Selma (the Movie) vs. the Strategy of Malcolm X

by tacticaldiversity, June 1, 2015

Last month many of us celebrated the 90th birthday of the one of America’s greatest revolutionaries, El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, also known as Malcolm X.  That his birthday follows his assassination date (February 21) on the calendar seems appropriate this year, as Malcolm could be said to be resurrected these days:  from condemnations of US racism at the United Nations, to self-defense against cops in NYC, to Black rifle clubs in Texas, to mass rebellion in Baltimore, to a growing disillusionment with the two-party system and doctrinaire nonviolence in America, he has seldom seemed more relevant.

This is all the more remarkable given that the representation of Malcolm in popular media is more distorted than ever.  2015 opened with the Martin Luther King biopic Selma giving us the most forgettable (perhaps the only forgettable) portrayal of Malcolm X in cinema history.  In some ways, the muting of Malcolm was inevitable; an accurate depiction of the Muslim leader presented a danger of upstaging King in the movie the same way that he often upstaged King in real life.  But that isn’t any excuse for the distortion of Malcolm X’s politics and the role he played in the Black freedom struggle.

In the short scene in which he appears, Malcolm comes literally hat in hand to Coretta Scott King begging to address the protesters and be a part of the movement.  He appears to have arrived uninvited, crashing a party he has no real place in.  As he offers to scare the segregationists with an “alternative” to MLK’s nonviolence, he hints that this is actually just a bluff because his “eyes see in a new way.”  Everything about this scene is fundamentally wrong: Malcolm explained himself to Mrs. King after, not before, he gave his speech—a speech which he was invited to give by the director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Selma Project.1  And when Malcolm spoke of offering an alternative to King’s pacifism, it was anything but a bluff.  Continue reading

What Would Malcolm X Think?

An Opinion column in the New York Times, February 21, 2015

By ILYASAH SHABAZZ

Malcolm X — Credit: Associated Press

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — FIFTY years ago today my father, Malcolm X, was assassinated while speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. I think about him every day, but even more in the last year, with the renewed spirit of civil rights activism after the tragic events in Ferguson, Mo., on Staten Island and in countless other parts of the country. What would he have to say about it?

People still look to Malcolm as a model for strident activism. They lament the lack of such a prominent, resonant voice in the modern dialogue about race. But they might not like some of the critical things he would have to say about the strategies of today’s activists.

Of course, my father would be heartened by the youth-led movement taking place across the nation, and abroad, in response to institutional brutality. And he would appreciate the protesters’ fervor and skillful use of social media to rapidly organize, galvanize and educate. In a sense, his ability to boil down hard truths into strong statements and catchy phrases presaged our era of hashtag activism. Continue reading

Malcolm X: “Make It Plain”

[Taken from us on February 21, 1965 — 50 years ago — the life and words of Malcolm X continue to echo through the streets and halls of America, among those who continue to suffer, and to struggle for revolutionary change.  In this video, many speak to this enduring voice.  —  Frontlines ed.]

Chris Hedges: Malcolm X Was Right About America

[Journalist Chris Hedges describes his personal views on the life and teachings of Malcolm X, whose life was stolen with his assassination 50 years ago. — Frontlines ed.]

Our refusal to face the truth about empire, our refusal to defy the multitudinous crimes and atrocities of empire, has brought about the nightmare Malcolm predicted.
By Chris Hedges  truthdig.com  February 1, 2015

Malcolm X about two weeks before he was murdered in 1965. AP/Victor Boynton

NEW YORK—Malcolm X, unlike Martin Luther King Jr., did not believe America had a conscience. For him there was no great tension between the lofty ideals of the nation—which he said were a sham—and the failure to deliver justice to blacks. He, perhaps better than King, understood the inner workings of empire. He had no hope that those who managed empire would ever get in touch with their better selves to build a country free of exploitation and injustice. He argued that from the arrival of the first slave ship to the appearance of our vast archipelago of prisons and our squalid, urban internal colonies where the poor are trapped and abused, the American empire was unrelentingly hostile to those Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth.” This, Malcolm knew, would not change until the empire was destroyed.


