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Malcolm X, 12 March 1964 , photo Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Ed Ford, World Telegram staff photographer
"In my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you're living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there's got to be a change. People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built, and the only way it's going to be built - is with extreme methods. And I, for one, 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." Malcolm X, 1964
I am part of a generation of young African Americans that is beginning to rediscover Malcolm X. We know who he was and what he stood for. We wear T-shirts with his face and quote his most famous words. But my generation did not hear him speak on television. His death is not something we can remember.
However, we are a generation that is becoming radicalised through the same struggles that Malcolm fought in his day because so many of the conditions have not changed. We are searching for ideas and a way forward.
Malcolm's ideas and philosophies went through many changes in his short life. Radical thinking was something that was introduced to Malcolm at a very young age. He would go with his father to hear different political activists. When Malcolm was six, his father was killed by white supremacists.
Malcolm's mother wound up in a mental hospital when he was 13, and his life continued downhill. After he was put in prison at 20, his siblings introduced him to the Nation of Islam (NOI), which was a tiny black nationalist sect at the time.
Being part of NOI was crucial for Malcolm's development as a leader. While in prison, he truly began to question the world and took the opportunity to explore different ideas. But the NOI also gave him something to fight for and gave him hope for a better world. It is this hope that drove him to be so passionate.
Malcolm X spent ten years in NOI as a prominent preacher who played a key role in bringing its membership up to 100,000 by the early 1960s. He had devout faith in the group's leader, Elijah Muhammad, for many years. But over the course of time, Malcolm found it harder and harder to agree with the decisions made by the leader.
In 1962, a fight broke out in a parking lot in southern California between some police and members of Mosque Number 27. One member of the mosque - like so many young black men today - held up his hands in the "don't shoot" manner to surrender to the police, and was shot dead.
Malcolm tried to organise NOI to go and demand justice for the dead brother, but Muhammad would not allow it. Malcolm went anyway and participated with civil rights organisations in a rally, educating people about how this was not about religion but rather about skin colour.
While Muhammad was living an increasingly lavish lifestyle, Malcolm was living paycheck to paycheck. Muhammad's jealousy of Malcolm's abilities and charisma created tension between the two men.
But it wasn't until Malcolm was suspended from preaching for publicly stating that the assassination of President John F Kennedy was a "result of the climate of hate" that he decided to leave NOI and start his own organisation.
Malcolm rightfully called out JFK - and the whole Democratic Party - for blockading Cuba and waging war in Vietnam in the name of 'freedom' and 'democracy' while not "correcting injustices against Negroes" here in the US. Malcolm could not keep silent any longer about what was so obvious to him, namely that black people would not be liberated without a political and economic fight.
What was happening in America during this time was not happening in isolation. Malcolm learned this through his travels in Africa and the Middle East, in countries that were colonised by Western powers. He saw the misery of colonisation and the fight in these countries that black men and women alike were putting up for independence.
Malcolm X saw the need to unite with his black brothers and sisters in Africa. But then he went to Algeria. The people there did not have black skin, and this was something that Malcolm struggled with. He knew the oppressor to be white and the oppressed to be black, but in Northern Africa that wasn't quite the case. This was crucial for Malcolm's understanding of who the enemy truly was.
He finally developed the analysis that: "It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter."
We are currently seeing the same evolution in the movement for racial equality that Malcolm went through. But why reinvent the wheel? Malcolm learned through his travels around the world that it was not about black and white, Muslim and Christian, man and woman. It was about capitalism and what the ruling class would do to remain in control over the economy and the world's resources.
Internationalism was a key concept that helped Malcolm draw anti-capitalist conclusions. Malcolm sought to learn from the anti-colonial struggle by drawing international attention to the plight of African Americans.
He saw the need for independent political action by African Americans. He completely rejected the idea that the Democratic Party had anything to offer black people, stating: "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."
He also began to see the need for economic action by poor people, such as rent strikes, although he did not see clearly the strategic role of black workers in industrial production and the power they could wield alongside white workers in fighting for a better life.
Malcolm's greatest strengths were his fearless search for answers, his honesty about his own failings, and his willingness to learn from experience. Toward the end of his life, he had discussions with the US Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist organisation, though he never became a Marxist. Unfortunately, despite a proud history, the SWP had capitulated to black nationalism.
Malcolm's acknowledgement that it was not just an issue of black and white but of oppressed and oppressor points toward the need for a racially integrated workers' party to lead the fight for system change. Working people have the social power to change society. They can bring the production, distribution, and sale of goods and services to a halt.
Black people still face segregation and special oppression, but racial division only truly benefits the bosses. Black people cannot be liberated through a struggle on their own, especially considering that they are less than 20% of the US population. Workers need to unite together no matter what colour they are, as the ruling class will always try to find a way to divide us.
