An Overlooked Bridge: Malcolm X as an International Activist
Malcolm X belongs to a category of important historical figures who are either “loved or hated.” Since his first days as a vocal member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X has been viewed as a dangerous and racist hate-monger bent on tearing America’s social fabric by instigating African Americans against mainstream American society.
In a revelatory journal article, Josh Grimm of Louisiana State University examined the coverage of Malcolm’s activities in the pages of the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. Grimm found that all three newspapers, which depicted Malcolm X (in varying degrees) as a threat to American society that needs to be shunned.
Commenting on his death, Malcolm was described by Time Magazine “a pimp, a cocaine addict and a thief. He was an unashamed demagogue.” While such opinions of Malcolm continue to be held by many today, he also became more appreciated as a seminal figure in the history of the Civil Rights movement and the African-American population in general, since his assassination in early 1965.
It began with the publication of Alex Hailey’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X” which contained not only Malcolm’s exploits throughout his life, but also the evolution of his political thought and the circumstances behind it.
The controversial book subsequently paved the way for a body of scholarship that explored Malcolm X’s ideas and experiences, as well as their relevance to the Civil Rights struggle, African-American politics and culture, and race relations in the U.S.
Another crucial factor was that after 1965, the African-American struggle shifted from integration to “assertion of black pride” and Malcolm X himself used his own example to promote the advancement of Blacks in the U.S.
Equally significant, yet neglected, Malcolm X saw his role in a larger, global context and tried to link it with the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. It is very important to note that Islam played a crucial role in Malcolm's life, which eventually resulted in an internationalist dimension in his beliefs and activism, and added to his intriguing contribution to African-American history.
Graeme Abernethy, for instance, provides a detailed historical account of Malcolm’s visit to the United Kingdom where he highlighted the plight of Blacks both in Africa and in the United States. Malcom's thoughts had a major impact on British race relations.
It is very important to note that Islam played a crucial role in Malcolm's life, which eventually resulted in an internationalist dimension in his beliefs and activism, and added to his intriguing contribution to African-American history.
When discussing the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X is always mentioned in comparison to Martin Luther King Jr. The latter was a representative of the dominant approach to African-American advancement of the 1954-1965 period, which aimed to remove the racial barriers African-Americans faced when participating in public life or when they tried to receive the same socio-economic benefits as many Caucasian Americans.
This type of advancement would be done through cooperation between African and Caucasian-Americans, through the former’s usage of what Professor Nimtz of Minnesota University described as “tactical Non-violence”.
Malcolm X along with other African-American ‘”radicals” (such as North Carolina NAACP head, Robert Williams, and Reverend Albert Cleage of the Central Congregational Church in Detroit) not only refuted King’s views and tactics, but he also pressingly argued for self-defence as well as the reliance of African-Americans on their own efforts and resources to improve their socio-economic conditions.
While Malcolm consistently held on to these ideas, his perception of the struggle taking place at that time and of Whites significantly changed over time. As he became a major representative of the Nation of Islam and its beliefs, the seeds of the rift between the two were sown before Malcolm was expelled from the organization by its leader, Elijah Muhammad.
Unlike his peers in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was actively following the major events of the Civil Rights Movement and he showed enthusiasm for Black groups. Examples of such interactions were the “Group of Advanced Leadership” based in Detroit (as argued by Jasmin A. Young) and the Black movement in Rochester, New York (Professor Laura Hill gives a detailed description of Malcolm’s relationship with the Rochester Black Movement).
Although he believed that it was relevant for the Black Muslims to join the movement, Elijah Muhammad and his advisors did not wish to be engaged in any form of political action with the masses. At the same time, Malcolm had encountered several Muslim students in the United States who challenged his religious beliefs, which were formulated by the Nation of Islam.
Unlike his peers in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was actively following the major events of the Civil Rights Movement and he showed enthusiasm for Black groups.
Although the organization claimed to be following Islamic teachings, their version of “Islam” was quite different than the mainstream practiced by millions of Muslims across the world.
Professor Edward E. Curtis argues that while Malcolm was resistant at first, he later became much more interested in mainstream Islamic beliefs and practices. Malcolm X would eventually adopt orthodox Islam as his religion, following his rift with the Nation of Islam.
The significance of these encounters were vital in shaping Malcolm X as a tremendously important historical figure that we know of today. First, his conversion to orthodox Islam enabled him to abandon his negative views on Whites and see the good in them. This new perspective resulted in his recognition that all individuals are equal, regardless of race and skin color, and a progressive society must be based in these principles.
Malcolm had encountered several Muslim students in the United States who challenged his religious beliefs, which were formulated by the Nation of Islam.
Second, Malcolm’s exposure to traditional Islam paved the way for his heavy involvement in Third World issues. In 1964, Malcolm X embarked on his famous pilgrimage to Mecca (known in Arabic as the “Hajj”) followed by his equally famous tour throughout Arab and African countries, where he met with the leaders of the countries that he visited.
Malcolm X had the opportunity to meet with President Milton Obote of Uganda, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and numerous others.
Even “The Organization of Afro-American Unity”, which Malcolm X established upon his return to the U.S., is modeled after “The Organization of African Unity” which promoted the ideology of Pan-Africanism. Malcolm's organization called for further collaboration between African countries.
The purpose of The Organization of Afro-American Unity was to push for the advancement of Blacks in the Western hemisphere, particularly in the U.S. Malcolm invited other African-American activists to participate in the organization and contribute to its mission, which would become the organ through which Malcolm X would continue to be involved in the Civil Rights movement.
While he maintained his views on how the struggle should be waged, he would subsequently be supportive of mainstream African-American activists and groups, including Martin Luther King Jr.
When King was imprisoned during the events at Selma, Malcolm X met with Coretta Scott King (Martin Luther King’s wife) and allegedly told her that “… I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking that I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”
Professor Nimtz interprets this statement as Malcolm’s effort to present himself as an “alternative” to Martin Luther King and his philosophy. Nimtz believes this was Malcolm's way to exert pressure on President Johnson to meet the demands of the Civil Rights Movement.
As the years went on, Malcolm X’s status became more legendary. Though he is mostly associated with “Black Pride” his life and activism reveal much more. Due to Malcolm's exposure to Islam, even the Nation of Islam’s version of the faith, Malcolm X developed a more international orientation as he sought to highlight the Civil Rights Movement as part of a global struggle against the established orders of the day.
His views on race became more egalitarian towards the end of his life. In that sense, Malcolm X has gained an international significance where he attempted to make world events (such as the anti-Colonial struggles in Africa at that time) relevant for American audiences, both Black and White, and vice versa.
If he had lived longer, he might have been able to succeed in creating a truly international sense of solidarity against all forms of oppression between the "Old and New worlds", East and West, and between Black and White. This kind of solidarity is needed more so today, given the various struggles taking place in different regions of the world.
Due to Malcolm's exposure to Islam, even the Nation of Islam’s version of the faith, Malcolm X developed a more international orientation as he sought to highlight the Civil Rights Movement as part of a global struggle against the established orders of the day.
Perhaps by looking into the example of Malcolm X we might be able to pick up where he left off, towards achieving freedom and equality for the oppressed everywhere.