The Last Year of Malcolm X: A Study in African American Humanism
James E. Jordan
Malcolm X was not the quintessential angry black man who wanted to violently right the wrongs “whitey” had committed on his people. Sadly, too many Americans continue to believe he was. With the increasing interest in the man, and the sheer volume of “X” paraphernalia being sold, Malcolm’s legacy has indeed become big business; therefore, one must guard against being pushed down ideological paths he himself did not walk.1 Ever since his brutal death in February 1965, many groups have laid claim to Malcolm’s legacy, attempting to answer for themselves the following questions: Was he a Socialist? Was he an advocate of what would later become known as “Black Power”? Or was Malcolm a social and political revolutionary? While all of these claims hold some validity, taken to extremes, which people are want to do, they are dangerous and misleading because they seek to manipulate the memory of Malcolm X in order to promote a contemporary agenda. This agenda has historically taken the form of some sort of a workers’ revolution or an aggressive Black Nationalism.2 Thus, too many times, scholars have let their own ideologies limit their understanding of who Malcolm was and what he was becoming. Therefore, to better understand his legacy, one must go to the source, to Malcolm himself. It is essential, then, that scholars read his words, not the words of his detractors; consider his own actions, and not those of others who would distort his message for their own purposes. It is true, he had used and sold illegal drugs, he had been a thief, he had been incarcerated, and he had been a prominent member of the Nation of Islam (hereafter the Nation), during which time he was a self-confessed “racist.” Nevertheless, in the final year of his life Malcolm changed, and, as such, he should not be relegated to the sidelines of history, dismissed as a racist demagogue, nor referred to as “the hate that hate produced.”3 Following his official split with the Nation in March of 1964 until his death just fifty weeks later, Malcolm preached a radically different message. A critical reading of Malcolm X’s own words unmistakably reveal a deeply religious, intelligent, passionate Afrocentric man with a clear set of humanistic goals.
If Malcolm is to be accorded Humanist status, the term must first be examined: what has it traditionally meant, and to whom has it been applied? In Europe, during the period known as the Renaissance—approximately 1350-1600—Humanism developed into both a worldview and a method. In essence, it was an active philosophy for life that great men like Petrarch, Pico, Erasmus, and Luther made famous by their veracious vigor for knowledge, learning, and truth. Based on education, Renaissance Humanists went to the source of all information, they sought the improvement of society, they exulted man’s ability to do, as well as attempting to explain humankind’s relationship to the divine. For example, with some momentous results, the Renaissance Humanist Martin Luther translated the Bible for himself rather than relying on the “erroneous” and time-old St. Jerome version. And even though the “Prince of Humanism,” Erasmus of Rotterdam, thought there was much wrong with the Catholic Church of the early sixteenth century, he essentially wanted to reform it rather than start anew with something else. Principally, Erasmus’s reformation of the Church was to do away with “formalism,” which he defined as the common practice of unquestionable subservience to the Church. Even 500 years after many of these people died, we continue to study their writings, admire their artworks, and venerate them for dragging Europe kicking and screaming out of the so-called Dark Ages. Malcolm X was as much of a humanist as any of these men; the only truly discernable difference was the color of his skin.4
It was Malcolm’s “color” that put him at an immediate disadvantage in a society which only respected whiteness, and one in which would see Malcolm soon descend to its depths and into a life of crime and eventually incarceration. Nevertheless, it was in prison where the seed of Malcolm’s humanism was planted. And it was in prison that Malcolm developed for himself the equivalent of a college education with a major in the humanities. He read critically acclaimed works on history, race, gender, philosophy and religion.5 Furthermore, his experiences on the prison debate team introduced him to rigorous humanistic methods of research and argumentation. Just as the Renaissance Humanists were interested in learning more about humans and the improvement of the human condition, so did Malcolm, but with a racial twist. During his years inside, therefore, Malcolm became engrossed in the “study of human things” and had grown accustomed to thinking for himself.6
Even though significantly restricted in what he could say and do, Malcolm employed his talents and humanistic worldview after his release from prison in 1952, whereupon he became a full-time member of the Nation on Islam, and during which time he rose to prominence as the group’s national spokesman. However, a number of factors combined to make Malcolm’s departure from the Nation inevitable.7 His departure was hastened no doubt by his ever-increasing public popularity, and ultimately confirmed by his “chickens coming home to roost” faux pas regarding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.8 It would be a long and lonely four months until Malcolm finally decided to declare his independence.
