By JOE AUCIELLO
Malcolm X, born May 19, 1925, would have been 90 years old this year had he not been assassinated 50 years ago (on Feb. 21, 1965). Now, decades later, safely buried, Malcolm X has become respectable. This transformation has been some years in the making, but there can be little doubt of the result.
The U.S. government, which spied and kept files on Malcolm, and which encouraged his death, if not worse, has already placed his image on a postal stamp. Schools, streets, and boulevards have been named after him.
The trend to assimilate has been noted by contemporary historians. Taylor Branch, in the second volume of his Martin Luther King biography (“At Canaan’s Edge”), refers to the “legions of young whites who made him [Malcolm] a crossover icon.”
Despite its flaws, the most recent and thorough biography, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” by Manning Marable, rightly refers to a “metamorphosis” that presents Malcolm as “a multicultural American icon.” The New York Times review of the biography adds to the new myth-making, claiming that towards the end of his life, Malcolm would “embrace of a kind of internationalist humanism”—a phrase that could reasonably be applied as well to the Dalai Lama.
With his sharp edges smoothed over, his political views drained of their militancy, his religion ignored, Malcolm X has been offered up as a dreamer, a worthy companion to the Martin Luther King of the 1963 March on Washington.
Such was the tone and spirit of a Boston Globe editorial, “Malcolm’s Message” (Feb. 26, 2005). The Globe quoted from Malcolm’s Feb. 14, 1965, speech in Detroit, “Don’t let the power structure maneuver you into a time-wasting battle with others when you could be involved in something that’s constructive and getting a real job done.”
The editorial concluded, “These challenges live on: to get a real job—working not merely for pay but for a greater common good—so that as Malcolm gazes out of photographs, it is easier to gaze back.”
Is that really Malcolm’s message—bring home a paycheck and maybe volunteer some time in a community service project? From the Boston Globe editorial, it was impossible to know what the controversy over Malcolm X had been all about or why anyone thought it necessary to silence him with gun blasts to the chest.
Malcolm X claimed that the media most often portrayed him falsely, and judging from this recent editorial, the passing years have not improved things much. In ways large and small, the distortions continue. For instance, the lines from Malcolm quoted above are not, as the Boston Globe would have it, the kind of advice a high school guidance counselor would offer but were instead part of his explanation for avoiding dead-end arguments with the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm wanted to build religious and political organizations that would advance the Black struggle for unity and liberation. Freed, by then, from the limitations of the organization he had once represented so well, the NOI, he was able to speak his own mind, and he did, despite ever-increasing danger. Distorting Malcolm’s ideas also includes deletions.
Consider what the editorial entitled “Malcolm’s Message” omitted from Malcolm’s message. In his talk that day, Malcolm praised the African revolution and its ability to inspire an African-American revolution in the United States, “an even greater threat” to “the international power structure,” which he condemned as “imperialism.”
In words that you will not likely find reprinted in your daily newspaper, Malcolm said, “This is a society whose government doesn’t hesitate to inflict the most brutal form of punishment and oppression upon dark-skinned people all over the world.”
Was he, in making this judgment, also making a prediction of his own murder one short week later? It may never be possible to answer for certain. Questions about Malcolm X’s life and death and the meaning of his work continue to generate questioning and controversy. Yet, all commentators, including his worst detractors, agree on his importance as a thinker and leader.
To understand his importance, all one need do is actually read Malcolm, and read with an open mind. The “Autobiography” is the essential starting point, and “The Final Speeches: February 1965” is a good follow-up. The most perceptive interpretation is one of the first ever published: “The Last Year of Malcolm X,” written by George Breitman.
But why read Malcolm X at all? A great deal has changed for the better in the 50 years since he was gunned down. Blacks not only vote but are elected to office in large numbers. The Democratic Party’s Barack Obama is president. Isn’t it time to say, then, that the progress of decades has diminished the urgency of Malcolm’s message?
Malcolm himself answered that question in a speech reprinted in the pamphlet, “Malcolm X Talks to Young People.” Here is what Malcolm said: “One of the first things I think young people, especially nowadays, should learn is how to see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself. Then you can come to an intelligent decision for yourself.