“It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck,” Malcolm said. “Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture. It used to be strong enough to go and suck anybody’s blood whether they were strong or not. But now it has become more cowardly, like the vulture, and it can only suck the blood of the helpless. As the nations of the world free themselves, then capitalism has less victims, less to suck, and it becomes weaker and weaker. It’s only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.”

Continue reading

1964: Malcolm X on “The Ballot or the Bullet”

[In the last year of his life, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (popularly known as Malcolm X), left the Nation of Islam and organized the Organization of Afro-American Unity.  He launched a series of internationalist initiatives, including taking the denial of human rights of Blacks in the United States to international arenas (including the UN).  His life was a series of extraordinary pathbreaking steps for Blacks and for people in the Americas, Africa, and worldwide.  He spoke constantly, determined to open new initiatives and thinking for all who seek justice and freedom.  One April 12, 1964, he delivered the following speech, (The Ballot or the Bullet) detailing the contrary pathways toward justice and debating the prevailing views at that time. While sections promote a black capitalist solution, more compelling are his comments on the nature of the state and the illusory prospects of change within the system, or the necessity of struggling against it.  These comments continue to resound today, amid largely unchanged conditions.  Malcolm X was assassinated (less than a year after this speech was given) on February 21, 1965, at the age of 39. —  Frontlines ed.].

A 38-year-old man in a suit and tie smiles broadly. He wears glasses and has a microphone around his neckThe Ballot or the Bullet (April 12, 1964)

Mr. Moderator, Reverend Cleage, Brother Lomax, brothers and sisters, friends…and I see some enemies. In fact, I think we’d be fooling ourselves if we had an audience this large and didn’t realize that there were some enemies present.This afternoon we want to talk about the ballot or the bullet. The ballot or the bullet explains itself. But before we get into it, since this is the year of the ballot or the bullet, I would like to clarify some things that refer to me personally concerning my own personal position.

I’m still a Muslim. That is, my religion is still Islam. My religion is still Islam. I still credit Mr. Muhammad for what I know and what I am. He’s the one who opened my eyes. At present, I’m the Minister of the newly founded Muslim Mosque, Incorporated, which has its offices in the Theresa Hotel, right in the heart of Harlem that’s the black belt in New York city. And when we realize that Adam Clayton Powell is a Christian minister, he’s the…he heads Abyssinian Baptist Church, but at the same time, he’s more famous for his political struggle. And Dr. King is a Christian Minister, in Atlanta, Georgia, but he’s become more famous for being involved in the civil rights struggle. There’s another in New York, Reverend Galamison I don’t know if you’ve heard of him out here, he’s a Christian Minister from Brooklyn, but has become famous for his fight against a segregated school system in Brooklyn. Reverend Cleage, right here, is a Christian Minister, here in Detroit. He’s the head of the “Freedom Now Party”. All of these are Christian Ministers, but they don’t come to us as Christian Ministers. They come to us as fighters in some other category. I’m a Muslim minister the same as they are Christian Ministers, I’m a Muslim minister. And I don’t believe in fighting today in any one front, but on all fronts. In fact, I’m a Black Nationalist Freedom Fighter.

Continue reading

The Day That Malcolm Won Harlem Over…

August 12, 2012
[An excerpt from a pamphlet, An (Abridged) History of Resisting Police Violence in Harlem (PDF) by Mariame Kaba and designed by Eric Kerl (see http://policeviolence.wordpress.com/historical-moments/). It focuses on an incident that brought Malcolm X to national prominence in 1957.]

1957 Johnson X Hinton Incident

There are many versions of the story of Johnson Hinton. Even his name is contested; in some accounts he is called Hinton Johnson and in others he is Johnson Hinton. There are a few details of the story, however, that seem to be settled history.

