On The Burden of History
The Great Encounter
Malcolm, Martin and the Black Freedom Struggle
The publication of Dr. Manning Marable’s new book “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” has sparked yet another debate on the place of Malcolm in the pantheon of black leaders. As always this soon becomes a conversation on the relative importance of Malcolm’s ideas, leadership style and accomplishments when compared to Dr. Martin Luther King. Now this debate has gone global through Facebook; particularly the Study Group organized by Rev. Matthew, a Christian minister with a graduate degree in theology fromPrinceton.
Recently he posted a video of Professor John Hendrik Clarke, an excerpt from the documentary “A Great and Mighty Walk,” discussing Malcolm and Martin, and asked for comments. I watched the video, in which Clarke gave Dr. King some props, but it struck me as close to damming with faint praise. He pointed out that since Dr. King “died for what he believed in, and we are still here talking,” who are we to criticize him. But then, he fairly quickly went on to sing the virtues of Malcolm at the clear expense of Martin.
It seems the fact that Malcolm expoused a Black Nationalist philosophy and was finally willing to call himself an “African,” was quite enough for Clarke. However in Malcolm’s case, this recognition was quite an evolution; for the first few years that I knew him he called himself an “Asiatic Black Man.” Since Dr. Martin Luther King was present at the Independence ceremony when Ghana was born in 1957 – at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah – and had known many African students in Atlanta in his youth, unlike Malcolm he knew exactly what his relationship was to Africa.
John Hendrik Clarke viewed Africa in much the way that ancient Greeks wrote history: myth and fact combine in the narrative to create a desired reality. I doubt that there is a black person on earth who had the good fortune to hear Professor Clarke give a lecture on the golden age of African Civilization that did not fairly burst with pride.
Clarke belonged to another age, he was of one heart with the 19th century African Redemptionists like Bishop Alexander Crummel and Edward Wilmot Blyden. From his comments on Malcolm and Martin alas, it appears that ostentatious declarations of one’s African identity weighs heavier on Professor Clarke’s scale than leading a mass movement that transformed a nation and expanded the horizons of black Americans beyond the wildest dreams of his generation. I see the matter differently!
Queen Mother Moore
She tutored us all in Radical Politics…including Malcolm X
I knew John Hendrik Clarke very well…he was introduced to me by Queen Mother Moore in 1962. He was one of my major mentors – along with Queen Mother and Harold Cruse – I loved him dearly, although he and Cruse couldn’t stand each other! And like everybody I was enthralled with his eloquent and passionate lectures on African History – the breadth of his reading was amazing. But what the Professor is saying in “A Great and Mighty Walk” is sophistry; which means that it sounds profound until you subject it to a rigorous critique based on the historical evidence!
Clarke says that he doesn’t know of anything important that came out of the Great March onWashington…duh? How about the Omnibus Civil Rights Bill that transformed the South…and the nation? I grew up in the South under segregation – as did Clarke when things were at their worse – and in my hometown of St. Augustine Florida, where Dr. King walked with the black community on some of the most dangerous marches of his career, that Bill changed black folk’s lives and life chances qualitatively. Andrew young, who was there, has just produced a film on it.
The St. Augustine struggle was pivotal in the passage of that landmark legislation – see “Let the Trumpet Sound” by Professor Stephen B. Oates, and “Parting the Waters” by Taylor Branch, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his writings on the life and work of Dr. King – and it was the 1964 Civil rights bill that made it possible for the people of my hometown to rise up and overthrow that evil century old de jure racial caste system that made our lives so miserable under the force of law.
The fact is that in the South, where the real life and death struggle of our people was taking place, Malcolm X played no significant role at all!!!! He was barely known by most southern blacks, and most of those who did know of him thought he was crazy!!!!!! It was the Christian clergy that led that great transformative mass movement and the black church was its base!
A Typical Church Meeting, Albany Georgia 1963
The incubator of the Struggle
Hence Malcolm X, with his foreign religion and talk of taking up guns against the white South, was viewed as some sort of heretical maniac! For the last couple of years I have been interviewing the survivors of the St. Augustine Civil Rights Movement and when Malcolm X is mentioned in conjunction with their struggle they stare at me incredulously: like country cows staring at their first steam engine.
I had left town and relocated in Philadelphia, where I was born and spent the first few years of my life, and I was a staunch admirer of Malcolm by the time Dr. King came to St. Augustine. Hence in preparation for my interviews I have been reading the materials on the Civil Rights era in the historical archives of the city. Since St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest city, they have excellent archives because history is their business. Thus one can follow the progress of the Movement on a day to day basis.
