Malcolm X: "They called me the angriest Negro in America"
MALCOLM X was assassinated forty years ago, on 21 February 1965.
HUGH CAFFREY looks back at Malcolm’s life and legacy.
Malcolm X voiced the rage of millions against poverty, racism, and
police brutality. Evolving from Black Nationalism to anti-capitalism and
towards socialism, he remains an inspiration to all who challenge racist
"Why am I as I am?"
Malcolm X experienced racism from birth. Forced by racists to move
home, Malcolm was still young when white supremacists murdered his
father. Insurance companies refused to pay out, "claiming my father
had committed suicide… how could my father bash himself in the head,
and then get down across the streetcar tracks to be run over?"
Malcolm X was often top of his class. But the racist system failed
him, drove his mother to a breakdown and hospital, and broke up his
family. Malcolm wanted to be a lawyer. His school-teacher replied,
"A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a nigger… Why don’t you
plan on carpentry?"
Poverty-stricken, alienated, and angry without answers, Malcolm
drifted from shoe-shining to train porter, to petty crime, drug
addiction and jail. While imprisoned, he converted to the Nation of
"The true knowledge of the black man"
The Nation of Islam was founded in 1931, preaching Black pride and
separatism – and quickly finding fertile soil among Black convicts.
Malcolm X described: "Here is a black man caged behind bars,
probably for years, put there by the white man.
"Usually the convict comes from among those bottom-of-the-pile
Negroes, the Negroes who through their entire lives have been kicked
about, treated like children – Negroes who have never met one white man
who didn’t either take something from them or do something to them…
‘The white man is the devil’ is a perfect echo of that black convict’s
"I felt Allah would be more inclined to help those who helped
Leaving prison, Malcolm X threw himself into building the Nation of
Islam. He quickly became a leading minister: founding temples and the
Nation’s newspaper; addressing meetings; raging against America’s racist
history; articulating anger instinctively felt by oppressed Blacks. The
Nation swelled to 100,000 followers by the early 1960s.
Civil rights movement
The mass civil rights movement involved millions of angry Blacks
demanding change. To disrupt segregation, young people occupied bars and
organised Freedom Rides to enforce an end to segregated public
transport. In the neo-colonial world, revolutions swept away colonial
rule. Revolutionary events combined with police brutality to spur on a
"’Those Muslims talk tough, but they never do anything’"
Civil rights leaders attempted to tie the movement to lobbying
Democrat politicians. Malcolm X correctly attacked this: "Who ever
heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with
their oppressor in lilypad park pools, with gospels and guitars and ‘I
Have a Dream’ speeches? And the black masses in America were – and still
are – having a nightmare."
Martin Luther King later moved to the left, arguing for working-class
unity and supporting strikers just before he was murdered.
The LAPD (Los Angeles police) attacked a Nation temple in 1962,
killing a leading activist. Malcolm X began a defence campaign, holding
mass meetings. He supported a New York trade union boycott of a firm
refusing to hire black workers.
"The chickens coming home to roost"
But this contradicted the conservative Nation leaders, who offered no
practical alternative to the civil rights movement. Moves were underway
to undermine Malcolm X, sanctioned by Nation leader Elijah Muhammad.
President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 meant Nation ministers were
immediately ordered to say nothing. Malcolm was not to be silenced.
"… it was, as I saw it, a case of ‘the chickens coming home to
roost’. I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the
killing of defenceless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread
unchecked, finally had struck down this country’s Chief of State."
The Nation moved swiftly on this pretext. Meeting with Elijah
Muhammad, Malcolm X was told "I’ll have to silence you for the next
ninety days – so that the Muslims everywhere can be disassociated from
Within days, suspension became "’if he submits’… I had
completely submitted. … I was being set up", followed by talk
from senior Nation members about killing Malcolm X.
"A working unity among all peoples"
Fifty weeks separate Malcolm X’s split with the Nation, and his
murder by the US state. At Mecca on pilgrimage, in Africa discussing
with independence movement leaders, Malcolm’s ideas underwent a profound
transformation. He met many non-Black "true revolutionaries,
dedicated to overthrowing the system of exploitation that exists on this
earth by any means necessary.
"So I had to do a lot of thinking and reappraising of my
definition of black nationalism. Can we sum up the solution to the
problems confronting our people as black nationalism? And if you noticed
I haven’t been using the expression for several months."
Malcolm X launched a new organisation, ‘Muslim Mosque Inc’, to
"…embrace all faiths of black men, and it would carry into
practice what the Nation of Islam had only preached".
"This was a move that people had waited for. Numerous people
said… they wanted to join me… Muslims wrote from other cities that
they would join me, their remarks being generally along the lines that
‘Islam is too inactive’… ‘The Nation is moving too slow’".
After his international travels, Malcolm X wanted to develop links
between the ‘Muslim Mosque Inc’ and Muslims across the world. His ideas
continued to move towards those of working-class unity and socialism.
From challenging racism with religion, to challenging capitalism with
unity of the oppressed, Malcolm X stated: "I will join in with
anyone, I don’t care what colour you are, as long as you want to change
this miserable condition that exists on this earth."
This represented a real threat. Within weeks Malcolm was dead,
assassinated by the state with Nation support.
"The system cannot produce freedom for the Afro-American. It is
impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system,
this social system, this system period"
Malcolm X’s ideas have long been distorted. He has been falsely
accused of being a "black racist". The Nation of Islam claim
him as their own. Yet shortly before Malcolm was killed, current Nation
leader Farrakhan said "a man such as this is worthy only of
Some see Malcolm as a Muslim preacher. He filled his faith with the
social struggle for liberation – beginning to reach out to all Blacks,
and then working-class whites, for unity against racism and poverty.
Four decades later a whole race-relations industry exists. The most
glaring racism has been shoved under the carpet. But the police are
institutionally racist. Harassment and poverty remain. New Labour and
the US Democrats have nothing to offer. As Malcolm said, "With
these choices, I felt the American black man only had to choose which
one to be eaten by, the ‘liberal’ fox or the ‘conservative’ wolf –
because both of them would eat him."
Malcolm’s murder enraged a generation to rise up and fight. One
million Blacks considered themselves revolutionary. The Black Panther
Party, organising community defence against racists and police, drew
some socialist conclusions.
Panther leader Bobby Seale summed it up: "We do not fight racism
with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight
exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with
basic socialism. We fight imperialism with proletarian
The Socialist Party stands in the best traditions of mass struggle
and self-defence, for working-class unity of all races, religions, and