In April 1957, Johnson Hinton came upon a couple of police officers who were clubbing a man named Reese V. Poe on the corner of 125th street and 7th Avenue in Harlem. Hinton called out to the officers: “You’re not in Alabama – this is New York! ” The police then turned their nightsticks on Hinton clubbing him and cracking his skull. The officers subsequently handcuffed Hinton and took him to the 28th precinct stationhouse. By the time the evening arrived, there were over 2,000 people surrounding the precinct demanding that Hinton be provided with adequate medical attention.

Johnson X Hinton, it turns out, was a black Muslim who belonged to Mosque Number Seven, the largest mosque in the country – led by a 31 year old preacher named Malcolm X.

At this point, the accounts begin to diverge. In some recollections, a woman who had observed the altercation ran over to the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) restaurant to report the news. Several phone calls later, Malcolm X, accompanied by a small group of Muslims, was at the precinct insisting to see Johnson X. At first they were denied by police but as the crowd outside grew to hundreds of people, they were finally allowed to see Johnson X who was in great pain and distress. The police allowed Johnson X to be transported by ambulance for treatment at Harlem Hospital. Remarkably, once he was treated, the hospital released Johnson X back to the police. By the time Johnson was back in police custody, the crowd outside of the 28th precinct had swelled to over 4,000 people.

When Malcom X returned to the precinct from Harlem Hospital, it was past midnight. He tried to post bail for Johnson X, but police refused to release him and said that he had to remain incarcerated overnight until he could appear in court the next day. By 2:30 am, Malcolm decided that negotiations for Johnson’s release were at a stalemate. With thousands still assembled outside the police precinct, Malcolm X gave a hand signal to his lieutenants in the Fruit of Islam (FOI) and within seconds the crowd silently began to disperse. The next morning, Hinton was dumped in front of NYC’s felony courthouse after a bail of $2,500 was paid by the Nation of Islam. He was promptly picked up and driven to Syndenham Hospital in Harlem to be treated for his injuries.

James Hicks, the managing editor of the New York Amsterdam News, offered his own account of the episode. He reached out to Malcolm X, asking him to act as a mediator between the police and community members. Peter Goldman, in his book “The Death and Life of Malcolm X,” remembers Hicks telling the story this way:

“I was chairman of the 28th Precinct Community Council at the time, and at two in the morning I got a call from the 28th to come over to my office. I went there and I met Inspector McGowen, Deputy Commissioner Walter Arm and Deputy Inspector Robert J. Mangum, who’s black. McGowen said, ‘I had a normal arrest, he was resisting, he got beat up and he’s over there in the 28th Precinct now.” He said, “They’ve got two thousand people out there,’ He said, ‘You know Malcolm X? I said, ‘Yeah, I know him’ – we were pretty good friends by that time. Got to be lunch buddies at the Chock Full O’ Nuts at 125th and Seventh. McGowen said, ‘You think you can get him up here?’ I said, ‘Yeah, give me a little time. Where is he?’ He said, ‘Over at the 28th.’

“So I got over, and there he is with his people – with them and the bystanders they must have had 2,600 people lining the sidewalks between Seventh and Eighth avenues on 123rd Street. I said, ‘Hey, Malcolm, Jesus. What’s going on? He told me one of their people was inside, he’d been beaten and needed medical attention. He said, “We’re going to stay right here, Brother Hicks.’ I asked him if he’d come back to my office and talk to the police people. He said, “If you think anything can be accomplished, I’ll go. But only on your word.’ So we went back and walked up to my office at the Amsterdam News – it was on the fourth floor.

“When we got there, Walter Arm started talking. He was in charge of public relations: he’d been a police reporter, and a good one, but he was white. He said, ‘My presence here, and Inspector McGowen’s, and Deputy Inspector Mangum’s, indicates how much concern the police department has for this situation. However, I’d like to say that the police of the city of New York can handle any situation that arises in Harlem, and we’re not here to ask anybody’s help.’

