Malcolm X: A Disservice to the Movement

By Broadside Opinion Columnist Michael Gryboski

Every movement has its extremists. There is always a wing of some enterprise that falls out of the mainstream and alienates outsiders who would have otherwise been open to the enterprise’s goals. The extremist wings can, and often do, take control from the moderates and lead the enterprise in question down a malicious path, leading to further division. A case study of this, given the time of year, would have to be the Civil Rights Movement. There were moderates in the movement, sound-thinking individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But then there was the extreme wing, such as the first incarnation of the Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers and one man who gets idolized in many forms of media, from occasional homage in the 1990s sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel Air to posters in Student Union Building I: Malcolm X.

In reality, far from being a hero, Malcolm X was a detriment to race relations.

Like many African-Americans during the 1960s, Malcolm X left Christianity to become a Muslim, arguing that Christianity was a “white man’s religion,” never mind that certain sects of that “white man’s religion” had flourished in North Africa for centuries before Muhammad was even born. However, the breed of Islam Malcolm X entered into was not mainstream, but rather a faction called The Nation of Islam. Its spiritual headman during the 1960s, Elijah Muhammad, taught members that an ancient scientist named Yacob created the white race to be a devil that would reign for six millennia. This organization also advocated violence as a means of solving differences, as seen in an advertisement in the afro-centric publication, The New Afrikan, calling for “Jihad ‘til death!”

Some may call this guilt by association, but Malcolm X himself indulged in similar rhetoric in his public life. He referred to Elijah Muhammad, the racist figurehead of the Nation of Islam, as “a godsent shepherd, [who] has opened the eyes of our people.”

In his own words, Malcolm said that members of the Nation “religiously believe that we are living at the end of this wicked world, the world of colonialism, the world of slavery, the end of the Western world, the white world or the Christian world, or the end of the wicked white man's Western world of Christianity.” Before supporters, he declared without ignominy, “God wants us to separate ourselves from this wicked white race here in America, because this American House of Bondage is number one on God's list for divine destruction today.”

This alludes to his laconic position on integration, which he spelled out to conclude a speech of his: “We want no part of integration with this wicked race of devils.”

Are we, as a society, supposed to be proud of this ideology? This is the man who many elevate to the moral level of Martin Luther King Jr. Well, being put in with Dr. King would not have been all that favorable to Malcolm X himself, who identified the 1963 March on Washington, in which the “I have a Dream” speech was spoken, as “the Farce on Washington.” Speaking of Dr. Martin Luther King, he did not care much for the politics of Malcolm X, either. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Prison,” Dr. King said of Malcolm X, “I totally disagree with many of his political and philosophical views…I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice.”

None of these words of justifiable contempt for the works of Malcolm X have hindered his lionization. Maybe it was his words near the end of his life, when upon taking the Hajj he realized Islam is not a “black man’s religion,” but rather a multiracial belief system.

Malcolm did have a genuine change of heart upon returning from Mecca and it is from these last years of his life that all those positive quotations we see on posters and elsewhere come from.

Yet, similar can be said of George Wallace, the infamous segregationist politician. Wallace’s last years also involved reconciliation and recanting of his support for a racist system. So why is Wallace not glorified in civil rights circles for strengthening cooperation between the races? Because, like Malcolm X, Wallace made a career out of jeopardizing the struggle and was an enemy of interracial harmony.

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