Malcolm X: A human rights activist moving towards socialism

Malcolm X speaks at a rally in New York City on Aug. 6, 1963.

If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, as we mark Malcolm X’s 95th birthday on May 19, 2020, hundreds and thousands of people would be marching and rallying in the streets, shouting “Justice for Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor!” as we did in 2006 for Sean Bell; in 2009 for Oscar Grant; in 2012 for Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Ramarley Graham and Alan Blueford ;in 2013 for Mariam Carey; in 2014 for Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Dontre Hamilton and Laquan McDonald; in 2015 for Freddie Gray and Donald Dontay Ivy; in 2016 for Alfred Olango; in 2018 for Aleah Jenkins; in 2019 for Dennis Carolino and on and on. 

We would have signs listing our demands: Justice For Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Stop police brutality, Community control of the police and Jail killer cops. 

Similar demands were made by Malcolm X in 1957, when he intervened at a police station in New York. Johnson X Hinton, a member of the Nation of Islam, had been brutally beaten and arrested by two cops. Word of the brutality spread quickly across Harlem. Furious residents flocked to the police station demanding justice. 

Malcolm X mobilized the self-defense unit of the NOI, the Fruit of Islam, who positioned themselves to maintain order. Malcolm was shocked by Johnson X’s injuries and demanded that he receive immediate medical attention. An ambulance arrived and a crowd of over 2,000 followed it to the hospital on foot. 

Once he was satisfied that Hinton was being cared for, Malcolm stepped out of the hospital and with a wave of his hand, the crowd dispersed. Witnessing his control of the crowd, a police inspector commented, “No man should have that kind of power.” What he really meant was, “No Black man should have that kind of power.” 

Johnson X survived, but had to have multiple brain surgeries and live with a metal plate in his head. He filed suit against the New York Police Department. An all-white jury awarded him $70,000, the largest police brutality settlement in New York City at that time. 

Roots in the struggle

Malcolm Little was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Neb. In an interview, Malcolm’s sister Ella Collins said, “When he was born we expected great things of Malcolm. I don’t know if this influenced him, the fact that his family put him in a certain category.” 

His mother, Louise Norton Little, from the Caribbean country of Grenada, and his father, Earl Little, were outspoken supporters of Black nationalist Marcus Garvey. The family had eight children.

Earl Little’s civil rights activism prompted death threats from a white supremacist organization called the Black Legion, forcing the family to relocate twice before Malcolm’s fourth birthday. By age 13, Malcolm had seen his house burned down, been exposed to the violent death of his father by racists and seen the slow breakdown of his mother.

After spending years in foster homes, he went to live with his sister Ella Collins in Boston.                                                                                                                                                                

Asked by a teacher in the eighth grade what he wanted to be, Malcolm’s reply was “a lawyer.” This teacher had not studied the history of Black people, or he might have strongly encouraged Malcolm’s ambition to become a lawyer. 

As a teenager, Malcolm searched and examined the trends among his peers, which included the zoot suit and burning the scalp to approximate the appearance of a white man’s hair. 

In January 1946, Malcolm was arrested in Boston, charged with larceny, breaking and entering, and possession of firearms. That February, he began his prison sentence in Charlestown Prison. He started reading in the prison library.

Ella Collins said this about Malcolm’s time in prison: “From a realistic point of view, I think all of the illusions that he may have adopted in his youth, from his environment, I think he lost it in prison. I think he really saw life for real. One of the most valuable assets that Malcolm did acquire in life, was courage.”

In 1947, his conversion to the Nation of Islam began with the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.  Malcolm was paroled in 1952 and received his “X” name from the NOI.

Malcolm X stood up for Black people when they were being beaten in the streets, publicly humiliated and killed. He understood that people living on the streets and in prisons had contributions to make. Like Mumia Abu-Jamal, he spoke for the jobless, the homeless and the voiceless.

Black unity                                              

From 1953 to 1964, Malcolm X ascended as an NOI minister and successfully started new temples across the country. In early 1964, Malcolm X announced his split with the Nation of Islam. 

