How Malcolm X Internationalized the Civil Rights Movement
By Jed Serrano
April 15th, 2010
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround
him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to
himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man."
"You don't do any singing, you're too busy swinging"[i]. Thus spoke
Malcolm X. He promulgated the new paradigm of anti-nonviolence[ii] he
helped popularize during the 1960s. It had been around a decade since
Brown v. Board of Education overturned the "separate but equal" laws;
yet, the progress of desegregation had been stagnant. This was
especially true for X who, goaded by impatience and indignation,
became the symbolic antithesis of Martin Luther King and his
nonviolent strategy. He called for "Black Power!" or Black
Nationalism, not just as an organizing principle but also as a means
by which to overcome a Negro Inferiority Complex inculcated by many
decades of practiced racism in the US. This, of course, aroused a
wildfire of discomfortfrom whites and blacks alike. Responding to
X's philosophy, MLK, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP[iii], Whitney Young of
the Urban League, and white leaders staged a joint denouncement of
Black nationalism and separatist sentiments[iv]. John Lewis, a leader
of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)[v], also balked
at Black nationalism. He even went as far as saying in his
autobiography that X "was not part of the [Civil Rights] movement"
because he did not share the movement's "goal of an integrated
society, an interracial democracy, a Beloved Community"[vi].
All told, X provoked a salvo of criticism and was rightly seen by
many as a force to be dealt with. Yet, despite his popular
condemnation and disrepute, it was him and his bold radicalism that
brought forth the shift of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), and its
cause on the world stage.
The trajectory of the shift began with X's call for Pan-Africanism.
In November of 1963, before a grass roots conference in Detroit, X
declared that the enemy of African Peoples is the "white man" who
colonized the continent[vii]. He spoke of Kenya, Congo, South Africa,
Guinea, and Algeria, et al, as once occupied territories of the
"white man," or Europeans [viii]. Hitherto, no voice of the CRM had
invoked a global analogy to explain a parochial problem. By nodding
to newly freed African nations, X transcended the conventional and
spent borders of rhetoric by which the CRM argued. The CRM typically
dressed up their rhetoric with talking points from God, Jesus, and
Gandhifrom peaceniks. X's talk of having a common enemy among
African Peoples, therefore, was seen as radical as it was
provocative. But despite the finger wagging of many Black Leaders,
X's provocation galvanized the CRM afresh.
It became only a matter of time for X's views to transpire throughout
Africa, where they would be well received. By autumn of 1964, X was
touring the African and Middle Eastern nations, conferring with state
leaders, wielding his nascent influence, and making the US State
Department loosen its tie and worry about US global image. Around the
same time, Lewis and other members of SNCC were also in the
continent. Here's how Lewis describes X's popularity in the continent:
"[T]he young Africans we met were voraciously curious about all that
was happening in the United States. And more than anything else, they
wanted to know all about Malcolm X. He became the measuring rod in
every one of our encounters. As soon as we were introduced… the first
thing he [sic] would ask was, 'What's your organization's
relationship with Malcolm's?'"[ix]
X was popular indeed; but what surprised Lewis was how little the
African students and activists knew about SNCC or the Deep South
demonstrations or even the CRM in general. "They were the victims of
pro-American propaganda," said Lewis[x]. In other words, after a
decade of protesting and singing and making noise in the US the CRM
was yet to be heard Africa. Whereas X's larynx, in less than year,
had become something of a celebritywhich can be ascribed to his
urgent prompting for Pan-African unity in his '63 Speech.
During his African tour, X used the world pulpit to buttress his
Pan-African rhetoric. "[Y]ou are the shepherd of all African people,"
he told a Cairo audience[xi]. "We, in America, are your long-lost
brothers and sisters,"[xii] he said. X emphasized that the passage of
Civil Right legislation had done little to ameliorate the domestic
problems of African-Americans, and that the public relations work of
the US to publicize the Civil Rights legislation was propaganda meant
to lead people to believe that the ill conditions of Black Americans
were on a healing path[xiii].
There's a lot of truth in this. The US State Department, in tandem
with the United States Information Agency, was, at the time, in the
business of framing the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement in a
way that promoted Americanism, and counteracted Soviet
influence[xiv]. X's presence in Africa, then, was a big pain in the
tush for the US State Deptartment. The State Department reported to
Washington of X's "extreme statements to the press" which set off
real concerns among African leaders about the racial problems in the
US[xv]. Meanwhile, X continued to say things like, "[A]s long as you
take money from America, you'll have only the external appearance of
sovereignty"[xvi] [xvii]. Thus enter civil rights issues on the world forum.
Because of X, civil rights issues in the US was appended into the
more wide-reaching, morally compelling arguments of
anti-imperialismnot what you want if you are the US muscling for
influence against Communists. The argument was a subtext in X's '63
speech, which, as if deliberately timed, flourished like flowers on
the world stage. During their encounter in Africa, X told Lewis that
the CRM needed to change their focus "from race to class"[xviii]
which in essence is a Marxist statement. "[T]he great powers [US and
Soviet Union]…[are] using poor people…for their own imperialistic
ends," X whispered to Lewis[xix]. And out loud, X reminded African
leaders that it was within their position of power as newly freed
nations to denounce the US's treatment towards its black population.
