Showing posts with label Malcolm X. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Malcolm X. Show all posts

Bodies on the Pavement: A Reflection on Malcolm X, Police Violence, and Changing One's Mind

[This is the draft text of second of the two talks about Malcolm X I am due to give this week at Lehigh. This talk is more informal and meant as a personal reflection.]

[The above image is from Ferguson, Missouri. The name of the young man on the ground is Michael Brown. There are much more shocking images of his body on that street that many of us have seen. I chose this one because it at least affords him the dignity of being covered.]

After receiving the invitation to speak at this event, I immediately picked up a book I had been meaning to read for some time, Manning Marable’s much-discussed biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. I spent the better part of two working days reading through the book in its entirety and learned many things I hadn’t previously known about Malcolm X’s life and death. One incident in particular stood out for its relevance for us today – the killing of Ronald X Stokes in April 1962 at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department. Ronald Stokes was unarmed – but in fact no Nation of Islam (NOI) members carried guns in those days; that was Elijah Muhammad’s policy. Ronald X Stokes was killed in a disputed incident with the police; witnesses who saw the shooting say he had his hands up.

Other Malcolm X biographers have also written about this incident with varying degrees of detail (Peter Louis Goodman, in The Death and Life of Malcolm X also has an extensive section dealing with the killing of Stokes and what happened immediately afterwards). Interestingly, however, Malcolm X himself omitted any mention of this incident from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Spike Lee’s film, which did so much to create the iconic image of Malcolm X in the mass media in 1992, also omitted it (though there is a scene involving police brutality in the film that I think is a fictionalization). I’m guessing it’s possible that at least some folks in this room don’t know about it, and if you'll permit me I’ll take a few moments to revisit the history before meditating on what it might mean.

In April 1962, Malcolm X was still a full member of the Nation of Islam. Indeed, he was the organization’s “National Minister” – frequently described by outsiders as the “number 2 man” in the organization after Elijah Muhammad. He had personally set up the Los Angeles mosque some years earlier, and it was considered one of the NOI’s major success stories by the early 1960s. Malcolm X knew many of the mosque leaders personally, including Ronald X Stokes himself.

On April 27, 1962, there was an altercation between two police officers and a group of Nation of Islam members outside of the NOI’s Los Angeles Mosque, Mosque No. 27. What exactly happened and what triggered the altercation are a matter of dispute. The Nation of Islam’s story was that some of its members were delivering dry cleaned clothes to the mosque. The LAPD, which had been investigating the Nation following another altercation a few months earlier, claims they thought the clothes might have been stolen. Here is how Manning Marable summarizes the incident in his biography:

What happened next is a matter of dispute, yet whether the police were jumped, as they claimed, or the Muslim men were shoved and beaten without provocation, as seems likely, the commotion brought a stream of angry Muslims out of the mosque. The police threatened to respond with deadly force, but when one officer attempted to intimidate the growing crowd of bystanders, he was disarmed by the crowd. Somehow one officer’s revolver went off, shooting and wounding his partner in the elbow. Backup squad cars soon arrived ferrying more than seventy officers, and a full-scale battle ensued. Within minutes dozens of cops raided the mosque itself, randomly beating NOI members. It took fifteen minutes for the fighting to die down. In the end, seven Muslims were shot, including NOI member William X Rogers, who was shot in the back and paralyzed for life. NOI officer Ronald Stokes, a Korean War veteran, had attempted to surrender to the police by raising his hands over his head. Police responded by shooting him from the rear; a bullet pierced his heart, killing him. A coroner’s inquest determined that Stokes’ death was ‘justifiable.’ A number of Muslims were indicted. (Marable 207)

There are two notable things that we can take away from this incident. One is probably pretty glaringly obvious: more than fifty years have passed, and at least in respect to police violence it feels like nothing's changed. Not only was the police shooter in the incident not charged or disciplined, but several Muslims were indicted and then convicted of assault against the police (this is an age-old pattern that, unfortunately, still seems to be in effect).

(As a side note: I would be remiss if I didn’t stop to recognize for a moment Sureshbhai Patel, a 57 year old visitor from India who was minding his business on a sidewalk in Alabama last week until he was slammed to the ground by a police officer and left partially paralyzed by the impact. The person who called 9/11 to report his presence in the suburban neighborhood described him to police as a “skinny black guy.” That phrase is telling: it underlines, in case there was any doubt, that we, as people of color, are all in this together. The Model Minority myth periodically comes up against the realities of racism and xenophobia.)

But there are some other wrinkles here, which have to do with Malcolm X’s responses to the death of Ronald Stokes. He was, understandably, extremely angry about what had happened at Mosque No. 27. The event appeared to be the result of a sidewalk incident that was fairly trivial in nature; there’s no indication that any criminal activity on the part of the NOI triggering the event, so the evidence suggests the incident was the result of police harassment -- the raid on the mosque was by design, and intended to intimidate and disrupt the NOI's rapid growth in Los Angeles. Malcolm X also knew many of the members of the LA Mosque quite well, including Ronald X Stokes himself. And as people who have read his biography know, Malcolm X’s life had been scarred by a series of violent incidents, including the death of his own father under questionable circumstances in 1931.