At a news conference in March 1964, Malcolm spoke on Black unity: “Whites can help us, but they can’t join us. There can be no Black-white unity until there is first some Black unity. There can be no workers’ solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity. We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves. We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves.”

Malcolm X left the U.S. on his first extended trip abroad in April 1964. He visited Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco and Algeria. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim seeks to complete, which entitled him to use the name El Hajj Malik El Shabazz.

He consolidated his relations with representatives of orthodox Islam, met with students, journalists, members of parliaments, ambassadors and government leaders, and never stopped talking about the race problem in the U.S. He encountered people of all races, and many fighters against all kinds of oppression. He spoke to whites as well as Blacks.

In one of Malcolm’s letters from abroad — written in Ghana, which he called the fountainhead of Pan-Africanism — he said, “It is time for all African-Americans to become an integral part of the world’s Pan-Africanists, and even though we might remain in America physically while fighting for the benefits the Constitution guarantees us, we must ‘return’ to Africa philosophically and culturally and develop a working unity in the framework of Pan-Africanism.”

After his return to the U.S., on May 29, 1964, Malcolm spoke at a socialist forum in New York: “They say travel broadens your scope and recently I’ve had an opportunity to do a lot of it, in the Middle East and Africa. While I was traveling I noticed that in most of the countries that have recently emerged into independence, they have turned away from the so-called capitalistic system in the direction of socialism. So out of curiosity I can’t resist the temptation to do a little investigating wherever that particular philosophy happens to be in existence or an attempt is being made to bring it into existence.    

“All of the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism are turning to socialism. I don’t think it is an accident.”

Fighting imperialism

On June 28, 1964, Malcolm announced the formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a nonreligious organization designed to fight all the negative political, economic and social conditions that exist in our neighborhoods.

Later in 1964, Malcolm traveled to the Middle East and Africa for five months. He attended the second meeting of the African Unity Summit conference in Cairo in July. He was the only North American allowed to attend and submitted a paper on the plight of the 20 million African Americans in the U.S. 

Malcolm had lengthy conversations with Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Milton Obote of Uganda, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sekou Toure of Guinea, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria, all of whom offered him official positions in their governments.

He was one of the first African leaders to meet with the newly created Palestine Liberation Organization and was a pioneer of the Black-Palestinian solidarity that continued with the Black Panther Party and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Earlier, in 1960, he famously met Fidel Castro of Cuba at Harlem’s Hotel Theresa. 

Malcolm X spoke in Alabama on Feb. 3 and Feb. 4, 1965, before traveling to Britain and France from Feb. 6 to Feb. 13. He was detained in France and put on a plane back to London. He returned to the U.S. on Feb. 14 to find his home had been firebombed. But after making sure his family was safe, he went to speak in Detroit. 

There he said: “Colonialism or imperialism, as the slave system of the West is called, is not something that is just confined to England or France or the United States. The interests in this country are in cahoots with the interests in France and the interests in Britain. It’s one huge complex or combine, and it creates what’s known not as the American power structure or the French power structure but an international power structure. 

“The newly awakened people all over the world pose a problem for what is known as Western interests, which is imperialism, colonialism, racism and all these other negative -isms or vulturistic -isms,” Malcolm said.

He was assassinated just a week later, on Feb. 21, 1965.

A life of transformations

Malcolm never claimed to be socialist. But his life was full of transformations. 

When he announced the formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm stated that it had the same aim and objective as the Organization of African Unity (OAU), “to fight whoever gets in our way, to bring about the complete independence of people of African descent here in the Western Hemisphere and first here in the U.S., and bring out the freedom of these people by any means necessary.”

Malcolm, who referred to himself as a human rights activist, was on the path to socialism. By reading or listening to his speeches, especially his last speeches after his trips abroad, we see that Malcolm was in search of the truth and solutions to the issues making life so miserable for Black people in this country and around the world. 

Malcolm made it clear that the system that he was attacking was one based on greed, exploitation of one race by another and one class by another, and that it is our duty not just to analyze it but to change it.