Malcolm X and the Civil Rights War
There are some who may argue that immediately after the end of the American Civil War and abolition of slavery, America entered in a new era of modern black slavery. One that did not see the blacks physically restrained in chains, but entangled in an era of segregation, physical and verbal attacks, lynching, and silver tongued political promises of equality. The African American Civil Rights movement has had a long and tumultuous history.
However today only the Civil Right movements of the 1950’s and 60’s are recognized for positive gains which marked history for black citizens. Many Civil Right leaders and activists such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Walter Francis White, and Ella Baker put an immense amount of work into improving the lives of the African Americans in post Civil War America, yet they take a back seat to figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who is recognized as the public face of the Civil Rights movement.
In the late 1950’s a shift began . For many years the Civil Right leaders and activists sought to work within black communities and with national politicians to pass laws to ensure that the American blacks were given the same opportunities as the white man. This approach, sometimes called the top down approach, promoted the idea that through legislature and federal enforcement the American Negro could eventually achieve the same rights as his white neighbors. However, for every law passed to ensure equality including the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Voting Rights Act, and Brown vs. Board of Education, there was opposition from white citizens.
Segregation and racial oppression began to rise, especially in the south. Anywhere the Civil Rights movement began to gain momentum so did crimes against blacks with majority of those crimes never investigated or prosecuted. Law makers, specially southern Democrats worked actively to make passing any bills to support the Civil Rights Movement difficult. In April 1918, Leonidas Dyer introduced H.R. 11279, an anti-lynching bill based on a draft by Albert E. Pillsbury that called for prosecution of any lynchers and included monetary restitution for the family of the victim from the county in which the crime occured in. The house bill was filibustered by southern Democrats and defeated in the south. As Civil Right leaders pushed for more federal aid, they ignored the white view of the negro social movements. Whites believed negro leadership demanded the white man’s house, the white man’s job, and a seats for their children in the white man’s schools. The white man did not want integration, he wanted segregation. Effectively the Civil Rights era can be summed up as black progress vs. white backlash.
The Civil Rights movement was pushing for government assistance and social changes that improved the lives of black Americans. However, these changes would enslave blacks to the Federal government effectively creating a welfare state. In a report titled The Negro Problem: The Case for National Action; also called the Moynihan Report written by The Assistant Secretary of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Moynihan argued that there laid a foundation of destructive ghetto culture in the black community that gave rise to the black-single-mother-families which widened the gap between the negro and other American societies. He argued that while blacks were working to achieve civil liberties by encouraging a top down approach in order to help citizens at the bottom, they were not taking care of their own social needs nor were they working toward self improvement measures that would give them better a economic future. According to Moynihan’s report, between 1954 and 1964 more blacks were out of work resulting in higher rates of poverty and lower education which gave rise to crime that affected the black community in a negative way. After publishing of this report, the NAACP condemned and dismissed the report as nothing but racial profiling based on inaccurate information.
What Civil Rights activists and leaders ignored was that in order for the socio-economic status of Blacks to improve, they must first change the social behavior in their own community, effectively improving the black social status from the ground up, not the other way around. The top down approach utilized by the Civil Rights movement would increase the dependency of the black community to the federal government and not lessen it. The need for self reliance was overlooked in lieu of gaining social equality by working with the very people that did not see the black person as equal to himself in the first place.
The inner social problems gripping the black community were not ignored or dismissed by everyone. Malcolm X’s ideology and teaching centered around the idea that social improvements were the only solution that would result in black prosperity. Born Malcolm Little, he suffered multiple family tragedies beginning at a very young age. When he was six years old, his father who was a former supporter of the early black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, was murdered by members of The Black Legion; a white paramilitary force. Years later his mother became institutionalized after she suffered a major nervous breakdown promoting welfare officials to split and place Malcolm and his siblings into different foster homes. While in junior high, Malcolm dropped out of school because he learned that despite his aptitude for learning, he would not be able to achieve his dreams. One day in classroom he was asked by his english teacher if he thought about what career he wanted to pursue. Malcolm responded by saying that he would like to be a lawyer.