Reading accounts of the heroism of my friends and neighbors in 1964, when the Civil rights bill was being debated, I am astonished at their bravery in the face of injury and death! When I asked them where they found the courage to conduct the night marches – so that people could go to work during the day – they said it was the fact that theMarches formed at either St. Mary’s Baptist Church onWashington St.or St. Pauls’ AME onCentral Avenue– which is nowMartin Luther King Boulevard!
They told me it was the great preaching and singing that fortified them because they were convinced the “God was on our side.” On one of the most dangerous night marches where they knew that the local redneck leader, “Hoss” Manucy, was laying in wait with members of the “Ancient City Gun Club -” which we later learned as a result of an investigation by US Marshalls was organized by deputies in Sheriff L. O. Davis’ office – two of my old friends told me “It was when we heard that Jackie Robinson was going to march with us that we decided to do it. We thought if Jackie Robinson was going to march with us we couldn’t lose!”
To these people Malcolm X was just a crazy loud mouth guy talking tough inNew York! And the contemptuous things that he was saying about Dr. King – whom many regarded as a modern day Moses bordered on blasphemy! He had no admirers that I have been able to find inSt. Augustine.
While Malcolm was talking a good fight surrounded by fanatical body guards in northern cities, Dr. King and Jackie Robinson was marching with them in the shadow of death. While Malcolm was running his mouth about what he would do to the white devils in Harlem, my neighbor’s Goldie and Richard Eubanks shot it out with Klan members and killed a couple of them!!
Then they were put on trial for murder facing the death penalty. Had it not been for the brilliant and fearless lawyer William Kuntzler, who was sent by The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, Goldie and Richard would have been electrocuted in “Old sparky” which is what we called the electric chair in Florida.
Jackie Robinson, who was a former Calvary Officer in the US Army – where he faced a possible court Marshall because of his militant stand against racism in the military and only the intervention of Heavy-Weight Champion and national hero Joe Louis prevented it – once got tired of Malcolm’s heckling and called his bluff straight up. When the LA police invaded the Mosque and beat up the “Fruit Of Islam,” badly injuring some of them, Jackie called Malcolm out when he responded by hiring a lawyer and pursuing a legal remedy instead of taking the kind of militant action that he always TALKED ABOUT!
A Real Warrior
A Swashbuckling Calvery Officer
Comrades in the Struggle
Martin and Jackie
To Jackie, a fearless soldier in the struggle, Malcolm X was all blow and no go! Malcolm never said a word in response because he knew that Jackie was right!!! It was these kinds of instances that began to shake Malcolm’s faith in the philosophy and tactics of the NOI. His shock over the discovery of Elijah Muhammad’s serial affairs with his secretaries shook his faith, and his remarks about the Kennedy assassination brought matters to a head. But it was his growing doubts about their tactics, which was to stand on the sidelines and belittle the activists who were putting their lives on the line, which began Malcolm’s alienation from the NOI.
One of the advantages of having lived through the era as an active participant is that I can fill some of the gaps in the Malcolm/ Martin narrative from actual experience. However Malcolm X’s speeches are available on recording and printed transcripts, so what he believed and when he believed it is a matter of public record.
The excellent historian of the movement and Stanford Professor Clayborne Carson – who was a grat admirer of Bob Moses, a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committe, who were considered uncontrollable guerillas by the Civil rights Establishment; which is why they made John Lewis change his speech before delivering it at the Great March when a Catholic Cardinal threatened to walk out – has complied a volume “The Co-In-Tel-Pro papers of Malcolm X,” which examines the FBI files on Malcolm. Carson, who is the Editor of the Martin Luther King Papers, shows that in his last days Malcolm was desperately reaching out to the Civil rights leadership in the hope of affecting an alliance. The late great actor/activist Ossie Davis was his emissary.
John Henrik Clarke
A great thinker, but wrong on Malcolm and Martin
This was confirmed in my interviews with Charles Kenyatta for a 7000 word cover story on Malcolm’s last days for Spin Magazine, written at the height of the last period of Malcolmania when Spike Lee’s movie came out. Having lived through this period as a gun totin Maoist revolutionary in the Revolutionary Action Movement, and a featured lecturer on African and Afro-American history on “The Listening Post,” which was a pioneering talk radio show on WDAS am– a major black radio station in Philadelphia, produced and hosted by Mr. Joseph H. Rainey III – I had many personal conversations with Malcolm X.
