a chain – we felt that it was holding us back; our colour became to us like a prison which we felt was keeping us confined, not letting us go this way or that way.’ [12]

“Self-defense means nothing when a black person asserts that right.”

Today, white supremacist beauty standards, norms, and aspirations have been globalized with people of color i.e. Africans, Arabs and Asians being “judged, valued and devalued” according to European/Western definitions of beauty. [13] The effects are profoundly pernicious and damaging to the physical bodies and psyches of people of color, whilst the beauty industry continues to reap billions of dollars of profit in skin bleaching creams, weaves, cosmetic surgery, etc. Surely if Malcolm were alive today he would not remain silent on the continuing self-hatred that manifests itself in black inferiority complexes around the notion of beauty and would question who’s standard of beauty people of African descent aspire to?

Malcolm Predicted the Rise of China in the 1960s

Malcolm was not only a superb orator but in the 1960s he was prescient in his prediction of the rise of China now considered to be a threat to the West and its interests around the world. In one of his many speeches Malcolm made the point that China was on the rise and as this was the case, the American derogatory expression “you don’t stand a Chinaman’s chance,” which was very common during the 1950s and 60s, was no longer valid. In a very short film clip taken in the 1960s, he expresses that Europe’s stranglehold on power has shifted to Africa and Asia; that these new continents are coming into their own definitions and that “the European yardstick is not necessarily the yardstick” that others will adhere to in the future. [14]

Much has been written and will continue to be written on Africa’s relationship with China and whether it is good or bad for Africa. However, as the Pan-Africanist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem points out: “If China is a threat to the West, should we worry when the West has always been a threat to our very existence?” [15] In the West, the debate over Africa and Chinese relations is ethically repugnant to the extent that the West “even define for us who are our enemies and who are our friends.” Furthermore, ‘the current discourse in the West about China is very much reminiscent of the cold war days where the West thought, acted and behaved as though Africa was its exclusive preserve for exploitation and domination. It’s like a vulture scaring off other vultures from its perch.” [16]

Ultimately, the challenge remains for African countries to deal with China not on a bilateral basis, for as Abdul-Raheem points out, the bilateralism may suit China but “it undermines our sub-regional and Pan-African institutions and commitments.” [17]

Malcolm on “Uncle Toms”

Malcolm was uncompromising in his verbal attacks on African American leaders who compromised the interests of the people in their communities for their own narrow power, class and egotistical interests, particularly when these leaders were buttressed in all kinds of ways by liberal white society. He dubbed them “Uncle Toms.” Likewise he was relentless in pointing out the hypocrisy and duplicity of American foreign policy. It was his candid public utterance that was used against him by the leader of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, to silence Malcolm when he made his famous “chickens coming home to roost” remark in the context of the assassination of President JFK. [18]

Malcolm’s famous commentary on JFK’s assassination was preceded by his comment on the US collaboration in the assassination of Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. As Malcolm was forthright in condemning the “stealth imperialism” [19] of the US, it is most likely, that he would not have remained silent on many subsequent American foreign policy actions – from meddling in Haiti and the UN occupation of that country and in Latin America; the invasions of Iraq under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction that were nowhere to be found; the invasion of Afghanistan; regime change in Libya; and the current proxy war in Syria. In addition to these attempts to impose domination, has been the “shock doctrine” whereby when a nation is economically, socially or politically vulnerable or has been made ecologically vulnerable on account of a natural disaster (e.g. the Haitian earthquake of January 2010), austere neoliberal policies are imposed on it as a kind of “good” medicine that ends up either killing or further traumatizing the patient. [20]

“Humanitarian intervention” and “Responsibility to Protect” are the reconfigured twenty first century doctrines of imperialism to maintain control in regions of the world replete with natural resources such as hydrocarbons, minerals and oil or to eliminate leaders such as the late Colonel Gadhafi and Hugo Chavez who failed to make their countries client states of America.
During the 1960s Malcolm condemned America’s dropping of napalm on innocent Vietnamese people that led to over 2 million Vietnamese deaths and 57,000 Americans returning home in body bags. Today the American government under the leadership of a black president has employed pilotless aircraft, popularly known as “drones” to kill terrorist suspects in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Yet it has been innocent civilians who have been killed far more than the so-called terrorists. Hence, in returning to the question that opens this piece, would Malcolm X have dubbed Barack Obama an “Uncle Tom” in the service of imperialism and capitalism, Arundhati Roy, the Indian novelist, eloquently predicted in October 2008, the following: ‘[Obama] will have to prove that he is whiter than the white man. And if it was Hillary Clinton she would also have had to become a white man.’ [21] Furthermore, Obama has continued to expand the military operations of AFRICOM in Africa and increased American troops and joint training exercises to many African countries such as Niger, Uganda, Ethiopia and Nigeria, to name a few countries. It has its only military base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. [22]

“Ultimately, capitalism must be overhauled and replaced with a wholly egalitarian economic system that meets the needs of ordinary workers.”