Malcolm X was clearly on the correct path. My generation must continue where Malcolm ended. We do not need more black capitalists to liberate black people - Obama has proven that quite well. We shall not mourn the death of Malcolm X but rather commemorate him and continue fighting for an equal society and a socialist world.
For those demanding justice for Mike Brown and Eric Garner, the connection between economic injustice and state violence couldn't be clearer. Just a few miles from where police murdered Eric Garner, a low-income black man selling loose cigarettes to scrape a living, the white collar criminals on Wall Street remain free to continue their corrupt, illegal financial schemes.
Tens of thousands are searching for a way to take the momentum forward in the movement against police racism. A potential strategy emerged when the week of action for a $15 an hour minimum wage and trade union rights coincided with the national surge of protests against the lack of indictments for the police who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner.
With the victories for $15 in Seattle and then San Francisco, combined with escalating strikes and actions by low-wage workers, the demand has gone mainstream. Much like the eight-hour day galvanised workers in a previous era, so too has $15 emerged as a rallying cry for today's vast, multi-racial army of low-wage workers.
There is widespread understanding that racism is structurally embedded into the economy and political life of American capitalism. Demands for living wage jobs and quality public services can also unite wider numbers of workers in the struggle for racial equity. Alongside demands for full employment, affordable housing, and quality services, the fight for $15 offers a clear path forward, especially given the concentration of people of colour into low-wage jobs.
The potential exists to further transform the national conversation. Educating millions of workers that solidarity against racism is crucial if we are to build a broad, multi-racial mass movement capable of overcoming corporate domination of our economy.
If union leaders fail to mobilise their resources to offer active solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests, and extend a serious invitation to fight together for $15, this window of opportunity could pass.
Unfortunately, the union leaders' ties to the Democratic Party at the national and local level - where Democratic mayors oversee racist police policies in most major cities - undermine their ability to win the trust of youthful protesters. These same Democratic Party leaders have played a generally conservative role in the fight for $15.
Polls show half of all young people have a negative view of capitalism, and anti-capitalist consciousness is highest in black communities. The same youthful, combative, and radical moods expressed in the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 are present today in the Black Lives Matter movement, with the crucial difference that today's movement is bringing a more oppressed, working class section of youth to the forefront.
However, like Occupy before, the new movement against police racism will quickly face tough decisions. There is a burning desire to see fundamental changes. Yet many liberal leaders make the mistake of limiting demands to what they believe the current system, the current government, can 'realistically' deliver.
This so-called 'realistic' approach fails in two ways. It fails because, as Malcolm X famously explained: "you can't have capitalism without racism." This means there is no way to meet the expectations of the movement for fundamental change without challenging the whole rotten system.
It also undermines our strength to even win those small reforms! Mass movements are the only power that can win meaningful reforms for working people, but to inspire the level of energy and self-sacrifice needed to sustain mass struggle, activists need confidence that fundamental changes are within reach.
How can this confidence be built when our fighting demands remain limited to what this rotten capitalist system and deeply corrupted two-party political system is prepared to deliver?
In contrast to liberal leaders, socialists urge movements to link up demands around immediate small-scale reforms with bigger transformative demands.
The movement will be strongest if, alongside demands for police accountability, outrage at the racism embedded in the capitalist economy can be mobilised into combative, grassroots campaigns for a $15 an hour minimum wage, union rights, jobs for all, affordable housing, and taxing the rich to fund education and other basic services.
15 Now was launched in early 2014 to create space for a broad grassroots movement for $15 to develop. To win $15 nationally, and other transformative demands for millions living in poverty, it's going to take a truly mass movement imbued with the same spirit of resistance we've seen on display since Mike Brown and Eric Garner were murdered.
New independent grassroots organisations with deep roots in communities of colour will be needed. Let's surge forward toward mass campaigns for $15 in 2015!
Kshama Sawant, photo Josh Kelety
Like the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter is challenging systemic racism and is, therefore, faced with questions of how racism can be ultimately defeated and what is the road to achieving that victory.
At the end of their lives, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were grappling with these questions. Their speeches and work pointed toward the necessity of mobilising wider social forces in the struggle for economic and social justice.
This remains the correct path. It is urgent that the labour movement join hands with those fighting to end racial injustice and bring its considerable resources to bear. There is real potential to widen and broaden this movement and thereby resist the attempts of the elite and their politicians to isolate it.
I have confidence that the movement will meet and overcome these challenges - in no small part by drawing from the rich history of the movements and leaders of the past, but also because of the boldness, audacity, and determination of this new generation."
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Article dated 25 February 2015
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