By Barry Sheppard
This article is taken from a chapter of volume one of a political memoir, covering the years 1960-1973. Barry Sheppard was a central leader of the US Young Socialist Alliance and Socialist Workers Party during the years 1960-1988.
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925. In February 1946 he was sentenced in Massachusetts to 8-10 years' imprisonment for burglary. While in prison, he was won to the Nation of Islam, a Black Nationalist religious sect founded by W.D. Fard and headed at that time and until his death by Elijah Muhammad. Emerging in the early 1930s, the Nation of Islam was one of the groups that developed as a result of the decline and splintering of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, which had galvanised a large section of the Black community after World War I. The Nation of Islam taught a religious doctrine that Black people were blessed by God and that whites were devils specially created to oppress Black people. They called for the creation of an independent Black nation in the United States, but tended to stress that the achievement of this state would be the work of God, not human beings.
In 1952 Malcolm X, as he had renamed himself in the Nation of Islam manner, became assistant minister of the Nation of Islam in Detroit. In 1954, he was appointed minister of the Harlem mosque. A powerful speaker and thinker, Malcolm was a great success as a proselytiser for the Nation of Islam, which began to attract significant support in the late 1950s and early 1960s as nationalist sentiments spread among Blacks in the wake of an increased pace of civil rights activity throughout the country. As the Black struggle burgeoned in the early 1960s, in the north as well as the segregated south, Malcolm X began to press the Nation of Islam to become more deeply involved in the struggle. His conflict with the leadership deepened when he discovered that the moral precepts of the Nation of Islam (which had helped reshape his life and which included opposition to drugs, alcohol and violence and sexual abuse against Black women) were not being adhered to by Elijah Muhammad.
Malcolm X was suspended from the Nation of Islam at the end of 1963. In early 1964 he broke from the organisation. Instead of attempting to combine religious and political organisations, he established a mosque for those who shared his religious beliefs and a Black nationalist political organisation, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, to participate in building a Black nationalist movement in the United States
Today, Malcolm X is a recognised hero of Black America and is also widely respected among many other sectors of society, so much so that his picture even appears on us postage stamps.
But that's not the way it was in the 1960s. Prominent liberals like James Wechsler, Social Democrats like Bayard Rustin and Tom Kahn, the Communist Party USA and other left-wing groups and spokespersons attacked Malcolm X with bitter hatred. Even the Black leaders of the civil rights movement treated Malcolm with guarded circumspection. And while he is a hero today, Malcolm's revolutionary ideas, especially those he developed or began to talk about openly after his break with the Nation of Islam in 1964, have largely been ignored and suppressed in the chorus of posthumous praise.
This background needs to be remembered in order to understand and appreciate the revolutionary response of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] to the rise of Black nationalism and the revolutionary development of Malcolm X.
The split in the Nation of Islam resulted in a remarkable development on the part of Malcolm X. Malcolm had until then been the main public spokesperson for the Nation and was well known for his fiery brand of Black nationalism. Now, in what would turn out to be the last year of his life, Malcolm X broadened his horizons and deepened his understanding of the nature of the system that was responsible for the oppression of African Americans.
Even before his break with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm took notice of the fact that the Militant [the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party] defended the Nation's civil rights against police frame-ups. The Militant also reported the content of his speeches honestly, in contrast to the daily press and most publications on the left. When he encountered Militant salespeople—Black or white—outside his meeting, he would often stop to say, "That's a good paper."
Harry Ring, a Militant staff writer, interviewed Malcolm X early in 1964. In a change from his past positions, Malcolm said that he would now support the civil rights movement in the south, while continuing to support the right of Blacks to armed self-defence against racist attacks. He began to accept speaking engagements in the south.
In a March 12 statement reprinted in the Militant, he outlined his plans for a new Black organisation. "Whites can help us", he said, "but they can't join us. There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no workers' solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves."1 This too was new. Malcolm was thinking of the need for workers' solidarity; but such solidarity had to be constructed on the basis of equality, and it required that Blacks first be organised as Blacks to fight their special oppression.
The struggle itself was bringing the northern and southern movements closer. Blacks were intensifying their fight in the north as well as all across the south. In New York City, a massive school boycott was being organised, as well as a rent strike in Harlem to protest the appalling conditions in the slums of the Black ghetto. The rent strike, led by Jesse Grey, was widespread, but had a weakness in not involving many rent strikers in the actual organisation of the action. The YSA [Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group in political solidarity with the SWP] helped out. We went from door to door in Harlem, handing out leaflets and explaining the issues.