In the forty nine years since Malcolm’s death the world has become more complex and the problems facing humankind more profound and urgent in regards to climate change; poverty; the gulf between the rich and poor; political conflict fueled by a multiplicity of factors; gender based violence and discrimination against women in particular parts of the world as well as the dispossession of land held by ordinary people whether in Brazil, Africa or Asia to the greed and profits of agribusiness and GMO cultivation that exacerbates food sovereignty.

In the 1960s the FBI implemented the COINTELPRO against black radicals including the Black Panthers, today America arrogates itself the prerogative to listen to anyone’s conversation – even those of its supposed friends such as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Dilma Youssef of Brazil in order to defend its own interests. The arrogance of imperial power has not changed since the death of Malcolm nor has its commitment to the military and prison complex of America that has grown exponentially. Since 9/11 the civil liberties of Americans and all human beings are being eroded by the Patriot Act, rendition and racial profiling of Arabs/Muslims.

Forty-nine years since the assassination of our “shining black prince” (as Ossie Davis referred to Malcolm in his eulogy), the plight of black youth remains one of high unemployment and dashed hopes, whether they live in Somalia, Paris, Nairobi, Tunisia, Dakar, South Africa, Harlem or Yemen.

As for America’s long-term unemployed and low-wage workers, despite Obama’s meeting with elements from America’s financial elite on the issue of long term unemployment, it is clear that the logic inherent in capitalism has no solution for these people since capitalism is the cause of long term unemployment and a low wage economy. As Ajamu Baraka argues, it is the task of radical organizations in the US and elsewhere, to provide a counter-narrative and minimum program to neoliberal capitalism. [23] Ultimately, capitalism must be overhauled and replaced with a wholly egalitarian economic system that meets the needs of ordinary workers. Such workers and the long term unemployed must see their struggle as one that is connected to exploited textile workers of Bangladesh, Cambodia and the rest of the world. [24]

In reflecting on Malcolm’s life, it is clear he had an open mind; his ideological evolution and humility led him to reassess previously held positions. For example, after his Hajj to the Holy land where he had interacted with whites with the bluest of blue eyes, he re-assessed his position on white people and expressed in his “Autobiography”: “I tried in very speech I made to clarify my new position regarding white people – I don’t speak against the sincere, well-meaning, good white people. I have learned that there are some. I have learned that not all white people are racists. I am speaking against and my fight is against the white racists. I firmly believe that Negroes have the right to fight against these racists, by any means that are necessary.” [25]

In the short but precious life of Malcolm X there are legacies he left people of African descent and all progressive people genuinely committed to his memory and ideology. We must seek to realize these legacies in our current times.

Ama Biney (Dr) is Acting Editor in Chief of Pambazuka News and a scholar activist.


[1] See ‘Malcolm X Speaks’ published by Grove Press, Inc. 1966. p. 21.
[2] Ibid, pp.34-35.
[3] Ibid, pp. 34-35.
[4] Ibid, p. 90.
[5] Cited in ‘A Lie of Reinvention Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X’ edited by J. A. Ball and T. S. Burroughs, Black Classic Press, 2012, p. 5.
[6] See ‘Malcolm X on Afro-American History’ [8] accessed 19 February 2014.
[7] Ibid.
[8] See [9] accessed 18 February 2014.
[9] See [10] accessed 19 February 2014.
[10] See [11] accessed 19 February 2014.
[11] Ibid.
[12] See See ‘Malcolm X Speaks’, pp.168-169.
[13] See ‘The Beauty Con Game’ by Umoja, p. 29.
[14] See [12] accessed 19 February 2014.
[15] See ‘Between colonialists and China: Africa needs to forge a new path’ in Speaking Truth to Power Selected Pan-African Postcards by Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem p. 212.
[16] Ibid, p. 213.
[17] Ibid, p. 214.
[18] See ‘Autobiography of Malcolm X’, Penguin 1965, pp.410-413
[19] See Chalmers Johnson, ‘Blowback’ p. 67.
[20] See ‘The Shock Doctrine’ by N. Klein.
[21] See [13] accessed 19 February 2014.
[22] See [14] accessed. Accessed 19 February 2014., [15] accessed 19 February 2014. [16] accessed 19 February 2014.
[23] See [17] accessed 19 February 2014
[24] See [18] accessed 19 February 2014. In April 2013 over 1,100 people making cheap clothes that are sold in the West died when a building housing factories making garments for chains collapsed.
25] See ‘Autobiography of Malcolm X’ p. 484.

  • Newsletter
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Facebook