Fighting white supremacists: What I learned from Malcolm X

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Sept. 2017 Alewitz Malcolm
The author poses in front of mural of Malcolm X.


Following are major excerpts from a Facebook post by activist and political muralist Mike Alewitz. They are reprinted with permission from the author.

When I first read Malcolm X, and then heard a recording of him speaking, it was electrifying.

Malcolm X confronted the racist ideology of the U.S. ruling class. He educated both Black and white audiences about the hidden history of African Americans and the racist history of the white ruling classes.

His pedagogy started me on my own journey into Black history—to the great civilizations of Africa, to the universities and libraries in Timbuktu and Alexandria, to the development of culture in Africa and the Middle East—because that was where the world’s knowledge of art and science was born.

I also learned some important lessons about fighting fascists from Malcolm.

Lesson #1: You must confront racist ideas

The U.S. empire was built on the backs of slave labor and the extermination of the indigenous people—justified with racist ideologies. Malcolm understood that in a country that was built on racism, we must take on that ideology and win workers to support the antiracist struggle—or at least neutralize them.

Sept. 2017 Klan in GettysburgMy own experience was to bear this out. In 1970, I spoke at an antiwar rally in Austin, Texas, reporting on the Kent State Massacre. I ended up moving [to Texas] to organize for the antiwar movement.

Sept. 2017 Alewitz Texas 1971
Mike Alewitz speaking at the University of Texas in Austin in 1971.

In doing so, I became involved in a struggle against the Ku Klux Klan, which was ingrained into the Houston Police Department. For years, the Klan had terrorized the African American and Latino communities, assaulted and shot up leftists’ homes and organizations in that city. Twice they had bombed the Pacifica radio station, taking them off the air.

At the time, I was a member of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). Along with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)—which bears little resemblance to the organization using that name today—we took on the Klan by organizing a broad coalition to demand governmental action to stop the terror.

The YSA and SWP had plenty of experience in such struggles. SWP leaders, seasoned veterans of the labor battles of the 1930s, understood that you had to debate the fascists—you could not defeat them by simply calling them names and engaging in street fights.

In 1971, Debby Leonard ran for mayor of Houston as a socialist. (The following year I was her running mate, for Lt. Governor, when we ran a statewide ticket). A few weeks after the announcement, a pipe bomb was thrown into the SWP campaign offices—one of many right-wing violent attacks carried out in the city.

The cops announced to the media that we had probably bombed ourselves to get publicity. Despite threats and slanders, we organized a broad coalition to demand the city put a halt to Klan terror.

Sept. 2017 Houston Klan cop 1972
A Houston cop poses in his KKK hood in 1972. Ron Laytner / Edit International

Through our campaigns and coalition pressure, we forced the Klan into two televised debates. There, Leonard exposed the history of the Klan/cop terrorism and racist ideas.

The debates were instrumental in forcing the government to bring indictments against the Klan, including the Grand Dragon of the United Klans of America, Frank Converse, whom Leonard had destroyed on air. It was an important victory. After years of terror, our united front action brought the Klan to heel and the attacks ceased.

Lesson #2: You cannot put your trust in white liberals

Malcolm X placed his faith in the African-American community. He did not attempt to curry favor with white middle-class liberals. Malcolm knew that ultimately you had to rely on your own community—those that would be willing to pay the cost in the fight for freedom.

I was reminded of this as I considered the liberal outrage over Donald Trump. Trump is being universally condemned for pandering to the white supremacist movement, even by some Democratic and Republican politicians. This is as it should be.

July 2017 Quist:Sanders
Bernie Sanders with Montana Democratic Party candidate for Congress, Rob Quist, on May 25.

But a few months ago, Bernie Sanders, the leading liberal voice of the Democratic Party, publicly announced his admiration for Winston Churchill, one of the most vicious White supremacists in human history—largely responsible for a genocidal policy against the people of India, about whom he openly stated: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Yet when Sanders made his outrageous statement, the liberal community, and even “socialist” supporters, refused to criticize him and have remained silent to this day. I’m not accusing Sanders of being a white supremacist, but refusing to confront such remarks and ideas enables more direct racist comments by people like Trump.

Ultimately, the liberal wing of the ruling class is going to do whatever it takes to preserve its profits. That’s why the liberal President Franklin Roosevelt (Sanders’ other hero) put Japanese Americans into concentration camps and refused to speak out against waves of lynching that were going on in the South.

You cannot rely on the Democratic Party to wage a consistent and successful fight against fascists and white supremacists. Malcolm X was clear on that.

Lesson #3: Self-defense must be disciplined and effective

Malcolm X believed in militant self-defense. He did not posture about it. He did not provoke attacks. He did not make empty threats.

Sept. 2010 Malcolm
Malcolm X

Within the civil rights movement, there were political disagreements over the strategies of nonviolence versus self-defense—including between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. But despite the divisions, shortly after Malcolm X broke with Elijah Mohammed, he sent the following telegram to George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the US Nazi Party:

“This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separatist Black Muslim movement, and that 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.”

Well, no one can accuse Malcolm X of being unwilling to defend himself. By organizing a militant and disciplined defense, he made attacks costlier to the racists and revealed the true source of the violence.

The best self-defense is to organize a broad-based political defense of free speech and democratic rights. That is why it is wrong to advocate that fascists have no right to speak—it undercuts our own ability to defend ourselves. … The tragic events in Charlottesville show that we cannot always anticipate problems—but we should strive to be prepared to physically defend ourselves.

Fascist and white supremacist movements are kept around to be used by the ruling class when it feels it is necessary. Donald Trump has reinvigorated them for the moment. We must now send them back under the rocks.

Racism is a cancer that has metastasized throughout capitalist America over centuries. It will take a thoroughgoing social revolution to uproot and end it.



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