Similar to Erasmus’s criticism of blind obedience to the authority of his day, Malcolm X, who lived some 500 years later, proved both in speech and deed that he also condemned such submissive subservience when he split with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation on March 8, 1964. Shortly after leaving, Malcolm delivered one of his most significant and candid proclamations of independence at the Park Sheraton hotel in New York City when he affirmed that while in the Nation, “[he] always said that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us thus and so…Many of my own views…I kept to myself.”9 Malcolm advanced this notion of self-determination when he spoke to some of the Mississippi youth, asserting that “one of the first things I think young people, especially nowadays, should learn is how to see for yourself and listen for yourself and think for yourself.”10 This message promoting the message that people discover truth for themselves was firmly advocated by the Renaissance Humanists, too.
When Malcolm traveled to Mecca in April of 1964, he did so to get a better understanding of Islam, and so his pilgrimage to the Holy City should be interpreted as both an example of his religious sincerity and as a physical expression of his humanistic worldview. In fact, by going to the font of his faith, Malcolm was able to convincingly write,
Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and the overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad, and all of the other prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness displayed around me by people of all colors.11
These are not the words of a hotheaded demagogue intent on inciting violence against white people, but of a humble man who wanted to learn more about his faith. Malcolm’s humanistic hajj convinced him that the white man was not the devil, a view that fundamentally contradicted his opinions held while in the Nation, and a view that would continue to shape his ever-evolving philosophy now that he had “seen the light.”
For Malcolm, it was education that would provide the conduit through which more light could shine and offer the means for a more hopeful future. The Renaissance Humanists all believed in the capacity of man to do. To be well balanced and broad rather than intellectually narrow was desirable and much respected. These men did not want to keep their knowledge restricted to the scholarly few; these men desired to interact, to share their ideas with a broader audience, to educate. Just like his Renaissance forbears, Malcolm X also saw education as his primary task.
Malcolm’s determined promotion of education was not simply limited to his post-Nation of Islam ministry; he was a great believer in its powers while still very much a part of the group. Taking a somewhat DuBoisian approach to the question of education at Michigan State University in January of 1963, Malcolm spoke out against training, because, unlike education that allows one to think for oneself, training allows one merely to act in a prescribed manner. Viewing education as essential to acting on one’s own volition, Malcolm attested that “when a man is educated, he can think for himself and defend himself and think for himself.”12 While advocating the right kind of education for his people, however, he lambasted the wrong kind and those responsible for it. Slamming the degrading and decidedly Eurocentric education African Americans received, Malcolm lashed out,
[He] believes in exactly what he was taught at school. That when he was kidnapped by the white man, he was a savage in the jungle someplace eating people and throwing spears with a bone in his nose. And the average American Negro has that concept of the African continent. It is not his fault. This is what has been given to him by the American educational system.13
At the University of California, Malcolm continued his attack on the lack of opportunities in education, but this time he turned to his own people and indicted the black community for its neglect of educational standards. Speaking to a second-generation European immigrant, he stated, “the mistake we made differs from the mistake you didn’t make.” Malcolm proceeded to blame the leaders of the black community by launching a scathing attack upon them for “[having] done nothing to teach us how to go into business.” Saving his fiercest and most revealing condemnation for the grand finale, he denounced the black community’s leaders for “[having] done nothing to elevate the level of our schools. They have done nothing to teach us how to keep up the standard of our own community.”14