Surprised by the response, his teacher sat Malcolm down and told him Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. You’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger, a lawyer- that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. Disheartened, Malcolm decided to drop out of school and started to work and move around the country. Slowly he was initiated into a life of crime and after moving to Boston to live with his half sister, he turned his efforts, anger, and focus in becoming a full-time criminal. He became a drug pusher, pimp and gang leader a perfect example of what the Moynihan Report suggested was happening in the black community. At age 19 he was arrested and convicted of burglary at a series of Boston-area homes. He was sentenced to state prison for six years. While in prison, Malcolm decided to change his life and began to use the prison’s library to educate himself. He learned all he could about slavery and the past, becoming disgusted and horrified by what he learned. Following the example of family members, Malcolm converted from Christianity and joined the Nation of Islam.
He began to correspond with its leader, Elijah Muhammad. The Nation of Islam preached black self-reliance and empowerment and that striked and accord with Malcolm. He began to view the current black situation as nothing but the effects of post civil war modern slavery. He dropped his last name, Little, and instead adopted the letter X which stood for unknown. He believed that all blacks living in America had been given their last names by the slave masters and that not one negro living in America knew his or her true name, only his or her slave name. He also viewed the problems facing the blacks in America as a human problem and not solely a Civil Rights problem.
Malcolm X could not support the strategy of the Civil Rights movement because he identified a paradox in the non-violent Civil Rights movement of Dr. King. Malcolm believed that the Civil Rights movement leaders accepted the status quo. They encouraged no retaliation in face of police brutality, intimidation, murder, and harassment as these events where everyday norm for the black man and woman living in America. He framed his view by stating: any time a shepard, a pastor, teaches you and me not to run from the white man, and at the same time teaches us not to fight the white man, he’s a traitor to you and me. He labeled the Civil Rights leaders, especially Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as nothing but the modern Uncle Tom. Placating their white master while modern slaves were beaten by the police, kept down and forced to live in segregation.
It was during this time that Malcolm X also began to diverge away from the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. He began to realize that Elijah Muhammad had served the status quo more than Dr. King, by keeping Muslims praying in their house of worship and out of voting booth and Civil Rights activity. He urged his black Muslim brothers to no longer let status quo lead their actions. He urged them to get up, fight and take the fight to the agitators. As a black nationalist he believed and encouraged the black Americans to fight racial oppression, segregation and discrimination by any means necessary.
Malcolm X believed that seperation was the only mean to true freedom and prosperity for the African American people and that there was a clear distinction between separation and segregation. During his speech at Michigan State University, he stated that segregation is forced upon inferiors by superiors and a segregated community is a negro community. Malcolm pointed out that even though negroes lived in separate communities, they in fact lived in a segregated community. They lived under white law, white economy, and white politics. Malcolm believed that the only solution was to rise from the bottom and push the through the top. He argued that the philosophy of black nationalism involves a re-education program in the black community in regards to economics and commerce, politics, and law, especially regarding human rights law. There are many who attribute the teachings of both Malcolm X and Dr. King to the Civil Right activity branch of W.E.B DuBois.
Through my research, I now believe that Malcolm’s views on how to address the inner social issues plaguing the black population is more aligned with Booker T. Washington’s ideals that a bottom up approach than with DuBois’ top down approach. Just like Booker T., Malcolm valued education very highly and believed that economic prosperity could only be achieved for the black man, by the black man, within the black man’s community. That prosperity would give the black man power to sit equally at the negotiating table without dependance on the very people that caused him harm in the first place.