Malcolm X agreed to speak at the Militant Labor Forum on April 8. We knew that the meeting would draw far more people than could fit into our usual meeting hall at 116 University Place. So we rented the Palm Garden Ballroom for the event. Eight hundred people showed up for his talk on "Black Revolution". Among them were my parents. Like many other people, my parents had been influenced by the incessant public smear campaign against Malcolm X. But they came to see for themselves. They heard a powerful revolutionary speech, quite different from what they had been led to expect from the press. Years later, my father would proudly tell people that he had heard Malcolm X firsthand.
The meeting was deemed important enough that the New York Post sent one of its top columnists, the liberal James Wechsler, to cover the event. Wechsler wrote a column warning of the danger of the "young Trotskyist intellectuals" getting together with the angry Black masses that Malcolm spoke for.2
Shortly thereafter, the cops and the press raised a hoax about the formation of a Black youth gang in Harlem, called the "Blood Brothers", who were supposedly organising to murder whites for political reasons. One reporter said they were trained by "Black Muslim dissidents". The scare campaign was obviously directed against Malcolm X. We scheduled a Militant Labor Forum at 116 University Place, with Clifton DeBerry, the SWP's presidential candidate, Quentin Hand from the Harlem Action Group, William Reed of New York core (the Congress of Racial Equality), and James Shabazz, a leader of Malcolm's Muslim Mosque, Inc. It was a hot night, and the forum was packed. We were pleasantly startled when Malcolm X walked in with Shabazz and spoke in his place.
Malcolm had founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc. right after his split with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. But Malcolm's subsequent experiences and his travels to Africa and the Arab world had caused his viewpoint to evolve; he became convinced of the need for a broader, non-religious organisation. At a rally held at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, he announced the formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Jack Barnes and I held an interview with Malcolm X in early 1965, a few weeks before his assassination. He outlined the development of his thinking in the year since the split. He told us that the "press has purposely and skillfully projected me in the image of a racist, a race supremacist, and an extremist. First, I'm not a racist. I'm against every form of racism and segregation, every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of color."
Explaining the split in the Nation, he said:
The split came about primarily because they put me out, and they put me out because of my uncompromising approach to problems I thought should be solved and the movement could solve.
I felt the movement was dragging its feet in many areas. It didn't involve itself in the civil or civic or political struggles our people were confronted by. All it did was stress the importance of moral reformation—don't drink, don't smoke, don't permit fornication and adultery. When I found that the hierarchy itself wasn't practicing what it preached, it was clear that this part of its program was bankrupt.
So the only way it could function and be meaningful in the community was to take part in the political and economic facets of the Negro struggle. And the organization wouldn't do that because the stand it would have to take would have been too militant, uncompromising and activist, and the hierarchy had gotten conservative. It was motivated mainly by protecting its own self interests. I might point out that although the Black Muslim movement professed to be a religious group, the religion they had adopted—Islam—didn't recognize them. So religiously it was in a vacuum. And it didn't take part in politics, so it was not a political group. When you have an organization that's neither political nor religious and doesn't take part in the civil rights struggle, what can it call itself? It's in a vacuum. So, all of these factors led to my splitting from the organization.
Shortly after the split, Malcolm made his pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca, where he learned that Islam was colour-blind and accepted all races and peoples.
He also told us:
I used to define Black nationalism as the idea that the Black man should control the economy of his community, the politics of his community, and so forth.
But, when I was in Africa in May , in Ghana, I was speaking with the Algerian ambassador who is extremely militant and is a revolutionary in the true sense of the word (and his credentials as such for having carried on a successful revolution against oppression in his country). When I told him that my political, social and economic philosophy was Black nationalism, he asked me very frankly, well, where did that leave him? Because he was white. He was African, but he was Algerian, and to all appearances, he was a white man. And he said if I define my objective as the victory of Black nationalism, where does that leave him? Where does that leave revolutionaries in Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Mauritania? So he showed me where I was alienating people who were true revolutionaries dedicated to overturning 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 notice, I haven't been using the expression for several months. But I still would be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of the Black people in the country.
He explained the function of the two organisations he had helped to form. First was the "Muslim Mosque, Inc., which is religious". This was the first group he established after the split. "Its aim is to create an atmosphere and facilities in which people who are interested in Islam can get a better understanding of Islam."