Malcolm never wavered in his disapproval of African Americans in positions of authority who abused their powers, especially when it came to education. In fact, just before his assassination, he criticized the Muslim leaders of the day, saying that they
Need a more well-rounded type of education [so] then they will be able to stress the importance of education to the masses. Oftentimes when religious leaders themselves have very limited knowledge, education, and understanding, sometimes they purposely keep their own people ignorant in order to keep their position of leadership; they keep people narrow-minded because they themselves are narrow-minded.15
Although Malcolm became increasingly fervent in his support for education towards the end of his time in the Nation, it was only after his split that this message became distinctly his own. Indeed, one of the first speeches he gave as a “free” man was entitled, “Without Education, You Are Not Going Anywhere in this World.”16
Perhaps Malcolm’s greatest humanistic creation designed for the purpose of educating black Americans was his Organization of Afro-American Unity (hereafter, the OAAU). The OAAU’s founding rally on June 28, 1964, is testament to Malcolm’s commitment to the importance of education. Not only did he see it as “an important element in the struggle for human rights,” but perhaps more significantly as “the means to help our children and our people rediscover their identity and thereby increase their self-respect.”17 Malcolm’s vision was that the “OAAU must make the Afro-American community a more potent force for educational self-improvement.”18 Thus, similar to Frederick Douglass’s calls for African Americans to be just given the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of citizenship, Malcolm declared that the OAAU’s purpose was to “organize the community so that we ourselves can eliminate the evils that are inherent in our society.”19
For Malcolm, the solution to eliminating these evils was purely humanistic; he believed in the supreme power of education and its ability to set free the closed minds of America in order to create a better society for all her citizens. The Renaissance Humanists also endeavored to improve and purify the societies in which they lived; Malcolm, true to his African heritage, took this idea and wanted it actively applied to the African American community en masse. He recognized that “it’s up to you and me to eliminate the evils that are destroying the moral fiber of our community, ourselves.”20 Again, just before his death, Malcolm spoke about the OAAU’s mission of creating a healthier society in which human beings were to live and participate:
[The OAAU] is so structured organizationally to allow for active participation of an Afro-American, any Black American, in a program that is designed to eliminate the negative political, economic, and social evils that we are confronted by in this society…This in no way means we’re anti-white, anti-blue, anti-green, or anti-yellow. We’re anti-wrong. We’re anti discrimination. We’re anti segregation. We’re against anybody who wants to practice some form of segregation or discrimination against us because we don’t happen to be a color that’s acceptable to you….21
Ironically, Malcolm’s humanistic drive for societal purification also manifested itself in a form of Booker T. Washington’s self-help philosophy.22 However, rather than helping oneself, Malcolm always instructed African Americans to be responsible to and for their communities. It was also at this rally that Malcolm called for outreach programs to be established, urging the Afro-American community to “accept responsibility for regaining our people who have lost their place in society.”23 Specifically, Malcolm demanded black parental accountability, stating it was the role of the mother and father to “teach children the history, respect, and collective responsibility” needed for societal purification.24 Then, speaking as a parent, Malcolm stressed, “We must provide constructive activities for our children. We must set a good example for our children and must teach them always to be ready to accept the responsibilities that are necessary for building good communities and nations.”25 Good communities and nations are what Malcolm wanted to build; he was not speaking of hate, nor calling African Americans to violence. Malcolm’s message was based on belief, a belief that African Americans could and should help themselves and improve their own communities.
