Racism. It’s as alive today as it ever was. We like to pretend it isn’t. After all – America has a black president now. So how are we supposed to juxtapose that with the blatant racism of America’s law enforcement agencies? As Ferguson, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and countless other examples have thoroughly demonstrated, the battle for equality that gained so much momentum during the 1960’s is far from finished. Yes, the civil rights movement made racism socially unacceptable, but racism did not disappear. It is still a problem rampant enough that we read about its consequences on a monthly if not daily basis; and that’s if we’re not first-hand feeling its effects.
If racism is really behind us, would we be reading in our newspapers about the murder of unarmed black men throughout the country? If racism was really behind us, would we have ever even heard the names of Tony Robinson, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner or Walter Scott? I suppose the fact that we do know these names is a step in the right direction. However for every Tony, Freddie, Michael, Eric, and Walter, there are hundreds if not thousands of cases that we never hear about. We only hear about any particular case when the circumstances make it impossible to ignore.
If the Civil Rights Movement had really put an end to racism in this country, we wouldn’t have ever read about Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray or Tony Robinson because they wouldn’t have been unjustly murdered by the hands of law enforcement officers. In many ways the problem is worse now than it ever was. It certainly effects more people. There are more black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850. Our situation today is not that different than it was seventy years ago. The problem is the same. Only the methods and circumstances are different.
I’m not justifying the chaos that took place in Baltimore or the buildings that have been burned in Ferguson, but if we’re going to take any steps toward a real solution, we need to understand the problem, and that includes empathizing with those effected. To denounce the riots in Baltimore as mere mindless violence is to shame the oppressed for reacting to their oppression. Martin Luther King said that a “riot is the language of the unheard.” We cannot judge an inner-city riot if we’ve never experienced police brutality for ourselves, any more than a man can understand the labors of childbirth. We can’t understand anyone until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
For those who think that remedial, piece-meal reform is and has been gradually alleviating this issue, allow me to clearly illustrate how these gradual reformations fail to address the underlying causes, addressing only the external symptoms. When plantation slavery was abolished in the 19th Century, African Americans were on their own. Plantation owners cut their workers loose and wished them luck in a world that was as racist as ever. Now they had to earn a wage in an atmosphere where few were willing to hire them. Some former slaves observed that they were now worse off now because they were starving and they couldn’t find paid work to survive on the outside.
In exactly the same way, Martin Luther King observed, a black man can now sit at the same lunch counter as a white man, but what if he doesn’t have the money to buy lunch due to poverty, or worse, if he can’t even read the menu because he never got a proper education?
So how do we address the superiority complex intertwined within American white privilege that leads to these recurring situations? Martin Luther King was integral to the creation of the Voting Rights Act as well as the Civil Rights Act, but how were oppressed minorities to react when these laws were not observed or enforced by racist America? This realization inevitably gave rise to the reaction of more militant civil rights organizations who understood that they would be decimated if they were unable to defend themselves from physical violence. And there’s one figure now considered synonymous with that particular narrative.
This coming Tuesday is the birthday of a figure just as influential as Martin Luther King, whose story is central to the Civil Rights Movement and ongoing struggle for racial equality today. The 19th of May would be the 90th birthday of Malcolm X, and in lieu of this upcoming observance I couldn’t help but wonder to myself, “What might Brother Malcolm say about the present condition of America if he were alive today?” “What would Malcolm have to say about the Baltimore riots?” “How would Malcolm react to the murder of Freddie Gray?” It turns out there are very definite answers to those questions, because the violence in Baltimore as well as Ferguson and beyond reconfirm much of what Malcolm preached during the early 1960’s.