“Well, Malcolm sat there and listened, and then he got up and put on that camel’s hair coat of his – he’d been a hustler and he always dressed sharp – and he told them, “There’s nothing more to be said,’ Just like that. And suddenly he was striding out the door of my office. I can still hear his steps – clump-clump-clump – going into that gloomy city room. All the lights were out; my office was in the back at the end of the corridor, and he walked out into the darkness. Someone said, ‘Where’s he going?’ And I said, ‘He’s leaving.’

“I followed him out. I said, ‘Wait a minute, Mr. X.’ He stopped out in the darkness there. He said, ‘Brother Hicks, I’m only here ‘cause you said something could be accomplished.’ He said, ‘They don’t need me. They say they can handle it. Well, let them handle it.’

“I said, ‘Wait a minute.’

“I went back to the room. Mangum said, ‘Tell him there must be some level we can get together on if he’ll only come back.’ I went back and told it to Malcolm, and he came back. He said, ‘I only came back because I respect Brother Hicks.’ And I said, ‘Have a seat.’

“This time, Arm shut up. Malcolm said, “I have no respect for you’ – Arm – ‘or the police department.’ He may have said something to Mangum, too. [What he told Mangum, according to a police source, was: “I don’t talk with white man’s niggers.” Mangum, this source said, was “very hurt.”] Malcolm said, “One of our brothers has been beaten, and all we are asking is that we be allowed to go in there and see him and determine if he is in need of hospitalization. The evidence we have now is that he should be in the hospital. If we find that he doesn’t need hospitalization, you can go on with your case. If he does, we want him hospitalized.’ So Mangum and Arm agreed. They hadn’t even seen the man themselves. They said, ‘All right, let’s take a look. If he does need hospitalization, we’ll give it to him. Would that be satisfactory to you?’ Malcolm said yes. They said, ‘Will you then get your people out of the block?’ Malcolm said, ‘this is all we asked for and this is all we want.’

“In effect, the police were saying, ‘We can’t handle it without you.’ Nobody got down on his knees. But they bowed.
“So, we walked the three blocks back to the station, and Malcolm’s people were still there. The men were standing in the gutter with their arms folded. Immobile. The women were on the sidewalk behind them with white kerchiefs on their heads. And nobody said a word. The light in the stationhouse was the only light in the block. I remember thinking, ‘Where did they all come from? – a movement like that growing up right under your nose. When we got to the station, there was a black sergeant on the door. I heard him saying, “Goddamn Muslims – who the hell are they anyway? Turn me loose with this club and I’ll clear this block.’ John X, who was with Malcolm, turned and just stared at him, and I said to McGowen, ‘You better get that sergeant off the door.’

“We went on in and saw the man, and they had torn his head off – [sic]. One look and McGowen said, “Get him to the hospital.” He said, ‘Mr. X, he’s going to be sent to Harlem Hospital – is that all right? Malcolm said, ‘That’s all we asked.’ McGowen said, ‘Would you take the responsibility of sending your people home? Malcolm said, “I’ll do that.’

“And then, in that dim light, Malcolm stood up and waved his hand, and all those people just disappeared. Disappeared. One of the police people said to me, ‘Did you see what I just saw?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, “This is too much power for one man to have.’ He meant one black man. I’ll never forget that.”

Johnson X survived his assault but had to have multiple brain surgeries and live with a metal plate in his head. Johnson X filed a lawsuit against the NYPD. An all-white jury awarded $70,000 to him; this was (at the time) the largest police brutality settlement in New York City.

In his book “The Savage City,” T. J. English writes of the Johnson X incident: “It was the beginning of a new kind of relationship between blacks and the police in the city of New York.” Malcolm X had stood up to the NYPD and won. No one in Harlem would soon forget that.