Not long after X's African tour, SNCC, and the Black Panther Party
were linking the Civil Rights Struggles to the Third World Struggles
X was assassinated in 1965. The baton of anti-imperial rhetoric was
passed on to the other two Big M's: MLK and Muhammad Ali. In 1967,
MLK declared his opposition to the Vietnam War, which he attached to
the problem of poverty [xxi]. "I was increasingly compelled to see
the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such," he said,
for which he was criticized for this from all quarters, even from the
NAACP. As the 1964 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, MLK's
opposition was heard throughout the world.
Just the same, Ali's symbolic refusal to comply with conscription
orders to fight in Vietnam that same year was also heard. "I am not
going ten thousand miles from here to help murder and kill and burn
another poor people simply to help continue the domination of white
America," he said. This was the stuff of world headlinesin London,
Paris, Berlin, Zurich, Madrid, Hong Kong, Rome, and Amsterdam[xxii].
Ali, moreover, received letters of commendation from many world
leaders, including Bertrand Russell[xxiii] [xxiv].
There is not a doubt that mobilizing the civil rights debate into the
world stage was integral to the parochial progress of the CRM. It was
the ingenuity of Malcolm X that forged global awareness of the Civil
Rights Struggles in the US. He exploited the fact that the US at the
time (and perhaps today still) was very image-conscious and was
malleable to change things within its borders just to maintain its
rank as a world leader. X hamstringed the US's ability to frame the
CRM's narrative for propagandic use. Even Lewis, who did not agree
with Xism, was forced to concede that X brought the movement into a
"broader perspective" and "into a worldview, likening the struggle
for human rights in Africa and other nations"[xxv]. X was extreme,
but he knew what he was doing. When he returned from African Tour in
December of '64, he had the following to say:
"The greatest accomplishment that was made in the struggle for the
black man in America in 1964 toward some kind of progress was the
successful linking together of our problem with the African problem,
or making our problem a world problem"[xxvi].
There is reason to believe that X's radicalism was strategic in that
he wanted to dispel the confidence and expectation out of the white
extremists that if they attacked a black person, s/he'll only turn
the other cheek. He said:
"I think that the people in this part of the world would do well to
listen to Dr. Martin Luther King and give him what he's asking for
and give it to him fast, before some other factions come along and to
do it another way"[xxvii].
Lewis was right to call this a threat, but he failed to see that this
was method-minded, a gambit to goad the Civil Rights Movement into
taking longer and faster strides.
On Malcolm X's funeral, Lewis reports that no one cried [xxviii]:
perhaps that is because few felt he had really died.
i.) Malcolm X, "Message to the Grass Roots" in The Eyes on the Prize
Civil Rights Reader, ed. Clayborne Carson et al, (New York: Penguin, 1991), 254
ii.) The use of "anti-nonviolence" is deliberate on my part, based on
my interpretation of Malcolm X's philosophy/ideology. As oppose to
"violence" or "pro-violence," I think "anti-nonviolence" is more
accurate because it is rooted from the notion of self-defense in the
same way that violence is "necessary" for Robert F. Williams as a
means of self-defense.
iii.) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
iv.) Malcolm X, "Message to the Grass Roots," 246
v.) Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
vi.) John Lewis and Michael D'Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir
of the Movement (San Diego: Harvest Book/Harcourt Brace & Company) 1998. p 204.
vii.) Malcolm X, "Message to the Grass Roots," 250
viii.) Ibid, 250.
ix.) Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 286.
x.) Ibid, 286.
xi.) Dudziak, Mary L., Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of
American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 2000. p. 220.
xii.) Ibid, 220.
xiii.) Ibid, 222.
xiv.) Ibid, 13.
xv.) Ibid, 222.
xvi.) Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights, 222.
xvii.) Whether X it knew or not, foreign aid as a means-of-coercion
was a prevalent practice of the US, particularly Latin America during
the Cold War. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro were also famous for
dealing the same accusations against the US.
xviii.) Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 278.
xix.) Ibid, 288.
xx.) Ibid, 226.
xxi.) Martin Luther King, Jr., "A Time to Break Silence," in The Eyes
on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, ed. Clayborne Carson et al, (New
York: Penguin, 1991), p. 388.
xxii.) Carson Clayborne, "The Time Has Come" in The Eyes on the Prize
Civil Rights Reader, ed. Clayborne Carson et al, (New York: Penguin,
1991), p. 245.
xxiii.) Ibid, 448, 449.
xxiv.) And yes, I think Russell was a world leader in many ways.
xxv.) Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 317.
xxvi.) Malcolm X, "To Mississippi Youth," in The Eyes on the Prize
Civil Rights Reader, ed. Clayborne Carson et al, (New York: Penguin,
1991), p. 201.
xxvii.) Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 313.
xxviii.) Ibid, 317.