I mention all this because I think t’s important to be aware of all that background before considering what Malcolm then apparently proposed to do. Even before Stokes’ funeral, Malcolm held secret meetings with Fruit of Islam members at his home mosque in New York. Manning Marable interviewed several NOI members about this incident, including Louis Farrakhan as well as Charles 37X Kenyatta and James 67X Warden (now known as Abdullah Abdur-Razzaq), and they all apparently stated that Malcolm X then solicited volunteers for an “assassination team to target LAPD officers.” The plan was, it appears, to go to LA and exact violent revenge for the attack on the mosque by killing police officers.

In the life of Malcolm X this appears to be an unusual event – I don’t know of any other incident where Malcolm X actively solicited or planned an act of violence, though he frequently used quite fiery language in his speeches and always said he believed in self-defense and in achieving justice through “an eye for an eye.” But he didn’t actually do violent things. So I was a little shocked when I read about this for the first time in the Marable (incidentally, it's not only in the Marable; other biographers have corroborate the details, again with interviews with people who were there).

Malcolm X's boss and the supreme authority within the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, nixed the action – not so much because he didn’t support it ethically, but because it would likely have damaged the NOI organization much more than it would have benefited it. Malcolm X was ordered to stand down, and he followed that order.

That's the first wrinkle. There's also a second wrinkle I would like to bring to your attention. While the NOI was very much a black nationalist organization, in the early 1960s, it was by and large an apolitical group that advocated self-segregation from white society rather than direct confrontation with American racism.

After being ordered by Elijah Muhammad to put away any thoughts of violent retribution following the death of Ronald X Stokes, Malcolm X went to Los Angeles and presided over his friend’s funeral on May 5. He then went on to stay in LA for several weeks, organizing a major civil rights rally against police brutality that involved mainstream civil rights groups as well as left wing activists – including a sizeable number of sympathetic whites. As the momentum began to build and press reports about the incident at Mosque No. 27 multiplied, Malcolm X was again shut down by Elijah Muhammad, who sent him a terse note ordering him to stand down increasingly expansive and inclusive civil rights agitations: “Stay where I put you.”

Malcolm again complied with his supreme leader’s wishes. But from this point forward, Malcolm X would be in tension with Elijah Muhammad and the rest of the NOI organization regarding the role of the nation's relationship to civil rights activism. Eventually, this tension, along with Malcolm’s disgust at Elijah Muhammad’s personal life, would lead to his split from the NOI only a little more than a year later.

So Malcolm was wrong in his first reaction to the raid on Mosque No. 27 and the death of Ronald X Stokes. But we can now see that he was right in his second reaction. The way forward for the black community would be through protest, agitation, and strategic engagement with allies, not self-segregation (which can also be seen as a form of quietism or passivity).

For me personally this is a powerful and telling incident in several ways.

Just to reiterate, the uncanny parallels between what happened to Ronald X Stokes and what happened to Michael Brown (down to the non-indictment of the police officers involved later) reminds us that the issues with the police relationship with the black community haven't really changed. Excessive and unwarranted police violence is still very much with us. The bodies of young black men are still on the pavement; we’re still watching and looking at their photographs, and frustrated that justice isn't being done.

Police violence is still destroying families and leaving lives shattered (did I mention that Ronald X Stokes, on his death, left behind a wife and a three-month old daughter?). It’s still a formidable challenge to have that violence be acknowledged, or to see any trace of accountability among law enforcement officials for incidents like the ones that led to the deaths of Eric Garner in New York or Michael Brown in Ferguson.

But it also reminds us that Malcolm X, who so powerfully and memorably gave voice to black anger and alienation, was also subject to human fallibility. In a moment of passion and anger he asked his followers to do something that was out of character, and that would have diminished his legacy. I don’t see his desire for revenge something that makes me lose respect for Malcolm X, but I do see it as a mistake. (Not his only one; we won't dwell on the others today, but they're there: the NOI's brief flirtation with the KKK in the 1950s; and there's the matter of Malcolm X's misogyny, of which we can see considerable evidence in the Autobiography...)

If we can put Malcolm X's fantasy of violent retribution aside as a minor mistake, we see in that second moment an early indication of a shift in Malcolm X's orientation to civil rights activism that quite clearly was no mistake at all. As Malcolm X became more convinced over the course of the next year or so that civil rights was a better strategy for empowering the black community than rigid separatism of the NOI, he emerged from a fairly narrow and intellectually limited religious sect towards a much more ecumenical and global perspective. He went from mocking the mainstream civil rights movement, and leaders like Dr. King, as acting like “House Negroes” and “Uncle Toms” to aligning himself with their actions and strategies in the last months of his life. Finally, he went from categorically excluding and rejecting the support of liberal whites to the black civil rights struggle to at least an ambivalent acceptance of their positive contributions. And he did all this without giving up on his core message and the beliefs that propelled him to the national stage to begin with.

When I was a young person I loved Malcolm X the angry rebel – I was under the spell of the story in the Autobiography, Spike Lee’s iconic version of him, the snippets of his voice in the songs of rap groups like Public Enemy. Now at age 40, and with many mistakes and disappointments of my own to ponder, I’m much more drawn to aspects of his life and personality that reveal complexities that I can learn from in my own teaching, scholarship (and sometimes, activism). I'm drawn to Malcolm X as a person who, gracefully and with integrity, came to realize that he had been wrong.

What's beautiful about this older more mature Malcolm X is that he found a new way to push forward in the path to justice. He changed, he learned from his mistakes, and most importantly, he refused to allow failures and setbacks to reduce the scope of his ambitions. He found a way of becoming someone new, while remaining true to himself.

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 references 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.