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Malcolm X: still relevant, still a threat


Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little and later known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, was a leading figure of the anti-racist civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. After a troubled youth that saw him involved in illicit activities, he would spend several years in prison. Behind bars, he joined the Nation of Islam (NOI) and would quickly become the fast growing organization’s driving force after being released.

However, his political trajectory, events on the ground and an eye-opening trip abroad would see him become disillusioned with the NOI. His radicalizing outlook saw him move towards Pan-Africanism, leaving the Nation and founding the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).

Malcolm’s rise to prominence saw him constantly surveilled and harassed by the state security apparatus, the FBI and NYPD chief among them, and these agencies constantly looked to infiltrate his organizations. He was murdered by members of the NOI on February 21, 1965.

I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation.” [1]

A charismatic and gifted speaker, Malcolm made no effort to sugarcoat his statements in order to be more palatable for the establishment. He knew there was an enemy that needed to be confronted, and that racism was not a misunderstanding or a matter of ill will. The best example is perhaps the “chickens coming home to roost” comment after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Yet behind (or alongside) the fiery rhetoric was a deep understanding and analysis of racism as a structural issue in the United States, the discrimination and exploitation/enslavement of minorities as a key component of capitalist accumulation and imperialism.

“A hundred years ago they used to put on a white sheet and use a bloodhound against Negroes. Today they have taken off the white sheet and put on police uniforms and traded in the bloodhounds for police dogs, and they’re still doing the same thing.” [2]

The fact that Malcolm’s quote remains entirely accurate almost 60 years later is a testament to how little progress has been made in addressing racism in the United States, cosmetic changes notwithstanding.

With police killings of (mostly) Black men rampant and under the spotlight, his words illustrate the structural racism that dates back to the country’s very foundation. And this racial discrimination hinges on the existence of a massive repressive apparatus.

In the end, the most significant aspect of Malcolm X’s legacy is how big a threat he remains to the system. Unfair as it may sound, Martin Luther King Jr. was successfully whitewashed by the media. To the point where even those who enforce racism, from politicians to police commissioners, can quote (and distort) things that he said in attempts to demobilize the masses.

Tweet from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on MLK Day.

King did have a constantly evolving political position which grew ever more confrontational with the powers that be. Nevertheless, he had enough to allow the establishment to turn him into a figure just as useful as harmless after his death.

In contrast, no such operation could be performed on Malcolm (and others like Huey Newton or Stokely Carmichael / Kwame Ture). His uncompromising confrontation against a system that was despicably unjust means he is, at best, brought up as a dangerous example or someone too radical. But silence is the most common weapon. Even high profile African-American politicians do not come close to claiming him, for fear of ruffling too many feathers.

“I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem—just to avoid violence.” [1]

One particular point that separates MLK from Malcolm (and many others who would follow) is the issue of violence. Whereas King made non-violence non-negotiable, leading him to privilege passive acts of resistance and boycotts, others saw things in a different light and refused to place non-violence almost as an end in itself.

Malcolm, for one, was always keen on stressing self-defense, that Black communities had a right to defend themselves. At the end of the day, from poverty to police repression, every aspect of Black lives is inherently violent, and Malcolm was simply arguing that it is both absurd and counterproductive to demand non-violence only from the victims. But taken out of context, this position is used to portray him as someone who advocated violence for its own sake. 

More than 50 years after his assassination, Malcolm X remains a thorn in the US establishment’s side. The structural racism, with its manifestations from slavery to mass incarceration, is becoming more fragile by the day. Whether they are reclaimed or rediscovered, Malcolm and a host of others still have plenty to teach on the workings of this oppressive system and how to defeat it.


[1] The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964)

[2] Interview Louis Lomax (1963)


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