Over and over he argued that negros could never have civil rights in America until their human rights were first restored, and argued that we will never be recognized as citizens until we are first recognized as humans. Separation was the road to salvation and for that dream to come true, the black community had to control its economy, politics, laws and enforcement, and overall its own everything. Many who study Malcolm X and his work as a social activist often overlook the fact that he viewed the problems facing the 22 million blacks living in America not as a race problem, but as a human problem. In many of his speeches he argued that the human rights struggle was greater than the civil rights struggle. He believed that the civil rights fight kept black problems under the jurisdiction of the very people enforcing the problem. In a speech sharing his views, Malcolm stated, Civil Rights means you’re asking Uncle Sam to treat you right. Human rights are something you were born with, and they are your God given right. To Malcolm the struggles that blacks faced in America was a war.
A war against the unjust, a war against the oppressor, a war against hypocrisy and human cruelty. During the Ballot or the Bullet speech Malcolm said that he believed when black men take their case to Washington, they are in fact talking to the very criminals responsible for the crime against them in first place. To take your case into any court, to any politician, to anyone representing the very system that is crushing the soul of the black man, would not result in anything better than promises that would be riddled with so many loopholes that the end result would further bind the hands of the black man. Malcolm wanted to take Uncle Sam to court. He wanted to bring the case of the African American struggle before United Nation and the World Court just like atrocities that had been committed in Latin America, Asia, and Africa were previously brought to the World Court. He argued that on the only level that one could do so would fall under the category of human right, because Civil Rights simply means you’re asking the aggressor to treat you right. Later on during his pilgrimage and travel around the world, Malcolm X learned how the world saw America. Traveling throughout the Muslim world Malcolm was confronted over and over with questions about America’s racial discrimination. In his autobiography Malcolm wrote that he was astonished at the degree to which the major single image of America seemed to be discrimination.
Malcolm X was one of the only Civil Right era social activist that understood the problem facing his people. He waged a war against hypocrisy and status quo by empowering his followers to stand up, become responsible for their own prosperity, fight back and never back down. He encouraged followers to defend themselves against the racial bullies and take the fight to them. Throughout history Malcolm X has been labeled and even credited as the leader of the black militant movement. His fiery speeches and belief in absolute separation and retaliation will forever mark him as an agitator. I shared this view before studying Malcolm X’s life and teachings. Malcolm’s violent past shaped who he became. Angry at the unfair world, angry at what he and other African Americans believed was years of broken promises, fed up with the treatment he and other blacks received every single day, and angry with the black leaders who drank tea with the very people who brought so much misery upon them.
However, Malcolm was also a man of principle and great pride. Elijah Muhammad, his teacher and mentor had affairs with seven of his teenage secretaries and fathered eight children with the young women. When Malcolm learned this, he confronted Muhammad requiring him to reveal the truth to his congregation. When faced with any truth, Malcolm adapted, accepted, and acted accordingly. Some think that this was a flaw in Malcolm X’s character and labeled him a flip flopper, however he acted according to his morals and what the truth laid before him. Malcolm’s religion was at the heart of his beliefs and teachings. He believed that for the Blacks in America to prosper, separation and full acceptance of Islam was a must. This belief however was changed when Malcolm went on his pilgrimage to Mecca and visited with the Muslim leaders in Middle East and North Africa.
In a letter to Dr. Shawarbi, Malcolm expressed his wonderment and awe at how all people from all corners of the world seem to be treated as one under Islamic Law. He wrote, There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over he world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans, but we were all participating in the same ritual displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white. Malcolm further expressed in his letter to Dr. Shawarbi that America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. As he met with many open-minded muslim leaders he began to change his conviction.
Malcolm began to believe that unification of blacks in America was possible under the Islamic flag. Malcolm believed that the Negro leaders in America must travel to all the non-white lands and meet with educated men and world leaders so that he could return home with more effective thinking and solutions to America’s racial problem. The world saw the Negro in America as confused and divided believing that if he doesn’t himself know what his cause is how can he achieve what he desires? In Malcolm’s view, the Civil Rights War could only be won by empowering the 22 million blacks through political, economical, and social education. To be self-reliant would remove the dependency on white man and his law.
Before his death, Malcolm began to spread his belief that not only blacks, but all Americans should be indoctrinated with Islam and learn from its lessons so that all could live under one nation, effectively eliminating the need for separation.
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