Whenever he came to speak in Philly, Camden New Jersey, or Wilmington Delaware, he would come on the program to hype his appearance because all of these venues were in the broadcast range of the station. I admired his selfless commitment to the liberation of our people, and at the time I favored his militant stance – which was purely rhetorical – over the “passive resistance activism “of Martin Luther King.
Joseph H. Rainey III Interviewing Jackie Robinson
“The Listening Post” Was also Malcolm’s Favorite Show
During this period of the 1960’s I even said some of the same kind of foolishness that Professor Clarke is saying on this video – after all he was my mentor at the time. I was always coming up from Philly to visit him at his office in the Harlem YMCA, which was right across the street from the Schomburg Collection – the original public library which is right next to the present center that was designed by my neighbor Max Bond.
However it is time for the militant Marxist and Black Nationalist – and as a “Revolutionary Nationalist” I was both! – to admit that we were wrong and the civil rights movement was right in their tactics!!! That is something that few of the Sixties “revolutionaries” are willing to admit, although the historical record is indisputable on this question.
I confess that I was not that enthusiastic about tackling Dr Marable’s 600 page tome because of some of the quotes that I have heard from it. Like the claim that Malcolm X was the most important black man of the twentieth century. That claim is prime faice nonsense!!!!! There is no objective measure by which one can demonstrate that Malcolm X was more important than Martin Luther King, and no professional weighing the evidence of the two men’s careers would ever make such a statement.
Among historians such extravagant claims in the absence of compelling evidence to support them are routinely dismissed as “special pleading.” In whose estimate is Marable’s claim regarded as a fact? Certainly not the people who put their lives on the line in the bloody struggles that transformed the South and this nation!!!
That struggle ended the legal system of apartheid that I grew up under, opened up the professions so that the militant black professorate who now scoff at that movement in proclaiming the virtues of Malcom X could exist, and put a black family in the White House. On my score card Malcolm’s achievements do not even come close to Martins – no contest!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Furthermore, if you compare Malcolm with his counterparts who were engaged in real revolutionary struggles such as Dr. Franz Fanon, Nelson Mandela, Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah, et al he sounds positively naïve…a babe in the woods. For instance Dr. Fanon, who literally wrote the book on the function of violence in mass transformative movements with revolutionary objectives, said that the establishment of an Islamic state in the twentieth would be “a return to primitive Medievalism” at the same time as Malcolm saw it as something African Americans should aspire to in our struggle to create an advanced revolutionary society.
The truth is that Malcolm X was just beginning to develop an understanding of world politics in general and revolutionary politics in particular. All one need do to understand how little Malcolm X understood about the implications of his own preachment about “Nationalism” “capitalism” and armed struggle is to read his contemporary Harold Cruse, especially the essay “On the Intellectuals and Force and Violence.”
Dr. Franz Fanon
A Real Revolutionary/Activist Intellectual
A far deeper radical thinker than Malcolm X
One the critical points Cruse makes in this essay – which is contained in his canonical text, “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” – is that the black people who actually did pick up guns to oppose white violence in the South were neither Muslims nor Black Nationalist. For instance Robert Williams – whom all the northern nationalist revolutionaries latched onto as their symbol of the quintessential black revolutionary because he resisted the Klan with guns – was an ex-Marine, and President of the Monroe north Carolina branch of the NAACP.
Furthermore, the only organization that took up the responsibility of defending Civil Rights worker in the Deep South from Klan violence was a group of staunch churchmen The Deacons for Justice! Malcolm X was around when these things were happening, but he never joined in these efforts. Instead, the NOI played off their inactivity by denigrating the goals of the Civil rights movement as misguided.
The Deacons were led by Robert Hicks, a former star football player in high school and an all-black semi-pro league, Hicks was a leader of the NAACP, headed his all black segregated paper mill workers union. He was active in fighting for voter’s rights as head of the Civic and Voters league. And of course, he was a deacon in the church.
Hicks was not only a great husband and father to his own children; he was a father figure to all the children in his neighborhood who collectively called him “Dad.” In other words he was a solid American citizen! In all of this Robert Hicks is characteristic of all the men who actually took up arms against racist white aggression. Malcolm X only hurled threats at whites from the safe precints of the north, and he had as many body guards around him as the US President when he did it.
The truth is that most of the movement Malcolm X stood on the sidelines up North and denounced the brave struggles of black southerners led by the preachers in the Southern Christian Leadership council. And he was very ashamed of the role he had played in his last days.
Robert and Mable Williams: Real Warriors!
