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  • Laugh! The Revolution Is HereHumor and Anger in the Speeches of Malcolm X
  • Jack Taylor

Anything that’s paradoxical has to have some humor in it or it’ll crack you up . . . And America is such a paradoxical society, hypocritically paradoxical, that if you don’t have some humor, you’ll crack up.

—Malcolm X

I know you don’t like what I’m saying, but I am going to tell you anyway.

—Malcolm X

The right spark—some unpredictable emotional chemistry—could set off a black uprising.

—Malcolm X

7 January 1965. Malcolm X stands on stage preparing to deliver a speech entitled “Prospects for Freedom in 1965” at Palm Gardens in New York hosted by the Militant Labor Forum, where he issues a dire warning regarding the racial tensions set to explode throughout the United States. The speech’s prophetic and at times apocalyptic tone parallels the predictions Malcolm delivered a few months earlier in 1964 in perhaps his most famous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” but also advances a message with crucial differences. Malcolm had recently returned from a sojourn throughout Africa and the Middle East. What he witnessed throughout his trip caused him to shift on crucial racial [End Page 159] and political issues. Malcolm, for example, would take a more international perspective regarding the black freedom struggle by delivering speeches like “The African Revolution and Its Impact on the American Negro,” “There’s a Worldwide Revolution Going On,” and “The Oppressed Masses of the World Cry Out for Action Against the Common Oppressor.”1

An internationalist politics became increasingly central to Malcolm’s thinking after he witnessed Che Guevara deliver a speech to the General Assembly of United Nations where Che took a characteristic internationalist perspective by braiding together the anticolonial struggles taking place throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America.2 Malcolm’s political philosophy began to move from a politics of racial separatism, which in all likelihood made a younger generation of activists schooled in the philosophy of nonviolence and interracial harmony suspicious of his political philosophy, to a broader political philosophy that allowed for interracial political activism. The speech also comes at a crucial time in the civil rights struggle.

An opportunity opened for Malcolm. Both Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had split along pacifist and more militant lines, with Stokely Carmichael leading the militant wing and Bob Moses leading the more pacifist faction of SNCC.3 Neither SNCC or CORE was entirely committed to nonviolence. By 1964, many in SNCC and CORE openly rejected the philosophy of nonviolence and the goal of integration after becoming disappointed with the pace of the civil rights movement. SNCC also began to incorporate Pan-Africanism into its guiding principles.4 Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolence, though prominent, did not exercise hegemony on the black freedom struggle, and the burgeoning black power movement was noticeable to anyone willing to pay attention—and Malcolm was paying attention.

The younger generation of civil rights activists began to break with King as early as 1961 after his initial refusal to support the Freedom Rides in fear that the demonstrations were too dangerous.5 Some SNCC activists, for example, mockingly called him “De Lawd.”6 Radicals like Robert Williams and groups like the Deacons for Defense were gaining prominence for their commitment to armed self-defense, and the anticolonial struggles taking place throughout Africa were certainly an inspiration for a younger more militant generation of activists. These splits are indicative of the increased radicalization of civil rights activists at a time when Malcolm began to turn to more mainstream [End Page 160] politics that allowed him to capture a broader audience.7 The move away from the philosophy of nonviolence also comes at a moment of increased violence by Ku Klux Klan and brutal displays of police violence on mainstream media. The 16th Street Church bombing, which killed four young black girls, and the killing of three civil rights workers affiliated with CORE in Philadelphia, Mississippi, were certainly still on the minds of political activists.8

But the opportunity also opened a conundrum for Malcolm. How does he, a radical...


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