As a result of his thinking and experiences abroad, he came to the conclusion that another organisation had to be built, a political organisation that would be secular. "The aim of the other organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, is to use whatever means necessary to bring about a society in which the 22 million Afro-Americans are recognized and respected as human beings."
In this interview, he went on to talk about the role of students and youth in the struggle in the United States and worldwide, his opposition to us intervention in Congo, Vietnam and elsewhere, his contempt for the Democratic Party, and his belief that capitalism eventually will "collapse completely".3
The Militant sent reporters to cover the meetings of the OAAU, which often featured a talk by Malcolm. We also sent people to sell the Militant at those meetings. My brother Roland was one of the most consistent salespeople at these events. Sometimes the crowd would be suspicious of these salespersons, especially if they were white. But Malcolm would urge the audience to buy the paper, endorsing it as "one of the best".
In his April 8 talk to the Militant Labor Forum, Malcolm said:
1964 will be America's hottest year yet; a year of much racial violence and bloodshed. But it won't be blood that's going to flow only on one side. The new generation of Black people that have grown up in this country during recent years are already forming the opinion, and it's just an opinion, that if there is going to be bleeding, it should be reciprocal—bleeding on both sides.4
Malcolm was right. In July a Black rebellion rocked Harlem. Robert DesVerney, writing in the Militant, reported:
Armed with nothing more than courage, bottles, bricks, bare fists, and occasional Molotov cocktails, Harlem residents, provoked by years of savage brutality by New York's corrupt and racist cops, managed to fight the tactical riot force of the police to a stalemate in three days of demonstrations and open hostilities.
The immediate cause of the outbreak was the killing on July 16 of a 15-year-old Negro boy, James Powell, by a white police lieutenant wearing civilian clothes.5
The rebellion had a deep impact on me and my political consciousness. Nothing like this had happened before in the United States during my lifetime. But it was only the beginning. In the following years, similar Black rebellions spread to cities across the country. New militant Black organisations formed, and older ones were transformed. Malcolm X was the prophet and symbol of this new upsurge. The worldwide youth radicalisation that marked the political period called the "1960s" was profoundly influenced by the Black movement.
When he returned from a tour of Africa and Europe at the end of November, Malcolm blasted a renewed assault by Belgian and us imperialism on Congo. The purpose of the attack was to prop up the Belgian puppet Moises Tshombe, precursor to the infamous Mobutu. Tshombe's forces were under strong attack from the followers of the assassinated Patrice Lumumba. At an OAAU rally of about 1000 in Harlem, he characterised Tshombe as the "worst Negro in the world", and said of the president-elect, "Johnson is sleeping with [Tshombe]". Addressing the crowd, he said, "Man, you voted for him [Johnson]. You were insane, out of your mind. I don't blame you. You were tricked."6
Malcolm X agreed to speak at another Militant Labor Forum on January 7, 1965. The title of his talk was "1965—Prospects for Freedom". About 600 people came to hear him. After the talk, I jumped up on the stage and introduced myself as the editor of the Young Socialist. I asked Malcolm if he would do an interview with the YS. He readily agreed, and we set the day and time. The result was the interview referred to above.
I discussed the project with Jack Barnes, newly elected national chairman of the YSA. We agreed that Jack should accompany me to the interview, to help build the YSA's relations with Malcolm X. I drew up a list of questions, and we went with a tape recorder up to Malcolm's office at the Hotel Teresa on 125th Street in Harlem. Malcolm was dressed immaculately, as always, but I noticed that the collar of his white shirt was frayed. Clearly he was having financial troubles since the break with the Nation. We had a good interview with him, and we went away convinced that he would like to talk again with us.
I took the tape, transcribed it, and edited it lightly. I also sharpened some of Malcolm's points. We had agreed that Malcolm would have the final say on the article. I had to work at my new assignment on the Militant, as well as edit the Young Socialist, so we decided that Jack would take the draft back for Malcolm's approval.
Jack was excited when he came back from his meeting with Malcolm. He told me that Malcolm liked the way I had edited the piece and had nothing to change. He also discussed the planned march against the Vietnam War that Students for a Democratic Society had initiated and that the YSA had endorsed and was building. Malcolm wanted to know how we planned to resolve the contradiction between our view, that the us should get out of Vietnam immediately, and the overall theme of the march, which shied away from such a stance. Malcolm had been wrestling with questions like this for some time, even before he was expelled from the Nation of Islam. The Nation had always talked in a militant fashion, but it never participated in struggles along with other groups. Malcolm X wanted to take part in the Black struggle as it was, and at the same time he wanted to further his militant revolutionary objectives.