“If you form the habit of going by what you hear others say about someone, or going by what others think about someone, instead of searching that thing out for yourself and seeing for yourself, you will be walking west when you think you’re going east, and you will be walking east when you think you’re going west. This generation, especially of our people, has a burden, more so than any other time in history. The most important thing we can learn to do today is think for ourselves.”
His point may seem too obvious at first, a platitude, even, but he reached this conclusion as the result of painful personal experience. It was an insight he stressed in the last months of his life because the lesson that he learned was the starting point not only for himself but for any person who wanted to understand the world and act to change it. These words, spoken in December 1964, may no longer be shocking, but they are still relevant, meaningful, and necessary for today.
But in 1964 this message must have been electrifying for the young people in the audience. Who would ever have heard anyone speak this way? No social institution, no adult with whom most youth came in contact, ever said to think for yourself. Quite the contrary!
With rare exception, the people and social institutions teenagers encountered insisted on deference and conformity. Asking too many questions would just get you in trouble. Adults could forgive, even accept, youthful hijinks, but not the implicit defiance of a sober question. For teenagers, it was safer to drink than to think.
Parents were to be obeyed simply “because I said so.” School told you to line up in the corridor, raise your hand to go to a bathroom, and fill in the blank on quizzes and tests. A job consisted of mindless tasks completed without comment or complaint but with a pasted-on smile and a show of gratitude.
Church demanded you follow doctrine or else bear the consequence of unimaginable suffering for all of eternity. The Army told you to follow orders and be prepared to kill “gooks” on command. Politicians said the government deserved your unswerving loyalty and trust. The president told the “silent majority” to pledge allegiance.
Good Americans listened and obeyed. In his memoir, Professor Mark Edmundson vividly recalls a scene from his adolescence about learning the right lessons: “My father and I were alone, watching television, the eleven o’clock news. … War and protests were on the box. We were silent through the combat footage. … Then came the other kids. The Harvard types made their way onto the shadowy screen … with their posters and NVA flags and their chants….
“My father went apoplectic. He fell into a fury. His face turned blood red. He snorted from out his great misshapen nose. They were spoiled brats. Lazy! Morons! He cried out: ‘Get back home. Get home and do what you’re told. … Do what YOU ARE TOLD!’
“That last Do what you are told, was a standing disciplinary slogan in our house. We heard it often”(Edmundson, Teacher, pp. 225- 226).
It’s also a scene that must have been played out all across the country as parents tried to raise “good kids.” The rules were not complicated. Keep your head down, follow orders, go along to get along, and, above all, do what you are told and ask no questions. That was the pathway to success in America.
In 2015, if the powers that be had their way, life would be pretty much the same. Obedience without question is still the watchword. The government still demands unswerving loyalty and trust, trimming civil rights, spying on you for your own good. Wars are launched as lies smooth the way, and when the first lie is exposed another lie takes its place. No weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s arsenal? Okay, then, we’re bringing freedom to the grateful Iraqi people, and don’t look at the dead bodies piling up.
Once again, by act of Congress, the Army is recruiting in public schools where standardized tests can make or break your life. Answer the right way, maybe you go to college. Answer wrong, well, have you thought about enlisting, son? The message that youth are least likely to hear is the imperative to “think for yourself.”
But the people in charge don’t always have their way—not completely, not all the time. What is different today, compared to 50 years ago, is that more youth speak up, ask questions, and are willing to fight for their beliefs. Whether they know it or not, they are living in the spirit of Malcolm X.
In the 1960s some young radicals of the New Left took the writings of Mao Tse-Tung and turned them into simplistic slogans suitable for all occasions. Malcolm X, a creative, restless thinker whose work was unfinished, does not deserve such a fate. His speeches can’t be reduced to a set of sound bytes. References to Malcolm’s words serve better as a starting point than a conclusion.
Malcolm is not a Black plaster saint, nor is he a relic of the civil rights era. He remains a catalyst and an inspiration whose message is to continue the struggle for equality and freedom.
Malcolm X has not faded into the past for a simple reason: he is needed today. Fortunately, young people still want to learn; they still search for meaning in the world, and still need teachers. They can hardly do better than discover the words and example of Malcolm X, who said, first, “think for yourself.”
A version of this article first appeared in the May 2005 issue of Socialist Action. It has been updated for the current issue.