A Movie Reenactment of the Deacon;s Stand
The real thing was more dramatic
Hence Marable’s assessment of Malcolm’s importance is embarrassing hyperbole!!!!!! Yet even this is not enough for the hero worshipping haigiographers like Leroi Jones aka Amiri Baraka, who has attacked Dr. Marable because he said “Malcolm X was not a historian.” To anybody that has the slightest understanding as to what the art and science of historical writing that was a perfunctory statement that borders on the banal.
Not only was Malcolm not a “historian,” which is someone who composes an original narrative about past events from primary documents, he was not even a good history teacher; which is someone who teaches the texts composed by historians. In fact, Malcolm’s lack of historical understanding led an entire generation of black nationalists, and radicals of various persuasions, dangerously astray on a critical issue.
It was Malcolm’s thesis about the “House Negro” and the “Field Negro” that led the radicals down the dangerous path of anointing the least educated ghetto elements among us the natural leaders of the revolution. This resulted in what I call “the romance of the lumpen” which began with RAM and reached the height of absurdity in the Black Panther Party.
Eldridge Cleaver: Minister of Information
A Lumpen Psuedo-intellectual and BPP Icon
This was a giant step backward for the radical tradition among Afro-Americans. It was a dramatic retrogression from the black Marxists of earlier decades, who were sober intellectuals and disciplined workers with solid personal values, good work habits and a willingness to study complex theories of politics and economics. They aspired to the highest achievements of mankind under the assumption that nothing was too good for the working class, that these achievements were the heritage of all mankind!
They understood that not only could the Lumpen-Proletariat not lead a revolution; they couldn’t even be organized; that they were in fact dangerous to a revolutionary movement because their “street hustler” values predisposes them to petty criminality and thus places them in a position to be arrested and turned into informers against the movement in order to avoid incarceration. All of these things came to pass in the black radical movement as we recruited these criminal types.
We looked not to previous militants like Paul Robeson, Ben Davis, William L. Patterson, Harry Heywood; people with a wealth of experience in organizing a radical revolutionary movement, seasoned veterans who could have steered us away from self-destructive actions, in favor of people who didn’t have a clue about what is required to make revolutionary movement in an advanced capitalist state…people like Malcolm X. As the eminent historian Dr. Gerald Horne has pointed out: The rise of Malcolm X was only possible because the FBI had destroyed the real black revolutionaries in the 1950’s, thus creating a vacuum of militant leadership which Malcolm X filled.
It is long past time for the surviving elders of the Black Liberation Movement of the last half of the twentieth century to fess up and admit that we were wrong; not compound our blunder and mislead another generation of black youth’s by trying to make Malcolm X into something more than he was. Chanting the silly mantra that had Malcolm lived he would have had the answers to the present crisis that confronts us.
At the time of his death Malcolm X was a confused and demoralized man desperately looking for a viable program, and was murdered by the thugs he had trained. The ultimate irony is that he said on the record “If somebody was saying the things I’m saying about Elijah Muhammad and I didn’t personally know that it was true, I’d kill them myself!” So he died by the rules he lived by. Thus the claim that “he died for us” is a far more fitting eulogy for Dr. King…one could argue that Malcolm X died from his own folly.
Malcolm After the Gunmen Opened Fire in Audibon Ballroom
Murdered by Assasins he trained: An enduring tragedy
Four Revolutionaries Who Survived
Playthell, John Bracy, Dr. Muhammad Ahmed aka Max Stanford and Askia Muhammad Ture
Note: Between the four men in this picture are founders of the Revolutionary Action Movement, Black Studies in the University, and the Black arts Movement. All of us began in the Civil rights Movement, and evolved into radicals as the white resistance stiffened. We were all discipline activist intellectuals who read all of the canonical texts on the mordern world revolution. And we all personally knew Malcolm X, much beter than we knew Dr. King. And we all shared Malcolm X’s views over Dr. Kings. Hence my position in this essay is the result of long and sober reflection.
Below are links to video clips from speeches by Dr. King and Malcolm X. I have chosen clips where they both speak on the same topic: the importance of self-esteem. Listen to the difference in how they approach the subject. While both agree on the importance of self-esteem Malcom’s description of how black folk should control business in the black community, which he saw as a revelation, was old news to Dr. King, who was from Atlanta; which enjoyed a booming black business community…as did the black communities in Florida where I grew up. The fact is that Malcom X, and black nationalist in general, have a nihilistic view of the Afro-American experience, whereas the Civil Rights movemet was driven by a heroic optimis! That;s whay all the great gains for black Americans were produced by the Civil Rights Movement!
Double Click to hear Dr. King
Double Click to hear Malcolm X
Harlem, New York
Janurary 17, 2012