As an era, the 1960’s was a period of tremendous social change. It tossed off the shackles of religious dogmatism, it gave birth to the civil rights movement, it witnessed bold rejections, or at least an end to the illusions, of the system of capitalism; it was a period of increasing self-awareness through the medium of psychedelia, the foundations of western Buddhist practice, the beginnings of a concerted environmental movement, the birth of the notion of sustainability, a popular refusal to tolerate or participate in military imperialism, a metamorphosis of musical expression, and indeed a reformation of the human being’s perception of the self on a massive scale. In fact there was so much change that transpired so quickly away from age-old accepted cultural norms, that the pendulum swung hard in reaction to it. That swinging pendulum unfortunately resulted in the assassination of most of the prominent leadership of the 1960’s. Over the course of about five years, the best, brightest and most influential agents of change were torn from our story forever. John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X were all brutally assassinated within about five years. But while the modus operandi of many journalists is to follow the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality, I believe we can learn a great deal more about our collective story by attempting to understand who these figures were, and how they changed as their stories played out, instead of just focusing on the circumstances of their ends or the most radical aspects of their beginnings.
Malcolm’s life was especially complicated. I don’t think I’ve ever studied a figure as controversial. But as the times changed so did the man. A thief turned inmate turned toward Islam during his incarceration, particularly a small sect known as the Nation of Islam led by a man known as Eijah Muhammad. Malcolm became the appointed spokesman of the Nation of Islam until President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963, whereupon Malcolm made public statements deemed careless and unwise. The Nation of Islam had grown exponentially during Malcolm’s reign as spokesman, but the Islamic Creed enforced by Elijah Muhammad was quite distinct from the religious reality of the greater Muslim world. His irrefutable faith in the doctrines of Islam thus inspired him to travel to Mecca for a pilgrimage, and Malcolm saw for the first time in his life that Islam was much more diverse than the Islamic dogma he had been taught back home. He was surprised to see human beings of all colors worshiping together in harmony and returned to America with a refreshed perspective.
Because this is an extremely oversimplified outline of the life and times of one of America’s most controversial historical figures, we’ll be exploring the nuances of his story, his words, his journey and his growth in more detail over the next four hours, as examined by those who knew him best, and those who have studied his story in greater depth.
While doing research for this project we came upon an article written by John McWhorter in March of 2010 entitled, “Malcolm X and Nine Other People I’d Like To Erase From History” that appeared in The New Republic This headline in many ways demonstrates the complexity of the problem that Malcolm sought to alleviate, and the fact that said problem is still with us. Whether we like Malcolm or what he did is frankly, irrelevant. The fact that some wish to erase him from history actually makes his memory, all the more important to respect, bear witness to, and discuss. We may disagree with his methods and words, but he observed a problem plaguing our society that few were willing to talk about and had the courage to live his life in response to it. What he did upset the power structure so much that he was assassinated for doing so.
When I reflect on Malcolm’s untimely end I can’t help but wonder, if neither Malcolm X nor Dr. King had been assassinated, would Ferguson or Baltimore have played out the way they have? Ideally these travesties never would have happened. But they did happen, and we’d best resolve this issue now, whether it pleases us to do so or not. The more we ignore it – the more we pretend it isn’t happening – the more we act as though the situation will somehow miraculously cure itself – the worse it will become.
I don’t hold any illusions that my scribblings here are going to change the circumstances we see before us. But I can choose to honor the upcoming birthday of a man who stood against injustice, prejudice, and fanaticism; a man whose father was murdered by the Klan; a man who witnessed crimes we cannot even imagine; a man who gave dignity to those who had none; a man who sought truth as his foundation. His message remains an integral part of the human psyche – the urge to stand against injustice in a manner very distinct from Martin Luther King: “By any means necessary.”
To deny Malcolm’s story would be to gloss over our real history with what we would like to see rather than what actually happened. If we choose to shy away from Malcolm’s message, we’re planting our heads in the sand and denying a facet of human nature that is within us all and inflicted upon us all whether we like it or not.
To understand Malcolm X does not mean we fly in the face of Martin King’s commitment to non-violence. Quite the contrary. It elevates it, by illustrating how difficult non-violence is to realize. A segment of the population may never accept that non-violent activism can lead to measurable changes, and that perspective has to be recognized, because if it isn’t the actions of militants will be difficult to ignore, and as King understood, those actions will prove detrimental to the cause.
But then again, I can’t help but reflect on how detrimental the militant violence perpetuated by the upper echelons throughout human history has been to the possible development of a truly diverse, sustainable and enlightened human culture.