Malcolm, like Pico Della Mirandola, the great Renaissance Humanist of the Quattrocentro who penned the brilliant Oration on the Dignity of Man, believed in the almost limitless capacity of humankind. He saw his people’s capacity being artificially held in bondage, however. Malcolm recognized that a vast majority of African Americans needed to be made aware of their awesome potential. Belief in oneself and one’s race, therefore, was an integral part of his humanistic message. At the founding rally of the OAAU, he said, with Picoesque echoes, that “a race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, it can never fulfill itself.”26 At the same rally Malcolm declared, “this cultural revolution will be the journey to rediscover ourselves.”27 Thus, the “revolution” that people often ascribe to Malcolm working to bring about was not based on violence, but should be described more as a renaissance, as a rebirth of the mind. Testament to these sentiments is his interview with Marlene Nadle, published posthumously for the Village Voice, in which he described his mission to “awaken” African Americans. Nadle interrupted and said, “to their oppression?” “No,” Malcolm replied, “to their humanity, to their own self worth, and to their heritage.”28 Clearly, one can see Malcolm’s views on “the race problem” changing and heading in a direction that looked forward to a better, humanist-oriented America.
The Renaissance Humanists can often be characterized by their optimism for humanity; Malcolm was no different. Although while in the Nation Malcolm had previously advocated plans for a separate Black state, his interview with Pierre Barton, which aired a month before his assassination, demonstrated the growing confidence he had in Americans of all colors being able to overcome their differences and peacefully live together. In answer to Berton’s question of “But you no longer believe in a Black State?” he made his position crystal clear, “No, I believe in a society in which people can live like human beings on the basis of equality.”29 Louis E. Lomax’s claim, that by the time of his death, “Malcolm was still lost in the murky myth-notion that somehow American blacks could either return to America or achieve independent status here” is thus lacking in evidence and so should be disregarded.30 Furthermore, in another interview with The Young Socialist, published a couple of months after his death, he revealed the extent to which his thinking had matured and the hope that he now nurtured for America. He openly expressed,
If the entire American population were properly educated—by properly educated, I mean given a true picture of the history and contributions of the black man—I think many whites would be less racist in their feelings. They would have more respect for the black man as a human being. Knowing what the black man’s contribution to science and civilization have been in the past, the white man’s feelings of superiority would at least be partially negated. Also, the feeling of inferiority that the black man has would be replaced by a balanced knowledge of himself. He’d feel more like a human being, in a society of human beings. 31
These common bonds of humanity, which Malcolm often talked about in a secular sense, were also proclaimed religiously; again, proof of his move towards tolerance and inclusion and away from violence and exclusion. In the week before his death, at a speech in Detroit, he concentrated on the similarities rather than the differences between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Malcolm saw the capacity for people to overcome their religious differences because he believed that all people share a privileged membership in the human race. 32 Malcolm believed that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worshipped the same God. Furthermore, he believed that God had sent various prophets over the centuries to “give clarification to humanity so that all of humanity would see that it was one and have some kind of brotherhood that would be practiced here on earth.”33
Ultimately, everything Malcolm did and said was geared toward the recognition of African American humanity and finding the most effective means to actualize that end in American society. In a speech entitled The Black Revolution, given on April 8, 1964, Malcolm had celebrated his own “freedom” with a vision of how all African Americans could strive to achieve “freedom, justice, [and] equality.”34 He thus declared the yearnings of his people:
[We] want recognition and respect as human beings. We don’t want to be integrationists. Nor do we want to be separatists. We want to be human beings. Integration is only a method that is used by some groups to obtain freedom, justice, equality, and respect as human beings. Separation is only a method that is used by other groups to obtain freedom, justice, equality, or human dignity.35
In this explosive speech, Malcolm definitively answered his critics, both contemporary and future, when he asserted that “we are fighting for recognition as human beings,” not, as many of his critics continue to spread, for revenge, but for the right “to live as free human beings in this society.”36
Had Malcolm lived longer, he could have ensured his own legacy, a legacy that would see him remembered for the things he valued. Unfortunately, because Malcolm’s life evokes such an emotional and politically charged response among all groups of Americans, the man’s true message has been overlooked. It is way past time that the record be set straight, that Malcolm be remembered for what he was, not what we want him to be. Malcolm X was a man of color. Malcolm X was a man of God. Malcolm X was an educator, a humanist. Malcolm X was an American.