Friday, February 13, 2015

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Malcolm X and the Post-Colonial World

[The following is the draft text of a talk I am due to give next week at Lehigh's conference on Malcolm X. Any feedback or criticism would be welcome.] 

Let’s start with a quote from Malcolm X, from his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech delivered in April 1964.

When we begin to get in this area, we need new friends, we need new allies. We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level -- to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. Civil rights comes within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin-American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And as long as it's civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. 
But the United Nations has what's known as the charter of human rights; it has a committee that deals in human rights. You may wonder why all of the atrocities that have been committed in Africa and in Hungary and in Asia, and in Latin America are brought before the UN, and the Negro problem is never brought before the UN. (“The Ballot or the Bullet”; Malcolm X Speaks 34)

As is well known, towards the end of his life, Malcolm X’s approach to talking about racism and inequality underwent a series of changes. Some of those changes had to do with theology -- his departure from the Nation of Islam and his embrace of orthodox Sunni Islam. Others have to do with his changing attitude towards ideas about segregation, black nationalism, and the mainstream civil rights movement.

What has been less talked about is that in these last years he also radically increased his understanding of and engagement with parallel questions related to race, nationalism, and political sovereignty in the post-colonial world. In his final years, Malcolm X was in the process of transforming from a black nationalist intellectual whose ideas about resistance and liberation were firmly rooted on American soil into a more global figure with strong ideas about third world revolutions, the nature of the cold war, and the prospects for international socialism. In speeches like “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X highlights the potential importance of the United Nations and the International Declaration of Human Rights as a path of redress for African Americans on the receiving end of American racism. Malcolm X strongly suggests that the pattern of civil rights abuses and discrimination in the United States needs to be seen and judged by international bodies -- the same as human rights abuses anywhere.

In the early 1960s, the UN was one of the most important vehicles for legitimizing a large number of new nations in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean that became independent from European colonial powers in the decade between 1955 and 1965. More than thirty new nations gained independence in this period in Africa alone, and all immediately joined the UN, impacting the culture of that organization.

Importantly for our purposes today, this process of decolonization was occurring effectively simultaneously with the Civil Rights movement within the United States. Within the United States, those were the years when black Americans successfully fought for and won rights that had been denied to them. Elsewhere in the world, millions of black and brown people who had formerly been under the rule of European colonial authority fought for and won the right to self-determination. What Malcolm X came to realize through his travels in Africa and the Middle East in the last years of his life was that the civil rights struggle in the U.S. and the struggles for human rights and democracy in the third world were in effect mirror images of one another. And, as per the quote we started with above, if the attempt to achieve justice and a degree of redress for a history of violence and subjugation within the parameters of the U.S. were not likely to succeed, Malcolm X felt that the best hopes for the black community in the U.S. would be to take the demand for justice to the broader international community.

The starting point for Malcolm X’s internationalism is his strong sense that as a black American in 1964 he is not considered a true American. By denying him his dignity and equal enfranchisement under the law, the country has in effect indicated to him that he doesn’t belong. He’s been, in effect, denationalized. Here’s “The Ballot of the Bullet” again:

I'm not a politician, not even a student of politics; in fact, I'm not a student of much of anything. I'm not a Democrat. I'm not a Republican, and I don't even consider myself an American. If you and I were Americans, there'd be no problem. Those Honkies that just got off the boat, they're already Americans; Polacks are already Americans; the Italian refugees are already Americans. Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren't Americans yet.
No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver -- no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare. (“The Ballot or the Bullet”; Malcolm X Speaks 26)

On the one hand being denationalized as a black man in America is an extremely painful experience. In that feeling of being excluded lie the roots of Malcolm’s anger – that bitterness that seems to reverberate in so many of the speeches he gave, and that terrified many white Americans and led to his being watched by numerous law enforcement agencies (the FBI, the NYPD, and the CIA while he was abroad all had files on him). If a nation refuses to recognize you on the basis of your race, an obvious solution is to use that logic to construct an alternate nationalism. For Malcolm X, that meant black nationalism as articulated by the Nation of Islam (NOI). As he describes in his Autobiography, Malcolm X came to join the NOI while in prison and stayed with the organization through 1963. But while the NOI had many empowering and beneficial effects on Malcolm X’s intellectual and ideological development, it operated as a closed community articulating a concept of black nationalism through self-segregation rather than as a frontal challenge to an unjust system. It was only when he left the NOI that Malcolm X really began to broaden his vision in the directions I have been describing here.