Malcolm’s words are as relevant today as they were in the early 1960’s. In fact probably more so because, as Baltimore and Ferguson demonstrate, absolutely nothing has changed.
This rare 1965 interview in which Malcolm X was included in our broadcast. Because of it’s uncanny relevance to the ‘riots’ in Baltimore over the police killing of 25-year-old Afro-American Freddie Gray, we’re including it here as an answer to the question, “What would Malcolm say if he were her today?” It stands as direct proof that nothing has changed in the fifty-years since he spoke the following words. Here is the entire transcript:
INTERVIEWER: This question of violence has become more and more important especially as the summer’s progressed. It seems that the summers are equivalent with violence in many of the cities. There have been many complaints among many people that some of the violence is not necessarily directed at Civil Rights – at Human Rights – but is more an excuse by some people for a vandalism type-
MALCOLM: That analysis itself is an excuse by the society itself for its own failure to have eliminated the negative conditions that exist in black communities. When you find the criminal conditions that exist in the black community and have existed for so long, it’s only natural to expect the degree of frustration to mount in those communities to such degree that an explosion is inevitable. And in these explosions one doesn’t plan to be polite or to direct his exploding energy in any one direction. This is something to expect. Any explosion that’s a sociological explosion or an explosion that stems from social conditions that are criminal, you don’t expect everybody in that area to explode intelligently and legally and lawfully and politely. You have all types of elements in that community.
INTERVIEWER: This is one of the major problems is that there are many explosions going on. What I’m wondering is if it would not be easier to prevent the explosion than try to pick up all the pieces after it happened.
MALCOLM: It would be more intelligent to prevent the explosion rather than to pick up the pieces after it happens. But again you’re dealing with a power structure that consists primarily of politicians. And instead of trying to remove the causes of the explosion, they deal with the conditions, so to speak, and leave the causes there. When the black community becomes explosive they get some big Negro leader and send him in to quiet the community down. They never remove the causes that create the conditions. But they have these little century-old methods that always have failed in instances like this.
INTERVIEWER: Would you say that the work being done now in the south by people that are from some of the other civil rights organizations like SNCC and CORE and the NAACP, towards voter registration, towards education of these people, is this at all useful? Does this fit into your idea –
MALCOLM: Education is first. Voter restoration is second.
INTERVIEWER: But you do see there this–
MALCOLM: Oh yes. Education is the first step toward solving any problem that exists anywhere on this Earth, which involves people who are oppressed. As a rule the oppressed people lack education and this has effected their ability to cope with their problem themselves. And their inability to cope with their own problem places them at the mercy of someone else who’s supposed to come up with a solution for the problem but who can’t without a conflict of interest. It’s only when the masses of people can approach their own problem that their problem will be solved. If you react to defend yourself, I don’t call your reaction violence. And all I say in this context of violence is that our people never will initiate acts of aggression indiscriminately against whites. But I do say that the black man in this country, if he’s attacked, he should strike back. Yes. I say that even if it costs him his life. He should strike back. He should at no time, no matter what the odds are, let someone come and issue a beating upon him when he’s doing nothing other than seeking his rights as a human being. No. He should fight back if it costs him his life. And if he has to take life in fighting back, he shouldn’t even hesitate to do so. If someone is trying to take his life, he shouldn’t hesitate to take the lives of those Klan-like elements that are trying to take his life. No. I don’t see it.
INTERVIEWER: There’s a difference I see in looking at defending your own life, which I’m certain most people, most rational people most places in the world would not object to – to defending your life against someone that’s trying to take it. What I was thinking more in terms of is these large-scale riots versus picketing that now seems to be spreading over much of the country. This type of violence where it’s a destructive violence. It’s a violence that true enough may have been spurred on by things that have been done by them, but yet it’s not really defending themselves in this matter. They’re using violence to gain their means now.
