Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bad Days in American History: February 21, 1965

On February 21, 1965, Nation of Islam assassins shot and killed Malcolm X before a rally in New York City.

Malcolm's death was precipitated by his break with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad over Muhammad's sexual peccadillos, corruption, and weird version of Islam. Of course, Malcolm's story is well-known to anyone who's read his autobiography--and really, if you haven't, I don't know what to say except to go buy it and read it right away. Born in 1925 in Omaha, Malcolm's family had to flee the Ku Klux Klan because of his father's civil rights activism. A follower of Marcus Garvey, Earl Little led his family to Lansing where whites probably murdered him in 1931. After falling through the very wide cracks of 1940s America, Malcolm ended up in prison, where the ambitious young man found direction through conversion to the Nation of Islam. He became the group's most passionate and dynamic speaker after his release from prison in 1952.

The Nation of Islam preached African-American self-reliance, separation from whites, and armed resistance if necessary. Malcolm mocked the civil rights movement's integrationist goals. The media loved this and played up his differences from Martin Luther King, which probably helped King gain respectability among moderate whites.

Malcolm left the Nation of Islam in 1963, a decision that cost him his life. The NOI had no tolerance for apostates. Malcolm was hardly the only member they assassinated, a major activity for the organization well into the 1970s. Among the NOI leaders deeply involved in these assassinations was Louis Farrakhan, who later became the group's leader.

Before his assassination, Malcolm visited Mecca and began to understand both that the NOI had a distorted view of Islam and that there were white Muslims who had a similar worldview to his own. Now, modern-day moderates take this as proof that Malcolm was softening. He's become something of a mainstream hero over the past 20 years. Like King, that's come with a dilution of his message. My reading of Malcolm's political evolution is that he was becoming a more class-based warrior rather than strictly race-based. But there's no room in this mythological history for such an analysis. Instead, Malcolm supposedly was moving closer to King's position, culminating in their single, but friendly, meeting. In fact, both  King and Malcolm evolved with the times, both coming to a class-based analysis that might have differed on tactics, but I believe they two men increasingly understood the problems of their people through similar analysis.

We can mourn Malcolm's death for so many reasons. Very few civil rights leaders had the combination of vision, charisma, respect, and discipline to see the movement into a post-segregationist future. King certainly did, though he struggled mightily in the years after 1965. Malcolm probably did too. Ralph Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, and others most certainly did not have this combination of virtues, yet they became the faces of the movement after Malcolm and King's deaths. Had Malcolm lived, it's likely he could have provided real leadership for the black nationalist movement that arose during and after 1965; perhaps he could have reigned in the movement's excesses while channeling its passions to substantive policy goals. He certainly would have led the anti-Vietnam movement--I can only imagine the powerful voice he would have provided.

Or maybe J. Edgar Hoover would have killed Malcolm during the COINTELPRO era anyway.

I'm most sad about Malcolm's death when I think of the paucity of African-American leadership during the 1980s and 90s. The fact that a charlatan like Farrakhan became a nationally respected leader through the Million Man March suggests how huge the vacuum had become. Of course, much of the problem during those years was how to keep fighting through massive white backlash. And one can certainly argue that millions of African-Americans worked very hard in those decades to slowly break down barriers that eventually led to Barack Obama's election to the presidency. Maybe they were the collective great civil rights leaders of the period. But white abandonment of the city during the 60s and 70s, the crack epidemic, persistent poverty, and institutionalized racism speaks to how badly African-Americans needed leaders during these decades to lead the unfinished civil rights revolution.

Who knows what Malcolm could have provided African-Americans and the poor during the 1970s and 80s. But almost certainly more than Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, or other veterans of the civil rights generation who couldn't seem to find their way during that long dark time.