While Malcolm always remained focused first and foremost on the sufferings of and denial of rights to African Americans, over the course of 1964 his speeches reflected his moving away from an American-focused black nationalism in favor of a broad and inclusive human rights advocacy. Immediately after he delivered “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X embarked on a series of international travels that would intensify his convictions in the arguments he introduced in that speech. While in Saudi Arabia, participating in the Hajj, Malcolm had the famous epiphany that Islam has the potential to be a truly racially egalitarian faith – an epiphany that would cause him to rethink, in the last weeks of his life, the terms of his long-held views about the irrelevance of sympathetic whites to the black struggle.

But as importantly during that period abroad, Malcolm met with intellectuals and allies in many different national contexts, including Lebanon, Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. His experiences in Nigeria and Ghana are particularly noteworthy; here Malcolm began to seriously embrace a Pan-Africanist ideology that rhymed with that espoused by major political figures in African politics, including especially Kwame Nkrumah, with whom he met privately towards the end of his trip.

In speeches and public statements made after the trip, Malcolm increasingly referred to events transpiring in Africa – he expressed outrage over the 1961 killing of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, and made frequent reference to revolutionary uprisings in places like Algeria and Cuba. Here is a key moment from one such speech, given at a Militant Labor Forum event in May 1964, shortly after Malcolm’s return from his first trip abroad that year and prior to his second:

They [Algerian freedom fighters] lived in a police state; Algeria was a police state. Any occupied territory is a police state; and this is what Harlem is. Harlem is a police state; the police in Harlem, their presence is like occupation forces, like an occupying army.  (Malcolm X Speaks p. 66; also see Marable 335-336)

And then a bit later:

‘The people of China grew tired of their oppressors and… rose up. They didn’t rise up nonviolently. When Castro was up in the mountains in Cuba, they told him the odds were against him. Today he’s sitting in Havana and all the power this country has can’t remove him.’ (Malcolm X Speaks 68; Marable 336)

In June 1964, Malcolm met with Japanese writers visiting Harlem who were survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II (Hibakusha). In his remarks at that meeting he said:

‘You have been scarred by the atom bomb…. We have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.’ Several Japanese journalists also attended the event, giving Malcolm a platform. He praised the leadership of Mao Zedong and the government of the People’s Republic of China, noting that Mao had been correct to pursue policies favoring the peasantry over the working class, because the peasants were responsible for feeding the whole country. He also expressed his opposition to the growing U.S. military engagement in Asia, saying, ‘The struggle of Vietnam is the struggle of the whole Third World – the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.” (cited in Marable 340. Marable’s source is Yuri Kochiyama’s 2004 memoir, Passing it On)

Also in June 1964, Malcolm created a new, secular organization called the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which dedicated itself ‘to unifying the Americans of African descent in their fight for Human Rights and Dignity’. The OAAU’s “Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives,” which Malcolm presented at an event at the Audobon Ballroom on June 28, 1964, puts forth an agenda that seems closely aligned with the human rights emphasis Malcolm first articulated in “The Ballot or the Bullet”:

The Organization of Afro-American Unity will develop in the Afro-American people a keen awareness of our relationship with the world at large and clarify our roles, rights, and responsibilities as human beings. We can accomplish this goal by becoming well-informed concerning world affairs and understanding that our struggle is part of a larger world struggle of oppressed peoples against all forms of oppression.  (OAAU, “Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives.” Online at:

Malcolm’s second trip to the Middle East and Africa in 1964 would last five months. On that trip he would first attend the meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the new political structure created by African nations and the antecedent for the African Union. He then spent several weeks in Egypt, working with Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University.