MALCOLM: Well if you’ll notice, instead of striking at the humans who inflict this brutality upon them, they strike at buildings; property. This has been the pattern. I was in Africa during all of the riots last summer and many of the Africans asked me the question, “Why do they tear-up their own neighborhood?” And I pointed out that it isn’t their own neighborhood. They don’t own the homes that they live in. The homes are owned by white landlords who live some place else – they call them slumlords. The stores in the community are owned by white merchants who live someplace else. Usually all of these absentee landlords and absentee merchants are the considered liberals you know. They contribute to the NAACP and things of that sort, but they also play a major role in the community exploitation. And when the black community erupts, it looks upon this outsider as nothing but an exploiter. He doesn’t own the house in the community to contribute good housing to the community. He doesn’t own the store in the black community to contribute a higher quality merchandise at a cheaper price. Almost the entire existence of these outsiders is wrapped up in the image of exploitation. And the policeman in the black community is not looked upon by the black citizen as someone who is there protect their interests. They look upon him as someone who’s in the black community to protect the stores of the white merchant, or to protect the houses of the white landlord. He’s looked upon almost as an enemy army. Proof of which he’s the one in uniform who’s used against the people of the community when they’re trying to seek redress to just grievances, or when they’re trying to enforce rights which the courts have said that they have. So that the pattern in the past has been not to strike back at the policeman who crushes their skull with his club or whose dog tears the flesh from their limbs. They haven’t struck back at him. But their tendency has been to strike at the property of the outsider that’s in the neighborhood. And then the power structure interprets that as thievery and vandalism and things of that sort because they haven’t yet analyzed the motive of the man who’s involved in that. And their refusal to analyze it makes them miss the boat. It’s not vandalism. It’s not a few criminals who are taking advantage of a situation. No. It is the reaction; the explosion; the frustration that is experienced by people who feel that for too long they have been held down by a system who gives them nothing but promises that never materialize no matter whose mouth the promise is made from.
INTERVIEWER: Do you see the Organization for Afro-American Unity as a possible means to reach the international level, that will solve some of the problems on the international level, before the violence erupts; before the explosion occurs?
MALCOLM: Well let me say this first. I’m not interested in violence. See when whites approach the problem they approach it to avoid violence. This is the wrong approach. This is the wrong objective. This is the wrong motive. If a problem is criminal it should be approached to eliminate the criminal aspects of it. Violence having nothing to do with it, or the threat of violence having nothing to do with it. But when you help a man who’s been criminally mistreated just to keep him from exploding violently, it’s the wrong motive. This is what I have been trying to make the white citizen see. Anything that we do is not to avoid violence. What we do is to correct a problem that has existed too long. Now if it takes more violence to correct it, we’re not even afraid of that. If if can be done peacefully, then we’re hopeful of that. But violence, or the threat of violence, or the fear of violence [in] no way enters into our plan of operation at all. But the Organization of Afro-American Unity has a two pronged attack. Number one, to link our problem with the world struggle and get allies toward solving our problem at the world level by making our problem a world problem; a human problem. That’s the external approach; the international approach. At a national level it’s our intention to became actively involved with all other groups who are a genuinely trying to come up with programs designed to solve the problem. Whereas the political aspect is concerned, voter registration is good as long as its coupled with voter education. We think that our people should be educated into the knowledge of the science of politics so that once they’re ready to they won’t be exploitable by crooked politicians. So that we go along with voter registration but we also believe in voter education. We also believe that in areas of this country where students are sent in to help black people get registered, we feel that units should be sent along with them to protect them from the organized attacks of the Ku Klux Klan that these units should be qualified, capable and equipped to retaliate and speak the same kind of language that the Klan speaks so that they will communicate and understand one another. And any area of program that is genuinely designed to bring immediate results for the masses, not a hand picked few, then we go along with that.
INTERVIEWER: One final question then. Do you foresee the day when the white man and the black man, when all races all over the world can live together in peace?
MALCOLM: When humanity looks upon itself not as black men, white men, brown men, red men and yellow men but as human beings, then they will sit down and live together in peace. Not when they look upon themselves as Americans or Europeans or Asians or Africans, then they can sit down and live with each other in peace.
Gabrielle Lafayette is a journalist, writer, and executive producer for the Outer Limits Radio Show.
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