Malcolm and Jack also talked about the possibility of Malcolm making a nationwide speaking tour of the college campuses, organized by the YSA. Jack told him that he thought student groups of many types, and even student governments and faculty, could be drawn into such an effort. What we would do is spearhead the project. Malcolm replied that even if only the YSA sponsored the speaking tour, it would be ok with him.
But this was not to be. Malcolm X was assassinated on February 22, 1965 as he was about to address a meeting of the OAAU at the Audubon Ballroom. My brother Roland was present, and had to duck for cover as the shooting started. He got up to witness Malcolm collapse and die on the stage.
Melissa Singler and I were at the YSA's national headquarters. We rushed over to 116 University Place, as did most members of the party and YSA. An event of some sort was scheduled to take place later in the afternoon. Tom Kerry, shaken as we all were, addressed us. He told us that in face of this terrific blow, we should go ahead with our plans, and not allow this criminal act to demoralise us. We had just received off the press the issue of the ys that contained Malcolm's interview. We put a special insert into each copy about the assassination.
Three people were charged and tried for the assassination. One of these, Talmadge Hayer, was caught at the scene because he had been shot by one of Malcolm's followers. The other two were members of the Nation of Islam. Hayer admitted his part in the crime, but has always said the other two defendants were not part of the plot. The government sought to put the blame on the Nation, which had certainly opened itself to the charge by making openly hostile and threatening remarks about Malcolm. There had been a fire-bombing of Malcolm's home, and an attempt on his life when he was driving through the Sumner Tunnel in Boston, which he thought were the work of the Nation. But shortly before the assassination, Malcolm came to believe that the government was the main force behind actions taken against him, including in other countries. He said that the Nation didn't have the resources to carry out these actions.
Herman Porter was at the Audubon Ballroom when the assassination took place, planning to cover the meeting for the Militant. He also covered the trial of those accused of the murder, who were all convicted. His Militant articles on the trial were collected into a pamphlet, which made a strong case that it was the government, through one of its covert agencies, that was responsible.
The New York Times gloated in its reporting of the assassination, suggesting that Malcolm X, as an apostle of violence, got what he deserved. Today, this same mouthpiece for the ruling class portrays the historical Malcolm as a tame figure, as simply another civil rights leader.
Some 30,000 people passed by Malcolm's casket in the Harlem funeral home where his body was on view. At the funeral itself, thousands of Blacks and a few dozen whites stood in line on a bitterly cold day, but only 1000 were able to get in. In the audience were John Lewis, chairman of sncc (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee); Black comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory; Stanley Branch of the Chester, Pennsylvania, Freedom Now Committee; James Farmer of CORE; Harlem rent strike leader Jesse Grey; James Foreman, executive director of SNCC; Robert Moses, head of SNCC's Mississippi voter registration project; and even Bayard Rustin, a Black social democrat and a political opponent of Malcolm X.
Ossie Davis, the Black activist and actor, spoke. Ruby Dee, also an actress and Black activist, read the many statements from around the world and the country, many from Africa, saluting the fallen leader. In a very moving passage in his speech, Ossie Davis said:
Malcolm was our manhood, our living Black manhood. This was his measure. This was his meaning to his people. In honoring him we honor what is best in ourselves. We know him for what he was—a prince. Our own, Black, shining prince—who did not hesitate to die because he loved us so. And now we surrender his services to Islam.7
We also held our own memorial meeting at 116 University Place. Clifton DeBerry chaired the meeting, which was addressed by James Shabazz, Robert DesVerney and Farrell Dobbs, national secretary of the SWP. The final speaker was Jack Barnes, who spoke on the meaning of Malcolm's life for the new generation of revolutionists. We of that new generation felt that Jack was speaking for all of us. The YSA soon put out a pamphlet with our interview and Jack's speech.
There were other memorial meetings we held around the country. George Breitman gave a speech in Detroit, which we published in full over two issues of the Militant, entitled "Malcolm X: The Man and His Ideas". We soon published books by and about Malcolm that explained and preserved Malcolm's contribution to the movement for the liberation of all humanity.
Malcolm X was the greatest person I have ever met.
1. Militant, March 23, 1964.
2. New York Post, April 13, 1964.
3. Young Socialist, March-April 1965.
4. Militant, April 27, 1964.
5. July 27, 1964.
6. Militant, December 7, 1964.
7. Militant, March 8, 1965.