Malcolm also spent time in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal, Guinea, and Ethiopia on this trip, and met with many African leaders and writers, including several heads of state: Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, and Sekou Toure. After he addressed the Kenyan Parliament, it passed a “resolution of support for our human rights struggle.” Nearly everywhere he went, Malcolm X was received as a heroic and admired figure – he had no trouble arranging meetings with heads of state such as President Sekou Toure of Guinea, who spoke to him approvingly about his work.

After returning to the U.S., Malcolm elaborated on his newfound Pan-Africanist and Third Worldist consciousness. In an event again at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on December 13, 1964, he made comments along these lines:

The purpose of our meeting tonight … was to show the relationship between the struggle that is going on on the African continent and the struggle that’s going on among the Afro-Americans here in this country. […] As long as we think—as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago—that we should get the Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out. Not until you start realizing your connection with the Congo.’ (Malcolm X Speaks 90; see Marable 395)

What is the real import of the distinction Malcolm X draws between “civil rights” and “human rights”? I can think of two answers, one that might be more pragmatic and one more philosophical. As a black man who felt himself to be denationalized, Malcolm didn’t believe that a struggle focused entirely on civil rights could ever achieve its ends. He didn’t trust that the American system could ever reform itself from within, that it could ever truly deliver justice for its African American population. So a turn to international bodies, to third wordlist ideology, and to Pan-Africanism provided a practical recourse.  

But I tend to think that it’s not just a pragmatic or political strategy that led Malcolm X to turn to human rights. As he increasingly became aware of what was happening in places like the Congo in the early 1960s, and as he came to understand the significance of the Cuban revolution and the misguided nature of the American military involvement in Vietnam, I believe that Malcolm X truly felt that the richest and most effective ethical framework he could adopt was one that would point outwards, beyond American borders. From the speeches he gave in 1964, it’s clear that as Malcolm X visited countries like Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria, he recognized that the lives of African people were as much deserving of recognition and dignity as much as were those of black Americans – that he saw (to return to a phrase I used earlier) these parallel struggles as mirror images of one another. If he had lived longer, and been able to visit other parts of the world, the tenor of his ideological evolution in late 1964 leads me to think that Malcolm X would have soon come to expand beyond the pan-Africanism he espoused in the last year of his life towards a kind of global human rights advocacy.

For me this part of Malcolm X’s legacy has particular relevancy and urgency today, as we think about the issues of our day. We see the continued failures of our own government to observe basic human rights protections; under the Bush administration we allowed torture of an unknown number of individuals – which was deemed legal as long as the individuals were not U.S. citizens and the actions were performed off of U.S. soil – in Guantanamo Bay and in various CIA black sites around the world. And while those practices have ended, no one responsible for those policies has been called to justice. Under Obama we’ve had a policy of extrajudicial execution using drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The best course of redress for these wrongs isn’t civil rights – the framework of rights within a single national context under a legal framework designed to apply mainly to citizens. With the U.S. military engaged in an effectively globalized field of operations, we need a strong global framework for protecting the rights and protections of individuals across national borders and irrespective of citizenship status. 

In the U.S. fifty years later we still have reasons to doubt that the civil rights of African American citizens are protected under law. The deaths of numerous unarmed black men at the hands of police last year, followed by non-indictment of police officers responsible for those deaths, makes that only too clear. But the strong sense of international solidarity with protestors on the streets of places like Ferguson and New York City that followed those events was echoed and embraced by activists in other parts of the world. In Malcolm X’s day, the challenge was to present the grievances of American blacks to the world stage. Often through Twitter (i.e., #blacklivesmatter), images of those grievances can now be seen and known by people elsewhere. We see them; they see us. This is a fulfillment -- though a very partial and limited one -- of an idea of the hope for justice and international solidarity that Malcolm X articulated in the last year of his life. 

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