As a leader in the fight for civil rights in the United States, Malcolm X became recognized throughout the country and the world for his outspoken defense of oppressed black and poor people, practice and leadership in Islam, and his transformation from an ostracized political figure to an authority on the plight of black Americans. For X, it was incomprehensible for the United States to invade foreign countries in the name of democracy, and then permit egregious crimes against black people to occur without an immediate response. The first civil rights leader to publicly denounce the U.S. effort in the Vietnam War, Malcolm X has become a symbol of American individuality and a champion of human rights and freedoms.
The speeches collected here reflect the progression of Malcolm X’s thinking across his public life, roughly 1959-1965. As a Nation of Islam (NOI) minister, both the NOI and Malcolm proposed an idea of separation as the way to solve the lack of equality that black Americans endured in the U.S. The actual details of the separate land were never fully outlined, but like other black nationalists who believed in a separatist agenda (Henry Highland Garnett, Martin Delany, and Marcus Garvey, etc.), separatism incorporated a kind of racial pride that allowed disenfranchised African Americans to choose their own destinies - apart from those who had no intention of truly accepting full citizenship rights of black Americans.
At the height of his popularity, Malcolm was a public intellectual skilled in the art of debate. Witty and humorous, X possessed an ability to captivate audiences. Gifted at being able to speak in the language of his listeners, Malcolm rarely disappointed audiences. Neither did he shy away from taking on reporters, politicians, and any other activists, single-handedly. He explained his points with a clarity and passion that few seemed to be able to match. Martin Luther King, Jr. would not debate him and warned James Farmer not to debate Malcolm. X appeared in forum after forum confronting those who did not agree with his position. Always ready to explain NOI ideology, Pan-African sensibilities, or his own philosophies, Malcolm X became the most feared and formidable debater of the Civil Rights Movement.
According to historian and noted Malcolm X scholar Manning Marable, just a generation after Malcolm’s assassination his image and historical representation were profoundly transformed; “Malcolm was now praised by many of the same interests who had condemned his ideas and teachings when he was alive.”1 Simply stated, Malcolm’s inclination toward a radical formulation of black nationalism that included coalition building with communists, Marxists and socialists in the United States and activists around the developing world was too controversial for many Americans. Included in this assessment of X is his controversial method of civil rights advocacy. X called white people crackers, publically ridiculed other civil rights leaders, and threatened retaliation for violence committed on civil rights activists on a regular basis. It must be noted that, during the height of his activity Malcolm X was a hated man by both black and white people. The lack of full black leadership in organizations, like the NAACP and CORE, angered him. According to Malcolm X, white money and protection led to white decision-making power; For X, this seemed counterproductive.
Black solidarity was Malcolm X’s focal point. It would connect black people across the world to a history that they had lost – particularly in the case of former slaves. The call for black Americans to build “new bridges” toward Africa contained two central elements. First, Africans and African Americans had to see themselves as one people. Whatever colonialism had done to create a diasporic black people, it could not negate the fact that those people were connected through a shared history and culture. Additionally, by creating a link between Africa and black Americans, Malcolm hoped that newly emerging African nations might be tempted to support a UN proposition against the U.S. for violations of human rights. Secondly, by connecting African Americans to Africa, X sought to correct the self-hatred that white supremacy had nurtured among African Americans. If black Americans could see Africans on the continent, sustaining and maintaining a functioning society, black Americans in the U.S. would begin to see that they too were not inferior and could look at the place from which they emanated with pride.
From 1959 until his death, X and the media orchestrated a difficult tango in which they went back and forth jockeying for authority concerning X’s image. Recognizing and seizing the opportunity, X used his fame to promote his religious and national politics. Malcolm X performed a kind of black masculinity that had never been seen in public. Fierce and full of righteous indignation, Malcolm said things that the majority of blacks, at the time, would not readily admit, let alone be filmed saying. X refused to be talked over and displayed no fear in front of whites and blacks who were better educated than he had been. Calling on all black Americans to use “any means necessary” to solve the race problem, X laid the responsibility for inequality at the feet of the federal government, telling an audience not to ‘blame a Cracker in Georgia for your injustices, the government is responsible.”
Malcolm connected an idea of masculinity to the protection of black women. Whether the notion may appear to some to be patriarchal or a device of the NOI to recruit female members, the public declaration of the need to “respect and protect” black women is radical, as black women are often pictured as not needing protection and as targets of disrespect from black men. Malcolm astutely positioned the race-baiting technique of some racists - the idea that white women needed protection from black men - as a method to also call for black men to stand forward and protect black women whatever the cost.
Although Malcolm X is not the first black man to become an iconic figure after his death, it is clear that there is something special about Malcolm; having become quite popular in a relatively short amount of time, the Malcolm X phenomenon continues to entrance scholars and every-day people. Part of the reason for his meteoric rise must be attributed to the explosion of his image during the 1990s. During a span of a few years Malcolm X’s image appeared in or on films, stamps, bags of potato chips, jewelry, scholarly text, college campuses, etc. As the recent debate around the posthumously published biography of Manning Marable suggests, the discussions surrounding Malcolm X's legacy are far from over. Through his message and his quest to complete his political transformation Malcolm X will continue to be relevant to those of us who seek complex notions of how to discuss – and maybe even end – the race problem.
1 Marable Manning, “Introduction to the life and legacy of Malcolm X,” Harvard Journal of Africa American Public Policy 8, no. 8(Summer 2002) : 115-124.
Lisa M Gill is a Fulbright Scholar for the German Commission. She earned a Ph.D. in American Studies (2010) from the Department of American Studies at University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests are in African American Studies, Popular culture, and Media Studies. Ms. Gill’s recent article, “Making the Invisible Visible: The Public Persona of Malcolm X,” will be published in the edited volume, Pictorial Cultures. Additional Ms. Gill has recently published a review for Amerikastudien/ American Studies Quarterly.H Her dissertation titled, “From Homeboy to Icon: The Image transformation of Malcolm X, 1965-1999,” explored the transformation of the public image of Malcolm X after his assassination until the issuance of the U.S. postal stamp, in 1999.